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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 36 & 37: Chinatown, and Edmunds Hotel

Chapter 36, Chinatown

Friday, June 20, 8 p.m.

              From where he was parked across Point Gray Road from the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club, Falconer could see through the gate and across the parking lot to the club’s porte cochere and make out anyone coming or going. He’d been there since six, only a little after he’d spotted Victor Wallingford’s classic 85-foot motor yacht, unmistakable with its deep green hull, from a viewpoint at Jericho Beach a few miles to the west along the route all incoming boats would use. His location gave him a good chance that he could spot Wallingford and his buddies as they came out to catch a ride or a cab and follow them into town. Sitting in his car in the lot for a closer look would only get him rousted by the doorman or some heavier security. Falconer mused: boom in that business everywhere thanks to real and imagined terrorist threats. He nibbled on a cold piroshky, one of several he’d bought – always the tourist – from a stall at the Granville Island Market.

              A couple of cabs came and went, one drop off, one pickup, a lanky character, not Victor Wallingford. Falconer figured he’d be able to spot the timber baron by his size – shorter than most guys, portly – even if he couldn’t be sure of the face. Even at a distance, though, Wallingford’s trim beard, round face and short gray hair would make him pretty recognizable. All Falconer needed to do was wait, chew on the piroshky, which wasn’t that good cold, and wonder if the drive to Vancouver was a wild goose chase. Really, there was nothing to connect Wallingford with whatever criminal organization had run the operation that used Carl Barclay’s boat for a decoy. There was nothing that ruled him out, either, except that he was already rich enough that Falconer couldn’t figure out why he’d be involved in crime, a criminal syndicate, as Falconer thought of it, smuggling the usual high profit items, drugs or people. Profit? Hell, does the business world go around picking up money wherever they can find a tree to shake, no regard for principles? Falconer figured the answer was yes in a lot of cases based on what he knew about war profiteering in Iraq, from news reports and telling anecdotes from Danny. But Iraq, of course, was a long way from the fog-shrouded Northwest, and here he was hoping to discover something by tailing one of Seattle’s most prominent business leaders, a former president of the WAC, symphony and art museum board member, his wife among the powers on the Children’s Hospital board. The list went on and on. It all made Falconer’s theory that the business connection between Wallingford and Barclay had something to do with the twin boats and three murders seem a little thin.

              To Falconer at the moment, sitting alone in a car maybe wasting a warm summer evening, the murders juxtaposed with that snapshot of who Wallingford was made his involvement even more implausible. All that brought Falconer to Point Grey Road was his hunch, and that was condensed from nearly thin air, an offhand remark of Sally Barclay’s that Victor Wallingford had asked her husband along on a “men’s weekend” cruise to Vancouver, B.C. He had to admit it wasn’t much to build suspicion on. But Carl Barclay was dead, a local guy, not some foreign gangsters nobody could identify, and Bobby Harms, despite “all the resources at our command” and the “laser-like focus” promised by the mayor, after almost a week did not have anyone remotely like a real suspect, so he admitted privately to Falconer.

              A third cab came and went.  A second piroshky went down. A few more cars entered the parking lot, people going in for dinner. Falconer got out and slipped between bushes into the yard next to his car, no one seemed to be home, and peed behind some shrubbery. It was seven-thirty, sunset almost two hours away. It wouldn’t be full dark until after ten. Back in the car, Falconer sat with his window open, taking in the summer smells, made richer by the slight dampness of evening. He relished these long summer days, tried to store them in his psyche as fuel for December when the sun set at four o’clock. All the more reason to be back in Ballard, whisky in hand, barbecuing on his roof deck.

              Then Wallingford was there on the red-carpeted entry, pushing the handle into a rolling carry-on bag he’d towed through the door. Despite his suspicion – or just his journalist’s hope to turn something up – this wasn’t what Falconer anticipated. He’d been expecting a noisy group of middle-agers already a few drinks along, headed for downtown bars with Victor Wallingford in the lead, pumping up the energy. Wallingford had a reputation as someone who could get things going, with or without the lubrication of alcohol, an ability that must have contributed to his rise at the WAC. But now, having organized a party, he was taking off by himself. Heading for a hotel? Maybe he’s got a squeeze up here? Falconer wondered.

