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Monday, September 28, 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 24, 25 & 26: Ebey Island, Ivar’s, and Nora Hamilton

Chapter 24, Ebey Island

Sunday, June 15, 11 a.m.

              Falconer followed Bobby Harms’ directions and took the ramp off U.S. 2 onto Ebey Island. Barely a mile east of I-5 and not twice that from downtown Everett, a left turn under the causeway and he was on a two-lane leading back in time to a place the suburbs passed by. Weedy horse pastures, mostly empty, sometimes home to a few sheep, and abandoned orchards were scattered on either side of the road. Gravel drives led back to small houses cloaked by the trees, thick moss on the roofs. The area hid from prosperity. “No Trespassing” signs on the fences advertised the locals’ views. These were independent people who could of necessity make do with an old farmhouse or moss-stained trailer on an island in the Snohomish River delta. The inevitable floods turned away the reasonable.

              He found Riverside Avenue and followed it, admiring the lines of barn swallows on the power lines. It was pushing noon and the day was clear and warming. Falconer drove slowly with his window open and inhaled the smell of the warm roadside grasses. He made a couple turns and saw what he was looking for: above the dike, between the cottonwoods, several sailboat masts.

Falconer had Kim’s Jeep again. It fit the place better than his A4. He drove through an open farm gate of welded pipe, followed the track up a slope newly hardened against the winter mud thanks to a couple truckloads of crushed granite. At the top he parked in a grassy clear space between a house built on fill the height of the levee and a rusty, retired construction crane on tracks used to launch and haul out small boats.

              Falconer turned off the engine and sat. A couple dogs appeared and looked at him, a black lab gray in the muzzle and a collie. They didn’t bark. Falconer considered that a good sign. You probably couldn’t have angry mastiffs walking around if folks were likely to show up at random times to take their boats out. He got out and walked over and leaned on the gate at the top of the ramp leading to the boats. Seven boats, three sailboats and four cruisers, were tied up along a float that in turn was chained to a row of pilings that paralleled the dike a few yards from the bank. There was no wind. The river was glassy, a color between brown and green. Clumps of cottonwood seed drifted south, slowly upstream. For the moment, the incoming tide overpowered the river.

              “Didn’t think I recognized your car.” An old guy, maybe sixty something, thin, a pony tail of iron gray hair and a few days stubble the same color, stepped off the porch. He had on beat-up once blue running shoes, jeans and a blue plaid flannel shirt, oil stained. He held a German Shepherd by its chain collar. “What can I do for you?”

              Falconer walked over to shake. The old man had mechanic’s hands, hard, rough, with oil-blackened fissures in thick calluses. “Eric Falconer. I write a true-crime blog on the Internet and I came out to see if you could tell me anything about the guys who kept the Scabbard 34 here, the one everybody’s calling he ‘death boat.’”

              “You the killer? Making sure you got them all?”

              “Damn, that’s a good question.” Falconer, flabbergasted, laughed. “No, I’m just a humble journalist. I’d like to find out who the killers are, tell the story, who and why – and how.”

              “Well, I never heard of no humble journalist, least not the ones you see on TV. But you’re the first one to find me since I talked to the cops, so what the fuck, I’m Pepper.” Falconer was about to ask his last name when he volunteered, “Pepper Ames. Want a beer?”

              Ames brought out a couple of Coronas and they sat in plastic-webbed aluminum lawn chairs overlooking the float. Around them, cottonwood seed drifted aimlessly in the still air, dropping finally into the slough or clinging like frost to the blackberries overgrowing the embankment.

              “Seems kinda ironic to me,” said Falconer, “That the Scabbard’s last trip began here on Ebey Island and ended sunk at a place 25 miles away named after the same guy, Ebey, the same pioneer family, anyway.”

