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Sunday, October 25, 2020

“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 16 & 17: Frat Boys, and Justice Center

Chapter 16, Frat Boys

Thursday, June 12, 7 p.m.

Topping, tall and tanned with a full head of sun-blonde hair, wearing white slacks and a steel gray raw silk blazer looked every inch the Hollywood mogul drug money allowed him to be. Mundy gone, Topping took the chair across from Wallingford, shaking his head in exasperation with Victor. One-time college roommates, they had a long history, reaching from fraternity hijinks through shady property deals hidden in the complexity of Wallingford Evergreen’s operations to, now, after Topping’s business pulled him into deals with a couple of otherwise legitimate looking guys with one foot in the L.A. drug world, expansion into big-time crime. It always worked out the same: Topping with the scheme, Victor with the capital and an insatiable drive for more.

Topping poured himself more cognac, thoughtfully swirled it in the snifter, finally looked up. “I agree with your lawyer, Victor. Bringing Michelle Adams to Seattle is a dumb idea, maybe one of your dumbest, and in the years we’ve known each other, I’ve seen a few flamers, and you know I’ve covered for you a few times. Whatever your scheme, Mundy’s right about the possible collateral damage to your family and your reputation. And much as I admire the clever bullshit you gave Mundy about being somebody else’s middle man, acting for some secret benefactor or parent, it won’t stand up in the real world for a single news cycle.”

“Thanks, Adrian. It’s always nice to have your opinion.” Wallingford’s reply was sharp with sarcasm. “I know what I’m doing.”

“I wouldn’t say you don’t. I just share Mundy’s view that you haven’t weighed all the risks and I’m reminding you that both of us remember times when you’ve gone off half cocked. And, sorry, that’s not a pun about your sexual prowess. It’s the real risk here. You bring a good looking woman in her mid thirties up her with her son and put them on public display – I assume that’ll be part of what you’re planning – what do you expect people will think? None of the options are any good: she’s your mistress, the boy’s your son by her, she’s your daughter. And that’s it, isn’t it, Victor? She’s your daughter. Or you think she is.”

              “Maybe she’s yours, Adrian.”

“Sorry, Victor. I never screwed Maureen Collins.”

“So you say, Adrian. Maybe you’re lying. You’re the one who’s a secretive bastard.”

“And you’re the one who’s bragged about screwing her, you and maybe a couple other guys. So the baby Mo gave up in ’73 is your daughter.” Adrian paused and then rubbed it in: “Or one of those other guy’s kid.”

“You think I’d leave that to chance?”

“And?”

“I know. We did the DNA thing.”

“How’d you manage that?”

“Mundy got a cigarette butt or something on one of his trips.”

“So, is she?”

“Sorry, Adrian, but that’s going to be my secret for a while longer, maybe a lot longer.

“So she isn’t.”

“You’ll see.”

“OK, be a shit, Victor. For you, that’s not new. But we are both at risk here and you should know it. The more visible you are, the more the papers write about you, the more chance somebody sees how much Carl Barclay is your man, and the more chance they connect you with his ‘death boat,’ the more chance we’re both screwed. I don’t need to go on, do I? Why the fuck are you doing this?”

“For 35 years Collins has kept it a secret that she got pregnant in college and gave up the baby. Kill her politically if that came out, wouldn’t it? I could use that.”

“Whether or not the abandoned kid is your daughter?”

“Doesn’t matter to me.”

Topping downed a swallow of his cognac. He couldn’t honestly at this point say he liked his old college buddy. Maybe, if he were honest, he’d admit he hadn’t liked Victor at all for some time now. “You really hate Maureen Collins, don’t you?”

“Why wouldn’t I? When she was Attorney General she cost me millions in lawsuits over stupid environmental rules. Didn’t matter to her I was already fucked in the dot-com bust.”

“And then there’s the past, isn’t there? Whatever it was happened between you and her in the fall of ’72.”

Wallingford looked at his watch. “Let’s go to dinner, Adrian.”

Chapter 17, Justice Center

Friday, June 13, 10 a.m.

              At a few minutes before 10 Friday morning Falconer went through the irritation of emptying his pockets and stepping through the metal detector to get into the city’s euphemistically named Justice Center, a building that housed police headquarters and the municipal courts. Great idea. Add them together and you get justice. Maybe, maybe not, Falconer thought.