              A cab circled the drive and stopped in front of the red-carpeted steps. Wallingford picked up the suitcase and, brushing off the driver’s offer to put it in the trunk – an elaborate pantomime from where Falconer sat – shoved it into the back seat and climbed in after it. Lights out and foot off the brake, Falconer started his car, sent the window up and slid down in the seat. No use being seen. Following Wallingford into a restaurant or bar, wherever he was headed, or maybe later running into him back in Seattle, Falconer wanted to be as anonymous as the wallpaper. When the cab left the club’s circular drive, he pulled out to follow.

              It wasn’t a hotel. The cab dropped Wallingford off on Georgia Street a couple of blocks north of Burrard, by Vancouver standards a relatively quiet area of office buildings just a few blocks away from the popular shopping streets where tens of thousands crowded the sidewalks day and night absorbing some ineffable urban energy. On Georgia, the Seattle businessman fit in just as he was: a middle-aged guy in a dark blazer, khakis and tassel loafers standing by a loading zone waiting for a ride.

Falconer had pulled in as soon as he saw the cab swing toward the curb. He was a couple hundred feet back, half in a parking place and half blocking the crosswalk. For the first cop to come along, he had a story ready about overheating, just waiting for it to cool so he can open the radiator and put some water in. Not safe to open it hot, you know. Says so on the cap. Blah, blah.

He didn’t have to use the story. Within a few minutes a black Mercedes limo with darkened windows slid into the curb. Wallingford got in and the limo continued east on Georgia. Falconer followed, slipping through the first signal on yellow as he watched the limo turn right onto Howe. Once on Howe, heavy with traffic, Falconer closed the distance between the two cars.  Almost immediately, this strategy proved its value. The limo turned left onto Nelson and sped six blocks on the nearly empty street through Yaletown toward False Creek. Falconer stayed close enough to make a right behind them into Richards Street and see the limo turn right again into Pacific. Falconer thought they were now headed back they way they came and he worried he’d been spotted. When the limo took a right onto the cloverleaf to Granville Street and the Granville Street Bridge he wasn’t sure. What was it? They knew they were being followed and were trying to shake him? Or, slightly more likely, they didn’t know and the evasive maneuvers were routine. Professional work. So much for doubts about Wallingford’s involvement in . . . well, something. Same old possibilities, but involvement, yes. Falconer figured the Vancouver trip had just paid off. He dropped back as the cars crossed the bridge but not so far he missed the Fourth Street exit and ramp toward Broadway that Wallingford’s hosts took.

Maybe professionals, but good, not great, Falconer decided as he followed their left turn onto Broadway, a signal behind but still able to catch up and make the same turn north onto Main. Under the Skytrain guideway, past the massive gray stone Canadian Pacific Station and a few more blocks toward Chinatown the limo turned right into an alley.

“This is either the end of the line or I lose them,” Falconer thought, not much worried if it was the latter. His suspicions about Victor Wallingford had already ripened. He could pursue the man in Seattle. Falconer passed the alley, thought he had a glimpse of taillights still in there and parked illegally in a loading zone a half block farther on.

From the jumble in the back seat, Falconer grabbed a watch cap. Not much of a disguise but at least he didn’t look like a blond white guy from two blocks away. Slouched a bit and walking unevenly, maybe they’d take him for one of the druggies that populated the back streets around the station and over by Hastings. On Main, crowds still filled the street, migrating away from Chinatown after the long shopping day, but the alley was empty. “Might as well walk through,” Falconer figured, look for names on doors, anything that might be a lead that he could cross check with city business listings, any name he might be lucky enough to turn up again.