              “Never thought of that. Guess I didn’t catch the name of that place they found it,” said Ames. “Always seemed strange to me that they would keep such a pimped-out job like that up here on the slough. In case you didn’t notice, we’re a little out of the way, compared to even someplace like LaConner. It can take almost an hour to get to the bay ’cause it ain’t a good idea to go rippin’ down the river. Guys do it, though. But, hey, you get in over your head on the boat, you gotta save money on the moorage. Wouldn’t be the first time. Out of the way and cheap. That’s the slough. Paid cash, though, three months at a time, like I told the police. No checks. Cops told me the address I had for them doesn’t exist. Phone number was bogus, too. But I never called it. No cause to. Like I said, they paid.

              “These guys, though, they weren’t sailors and I don’t think they knew fuck-all about fishing. They brought poles and tackle boxes, made a show of gettin’ them out of the trunk. But I never saw them bring back a single fish and they been here almost three years. Goin’ out pretty near once a month, too.

              “So like I told the cops, heck yes I thought they were odd. Maybe I was a little suspicious but they paid and didn’t cause no trouble. What the heck would you do? Call the cops and say, ‘Hello, please come check these guys out?’ They’ve got a super nifty fish boat and they never catch any fish.’ Mister . . .”

              “Falconer.” Both men drank.

              “Well, Mister Falconer, you just take a walk around the port’s marina over there in Everett any Saturday and you’ll see any number of jerk-offs who don’t even know how to drive their boats. So you can’t be too suspicious of folks just because they’re dumb fucks on the water. A lot of rich guys are like that, a lotta guys that should stick to golf. That’s what I told the cops.

              “These guys, maybe they didn’t know fuck-all about fishing but they . . . one of them, anyway, the skinny blond guy – had an accent, too – knew what he was doing around boats. Head man, bossed the others. Not bossy though, just told them what to do, how to cast off, stow the lines, stuff like that.”

              “What was his name?”

              “Paul Steiner. I had that written down. I never learned the others. Think he might have called one of them Max and now I figure Steiner was just bullshit that fit him, German name for a German-looking guy. Never thought anything of it and every so often they come, load up, couple good-sized athletic bags, tackle boxes, case of beer, you don’t pay much attention. Like I told the cops, same three guys every time, except the last time. The blond – I always thought he looked like a German right out of World War II movies – and two other guys, both bigger than Steiner, one of them with a bushy moustache like Stalin. I gotta tell you this: I’m getting old, I guess, or these young guys aren’t gettin’ much schoolin’. I said that same thing about old Joe to the cops and one of them, not the guy in charge, though, asks me, ‘Who’s Stalin?’” Ames paused, drank, stared across the glassy slough into the distance as though searching memory, drank again, set the bottle on the gravel next to his chair.

              “Last time it was Steiner, or whoever he was, and two different guys I’d never seen before. One small one, small compared to the other one, a little smaller than Steiner so maybe five-ten, eleven, one-eighty. Steiner was six foot, all muscle, so maybe two-hundred. But the other new guy was simply fucking huge, six-six maybe, and linebacker size. Solid. Musta weighed three-twenty-five, three-fifty. And he was really uncomfortable around the water. Those floats, I got ’em surplus. You can always find stuff around when you need it. Foam blocks under the boards. They’ll sway and buck with just you or me on them, mate. This guy at one end would almost sink it, then he’d step to the next section and that’d go down and the one behind him pop up. Unnerved him, I could tell. He got in that boat – and it rolled with his weight when he did it – and sat in the stern seat and I never saw him move after that. I’m gonna get another beer. Want one?”

              Falconer said he did and while Ames was gone walked down the ramp to the float, which rocked from side to side with each step, just as the old man described, sending ripples outward across the slough.

              “Like it wants to throw you off, ain’t it,” hollered Ames, standing by the chairs and waving a Corona in Falconer’s direction. “Even scares me a bit when the river’s high. Slip off one of those old floats and the current’ll drag you right under them boats.”

