The beefy hand of the liquidator, lifeline clogged with grease, sliced the air like a rattlesnake's head. I covered the hovering palm with twenties. Don London had auctioned the assets of my failed dot-com and was delivering the remaining equipment I could not sell, because it was leased, and I would have to pay it off, into the garage of my San Francisco home. New businesses are supposed to start in California garages, not end in them.
Don's crew rolled the last piece of equipment into the garage. The copy machine looked expensive and out of place sandwiched between my treadmill and the recycling bins.
"Better luck next time, Nola." Don hefted his corpulent frame into the driver's seat of his truck.
"Don't wish me luck, wish me venture capital."
"You entrepreneurs are a persistent breed." He slammed the driver's side door.
"Persistent or plain stupid!" My shout startled an umbrella-toting woman walking her poodle down the sidewalk of our peaceful, manicured block. Hell, there you go disrupting things, Nola Billingsley. You can never leave well enough alone. A rambunctious, independent woman who has to have the last word.
As Don's truck pulled away, I turned and surveyed the stacked equipment. Over the copy machine, suspended from a redwood rafter, an artificial Christmas wreath drooped. All it needed was a rest-in-peace sash to become a memorial tribute for my defunct start-up. I owed $13,500 more on this collating colossus. Our dot-com's accountant had negotiated the lease in one of his last official acts before absconding with a sizable chunk of my capital. What a depressing end for an entrepreneur. I made my way along the narrow aisle that remained of my garage toward the kitchen and the scotch bottle.
The next morning, as I sat down to yogurt and coffee, I realized I had no place to go. My former offices, the scene of much pain and frustration as the business lurched toward collapse, were at least a destination. I looked across the table at my mother. Crap, you're a forty-eight-year-old woman with no visible means of support living with your mother. How low can you go?
Turning from the blaring television, Janie Belle read my thoughts. "You should reopen your consulting business. Why don't you call up some of your old biology contacts?"
"That's biotechnology, Mother. I plan to, but I have to tie up loose ends on the cyber-business."
My mother is a vibrant eighty years young. She has survived depressions, wars, hurricanes, miscarriages and cancer. She is a displaced Southern girl who wields her accent like a passport. Everywhere she goes, she brings a moving van chock full of eighteenth-century furniture, china, crystal, and family portraits. The gilt-framed, manor-born ancestors were all here on the Left Coast, hanging on the living room walls, mildewing genteelly in the California damp.
She lifted her coffee cup, pinkie curled. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Not unless you change your mind and learn the computer."
"Absolutely not! I am not going to start that at my age."
Janie Belle has mastered many things: needlework, stenciling, gourmet cooking, Girl Scout leading, duplicate bridge, gardening, even chicken farming. She also has conquered things technological. She handles the digital gadgets in the car with skill, channel-surfs with the cable remote, gabs on the cell phone, and nukes with the microwave, but she will NOT go near a computer.
I got Janie Belle an e-mail address once. I would come home to a cheery drawl, "Have I got maaail?" I printed messages off for her, and she answered them with handwritten letters on monogrammed stationery. She is complete, resolute, and content in a way modern women, especially we boomer women, can never be.
At this moment, the love of my life thundered into the room. Skootch E. Hurry is a pointer dog. I wish I could be more specific as to the exact breed of pointer he is, but we met at the SPCA and his lineage is a mystery. The "E." does not stand for anything; it is just that the dog has such presence, he deserves a middle initial.
At the pound, Skootch attracted my attention by wagging his tail against the cage so hard it bled. I took pity and brought him home. He is a spoiled, undisciplined, overweight slob, and the dearest creature on the planet. Janie Belle insists he dipped the tip in catsup. She says he is a con artist in dog's clothing. They are tight as shrink-wrap.
Skootch sauntered up to the kitchen table with a self-deprecating sway. This is a prelude to the Lunge. Eighty-pound Skootch, who fancies himself a lap dog, drapes his upper torso across your lap to get a better view of your breakfast plate. He spied my yogurt and harrumphed in distaste.
"Nola, why don't you take that mangy dog for a walk. He's so fat you can't see any of his ribs, and his privates are disappearing in his tummy roll."
Skootch left my lap for the greener pastures of Janie Belle's side of the table. Janie Belle continued, "It's your fault the canine is corpulent, you spoil him nonstop." The Lunge was repeated. Skootch's head lowered into position over her half-eaten breakfast. His tongue made fast work of the left side of the plate.
Janie Belle executed an ineffectual shove. "He must be twenty pounds overweight. How you can look the vet in the face?" The tongue swirled around the right side of the plate, a movement as elegant as Renoir's brushwork. Skootch aimed a wistful gaze at the butter dish. His neck extended outward in its direction.
The spunky eighty-year-old smacked him on the nose and pushed him off her lap. "That's enough! Y'all should be ashamed of yourself."