Falconer didn’t get far. He’d copied a couple names into his notebook, skipped a couple of small brass plaques with only Chinese characters. He walked carefully, head down watching his step for human excrement and rotting vegetables spilled from the Dumpsters. Too late to run, he saw two guys in black coming toward him from a doorway to his right. “Shit,” Falconer muttered the word that universally precedes trouble, car wrecks and plane crashes. Then looking at the black outfits he thought, “That’s so trite,” just as a third guy hit him from behind with a very heavy object.

              It was light when Falconer woke up, bright sunlight on the age-blackened bricks of the building opposite. Back against the wall, wedged between two Dumpsters so he couldn’t fall over, his armpits dripped sweat and he had a headache that demanded he close his eyes again and hold perfectly still. OK, he didn’t feel like moving fast. He could hardly move his neck, anyway, and every joint was stiff, even his fingers. All told, though, he decided it beat being dead.

              Gradually, he took a survey. Several cardboard vegetable boxes along with the remains of their contents, lettuce or bok choy, had been pushed in on top of him. It looked like the guys who rolled him didn’t want him found right away. He thought that might explain why he still had his shoes, expensive boat mocs, after a night in this alley. His jeans were filthy and he’d vomited down his shirtfront into his lap. Reeking like this, Falconer thought sure he’d never get cab, then remembered he’d driven. He unclenched his fist to reach in his pocket for the car keys and a hypodermic, a blood-stained drop still poised on the needle tip, rolled to the ground. His assailants definitely wanted him out for a long while. He wondered if they’d meant to kill him with an overdose.

              There were no keys, no wallet, nothing in any of his pockets. Cell phone? He couldn’t remember if he’d had that on him or left it in the car. He couldn’t remember where the car was. Probably towed by now, anyway, he decided. It was going to be a long walk, stiff and painful. He shuffled along, all he could make his legs do. People stepped aside, as they always do for crazies, druggies and street drunks.

Chapter 37, Edmunds Hotel

Saturday, June 21, 8 p.m.

              Falconer woke up to a knock on the door. The light outside had lost its glare, headed toward dusk. Maybe not. Maybe it was the next morning and he’d lost another day. More knocking. Insistent. “Wake up, it’s me.”

              “Who?”

              “Your dedicated and trusty employee, Kim. Let me in so I can see how much of a mess you are.”

              “Yes, I am.” A non sequitur from the groggy Falconer. He couldn’t sit up so he rolled sideways like an old man to get where he could lower his feet to the floor. His head still hurt. He sat with his head in his hands.

              “You moving? I’ve got stuff to eat, comfort food.”

              “Peanut butter sandwiches?” Mumbled to himself. It hurt his head to talk, even in a normal voice. Through the door, Kim didn’t hear. What she meant was take-out from around the corner, Pad Thai, yellow curry and rice and a couple Cokes.

              “M-m-minute. Pants.”

              “I brought a clean pair.” Falconer wrapped himself in the brown bedspread and got to the door without tripping.

              Kim let a black Adidas bag slip from her shoulder and clunk to the floor. The take-out containers she spread out on a small round table under the window. “You need some food. You look half dead.”

              “Matches my internal state. What day is it?

“Still Saturday. It’s Saturday evening.”

Thanks for coming so fast.”

              “Soon as you called. Actually, not until after I canceled your credit cards, found your birth certificate in the files so we can get you back into the U.S., and packed some clothes. Danny found where they impounded your car so we can get that when you’re ready, anytime up to midnight. Hundred-fifty extra charge, though, after eight, which it almost is now.”

              “I don’t think I can drive, not tonight, anyway.”

              “I’ll drive. Sit down and eat. You love Pad Thai.

              “I was sick again after I showered.”

              “So I got mild, no stars. Try it. You want chopsticks or a plastic fork?” She moved the table over next to the bed.

              “Fork. Don’t think I can work chopsticks. I can hardly move my fingers. I must have thrown a few punches. Or the bastards stepped on my hands. Feels more like that.”

Falconer sat down and stared at the food. “If you drive we leave a car here. That won’t work.”

              “Not a problem, I didn’t drive.”

