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Saturday, October 31, 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 47 & 48, Epilogue: Picnic, and Auto-Pilot

Chapter 47 Picnic

Friday July 4, 10 a.m.

              Falconer, Danny and Theresa drove to the Fauntleroy ferry terminal early to make sure they caught a boat to Vashon before 10:30, the earliest a car leaving the Edgewater at 10 with Michelle and Manuel could make it to the dock in southwest Seattle. The line of cars waiting was problem enough. One ferry sailed without them and they were among the last dozen cars on the next boat, which didn’t leave until 10:20. Once aboard, they found the boat crowded with more walk-on passengers than usual, most sporting all kinds of red, white and blue gear, straw hats and ties, sundresses on the women. Charter buses would deliver them from the dock to the Republican picnic.

              Looking back from the passenger deck as the ferry sailed, Danny was pretty sure he spotted a bright metallic Rolls Royce nearing the ticketing shed as the line of waiting cars on Fauntleroy Way moved forward toward the holding lanes on the dock.

              “Well, I’ll be damned,” Falconer said, almost to himself, musing. “That’s two strikes. Victor Wallingford was a classmate of Maureen Finch’s at Whitman and Mundy’s firm does work for Wallingford Evergreen – though we don’t know if he works on the account.”

              Theresa laughed. “Don’t jump the gun on this, Eric. The man’s a big Republican donor sure to be at this picnic every year, bending ears and twisting arms to make sure the legislators know what he wants.”

              “Too bad. Now he doesn’t have Carl Barclay to help him out.”

              “Yeah, but what about us?” asked Danny. “We’re not Republicans. You’re known around town as a D, Eric. How are we going to get in?”

              “It’s a big property. We’re going to park on a side road and climb the fence behind the orchard where they can’t see us.”

              Theresa and Danny looked at Falconer in horror. “What?” they chorused. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

              “Yep,” Falconer smiled. “That would be our usual enterprising investigative journalists way, but I’ve got a better plan.”

              “Be nice if you told us.” Same old Falconer, Theresa thought, cutting through the seriousness with some oblique humor.

              “Come on. I kinda like the idea. Let’s do it.” The secretive invasion option appealed to Danny, ex-Army Rangers but he, too, was kidding.

              Falconer decided not to joke about helmets and guns and crawling through the mud on their bellies to capture the beer kegs.

              “You’ll both be shocked and disappointed at the simplicity of this plan.”

              “Go ahead and shock us, then,” said Theresa.

              It was clearing and sunny and on the aft passenger deck they were out of the wind. Like most Seattle residents riding the ferries, looking out at the city – green hills framing a forest of office towers – was always a boost to the spirit.

              “We’re on the attendees list as guests of the governor,” said Falconer. His colleagues just shook their heads in exasperation.

              Once they reached the farm, owned by a Republican former governor from the 1980s and site of the party’s Fourth of July picnic for almost 30 years, they were directed into a parking lot by a flag waving Uncle Sam complete with top hat, white goatee and blue tailcoat over which, apparently aware he would be standing in the middle of the road most of the time, he wore a reflective safety vest.

“These guys way overdo it,” said Theresa. I’ll bet they’re all wearing American flag underwear.”

“Probably,” said Falconer. “It’s the same at the Dems Labor Day picnic.”

Parked, they walked through the dusty lot to the reception tent, filled out their stick-on name tags – first names only, Falconer whispered, a little anonymity might help – and were given the obligatory two free drink tickets good for beer or wine.

Facing a gauntlet of microbrew kegs on the left, Walla Walla and Yakima Valley wines on the right, they split up, beer for the boys, wine for Theresa. Drinks in hand, they drifted toward the bandstand across a couple acres of perfectly kept lawn in front of the house – white, two-story, massive columns across the front. Looks like the style once found on plantations, Falconer thought irritably. Couldn’t they leave that alone and build Northwest rustic: massive timbers, weathered shingles? That would fit better. From the bandstand, upbeat bluegrass filled the air, lightening his mood a bit.

As they passed groups of people chatting, Falconer recognized a number of the politicos and elected officials from his days with the paper and even a few he knew from stories he’d done on Falconerblog, but he avoided eye contact as much as possible. Last thing he wanted was to be drawn into a bunch of ‘why are you here?’ conversations.          Off to the side of the rows of white wooden folding chairs in front of the stage were tables with red, white and blue umbrellas for shade. Not all taken. For anyone wanting to circulate and meet colleagues, they were the wrong place to be, but just right for anyone who wanted to watch the crowd and stay unnoticed. Falconer, Theresa and Danny found an empty table and sat down to wait.