I took Janie Belle's advice and treated Skootch to a walk in order to procrastinate before calling former colleagues in the biotechnology industry. I drove Skootch to Fort Funston, a national preserve perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Fort Funston is an unspoiled expanse on the cliffs that rise from Ocean Beach. Hundreds of acres of native plants, winding trails, desolate beachfront, and Technicolor views spoiled by only one thing-bureaucracy. The Park Service had decided to make war on dogs. A band of control freaks fueled by an eco-religious fervor, these policy-wielding potentates wish to restrict the use of Fort Funston to, well, themselves and the birds.
The horseback riding clubs and the hang glider association, San Francisco's own indigenous air force, had the foresight to create legal barriers protecting their use of the park when the City ceded the recreational area to the Feds. The naïve pet owners relied on the common sense and decency of freedom-loving people everywhere, and got screwed. Now dogs, which previously ran free, are leashed and led in the park.
As I pulled my station wagon into the parking lot, the weather was getting worse. The fog gathered substance and rolled over the cliff, a bully looking for a scrap. I saw a solitary dog owner wrapped in a slicker, hunkered against the cold. I did not see any park rangers. Weighing my chances as the first drops of rain hit my windshield, I decided it was worth the risk of a citation. Opening the door, I freed the caged canine and picked up a plastic bag, but not Skootch's leash. The rain pattered in approval.
I have a problem with authority, especially authority embodied in small-time functionaries who often magnify the scope of their power to annoying extremes. I know I am being petty, but I love getting around such people.
Skootch flew over the parking lot and on to the sandy dunes, picking up speed like a fighter jet on a flight deck. Then he threw himself into an elegant spin and ended in a seamless squat. He pooped robustly and flew off again. Without any elegance whatsoever, I trudged over and retrieved the doggy detritus.
I caught up with Skootch as he was about to enter the coppice. Most of Fort Funston is wide open, covered with low grasses, succulents and wild strawberry, but there are a few small stands of trees. The first one that guards the approach to Battery Betty, a pre-WWII artillery installation, always makes me apprehensive. There is something about the abrupt silence. You walk across an open stretch, deafened by wind and wave, and step into a dense tunnel of trees. The trees are remarkably effective at shutting out the sound, yet the breeze makes it through, causing the branches to move in the sanctuary. The effect is uncanny.
Skootch becomes fully alert in this place, collecting himself as consciously as a diver on a springboard. He walks in the middle of the path. A powerful scent can lure him to the edge, but he is cautious as he sniffs and always returns to the center. I was content to let him walk ahead of me. Rough-riding on the breeze, the fog penetrated to the heart of the coppice, obscuring my vision. Skootch picked up speed as he neared the end of the tree canopy. There is an elbow of land between the thicket and the concrete passage of the old military structure. It contains a riotous mix of plants, a peek-a-boo view of the ocean, another trash receptacle, and a convenient park bench.
The concrete battery is not Skootch's favorite place, because it produces first-rate echoes. He waits for me in the elbow, circling through the grasses, sampling aromas here and there. Once I enter the tunnel, he powers past me out the other end and congratulates himself on his bravery.
The fog was thick as mucous now. We'll have to cut our walk short, I thought, as I zipped up my jacket. Intent on the zipper, I nearly fell over Skootch. The dog was stopped in mid-trail at a full point, stiff and immutable as a statue. I had to overcome my shock because despite his heritage, Skootch never points anything but the refrigerator. Yet he pointed now, pointed the park bench.
I eased around him. "Is someone there?"
As there was no other reply, I advanced again. Skootch crept behind me, torso low to the ground, neck extended, growling from deep in the throat.
The bench reclaimed some definition from the fog. A person sat on it. As I grew closer, a gust cleared the immediate area, and I gasped in shock. A body slumped on the bench, propped with its legs wide apart and arms over the back rungs.
I jammed my hands in my pockets for my cell phone. Nuts, I'd left it at home. The elbow area became claustrophobic. There was not enough room for Skootch, a dead man, and me. Especially, since the slouching corpse was as headless as Irving's horseman.
I sprinted into the tunnel of the old battery. My choice was a mistake, but I could not make myself go back. The fog had accumulated here in a dense and dripping shroud. Not wishing to follow me into the awful scary place, but not able to leave me, Skootch began to howl. The reverb terrified both of us. My jog accelerated into a stampede, but the surface was too slippery for my leather-soled shoes. Losing my balance, I tried to recover but pitched forward instead. I narrowly missed knocking my teeth out. Scrambling to my feet, I started again but stumbled over something.
Winded now, I gasped for air and planted both palms to push myself up as Skootch reached my side. His body language telegraphed he was protecting me from something. He growled with certain menace at an object about two feet in front of my nose. It must have been the thing I tripped on.
This time it was the reverb from my scream that sent Skootch and me racing from that place. The scream I let out when I found myself face-to-face on the sodden floor of Battery Betty with the head of my former employee, the embezzler, Roger Chen.
The police cars and other official vehicles filled the Fort Funston parking lot with merry flashes of red, blue, and yellow that bounced off the fog tent containing this particular three-ring circus. Skootch was locked in the back of the station wagon in high dudgeon. Having given my evidence, such as it was, I slumped in the passenger seat of a police car, feeling and looking like one of the sad clowns.