              “Nice boat.” Falconer was looking at a J-35, ready to race, spinnaker pole, oversized winches, immaculately kept. Topsides waxed, tied to the decaying float with bright new nylon line, it looked out of place, like the Scabbard must have. The other boats populating Ames’ marina were dreams just a little beyond reach, the owners stretched financially, projects left half-finished, an outboard motor disassembled in one cockpit, on the next boat wires dangling through holes in a bulkhead where the instruments had been vandalized or taken out for repair, a varnish can, brush sticking out of the hardened coating, on the deck of another. These guys always find each other, Falconer thought, picturing the small town marinas and fishing docks around Puget Sound where ordinary guys hang out, the ones who buy old boats because they’re cheap, where more bullshitting than maintenance gets done. Boatyards, except the fancy ones where you can’t do your own work, have a languid feel to them, the days of spring lengthening into the reassuring warmth of summer, places exempt from time and the cares outside the gate, places to sit on a sawhorse with a beer and watch bottom paint dry.

              “Yeah. I don’t get too many like that. Lately, only this guy and the one you’re asking about. New boats, you know. Not that many of them this far up the river. The guy owns the J, he’s getting a divorce, thinks he can hide the boat from his wife, says he told her he traded it for a Hummer he bought a year ago and he’s gotta have a car. Well, he’s hiding something ’cause he’s got the boat and the Hummer, one of the real ones, real wide, painted camo. What the hell for? Duck hunting from your car window? Seventy fucking thousand for wheels! Not in my world, brother!”

              The shepherd, chained to Ames’ chair, growled and got up, shook he dust off his coat leaving a cloud around the two men and lay down again, head in the shade beside Ames, apparently satisfied that, despite the raised voice, there was no threat to his master.

              “You watched the big guy get into the boat so you must have been standing around, or sitting here. You must of heard them talking. What’d they sound like, friends? Who was in charge, that kind of thing?”

              “Like I said, they were different guys so it was different and you could see that without hearing much. The little guy was in charge. The German-looking guy was running the boat like always, telling the smaller guy which lines to cast off, how to do that, had him push the bow out, jump on the stern. But the little guy was driving the car when they arrived, kept up a patter, leading the other two along.”

              “Were they speaking English?”

              “Yeah, but they were foreigners. You could tell. The little guy had an accent. Pretty strong. I couldn’t really understand him but most of it was English. I don’t think the big guy said anything. Once he was in the boat, they cast off. German guy waved at me. Then they’re gone. That’s it.”

              “You told the police they didn’t load any gear so you thought maybe they were just going out for the afternoon, evening, hit the bars in Kingston or that fancy place in Ludlow.”

              “Well, I was just speculating, that’s all. Doesn’t mean it’s true, anyways.”

              “Yeah, but maybe you were right. Doesn’t that make it stranger when they don’t come back that night or the next day? I mean, didn’t you wonder about it?”

              “Naw. They were grownups. Who cares?” Ames took a long pull on his Corona. “None of my business.”

              “Did you hear about it when they found the big guy’s body?”

              “Nope. It didn’t make the paper up here. I heard about it when they found the boat, though. That’s when I called the cops. Not that I had much to tell ’em. I just figured I’d lost a customer and the cops at least would have that rent-a-car they came in towed outa here.”

              Ames finished his beer and Falconer could tell he wanted another one. He was getting fidgety with the questions and probably wouldn’t have minded if Falconer left. To Falconer, though, it seemed like Ames had more to say. Beer drinking seemed like the best option. “Any chance you got more beer in there?” he prodded.

              “Shit yes! I’ll get us a couple.”

              Ames came back from the house this time with a couple of bottles of Redhook, more potent stuff. “Now that it’s past noon we can get down to some serious drinking.” The two men sat silently for a while, nursing their beers. The clumps of cottonwood seeds on the greenish water now drifted slowly to the north as the newly ebbing tide slowly sucked water out of the slough.

              “Anybody come looking for them?” said Falconer, finally getting to the question he’d come to ask.

              “Who, the German?”

              “Any of them, him or the other two. Anybody besides the police come looking for them?”