              “Huh, how’d you get here?”

              “Kenmore Air. Lake Union to the Inner Harbor. A ten minute cab ride from here.”

              “I might have thought of that if it weren’t for the dope. Did I tell you guys about that on the phone.”

              “You babbled like a guy on pentothal but we got the idea.”

Falconer leaned forward, elbows on the table, head in his hands, the bed spread wrapped around him.

“Jesus, Eric, are you all right? The back of your head looks like dead meat. There’s a huge purple lump and dried blood with bits of fabric in it.”

              “Oh, I tried to wash it off in the shower. Sorry.” He spoke slowly, softly. “Looks gory, huh? I think the fabric is from my watch cap. It was stuck to my head ‘cause the blood dried. Didn’t know it until I got here. Hurt like hell. I think I have the worst headache of my life and I think I’d puke again if I took anything.”

              Kim sighed, worried and knowing Falconer would frustrate her desire to do anything for him. She gave it a shot, weakly. “Eric, here’s what happens now: I’m going to say you should go to a doctor and I’ll call around and find one and you’re going to say, ‘no, I’ll be fine, just give me a little longer, I’ll eat something,’ and you’ll promise to see a doctor when we get back home and I will give in and say OK, right?”

              “Yes, right on the mark,” he whispered. “I’ll eat in just a minute. Then we’re going back to Seattle.”

              “And I’m going down the hall for some ice I can wrap in a towel and put on your head.”

Outside, the summer evening light softened further, stealing a pale rust hue from the bricks of the hotel across the street. He flinched as Kim tied a bath towel around his head to hold a smaller towel full of ice against the swelling.

“Victor Wallingford . . .” Falconer raised his head a little. “He’s into something. Last night proved that. Those guys weren’t random muggers . . .”

“They were killers, Eric. They tried to kill you with heroin.” Kim sat on the bed. Her voice cracked. She rubbed her eyes so Falconer wouldn’t see her tears.

Falconer didn’t. He was motionless, staring at the food. He spoke, hardly moving. “Or good at their jobs. Maybe they just wanted me out for a long time, a lesson, not a murder.”

“Sure. Maybe. Eat some more.” Falconer picked up a forkful of the orange noodles. Chewed carefully. Drank some Coke.

“So, Wallingford. The limo that picks him up runs a route, routine or they know I’m there, or they think somebody is. Then I’m in the alley. The limo stopped in there. I know I saw it. No one’s there, though, and I’m writing down company names from these little brass plaques by some of the doors. Then these guys come out from somewhere. Not muggers. Not street hoods, black jackets, windbreakers, black pants, like a uniform, I think. Then they grab me and another guy hits me from behind. End of story.”

Kim recovered her all-business voice. “Well, thank heaven it wasn’t. End of story, I mean.”

“Got another towel? there’s cold water running down my back?”

“I’ll get Nurse Ratched to change your dressing.” Falconer ignored the reference, a classic of his generation. Well, maybe a little before. He thought it was probably a high school class assignment nowadays. Kim went out to refill the ice bucket.

When she came back and swaddled his head, he said “Anyway, Wallingford’s guilty as hell. His driver tries to ditch me, his buddies’ goons demonstrate they can kill me if they want. So we know something really important and we can’t do anything with it. Can’t write a story, nothing concrete. This is all speculation. And I really don’t want to tell Harms, at least not yet, ‘cause it’s when I actually find something out that he throws one of his hissy fits about journalists or private investigators messing with a police investigation. And that’s the good news.” Falconer paused.

“OK. What’s the bad news?”

“The bad news is that Wallingford and, in all probability, worse, his Chinatown buddies, know who I am. They have my I.D., credit cards and keys, including keys to the Starlight. Only thing between us and them is the keypad code on the elevator to the office floor.”

“They didn’t use them.”

“Huh?

“Your cards. They had them for almost a day, never charged anything, nothing with any of the banks. It proves your point, doesn’t it? They weren’t muggers.

“Only one thing to do.”

“What?”

“Let’s go home.”

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