Exhaustion was setting in. I experienced the aftereffects of the adrenalin surge resulting from my grizzly discoveries, the sprint to my car, the drive to the ranger enclave, the hurried explanations to the rangers, the phone calls, the dash back to the parking lot to await the first response vehicles, the return trip to the coppice and the giving of my statement.
I sighed as I watched a knot of burly men emerge from the fog with a bagged burden on a stretcher. How many times had I wished such a fate on my ex-employee? Roger, headless, on a stretcher. My revenge fantasies had been creative, but never this unbridled.
Roger's body was borne along by four of San Francisco's finest. A fifth professional, a woman from the forensic team, carried his head with a certain detached reverence. Roger would have liked that. He was a lady's man. He would not have liked the plastic bag, though.
I glanced down at the knees of my jeans. The blood was dry now. I had knelt in Roger's blood in Battery Betty, although I did not notice it until I reached the ranger station. Covered in gore, I caused a stir when I burst through the door. I watched as the source of all that blood disappeared into the back of the coroner's van.
My tired mind sank back into memory. Roger started working for our company during a difficult time. We had hired a Web development company to build and test the applications and databases supporting our Internet business. The company failed us in terms of deliverables and deadline. We missed our launch date, losing the benefit of hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars. When the site launched, it was full of bugs and crashed repeatedly. The calls from angry customers rang 24/7.
Our controller decided to leave because he could not take the insanity of a start-up anymore. We placed an ad and interviewed seven prospective replacements. At the next staff meeting, we vetted the candidates and chose Roger. He was a Cal grad with great references.
Sally Harford, our marketing VP and an unrepentant transplant from the East, voiced doubts, saying that in his all-black outfit, designer glasses, and flashy rings, Roger did not seem accountant-like. This drew laughs from the Californians who were blasé about seeing eclectic attire in the workplace. Our content manager said we were lucky he was free of piercing.
One Wednesday, two months later, I answered the phone, anticipating a call from the head of my new development team with a report on the testing of our repaired shopping cart. I was anxious to hear her assessment. Our cart was full of glitches, and the previous week, subscribers were charged four times for one subscription, creating a customer services cataclysm. I grabbed the receiver.
"Hello, is this Nola Billingsley?" said the strange but pleasant voice.
"Yes." This was not my developer. I would make this conversation brief to free the line.
"I am Patricia Marx calling from American Express. We have observed unusual activity on your account, and it is our policy to contact the principal cardholder to alert them to unusually high numbers or sizes of transactions compared to the account's history."
My emotional antennae began to gyrate. "Which is it?"
"Both. We are seeing a significant increase in the number of transactions and in the amounts charged."
"What is our balance now?"
"Charges for the month are at $53,435. Of course, that represents transactions reported to us by merchants to date, not the actual amount charged, which can be higher."
My mouth turned dry as sandpaper.
"What are the purchases for?" I fought to remain calm.
"Furniture from Ikea, a lot of jewelry, a mink jacket, steel-belted tires. Oh, and a stay at Morocco Bay Resort in Carmel."
"Are they associated with any card in particular?"
"Well, yes, with Mr. Chen's card."
"I'll call you back."
Bursting from my chair, I slammed the receiver back on its cradle. I started down the hall but pivoted and retraced my steps to the office of my colleague, David Comisky. David, known to everyone as Dakota because he was born during a blizzard in North Dakota, was designing new pages for our site. I startled him when I rushed in. "Dakota, follow me."
"Roger has stolen from the firm. I'm going to fire him and escort him out. I want you to back me up if the creep decides to make trouble."
Although he had acquiesced in his selection, Dakota had never trusted Roger. In his view, something was a little off. Dakota set his jaw and push himself up from his ergonomic chair. A quiet and respectful man, as far removed from violence as they come, Dakota was, nonetheless, a big believer in honesty and justice. Roger was about to get some, and Dakota would help make sure he took his medicine.
I strode down the hall and rounded the corner into Roger's office, moving across the room until I was standing over him. "Roger, significant irregularities in our accounts have come to my attention, and I am going to ask you leave the premises now."
Roger's unreadable eyes looked up over tinted lenses.
"You were late coming in this morning, but I believe you have collected your paycheck, so we are square on salary. Under the circumstances, there will not be any severance. If you have any issues about this, call me, but right now we want you to go." My voice was steadier than my mental state.
Roger looked uncomfortable, but the reason for that was dancing on the edge of my peripheral vision. Our accountant was enjoying pornography on company time. The image of a young girl with an inviting pout, her legs splayed wide, stared out from the monitor on his desk. At least it did until he clicked his mouse and my accounting program reappeared on his desktop.
Roger adopted a deadpan. At the end of my speech regarding the balances on his credit card, he made one of his own.
"I never take the card with me. I keep it right here in this file, so the charges can't be mine. Apparently, somebody has stolen my information and is using it to buy stuff. This happens a lot these days. I've seen it at other companies. Our insurance company will cover it."