              Falconer worked at patience as he waited while the screeners figured out how to deal with the TV crew ahead of him. After a conference featuring shrugs and facial expressions that said “I don’t know,” the security clerks sent the station’s camera and the cameraman’s belt pack of batteries, a microphone and spare video cassettes through the X-ray machine. No guns found and asses covered, they finally waved Falconer through.

              As Falconer remembered, it was to search the locals for guns and not post-9/11 terrorism fears that brought metal detectors to the Seattle and King County courthouses. Back in the early 90s, way before terrorism worries started costing money and peace of mind, the machines were installed after an unhinged husband shot his wife in a county courtroom during a divorce hearing. The magnetic sensors and bag searches were routine now, part of the amorphous background anxiety for people regularly injected with fear they might be the next random civilian victims of America’s enemies. No matter that the chances were way better of getting shot in a gangbangers’ crossfire while waiting for a bus on a South End street. It was only June and for the year Falconerblog had already carried three stories of teen-on-teen gang murders complete with wounded bystanders. Cheery thoughts, Falconer mused, as he rode the elevator to the tenth-floor courtrooms.

              Camera on its tripod, the reporter pacing, holding his microphone in one hand and loops of wire in the other like a singer counting to the downbeat, one TV crew was already in position, waiting to capture the embarrassment of the famous families. A P-I reporter Falconer knew sat on one of the black vinyl benches reading the Times’ sports section. Eight or ten other people in twos and threes spaced themselves among the concrete columns along the center of the broad foyer, courtrooms on the left as Falconer walked from the elevators. On his right, the building’s west side, a double wall of floor to ceiling windows insulated the hall but drew in light, presenting a panoramic view of the harbor and the container cranes surrounded by thousands of blue and orange, green and gray containers, stacked waiting for ships.

None of the unlucky teenagers and none of their parents were around. Not much chance, except for the governor, that they’d come by and do interviews. And not much chance even if she did that Maureen Collins would say anything new. Every reporter likely to show up could have written her lines before leaving the office: “Will’s a good boy and when we get to the bottom of this you’ll see he had nothing to do with the drugs found at the Roberts’ house. Meanwhile, we’re doing everything we can to cooperate with the investigation.”

Falconer slipped into the courtroom through the two sets of double doors that muffled conversations from the hall. He sat at the end of a row of teenagers, hoping to overhear bits of gossip that would add detail to his story, give it that edge of authenticity that never made it into newspapers but Falconer knew was essential in the blog.

The courtroom didn’t offer much space for spectators, just three rows of wooden benches stained almost black and as butt-numbing as church pews. Falconer figured they must have been salvaged from somewhere, part of the city’s reuse and recycling ethic. The black didn’t fit. Every other bit of wood, the trim and paneling throughout the new building, was stained in blonde or rusty shades, colors you’d see in Arizona and New Mexico. Probably some architect trying to bring a sunnier pallet to Seattle.

The TV reporters filed into the opposite set of pews, joining several print reporters already there. Greetings all round, a little shoptalk, probing to see if anyone had an angle the others didn’t. Closer to him, Falconer realized the two guys chatting up a clutch of teenage girls, there as moral support for their accused friends, were political bloggers of some repute. The bloggers, too, looked like they were still in high school.

Conversations stopped as the door to the left behind the judge’s bench opened and the bailiff led the defendants and members of their families to seats in the comfortable gray-upholstered office chairs in the jury box. The governor and Richard Collins led the way with Will between them, then came John Roberts and his daughter Lynne and finally Amanda Wallingford with her mother and a lawyer. Will might have been scared but he’d grown up in a political family and managed to keep his face expressionless, just shy of boredom. His parents wore stern expressions designed to show the judge they were ready to take charge of their wayward child, never mind that they were all here because Will and the two girls were adults in the eyes of the law. John Roberts was at home in his judicial face and a dark suit. Lynne had followed the family dress code with a black jacket and skirt, white blouse buttoned demurely to the neck. Peggy Wallingford, tan and athletic as usual, seemed unconcerned, smiling and waving at the kids on the benches, apparently schoolmates of Amanda’s. Amanda, when she raised her eyes from the floor, looked ready to weep and acknowledged no one.