              Head back, Ames took a long drink from his beer. For a while he stared at the brush and blackberry covered bank of the dike on the far side of the waterway about 50 yards away. No hurry, Falconer thought, the old guy’s on the hook.

              “One time. Youngish guy, early thirties, asked me if I knew when they were coming back. I said, no, didn’t have a clue, none of my business, same as I would’ve said to anybody.”

              “When was this?”

              “I don’t know exactly. Maybe three-four days after they went out. I didn’t know anything then. Not even that a body had washed up, like the cops said. I didn’t know that.”

              “Before the boat turned up.”

              “Yeah, a few days before I read about that, maybe more. Just a guy looking for his friends, that’s what you’d think, isn’t it?” Ames paused, drank again.

              “Mid-thirties, you said. What’d he look like?”

              “City guy. Slick. Good clothes. I noticed that. Dark hair. Real black beard but neat, trimmed, you know, not like the locals, me included. I thought he was a Turk.”

              Falconer was surprised. “A Turk. Why?”

              “Well, I was in the Air Force. I had a low draft number so I enlisted. Seemed like a good enough way to stay out of the jungle. Anyway, the war was almost ended and I spent a year at a base in southern Turkey. The guy looked like a Turk.” Another pull on his beer.

              “Like I said, city guy, though. Sum’bitch was even wearing loafers out here – lucky it wasn’t muddy – and he had a little purse on a strap. At first I thought he was maybe gay but then I got the idea he had a gun in there.”

              This time Falconer drank, stared across the slough. He didn’t want to rush Ames, risk shutting him off. Then he lobbed the next question over the top. “He pull it on you?”

              “Nope, no way.” Ames laughed. “We sat down here, right where we’re sitting now, and that purse – it looked like real expensive leather to me – swung into one of the chairs with big thunk as he was sitting down. So it’s real heavy. So, you know, uh-oh, it’s gotta be a gun. What else could it be?  And you could see he was bothered by it, like he didn’t want me to see how heavy it was so he grabbed it and held onto it after that.”

              “You tell this to the cops?” If he had, Falconer knew Harms hadn’t passed it on.

              “They didn’t ask. Dumb fuckers thought they knew everything. They didn’t need me to help them. And I got no reason to be involved. They catch this guy, they come get me to I.D. him. No way I want that. Guy’s probably got friends who’d want to even it up with me. You see my point.”

              “Uh-huh. So why’d you tell me?”

              “Figure it out. You’re not a cop. You can’t close me down or fuck me over with licenses or shoreline permits – that kinda shit. You blow this guy in your little magazine or whatever, it’s your problem not mine.”

              Falconer smiled. Not a lot of logic to that, he thought, just that over a few beers people will eventually unload a lot of stuff they won’t tell a cop.

Chapter 25, Ivar’s

Sunday, June 15, 2 p.m.

              “He said you’d know.”

              “Be nice if I did, be a scoop on the whole Carl Barclay saga, wouldn’t it?” said Falconer. He and Theresa were playing tourist, having fish and chips in the sun at one of the picnic tables outside Ivar’s on Pier 54, a few blocks from her office in the Pioneer Building. A romantic spot for a late lunch, Falconer thought, if it weren’t for the traffic noise from the viaduct that glowered over the waterfront and the din from the gulls screaming for French fries which the tourists threw them by the handfuls. Theresa’s dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was deeply tan, she said, “thanks to the freedom of underemployment resulting in hours on the roof deck with a collection of chick lit.”

              “He wasn’t a big guy, a little smaller than you, dapper, carefully trimmed beard, black, and black hair, nicely cut clothes – you know, a tailored shirt – sophisticated seeming. I thought European for sure, then maybe Middle Eastern because of the hair color. He had a faint accent I couldn’t place.”

              “Shit.”

              “What?”