"Be that as it may, please collect your belongings. If I find that I'm wrong, you'll be the first to know. My apologies will be profuse and heartfelt, but for now, get out!"
Roger mechanically tossed objects into his briefcase. "I suppose I could consult my lawyer." He snapped the case shut and rose.
"Whatever." I sounded as clipped as the click of the attaché.
Sidling past me, he returned to the subject of insurance. A vivid recollection of a day, weeks in the past, when he had bugged me until I found and loaned him the file with our business and liability policies, occupied my brain as we closed the gap between his office and the lobby.
"Companies build credit card fraud into their cost of doing business. The insurance guys expect a certain amount of it to go on. It's structured into your fees." Roger adjusted his gold neck chain.
By this time, Dakota had opened the front door, and Roger stepped out on the stoop at the front of our building. Start-up companies with no financing choose down-market lease space, and we were no exception. Our entry was devoid of elegant plantings, cool marble floors, and burbling water features. Roger stood on a cracking concrete apron abutting the parking pad.
"Your coverage is more than adequate." Roger warmed to his subject, but I cut him short.
"Save your breath, Rog." I tried to slam the door in his face, but it had a pressure attachment, one of the few things that worked in our suite. I had to put my back to it to accelerate its closing. The effect was more than anticlimactic; it was comic and demoralizing.
I set the lock, turned, and leaned my head against the door. Alice Ng, our receptionist, stared at Dakota and me, clutching a stack of files to her chest, her lips pulled into a tight line.
"Alice, tell Serge, Sally, Mac, and Ellen to be in my office in fifteen minutes. And crank up the coffeemaker. We're going to need caffeine."
I glanced out the window. Roger was on his haunches opening his briefcase on the stoop. He extracted his cell phone and punched a number. A smile ignited his face as the desired party answered, and he launched into an animated conversation I was sure had nothing to do with what had just happened to him. A female friend, no doubt. Roger had several of those. I wondered if this woman knew about his predilection for hot honeys on the Web.
The firing was no big deal to him, I realized. He had expected it. I remembered how few belongings he needed to collect. In fact, most of his things were already in the briefcase. I'd been had. I had been naïve, too trusting, and too preoccupied with business problems to check up on this guy, and it was going to cost me.
My managers and Alice assembled in my office. Alice and Dakota had passed on the basics, and the room buzzed with I-told-you-so's. I got the group's attention and explained what had happened, cautioning everyone to refrain from discussing the matter outside our immediate management circle.
"OK, guys, you need to understand that you cannot say what you might be feeling about this even though the facts are pretty much in." I stood before a row of angry faces.
"She means we can't call Rog a crook even if he is one." Dakota almost spat Roger's name.
I squeezed my right fist so hard, my knuckle cracked. "I owe all of you an apology. This mess is my fault. My reference checking stopped after I interviewed one of his supervisors. Can't remember how it came up, but she went to my alma mater. I guess I turned off my radar after that."
"Don't beat yourself up." Sally said.
"When I checked with Cal admissions and learned he graduated cum laude, I figured we'd found a winner. Call me a diploma snob."
Dakota rested his elbows on his knees and rubbed his temples. "Elite schools get their share of rotten apples."
"No kidding, and not all of them become lawyers." Sally's quip was met with forced laughter.
I dismissed all but Dakota, Alice, and my IT manager, Serge. The four of us would divide the tasks involved in collecting and reviewing Roger's files and going over our accounting records to determine how much damage he had done.
It was three o'clock in the morning when I found the forged bank drafts. Roger had written himself a few extra payroll checks. He had forged my name. It was not even a good approximation of my signature.
With the expert assistance of the personnel at American Express, we documented over fifty thousand dollars in charges of a personal nature attributable to Roger. The customer service people were efficient and polite; they also were clear that if Mr. Chen was an employee with an authorized corporate card, his charges were our responsibility.
Serge Washington, my IT manager, found multiple e-mails detailing Roger's purchases as he filled his girlfriend's apartment with trendy furniture and the latest appliances and swathed her body in silks. Roger also had been generous to himself and his male friends with tickets to concerts, charges at casinos and clubs, sporty tires, and enough gasoline to drive from here to Mars.
Serge left at eleven-thirty to hit the bars. The process of clearing Roger's hard drive of an extensive and disgusting collection of pornography had put him in a bad mood, and he needed a drink.
It took another hour to figure out how Roger had kept his charges a secret. Roger made entries for payments to American Express and other payees for amounts that represented the actual business purchases for that month, the office supplies, the software licenses, the shipping charges and the travel expenses. Thus, when I looked at our account balances over our intranet, they looked reasonable because they tracked to our usual pattern. As the expert at American Express had emphasized, it is all about patterns. Patterns that connote normalcy. Patterns of deception.
At six a.m., Dakota entered my office and slid into the chair next to my desk.
"You know what else we have to do."
I swallowed. Hard. "What?"
"We'll have to call every one of our online customers and advise them that an unscrupulous person might have their credit card information."