It was not long. “Here he comes.” Danny spotted him first.

Victor Wallingford, closely trailed by Todd Mundy and Michelle Adams holding her son’s hand, was making his way through the crowd, shaking hands and waving to friends as he went.

“Looks like I won that bet,” said Falconer.

“Not a bet, but a pretty good guess,” offered Danny.

Theresa went right to the questions: “Why’s he doing this? What’s he trying to prove? He’s making a spectacle of that poor woman, exploiting her.”

“Not outside his normal and accustomed M.O. from what you hear around town,” said Falconer. “Look at poor hangdog Mundy bringing up the rear. He doesn’t want to be here either. Doesn’t look like he’s exactly loving this.”

As they moved slowly toward the V.I.P. seats, the same white folding chairs but with flag-patterned cushions, Wallingford introduced Michelle to some of the Republican office holders and major financial backers. Even from where Falconer, Danny and Theresa were sitting a hundred feet away, they could see shocked expressions after the greetings and handshakes. A trail of whispers followed Wallingford’s group.

“Eric, he’s giving them the whole long-lost bastard daughter story, isn’t he?” Theresa’s anger filled her words. She knew this would happen. Whoever brought Michelle from San Diego was going to do something like this, but it was unbearably hard to watch.

“At least the elevator pitch version,” said Danny. “The catchy version.”

Was Michelle crying? They couldn’t tell. Most of the time her back was to them. Some of the women crouched down to say something to Manuel, maybe a comforting word? Theresa couldn’t imagine what that would be.

The murmur of whispers rose to a buzz in the growing crowd following Wallingford toward the table at the edge of the V.I.P. area where the governor and Richard Collins and their son, Will, and daughter, Kelly, were sitting.

The three from Falconerblog stood up. Theresa wished she could stand on a chair to see better but she was afraid the flimsy thing would dump her on the ground.

At just the moment when she could see Michelle among the crowd surrounding Victor Wallingford, Maureen Collins stood and ran to her daughter, hugging her hard. “Darling, I’m so glad you could come. I didn’t think you were going to make it!” It was the embrace and line – delivered well louder than needed – they’d agreed on the night the governor and her daughter met, once they’d turned to practicalities after a couple hours – not long enough – of getting to know one another, hearing Michelle’s story, Michelle happy but trying to convey some of the hurt of her abandonment. Now, they held each other at arms’ length, a long look into each other’s eyes, both now – again – truly teary. Richard Collins knelt and gave Manuel a grandfatherly hug.

“Mr. Wallingford was kind enough to pay for our plane tickets.” This line, too, from Michelle, was purposefully loud so as many as possible around them could hear. “What a great surprise. Come and join us dear.”

Governor Collins beamed a smile at Victor Wallingford, frozen in place since Collins’ mother-daughter embrace, and tight-lipped with controlled fury. “Thank you so much, Victor. Come and join us, too. You’ve played a big part in this surprise.”

With eyes narrowed, barely controlling his frustration and hatred, Wallingford responded, rasping and mean, “No, thank you, Governor Collins. The surprise is all mine, as I think you know. I’ve done all I can for today.”

Wallingford paused to look around, assessing his audience, then snapped: “I’m sure you can find a constituent to drive Ms. Adams and Manuel back to their hotel when it’s time. Perhaps Falconer over there, though I’m surprised to see him among Republicans.”

“Are you sure you won’t stay? I’m going to make an announcement about Michelle to the whole group.”

“As you can imagine, I’m curious about how you’ll explain her appearance after all these years but I can wait for tonight’s news shows,” Wallingford smirked. He turned away, shaking off people who tried to question him as he followed Mundy, already plowing through the crowd as he made his escape toward the parking lot. It wouldn’t be an escape from Wallingford’s wrath, though. Mundy knew he’d be blamed for the screw-up. How did they know?

The buzz of scandal rippled outward from the group around the governor. How bad would it be? Could the governor continue her campaign or even govern?

As the bluegrass band wrapped up with “Cabin on the Hill” Maureen Collins started toward the stage. Saying, “I’ve got to do this, Richard,” as she pulled away from her husband. Collins climbed onto the stage and got to the mike even before the M.C. There were pockets of applause even before she spoke. A good sign, she thought, unless they’re the ones who haven’t heard yet. She took a deep breath.

“Good afternoon, friends. Let me be the first to welcome all of you to this year’s King County Republicans’ Fourth of July Picnic.” There was a little more applause. “I want to start by bringing you up to date on some wonderful news about my family.” Collins paused for a long time before beginning.