Into the anticipation, the bailiff announced “Judge Noreen Tsu. All rise, please.”

As the courtroom settled, Judge Tsu leafed through files, looking up occasionally to locate the lawyers or the defendants and nod to herself, checking them present on her mental list. After several minutes of silence, she turned her attention to the motley array filling her courtroom.

“Before we begin, I want to answer a question that may have arisen for you, particularly those among you who represent the media. That is this, and I want it to be perfectly clear. In this case, because of the prominence of the defendants’ families and the – I will say undue – media attention that has already occurred, the court allowed the defendants and their families to enter this building in a manner that would not attract attention. If you will, so they would not be waylaid and possibly harassed by some of you sitting here or with your cameras out in the hall. After they had been guided to this floor by the bailiff’s staff, they were allowed to wait in the law library. And this is the point I want to be absolutely clear about: even though they passed through parts of the building reserved for staff and judges, at no time was there any contact between me or any other Municipal Court judge and any of the defendants or their families. Nor has there been any ex parte contact between any official of this court and any of these defendants or their families since well before the events that bring them here. And, importantly, I do not know and never have known personally any of the defendants or their family members, including relatives not present today. Otherwise, I would properly have recused myself.”

Well and good, thought Falconer. But just being in municipal court and not a block down the hill in King County Superior Court almost certainly meant that the high-priced lawyers had won the first round. Here in municipal court, the kids could not be charged with a felony, “possession with intent to sell,” a possibility which had stirred rumors in the days since the news broke. What would the county prosecutor do? In the end, leave it for municipal court, a smart decision since interviews with the party goers turned up consistent accounts supporting what Danny Armster had learned and Falconer had heard from the defense lawyers. The party crashers who disappeared brought everything except for the beer and marijuana and even some of that.

Tsu turned her gaze from the back of the room where the reporters clustered and spoke to the clerk stationed at a desk beside the bench. “Please read the charges and we will ask for pleas.”

In five more minutes it was all over. Standing beside their lawyers in front of the judge, the three high school seniors, Amanda Wallingford weeping and barely audible, Will Collins and Lynne Roberts firm and clear like the debate team members they were, pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of possession of alcohol and marijuana, the worst they could face in municipal court. Having uttered their four words, “Not guilty, your honor,” and with trial dates set, the three rejoined their parents and the whole party retreated single file out the door they’d entered. Falconer looked at his watch: 15 minutes grand total.

True to her advertised principle, “transparency in government is the people’s right,” and because not showing up would turn loose the hounds of speculation, a few minutes later Maureen Collins marched into the hall to do her shtick.

              The cameras quickly surrounded her, penning the governor against the ochre paneling outside the courtroom door, not the best backdrop for her red hair, but a striking background for the deep green pantsuit she wore. Ignoring the cackle of competing questions, Maureen Collins launched into her own speech, likely something she’d spent time preparing.

“It’s important for all of you – the media, the pubic and my political opponents – to respect the law and the process here. This is a time for understanding and patience. These young people, including my son Will, may have used very poor judgment and their behavior is nothing we should condone. Richard and I have had some very serious conversations with Will and I expect we’re far from done with that. But regarding the misdemeanors they are alleged to have committed, I urge you all to take the course the law sets out, give them the benefit of the doubt, consider them innocent until proven guilty – if that should happen at their trials next month. But do not, please do not, try them on tonight’s news, in your blogs or tomorrow’s newspapers.”

              Noble sentiments, Falconer thought, but about as effective as whistling into a hurricane. The governor’s closing thank you was drowned out by the obvious question, a cacophony delivered by the chorus, “What’s this mean for your campaign?”

              “I think Washington’s voters are very smart and understanding. They know raising kids isn’t always a smooth process and they’ll understand what Richard and I are going through and what we have to do. This won’t affect the campaign.”

              To Falconer’s ears, that was way more hoped-for-sentiment than fact but it was what she had to say. As Collins finished, her press secretary, a brash young guy named Johnny Watson who was reputed to be the far right’s mole in the moderate governor’s office, stepped in front of the cameras. “That’s it, everyone, thank you.” On the same cue, Maureen Collins squeezed between two tripods holding video cameras and headed for the elevators, followed by the print reporters and bloggers hollering questions. An old pro, Falconer was in the lead, next to Collins with her state patrol bodyguard on the other side of her, Watson just behind, his body blocking off the others.