My heart nearly stopped. Roger was the person in our organization who reconciled the transactions that occurred on our Web site and dealt with refunds. With this responsibility came access to the secure side of our shopping cart and the credit card information of customers. He had the cyber keys to our city.
Dakota's eyes were moist. I could see he was feeling a tsunami of emotions. He was a founder of our company. We had fought hard to build and launch our Web business. At times, it seemed as if the entire galaxy was conspiring to keep us from achieving our goal.
Our first Internet customers were cause for celebration. Now our reputation was ruined. Roger had not only stolen money from us, he had also taken our good name and our pride. When word-of-mouth reached full cry on this, the reaction could destroy our fragile new business.
"Well." I managed a feeble shrug. "I guess it's a good thing we haven't had many customers. We only have a few hundred calls to make."
A rap on the car window inches from my ear brought me back to foggy Fort Funston. A man in plain clothes stood next to the police cruiser I occupied. I pushed open the rear door and rose to meet him.
"Ms. Billingsley, I'm Detective Filipe Barbagalatto." We shook hands perfunctorily. "You indicated to the first officers on the scene that you knew the victim. Is that right?"
"Yes, that's correct." I surveyed the scene around me. The initial arrivals who were in uniform had been joined by a horde of forensic specialists. Now, investigative experts had converged, evidenced by this homicide detective. "I recognized the victim because he used to work for me."
"Yes, he was an accountant in a dot-com I used to run."
"Used to?" Barbagalatto's pen hovered over his notebook.
The guy needs a vocabulary infusion, I thought. "The business subsequently failed, but Roger was gone by then." I sagged back against the car door as the realization sunk in that my next remark wouldn't sound good. "I fired Roger for embezzling funds from my company."
The pen halted again. "So the victim ripped you off? He tanked your business?"
"No. Well, yes, he did rip us off and his theft certainly didn't do our company any good, but he's not responsible for our going belly up. We were compensated by the insurance company for some of what was taken."
"When did all this happen, and when was the last time you saw him before you found him here?"
"I haven't seen him since the day I threw him out of our offices." I shoved off the car and stood to my full height. "Listen, I've been working with the police for some time over Roger's crimes. I've delivered all the paperwork pertaining to this to people at the Hall of Justice."
"You don't happen to have that case number handy?"
"You've got to be kidding," I blurted before I could catch myself.
A calculating stare was my answer. I rubbed my forearms for warmth against the growing chill in the air and in the demeanor of my interrogator. He can't figure me for a bloodthirsty beheader! Yet, I had to admit that my stumbling on Roger's body was suspiciously serendipitous. Police do not believe in coincidence.
"I think you need to contact the officer heading the fraud investigation. His name is Bob, ah, Robert Harrison, and he will put you in the picture." I used my most helpful tone. A pair of caramel eyes under sun-bleached brows formed in my memory. I felt calmer, which was good because Barbagalatto was being as tenacious as Skootch with a ham bone.
"I'll do that, but you and I still need to get together first thing tomorrow."
On the morning after we discovered Roger's infamy, we divided the customer list and began phoning the unsuspecting buyers. I took a small portion of calls, because I had to make room in my schedule to contact the police, our legal counsel, the insurance companies, and the fraud unit of American Express.
American Express was knowledgeable and helpful. The insurance companies were blasé and efficient. Streams of forms spewed from our fax machine instructing me about information I would have to collect, copy, and submit with my claim for reimbursement under the employee theft provisions of our policy. Roger's skullduggery was a full-time job for me over the next few weeks.
After over an hour on the phone trying to penetrate the voice menus of the San Francisco Police Department, I slammed down the receiver and scooped up my car keys.
I eased my Saab onto Mission Street and turned right at the Ocean Avenue light after navigating around an articulated bus and several jaywalkers making for a popular produce stand at the corner. Young Latinos in baggy pants sauntered past wizened Asian women with net shopping bags. A Filipino couple pushed a high-tech baby stroller, and two ancient brown loiterers of indeterminate race leaned against a power pole festooned with multilingual posters.
A young girl, with ebony tresses longer than her skirt, rushed past my hood before the light changed. Her breasts bounced as she clip-clopped in and out of the crosswalk on her platform shoes. Appreciative, the Latino lads hiked their precipitous trousers. One fellow grasped a grand plantain from the fruit stand and gestured lasciviously.
I turned on Alemany Boulevard to make my way to the Balboa Police Station. I passed the Calmest Palmist's, the Happy Buddha Herb Store, the Brazilian Churrascaria, the Holistic Pet Clinic, and the An Loc Immigration Law Office, and turned left at the Tito Chavez VCR Repair, right across from the Slavic Cultural Center.
Ah, San Francisco. We blast incomprehensible languages at each other with boom boxes, give the finger to a dozen ethnic groups in a single block, and legislate multilingual ballots so long and hefty they give voters a headache and a hernia at the same time. San Francisco is the quintessence of diversity. We are proud of our rich texture but stressed by its consequences. We cannot communicate, compromise, or peacefully coexist; we muddle forward in a hair shirt of political correctness.