              “Sounds like the same guy Ames said came looking for the guys on the death boat. Probably was. At least we should assume it was.” Falconer looked toward the water and the gulls lining the rail at the edge of the pier, sank into thought. Staring at the birds, looking at their yellow eyes, the spot of red that marked their beaks, he considered the unpleasant possibilities of encountering a man with a gun in his trendy shoulder bag. “So he just walks in and says he has a message for me?”

              “No, he was leaving a voice mail asking for an appointment but I was there getting ready for San Diego and I knew I’d be out of town so I picked it up. He said you had referred him so of course I agreed to see him. He showed up after about 15 minutes. It was about noon by then. We chatted a bit at first. He seemed to know a lot about the biotech research firms around the U.W. and South Lake Union. That’s when he mentioned your blog. He said you were right in the Carl Barclay story. ‘It was drug smuggling,’ he said. ‘Tell him that.’ I asked him how he knew that and he just shrugged and said ‘It’s around. People know.’”

              Falconer ate some of his fish with his fingers and a plastic fork, dipping the steaming bits into a little paper cup of tartar sauce.

              “I already thought it was getting a little weird and then he said, ‘We didn’t kill Carl Barclay. Tell Mr. Falconer that. Tell him we want to help find the killer. We think this man killed people who worked for our company. Tell him that.’”

              “So I’m thinking, ‘Holy shit, who is this guy?’ and wondering what to do next when he stands up, suddenly just brusque as hell, and says ‘Tell Mr. Falconer I will meet him for breakfast tomorrow or the next day if he is alone. Otherwise he will lose his chance.’”

              “Of course I asked, ‘Chance for what?’ That’s when he said you’d know.”

              “That’s what he said? ‘We didn’t kill Carl Barclay … we think the killer also killed people who worked for our company’?”

              “If not exactly those words, pretty close. That’s what I wrote down right afterword.”

              “And he didn’t say where we were meeting for breakfast?”

              “No. Like I said, he just walked out.”

Theresa absently threw a couple fries in the direction of the gulls who snatched them on the fly. “Time to catch a plane, get away from the scary guys.”

“Me not included, right?”

“You I’ll miss.” She took his elbow and, leaning against him just a little, led him back across the crowded street to the car parked under the viaduct.

Chapter 26, Nora Hamilton

Sunday, June 15, 5 p.m.

“It weren’t no ten grand, mister. Guy came to the door, standing there just like you are now, gave me five hundred bucks and says my husband is gonna call the next day or the day after and I’m supposed to say ‘I got the money for the new couch.’ What I really got was just enough money for the rent.”

Falconer had driven up the hill from Delridge to Pigeon Point where Nora Hamilton rented a rundown place backing onto woods on a block still untouched by gentrification. She answered the door in jeans and a black tank top, bra underneath working hard to push a heavy load into view. Pink highlights streaked her brown hair. The sunlight that made her squint when she opened the door sharpened the lines around her eyes and mouth. She wouldn’t have liked the look; she still hadn’t hit forty.

Falconer stood on the small slab of concrete that served as a porch. “Is that all?”

“It sure as fuck was all the money, I’ll tell you that.” The woman swung her leg to intercept a small dog making a run for the yard.

“Like I said, I heard ten grand.”

“Yeah, and who’d you hear that from.”

“Guys in the joint who talked to the cops. Your husband was bragging about getting a lot of money for something he was going to do. That’s what they said. ‘Ten grand for something he was going to do.’ They said the money was going to come to you.”

“Well, I didn’t get no money except what I already told you.” She started to close the door.

“You want to know who got the rest?” Falconer had no idea but he wanted to keep her attention.

“You saying there was ten grand? Don’t shit me, mister.”

“Falconer. How about if I come in?”

Nora Hamilton gave the dog another kick and opened the door far enough for Falconer. The house exhaled a damp, musty smell, like bad breath, into the summer day.

“What the fuck? I got nothing else to do.” She waved Falconer in the direction of a plaid fabric covered La-Z-Boy that doubled as a scratching post for the orange cat asleep on the cushion. Falconer, holding the animal at arms’ length, lifted it off and set it on a sheet of plywood lying on top of the carpet.