              “Governor, I’ve got a theory on this . . .”

              “When don’t you, Falconer?” Almost a hiss.

              “I think Will was set up, Mo.” Falconer spoke low enough so the other reporters, still noisily following couldn’t sort out his words. “There are other things like this that may come down. Give me a couple minutes.”

              “OK, Falconer. But this better not be a con. Get in the elevator with us.” They slipped into the elevator followed by Watson and the trooper who blocked the crush of reporters and allowed the polished steel doors to close. Collins pushed the buttons for the ninth floor, one down, and the basement garage. “Johnny you go on down and get Richard and Will to wait at the car. I’ll join you in about 15 minutes.” The press secretary looked pained if not actually angry at the order but he obeyed. The governor and Falconer and the trooper got out and the elevator continued down.

“You are two things, Falconer, both of which on a bad day are crap in my book, a detective and a journalist. This is a bad day so what you have to say better be good.” The next elevator took them to 12, and they walked out onto the roof deck, met by the warm sun of the late June morning. The trooper, one of the typically big guys always assigned to “executive protection,” probably something over 6’-6” in his blue Smokey-the-Bear hat, stood back discretely.  

              Falconer told Collins about the redhead who accosted him at Vera’s. “The woman claimed you have a ten-year-old grandson you’ve never met. That’s quite a story, Mo.”

              “Would be if it were true.” Collins tone was empty of emotion, something Falconer, who’d known her since she started up the political ladder as a young lawyer in the Seattle mayor’s office in the 70’s, had never experienced.

              “Has the ring…”

              “Bullshit, Falconer. I don’t need this. What happened with Will has already cost me three points in the tracking poll we’re running. I can recover, but I think you’re right somebody’s targeted me with dirty tricks and I don’t need another hit.

“And here’s a bone for you and your blog. You know that hostage-taking in the prison at Walla Walla ten days ago? Guess what? The hostage taker, the one still alive, says the three of them were paid by someone outside, and people on the outside – this guy says his woman – got $10,000 he never saw and now will never see. We haven’t proved it yet. She’s disappeared. One of the two dead guy’s sons, a kid in his twenties, is gone, too. The incident is another black eye for me, apparently paid for by some mystery man or criminal enterprise outside the prison. So, yeah, I think someone’s out to get me.” Collins leaned on the parapet, looking at the bay, blown into a dark blue chop by the northerly, the Olympics in the distance. “It’d be simpler just to be a court clerk up here with a sack lunch, loving the breeze, reading Jane Austin or something like that, wouldn’t it, Eric?”

              “Yes, but it isn’t that way, is it, Mo?” Falconer remembered the much softer woman she was just out of law school when he was a summer intern at the Times. Naively, despite the age difference, he’d thought there was a spark between them but soon realized she had already decided on Richard, East Coast family and all. He was a Seattle kid from working class Ballard with a journalism degree from Western Washington University. It was the kind of background Maureen Collins, reared in rural Enterprise, Oregon, had escaped years before with an East Coast college scholarship and a law degree from Harvard.

              “No, and it won’t be for a while. I’ve got to get through this election, so let’s play a little game here, OK? You look into the baby story all you want and when you’ve got some facts, any facts, whichever way they cut, you call and I’ll confirm them for you – or maybe not. It’s worth a try, though, isn’t it, since you’re thinking all this must mean something? That there may be something to the dirty tricks, that it might all add up. Well, Eric, except for the baby part, I think it does. There’s some asshole or group out there that badly wants me out of the governor’s mansion, maybe out of this race even before the primary to make way for – I don’t know who, likely one of those R’s running against me in the primary for no reason I can figure – somebody more acceptably conservative. So like I said, call me. I’ll leave instructions so you’ll be put through.”

              The trooper held the door for her as she walked back into the building, red hair dancing in the breeze as she moved. Falconer stayed at the parapet and stared down into the street where the early lunch crowd hustled from building to building and a few gulls patrolled above.

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