Some bureaucrat thought the Balboa Police Station was going to be such a nice place to visit, he had better hide it from the citizenry. The station is sequestered in a transit armpit created by the 280 Interstate, several ill-conceived on-ramps, and the Muni train terminus. There are signs to the station, which you can read if you happen to have a machete. I made three passes before I found the way in.
The desk sergeant was a sleek, compact thirty-ish Hispanic with enough electronics on his belt to control a small factory. I stated my mission. His attention wandered the minute I described the alleged transgression as a white collar, nonviolent crime against property. Listening to various yerps and squeaks from his belt, he assigned me to a svelte but less technologically bedecked officer.
This official took my name, phone number, and address and assigned me a case number. "Your case will be forwarded downtown to our special fraud unit. They're located in the Hall of Justice on the fourth floor. You can expect a call from the case officer in a week or so. Keep your case number handy. You'll need that when you call in or go for interviews." He nodded and turned away, sweeping a stack of file folders off the counter with a practiced hand.
That was it. SFPD's interest in my welfare was entirely bureaucratic. They wanted me to have a case number. I felt let down. Betrayed by every cop program I had ever watched. They never gave you a case number on CHPS. A case number never crossed Columbo's lips.
A week later, I dressed for my interview with Inspector Robert Harrison. The inspector had called just as the officer at Balboa Station had promised. As the president of a struggling start-up, I had slipped into the habit of wearing jeans. I rummaged through my closet and pulled out a wrinkled pantsuit. I took the suit with me to the bathroom hoping steam from my shower would soften the wrinkles and eliminate the musty smell.
Twenty minutes later, I arrived at the breakfast table. Janie Belle regarded the suit with skepticism. As a Southern Lady, she had never reached détente with pantsuits. When she spied the pearl necklace I had added, her left eyebrow, which had edged up into the danger zone, returned to its neutral position. "Pearls always add femininity to an ensemble."
"I'm not trying to be a femme fatale, Mom."
"Well, try not to forget you're a girl." Janie Belle eyed my unmanicured nails as I passed her.
Skootch headed for me with a tongue-lolling grin and a Good-Morning Lunge in mind.
"Hold it there, buster, I don't want any doggy hair on my suit."
Offended, he sat, alternating a look at me with one at the butter dish. I poured cereal in my bowl and tossed him a few kernels of my latest fad diet garbage before dousing it with fat-free milk.
"I'm headed downtown to meet the detective handling our case against Roger, and I have no idea how long I'll be. I'm taking him all the documents he requested. The stuff fills two storage boxes. I hope I can park close, because schlepping them is going to be a pain."
"Why don't you take one of the luggage cart thingies?" Janie Belle was ever practical.
"Because I'd have to go up in the attic and find the damned thing!" Our attic was a black hole where you could lose hours, days, even weeks searching for things.
My breakfast was over, because during this exchange, Skootch succeeded in executing a complete Lunge and polished off my designer cereal. A drop of milk formed at the end of one elegant whisker.
As I backed the Saab out of the garage, I noticed the sky. It promised to be a decent day. I headed for upper Market Street. The drive over the crest at Twin Peaks and down Market into the Castro District is a spectacular journey. Noe Valley, downtown San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda, Sausalito, Yerba Buena, and Treasure Island sunbathe before you. The Bay Bridge curves sensuously, a discarded piece of grosgrain ribbon, and aircraft carriers look like Tootsie Rolls.
The whole spectacle puts you in a mood that even the pierced denizens of lower Market, with their exposed and tattooed flesh, jangling metallica, and Jell-O-ed hair, cannot deflate. I have a definite love-hate relationship with my city, but at the moment, I was all hearts and flower power.
The traffic light turned yellow, and I slowed to a stop. A container ship made its way along the channel toward the Oakland depot. My eye strayed along the shore to Alameda Island. Our perusal of copious e-mails had revealed that Roger's main squeeze lived on Alameda. I wondered which of the buildings, winking in the morning sun, housed a considerable portion of my assets. Somehow, this woman had taken on the face of the cyber-whore. I pictured her visage bobbing up and down over Roger's shoulder as he rode her on a futon delivered from Ikea. Despite the panorama, my mood darkened.
The light changed. Traffic was testy this morning. Drivers switched lanes like metronomes as they tacked toward the Ferry Building. Suicidal bicyclists pumped their way forward between the surging engines.
Now in the flat part of the city, I exited and parked in a lot that promised not to bankrupt me by lunchtime. I hefted one box of documents under an arm and slung my shoulder bag over the other. Without the luggage thingie, I would have to come back for the second box.
The Hall of Justice swarmed with activity. I found the fraud unit and asked for Inspector Harrison. I was told to wait. Behind the receptionist was a taupe sea of battered cubicles stretching to a row of grimy windows on the perimeter of the room. People bobbed up and down in the cubicles as if they were jack-in-the-boxes in the quality control section of a toy manufacturer.