“Hole in the floor.” Hamilton answered Falconer’s unasked question. There’s another one in the nook, too. My sweet landlord’s idea of maintenance. What a shit eater. ‘Well, Nora, he says, I guess I won’t raise the rent, after all.’ What a smarmy bastard. Floor’s all rotted out. And there’s mealy bugs in the wood, too. Fuckin’ place stinks, too, don’t it? Smells like rot. If I had ten grand first thing I’d do is get the fuck out of here.”

As though standing had been a tiring exercise, she sat heavily on a maroon couch across from Falconer. Flattened cushions told him the woman spent a lot of time there.

Hamilton waived the remote to silence the TV and then fished a pack of cigarettes and a yellow Bic from among magazines and a pizza box on the coffee table. Exhaling with a smoky sigh, she sagged against the back of the couch. The dog curled up against her thigh. “Shit, shit, shit,” she murmured, an incantation of regret.

“So my stupid Willie thought he was worth ten grand and got himself killed for a measly $500. Stupid dumb fuck.” Her eyes filled with tears and she squeezed the dog until it squirmed. After a while, she went on. “He called, you know, and he asked that dumb question about did I get the money for the couch, tried to make it sound nonchalant – you know, casual – which he wasn’t and never could be since he was on the prison phone and they always listen, you know they listen – and I said yes.” She shook her head, acknowledging the irony of the worn out piece of furniture she sat on.

“Fuck, I didn’t know what it was all about but if he’s got something going I’m going to help him out, see. I know he’s doing it for me, whatever it is, ’cause he loves me, even though we might never see each other again – on the outside, I mean, ’cause I get over there to visit every couple of months. I tried, anyway. I did. And now he’s dead so I guess I don’t have to do that anymore, do I?” She stared at Falconer, wanting him to share her sorrow.

              “What’d he look like, the kid who brought you the money?”

              “Weren’t no kid. He was maybe thirty, around there. Little shit, though. Full of himself. All attitude. Kinda guy gets himself beat up in a bar. Looked like it, too. Scars on his head you could see ’cause he had real short hair like he’d been shaving his head. Funny thing, too. He wore gloves, the kinds without fingers. It was a warm day so I thought maybe he rode a bicycle but I didn’t see one around. That amused me at the time, the thought of this guy delivering $500 just like he was one of them downtown bicycle messengers. He kept the rest of the money, too, didn’t he?”

              “I don’t know. There’s a good chance it never existed. Most likely your husband got conned.”

“Conned right out of his life. Ain’t that as fucked as it gets?”

“They think the money was for the hostage taking. That’s why he did it. They – the state cops – think Willie and the two other guys were paid to grab the guard. That’s the story the guy who’s still alive is telling. Name’s Randy Chalmers.”

“Oh, yeah, Chalmers. Willie’s ‘best friend’ in there. Led him around by the nose. Another shitass conman. Him? That shit got Willie killed?” She wept silently and Falconer waited, shoving the cat away with his foot.

“Chalmers says they were just supposed to hold the guard for a while, create an incident, then give up. They even handed out a manifesto calling for prison reforms. You probably saw that in the paper.”

“It was on the TV.”

“They never imagined that prison officials would try to free their hostage by force. They were going to let him go. That’s what Chalmers is telling the state’s investigators. He called it a big ‘communication failure’ between the three of them and the hostage negotiators.”

“No shit. They killed two guys because of a ‘communication failure?’ What a sick fucking joke.”

Hamilton’s tears welled up again and she pulled the dog tightly against her chest, rocking back and forth as though offering the animal comfort, or finding solace herself in the embrace. When she looked up, Falconer went on: “Who put them up to it, and why? Who paid? That’s the real question, isn’t it?”

She looked at him, hard and unforgiving. “No, mister Falconer, the real question is why they killed my Willie when they didn’t have to.”

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