“Not long ago, as many of you have just learned, I got a really miraculous surprise. I met my daughter, my older daughter, my first daughter for the first time. She’s here today, Michelle Adams, with her own son, Manuel. I’d like you to give them a warm Republican welcome.” The governor gestured toward the table where Michelle stood up. There was enough applause to encourage Collins.

“Let me tell you a short story that now has a happy ending. This is hard, very hard to tell, but I want to give you the whole truth, unvarnished.” For a moment Collins choked up, then plunged on. “Long story short, this is it: I got pregnant in college.” She paused. There were gasps and murmurs from the crowd.

 “Yes, I got pregnant in college and pretty much successfully concealed that fact by taking a semester off for illness, supposedly mono, which seemed like a scourge in those days.” There was a smattering of laughter. Collins went on. “I’m not proud of getting pregnant. I was stupid. I was careless and I wasn’t ready for marriage. I hope you can understand that. I just wasn’t ready. I gave Michelle up for adoption. I didn’t even name her,” Collins choked. “She was named by her wonderful adoptive parents, sadly now both dead.”

Collins paused for a long time and then rushed on. “But today, my whole family is together: Richard and I, our children Will and Kelly, my daughter Michelle and grandson Manuel who were able to make a surprise trip from San Diego where they live to celebrate the Fourth of July with all of us today. I am extremely happy. And it gives me great pleasure to share that with all of you on this holiday, a great holiday remembering the birth of our nation and its promise of freedom, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! Today we remember that’s a promise still unmatched anywhere else in the world, a promise the Republican Party is determined to keep! We are here today, each and every one of us, to rededicate ourselves to that goal.” As expected, the boilerplate lines drew applause and cheers, though Collins thought with less than the usual enthusiasm.

“Thank you for being here with me and my family, committing ourselves, one and all, to our great project.

“And let’s have a round of applause for Henry Taylor, whose hospitality at his beautiful farm makes this get-together possible every year, and for his service over many years to our party and Washington State. Enjoy this holiday, fellow Republicans! God bless you all.”

Strong enough applause told Collins that at least her speech was a success and her story wasn’t going dampen the day’s spirits – at least not much. But she couldn’t avoid seeing the small group huddles that followed throughout the afternoon, especially among the older men. They almost certainly signaled doubt about the political career of an unwed mother in a party with a morally rigid right wing.

After a couple of hours, when the well-wishers and the curious around Maureen Collins and Michelle Adams had thinned out, Falconer stepped in. “So far so good, Mo. Next it’s the media and it’s going to be tough. I can’t believe Wallingford hasn’t been on the phone to the papers and TVs since he left. They’ll be here any time. In fact, I’m surprised they’re not here already. Maybe there’s still a ferry line.”

“It is what it is, Falconer. Thanks for your help. The news release we wrote last night is going out from the office at three o’clock.”

“We’re outa here, then. Gotta get this hot story out on Falconerblog. As we decided, though, not until after we see what the big media do. Given our role, Theresa’s really, I don’t want to give anyone a reason to think we have an inside track. Probably be the most pablum thing we’ve posted in a long time.”

“Thanks for getting Michelle and Manual out of here before that circus starts.”

“Happy to. Kim checked them out of the Edgewater this morning and collected their luggage. They’ll be at Theresa’s. Not even Mundy knows where they’re going to be. She got them new plane tickets for day after tomorrow.”

“I hope you can sneak into Seattle and see them again before they leave,” said Theresa. “We’ll order take-out.”

Chapter 48, Autopilot

Tuesday, July 8, 1 p.m.

              “So you finally decide to bring him in and now you can’t find him?” Falconer’s tone was sarcastic, a little incredulous, the most critical he’d let himself be with his friend.

Falconer and homicide Lt. Bobby Harms were sitting on aluminum chairs on the Seattle City Hall plaza above Fourth Avenue eating Asian takeout. “Four days ago, happily on our national holiday, the border cops find almost a pound of meth on two Ukrainian idiots trying to get into Canada driving a rental car. And they admit – though I suspect there’s already a plea deal in there somewhere – that they were employed to make hundreds of pounds of pure crystal meth in the basement of a building in Seattle, which, when they led you to it later that same day, turns out to be owned by Victor Wallingford. And now, almost 72 hours later, the entire SPD has been unable to locate one of Seattle’s most prominent socialites and businessmen – sorry, businesspersons. The dailies have even been out there with their ‘wanted for questioning’ stories. I imagine it’s kind of hard for him to hide.”

              “Don’t forget to give us a some credit in case you decide to publish that little rant. We did arrest three Afghanis in that lab. One of them with Taliban connections turned out to be on Homeland Security’s terrorist watch list.”

“Granted and congratulations. Though we probably both regret that my buddy Edmund Hanran wasn’t among them.”