One man stood. And kept on going. When he stopped rising, he towered over all the other "jacks" at about six-foot-five. He exited his cube in a single stride and made short work of the corridor to the reception area. By the time he rounded the counter, he had his caramel brown eyes fixed on me. His right arm came up in an athletic swing, and a big, open hand came my way.
"Ms. Billingsley? I'm Bob Harrison."
His voice was warm, deep, and Eastern, possibly Southeastern. I shook his hand and found it warm as well. He gestured at a conference room to our right. I moved to retrieve my box of documents from the floor, but he intervened and lifted the box as if it were a bottled water.
The room was a modest affair boasting six chairs with frayed black tweed seats and a laminated table that looked as if it should be cultured for virulent organisms. A fake ficus skulked in the corner supported by the wall. Harrison placed the box on the table and attempted to slide it toward the middle. The slurry on the surface made that impossible. He picked the box up, repositioned it, and waited for me to take a seat before pulling out his chair.
"I looked over the case file and my notes from our phone conversation. Have you been able to obtain the original forged checks from your bank?"
"Yes, they're here with everything else you requested. At least they will be when I bring the second box up from my car. His e-mails should be helpful."
"Your company policy states that you have the right to access and read e-mails? I'll need a copy of that."
"Yes, it's here. We were careful about the wording of those passages in the employee manual."
He flipped off the top of the box and leafed through the materials. "Has Mr. Chen attempted to contact you since you fired him?"
"No. Not even to arrange pickup of his Janet Jackson concert tickets that arrived two days after I canned him."
"Purchased with his corporate card, I'll bet." Harrison did not take his eyes off the box contents. A tiny upward curve appeared at one corner of his mouth though.
"How'd you guess? I'm sure he was planning to entertain clients!" My ploy worked. Harrison looked up and smiled. He had a warm smile to go along with his hands and voice.
"Let's go get that other box, and I'll tell you how this is all going to work on the way." Harrison seated the stack of paper back into the box.
He ushered me out of the conference room and toward the main elevators. Pressing the button, he spoke to the receptionist. "Elsie, I've still got dibs on that room. We're getting some more docs from this lady's car."
A mousy man in shirtsleeves and crepe-soled shoes shared the descending elevator car with us, and we rode down in silence.
After erupting from the revolving exit door, Harrison squinted up at the sky and began to talk. "Here's how this goes. We review all the evidence. Then, we'll invite Roger in to tell his side of it. We'll see whether he comes in or not. If he's smart, he won't come or he'll come with an attorney. Once we have his response, we'll take the works to the D.A. The D.A. decides if there is enough here to move the case forward."
"How long does all this take?"
"Give it a couple months, give or take a few weeks for the D.A.'s office to kick it around."
"A couple months? You've got to be kidding! Roger could leave the country. Or, hey, he could bilk another unsuspecting company like mine."
"Yeah, he could, but the process is the process. Speaking of other companies, you did give me his resume and the notes on the interviews with prior employers when you were recruiting him?"
"Yes, it's all in these boxes. I can't believe his references were so good. You don't suppose those companies were hot to get rid of him and lied to make him attractive to the next unsuspecting employer?" My jaw clenched in anger.
"Could be. Employment law being what it is, companies are careful not to badmouth anybody."
Harrison lifted the second box from my trunk and tucked it under his arm.
"I can't believe we were so stupid. We didn't do a credit check on him. His references were excellent. People gave us much more than employment dates and job titles. We thought we were home free, and he turned out to be a damned crook. Stealing from us and the next minute commiserating about our development problems like a real member of the team. He even made suggestions in staff meetings!" My face reddened with my rising blood pressure.
We were back at the steps of the Hall of Justice. Harrison turned toward me. "Look. You've had a bad experience with a lifestyle criminal. This guy has no moral center. His goal is to achieve and maintain a certain manner of living. He wears the right clothes, goes to the right clubs, listens to the right music, and takes the right drugs. He has the right kind of babe hanging off his arm. Go south of Market Street, and you'll see dozens like him. They look like they've been cloned, or they've escaped from a rip-off version of the Men in Black movie." Harrison balanced the box like a basketball and rubbed his chin. "They only take jobs to get money to support their habits. If the jobs don't pay enough, they help themselves. The fact that it doesn't belong to them is irrelevant. They are part of the elite. You are outside that inner circle; you don't count."
"But what can small businesses do to protect ourselves? We have to trust some employees. I can't be everywhere." My shoulders slumping, I walked a few paces and half sat, half leaned on the broad masonry balustrade abutting the sidewalk.
Harrison followed me to the pavement's edge and rested the box on the second step. His lips pursed as he turned something over in his mind.
"Well, you could have put more checks in place to flag his kind of pilfering, but the thing is that with computers on every desk and the Internet and everything, the tables are tilted in their favor. If they're inside your firewall, stealing is as easy as the click of a mouse."
Harrison's eyes flashed, coming back into focus from his reverie, and his back straightened. Had he reached a decision, about the case or about me? He turned, facing me squarely. "Look, Ms. Billingsley, your case is not the only Chen case we're investigating."
"I shouldn't be telling you this, but there is another company that has filed a similar complaint against your former employee. From my brief review of their documents, they have a firmer case than you do."
"And with all this, you still need months to bring him to justice?"
"Hey, I said there was a process we have to follow, and justice is the D.A.'s job. I'm in the apprehension game." Harrison reclaimed the box and ascended the stairs.
His stride was a match for the broad, imposing steps that evoked the grandeur of a nation devoted to law, and the majesty of its mistress, Justice. I, who was beginning to view her as a fickle courtesan, took two rapid steps on each level to keep up with the inspector.
We reached the landing, and Harrison paused before entering his private quarter of the revolving door. "Why don't you let us do our job and see what happens? We're lowly government types, not entrepreneurs, but sometimes we accomplish things with dumb brute force. You could be pleasantly surprised."
Grinning, he whisked into the rotating door, cutting off any rejoinder. I followed, winded from the sprint up the stairs. When I emerged, he was cutting a swath Moses-like through a sea of supplicants. Justice, I fumed, must have been a jogger, and picked up the pace.
As the elevator doors closed, I resolved to gain the upper hand. "Where are you from? You're no Californian."
"Nope, but who is?" Harrison rocked back and forth on his heels, his free hand in his trouser pocket. "I'm from Baltimore. I was with the homicide division there. Just been here four months."
"Where'd you go to school?"
"Really?" My estimation of Harrison rose. Several members of my family were Hopkins graduates.
"What possessed you to come here?
"Needed a change."
We returned to the conference room, and Harrison positioned the second box next to the first. He peeled off the top and began to extract folders. His eyes grew distant as they had before when he was deciding whether to tell me about the other company Roger cheated. He got up and closed the door, shutting out the sounds from the busy hall.
"I lost a partner while working on a case. She was a great partner and a greater person. She died in the line of duty at the hands of a real bastard. He's still at large. I needed to try something different after that. And find a new place."
"Oh." I had to look away. I don't know what I had expected, but it wasn't death. I had been thinking about my problems, and now the life experiences and feelings of another person made my problems seem mundane. "I'm sorry."
We looked at each other. The silence allowed the noise of the outer hall to reassert itself.
Finally, he sighed and turned to the paperwork.
We worked for several hours, and the parking fees due when I retrieved my car did almost bankrupt me.
Skootch's insistent barking brought me back to the chill of Fort Funston. Detective Barbagalatto and I had agreed to continue our discussions the following morning, and the crime scene team was wrapping up. Roger's body and the spectators were long gone. Unless you wanted to count the fog people, the ephemeral bodies of mist that moved across the open space, silent and deferential as Tiger Woods groupies on a bad golf day, the place was almost depopulated.
A uniformed officer headed my way, pulled off his cap, and wiped his forehead. I recognized him as the owner of the police car inside which I had been sitting before Barbagalatto had accosted me.
"I guess it's been quite a day for you. Thank you for your cooperation and patience." The officer leaned back and looked over his shoulder at my station wagon. "That's one agitated dog. He doesn't appreciate being kept away from the action."
"No. He's an action kinda guy."
"Better take him home and feed him or something."
I pictured the Lunge that would follow half a day of being cooped up in the back of a station wagon while no one listened to your entreaties. "Yeah, easy for you to say."
As I tried to settle behind the steering wheel with an ecstatic dog licking my cheek, I realized how cold and exhausted I was. Not as cold as Roger, though. Roger was cold as in the cold, cold ground. His heart, if he had one, stilled forever. Roger had pissed me off, but what dreadful thing had he done and to whom to end up murdered so horribly?
"Get off, Skootch!" I pushed the dog away from the gearshift to get the wagon out of neutral. Feeling my fatigue full force now, I drove to the park exit before realizing I needed to turn on my lights. I flipped the wand on the steering column and lowered the passenger window for my canine companion, hoping he would leave me alone.
As we headed home, I begged my conscience to manufacture a modicum of sympathy for my former employee. She refused. OK, it would be unprincipled to weep for a dead man when you hated his guts while his guts were still warm. Was that it? Feel pity for his family, came her reply. Hey, that's a great suggestion! I can do that.
Still, as I accelerated onto Sloat Boulevard, I could not escape the guilt for my lack of feeling. I thought I was an ambivalent turd, an insensitive dolt.
"I think not," whispered the familiar voice in that arch way she had picked up from her honors seminar professor. I froze at the stop sign, unable to go forward, my fingers whitening on the wheel.
The voice that was not my conscience continued. "You wept for me."
The hairs on my arms rose even though I knew Joyce was just in my mind. Joyce Strand, my roommate and confidant. My best friend.
"I still weep for you Joyce. I miss you. I miss you something awful."
"I know." The voice faded away.
Skootch left his window, impatient because the vehicle was not moving. He intended to nuzzle his chauffeur back into action, but he found something else more important to do. He needed to lick away the tears flowing down her face.