“We do. He’s high on my list of Carl Barclay’s possible killers.”

“But you still haven’t found Wallingford, Bobby.”

“You’re about half a day behind the news, Eric, which I’d say is typical of that so-called true crime website you publish. I don’t know how you keep any readers.” Both paused to shovel up yakisoba noodles.

              “OK, Bobby. I think we’re even now. Time to come clean. What have I missed?”

              “We found him… We’re pretty sure we found him, anyway, but it could be as much as another couple days, maybe more, before we know for sure.”

              “What the hell?”

              “The Coast Guard found him, his boat anyway, almost 25 miles offshore west of Cape Flattery headed out to nowhere. And I guess you’d say it was just luck they found it. I mean we knew the boat was gone almost as soon as we connected the meth lab to Victor Wallingford and decided to bring him in for a little talk. We’re not dumb, regardless of what you think, so we asked the Coast Guard and all the local police agencies around the Sound and in B.C. to keep an eye out. Pretty distinctive: classic 1920s yacht, deep green hull – forest green, symbolic I suppose since the Wallingfords started as loggers. Only one like it around here, so I’m told.

              “Hold it!” Harms put out a hand to silence Falconer. “Before you ask, no, we didn’t have he Coasties put out an ‘all stations alert.’ Too much chance Wallingford would hear it on Channel 16, the emergency call frequency. Not hard to guess he’d figure out that meant trouble. And here’s something else so you won’t have to call me back later and ask another dumb question.”

Falconer could see Harms had a story to tell and was enjoying the telling and left him to it.

“No, he didn’t have the boat’s A.I.S. system on. That’s the worldwide system that tracks all shipping, including large yachts, prevents collisions and lets everybody know what shipping’s around them. Each boat has a VHS transceiver – or two – usually linked to the navigation electronics, I’m told, but the captain, or somebody, has to turn it on so the satellites can find him. Not surprisingly, we suspect Wallingford didn’t want to be found.”

              “So where is he now? Where’s the boat?”

              “The Coast Guard has the boat under tow. They boarded it and shut down the engines about five hours ago.”

              “Okay, okay, Bobby. What are you holding back? Have they arrested Wallingford?”

              “Well, not exactly arrested. There’s a man – I should say, body – duct-taped to the captain’s chair. The Coast Guard sent a picture so we think it’s Wallingford but it’s impossible to tell for sure. The body’s almost completely wrapped in duct tape, including much of the face. Close-cropped gray hair and partly bald similar to his pictures and head shape are all we have so far – and since we don’t have an identity you can see why we haven’t put out a news release.”

              “Thanks for inviting me to lunch. I apologize for my sarcastic comments earlier.”

              “Just wanted you to have some background so you can write – with some of those colorful details you’re always bragging about – when we do make an announcement.”

              “Nobody else on the boat?”

              “The Coast Guard took a quick look to make sure there was nobody needing medical attention, found nothing. Just the duct-taped mummy in the captain’s chair. We told them to consider it a crime scene and leave everything alone and get off the boat, so they fixed their towline and got off. Right now they’re headed for Port Angeles at four knots.

              “How’d he die?”

              “Shot in the back of the head with his own gun – after he was taped up. Killer left it right there on the chart table. Before that, we figure he was doped up, almost certainly unconscious. Toxicology report to come. Our crime scene crew is driving up there to meet them when they arrive, crack of dawn or so. I think I’ll tag along.”

              “Might see me up there, too.”

              “Don’t bother. They’re not going to let anybody into the Coast Guard station. We’ll put out a news release for you once we’ve notified the wife and daughter. And everything I just told you is embargoed until you see the news release.”

              “Yeah, I know the drill. But thanks. Really. We can use the time digging into Wallingford’s dope dealing – manufacturing, really – and trying to figure out how it was all set up, maybe figure out who might have killed him. Shit, the guy’s hugely rich. Why does he get into the dope business?

“Just as in the dark as you are, Eric, and probably wouldn’t tell you anything if I knew. ‘Ongoing, sensitive police investigation,’ you know. Some kind of B.C. connection, but in your own inimitable way, you found that out already. Nothing else. The Afghans are just flunkies and don’t know shit.”

“Killer will turn out to be someone, a partner or somebody, who wanted to shut him up. Bets, Bobby?”

“Not taking it,” said Harms.

              “Here’s a big question, though,” said Falconer. “And you must have thought of it: How did Wallingford’s 85-foot yacht with only a dead man on board make it from Elliott Bay Marina where it’s usually kept to maybe 25 miles off the Washington coast without hitting an island or, for that matter, a container ship?”

              “That’s how we found it. Almost did hit a container ship coming into the strait. The freighter captain couldn’t get a response from the Evergreen, that’s the boat name, and had to take evasive action to avoid a collision. Called the Coast Guard.”

              “Still, Elliott Bay to the mouth of the Strait is something like 100 miles with a whole bunch of course changes, right? How’d a dead man miss even Whidbey Island much less turn left into the Strait instead of going aground on one of the San Juans.”

              “Pretty easy, Eric. I’m not a boat guy and I just learned this myself but you’ve been around here most of your life so I thought you’d have it figured out by now: autopilot, computerized autopilot. You can program in a whole trip before you even leave the dock, and unless Wallingford taped himself to the chair, that’s what somebody did. I’m told that level of electronics is pretty common these days. Carl Barclay’s boat had it and so did the twin ‘death boat.’”

              “And then what? After he or they cleared the marina and shot him, the perp somehow climbed into a dinghy towed behind and cut himself loose?”

              “Pretty good hypothesis. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?”

              “So that Swiss or German guy Ames described going out on the death boat who’s never turned up came back to close the books?”

              “It’s possible,” said Harms.

Epilogue

              “Nice of you to drop by, Mr. Falconer…” Sally saw Falconer ever so slightly raise his eyebrows. “Eric. Yes, nice of you to drop by.”

              “How are you, Sally?” Falconer stood back, awkwardly, not moving in for a hug the way people were doing nowadays even with near strangers.

“I’m fine, really. Lots better than last time when you were pouring me full of gin. Anyway, I feel better and I’m happy to be through the red-rimmed-eyes phase but I think of Carl every hour. Sometimes I’m so mad at what he did. He ruined our lives, my life, left me alone…I’ve thrown a few dishes…There’s a company coming next week to repair a kitchen cabinet door that split when I threw a Macallans bottle.” She paused, breathing hard, took a couple of deep breaths to regain control. “But you know, I’m past rage now. I just miss him so much.”

              “He was a good man. I see him that way: a good man suckered and trapped by a bad one.”

              “You’re very kind, thank you. Maybe that’s a good enough summary of his last few years.”

              “I brought a bottle of wine.” Falconer handed her the paper bag he’d cradled in one arm. Absently, Sally set it down on the kitchen counter, still in the bag.

              “Yeah, a good summary…” Sally let her words trail off, her eyes unfocused, calling up images of Carl, for a few moments going back to the good memories. After a while her attention returned to Falconer. “Wine or a drink, Eric? Let’s have a drink, toast the ‘good man trapped by a bad one.’”

“I think that would be just right.”

From the dispenser in the refrigerator door Sally rattled ice into short glasses, splashed in generous amounts of Macallans. Falconer realized it was to be a toast with Carl Barclay’s favorite tipple. He figured that really would be just right, a kind of closure to the whole mess. Sally brought him a glass and they both turned toward the window, looking out toward the bay. Ice cubes clinking in the bronze liquid. Sally raised her glass in salute: “To a good man who lost his way.” They drank, and crying softly Sally slumped into Carl’s worn red leather gentlemen’s club chair, just where Falconer had found her the day her husband was killed.

Anger and sorrow mixed when she spoke again. “Nothing really lets him off the hook for all he did, though, does it? Got himself killed and now he’s gone. Nothing left. Oh, there’s plenty of money. That’s not what I meant. I’m so alone, Eric, you can’t possibly know.” She paused for a long time, distracted from the moment.

“And besides Carl and me, how many lives were ruined by the meth he carried to L.A. for Victor?”

Falconer didn’t even want to speculate. When he thought of meth, it was always images of shrunken guys with brown or missing teeth.

“Fucking Victor Wallingford. I hate that man.” Sally’s anger surfaced. “He ruined my life, and Carl’s. I’m truly glad that fucker’s dead.”

              “When did you know what Carl was doing for Victor? Or for that matter, that Victor was making and selling meth?”

              “I didn’t really know. Even after Carl was killed I had no idea why. Pathetic isn’t it?”

              “L.A. You said L.A. Did we miss that?”

              “Oh, yes. A guy named Jason Coffee who knew Carl was carrying meth to L.A. for Victor came by the week before the Fourth and told me about it. Well-spoken, dapper guy, looked every inch Hollywood, really. We had a couple of drinks. That’s when I knew Victor killed Carl.”

              “And you didn’t tell the police?”

              Sally got up and went to the window, quietly looking out at Elliott Bay and the mountains beyond. When she spoke, she spoke softly. “I didn’t need to.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hanging fire here… went off-grid for a week, expecting to come back to a feast of chapters–serialization discontinued?!?

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