Land Swap For Death
Despite the incessant warnings to report abandoned or suspicious packages, things left laying about the BART platform don’t last long. Commuters and tourists alike are ready to score a freebee: a lost iPod, a trashy book, Bra Busters hidden in the folds of the Economist, a cell phone with cool apps. All fair game.
"FREMONT..... 6 CAR TRAIN, FREMONT..... 6 CAR TRAIN," the red bead of overhead lights silently announced the next train.
"Damn it," she said. "Even tonight it happens, God damn it."
She was neither tall nor thin, wide in the right places, well-proportion, and from a certain angle looked crafted, shaped, and taut. She knew was still worth a second look.
She leaned into the wind of the on-coming train, the oily column of humid air pushed from the Montgomery Street station. Her long brown hair blew in strings from her face; a few stray strands stuck to her sweaty forehead before the wind dried them. She tried to brush them with her free hand. It was always hot on the Embarcadero platform when it rained, even in a San Francisco winter.
"Damn it, God damn it," she repeated. No one heard her over the mechanical growling of the train as it slid to a stop. She turned away and slumped onto the cold granite bench, pulled her handbag tightly against her breasts, her right arm crushing the brown bag. “Safeway” peeked over her arm in red three inch letters. Her black leather slicker hid the rest of the words.
Her hair again stuck to her forehead; hot flash, she knew that was not going to happen, just sweat. She might have been, at one time, cute, almost pretty; but that was an impossible story two decades ago. She fought the gray at her temples with dyes and brushed on color but in time, the gray would win. Her fight was with more than hair color.
She hated the sensible shoes she wore --too sensible, too simple, too comfortable. But if needed, she needed speed.
No jewelry. Only a watch -- gold bezel. Roman numerals on a white face, lizard band and gold buckle wrapped her right wrist. The overhead lights were not kind to her tired face. Her exhaustion sat next to her on the cold granite bench, taking quick furtive looks over its shoulder; one invisible, the other unmistakable. Long fingers, tough hands, and, unlike most women, she ware no rings.
The Fremont train pulled out, its two red lights rapidly disappearing into the darkness. She wondered if the train had turn signals. That brought a smile, her first all day.
The far end of the platform was empty and quiet as the chattering wheels died. She usually sat mid-platform this time of night where thick clutches of people gathered like wildebeests, as if their numbers gave them protection from predators that could pick off the stragglers; as if lions prowled behind the escalators. Tonight she had perched the round stone bench at the farthest end of the platform, near the winding stair she’d come down. She could see a few people but fewer people could see her.
Her nose flared at the assault on her senses. "God, what stinks?" she swore under her breath. The dry and machine oily air was overcome by an outrageous stench -- as if the offal and urine of a Tenderloin back alley had been shoveled in a bag and dumped over the dark shape fixed in place in front of her -- a man, his face as dark and grimy as the blackness of the tunnel under the Bay. Slightly hunched, layers of rags hanging from his shoulders, shoes wrapped in duct tape. The stench of a walking cadaver, a real zombie whose listless eyes floated, unfocused, yet not wandering from her breasts, her face, and then back to her breasts. She pulled her arms more tightly around the bag; unaware of pushing her breasts into greater prominence. A small bead of sweat rolled down her neck, held for a moment then slid between her breasts to settle near her lungs where the scream she had to make gathered its strength. Not tonight – no, she could not scream, not tonight.
She pushed slightly with two fingers between her breast to blot the dampness. He stared. But not at her breasts. It was the bag that held his lewd attention.
She shifted the bag to her right, under her slicker, trying to protect it from his stare, while freeing her left arm – just in case she needed it. He watched the bag disappear
"Damn it, get the hell out of here," she said through her teeth, just loud enough to be heard over the background din.
He mumbled something incomprehensible.
"Jimmy say gi’me a fu’king pull from your bottle, lady," he repeated with enough vowels to connect the other letters.
She rose from the granite using her left hand for balance. Exhaustion remained on the bench, passed-out from fear, a puddle forming under its seat. She spun on her now sensible heels, and headed toward the middle of the platform. Jimmy’s eyes followed her, his voice chased her.
"Howz-about a pull from your fu’king bottle, lady? A god-damn drink, just a little one, Jimmy needs a tasty, bitch. Or ar' ya too goody-good for me?"
His words pushed and kicked her faster down the platform as she fled deeper into the herd. She stood in the shadow of a large white man -- he turned away, ignoring her. Two short toots signaled imminent escape.
"BAY POINT . . . 6 CAR TRAIN, BAY POINT . . . 6 CAR TRAIN," the lights flashed salvation.
"Thank God," she said aloud and quickly lined up behind the orange and black floor markings where a train door would soon receive her into safety.
The wind blew both hair and stench away from her face. She turned to confirm that the bum was gone -- then gasped, finding him immediately behind her, one hand spastically rubbing his face. He stared at the bag, her eyes, the bag, her eyes.
"A pull from your fu’king bottle, girly goody-good," he spit loudly between the stained fingers muffling his drooling mouth. "Com’on bitch, gi’me a drink." The man in front and the teenagers queued ahead quickly looked away, ignoring the drama, hoping the door would open in time to save them. The train stopped, killing the wind. His stench pummeled her nose and stung her eyes; nausea roiled her stomach.
The car doors slid open with a sucking sound. The line of the intentionally uninvolved anxiously pushed their way into the packed car. None turned to watch; only one or two of stragglers would be caught -- they were safe. This late the cars were always full before they reached the Embarcadero station. Why don’t they add two or three more cars? Budget cuts, economization, poor ridership, bureaucracy was probably the prizewinner.
She willed herself onto the train and stood, cramped, among the last at the door, facing out; facing away from the corralled herd that hoped she would have been sacrificed. Heat and steam rose from the rain-soaked passengers trying to push past her to get out the door before it closed. The bum, only a step away on the orange and black floor dots, stared at the bag.
Bing. “The doors are closing. Please stand clear of the doors,” a nasal voice swept an invisible and protective hand over the passengers. As her breathing relaxed she was suddenly horrified as his arm, snake-like, struck from deep within the bundle of rags, ripping the bag from her arms just as the doors met.
Her handbag fell toward the floor, but stuck between her hip and door. Again a scream froze in her throat. She couldn't move; she could only stare at the bum's back as the train accelerated under the bay. She stared at her reflection the door’s glass, “Goddammit, after all my training and some alkie fuck blows it all up, a real cluster-fuck. He stunk real, acted real. Was he on-to-me, was I set up, am I busted? Shit.” She only had her face, reflected, as a companion until West Oakland.
"God damn fucking goody-good," commuters heard as they waited for the next train. "Where's my fu’king drink bitch, you take my bottle. Dat’z my bottle, bitch,” he spit. “It’s my fu’king bottle.” He fumbled with his prize pushing his head deep into the open bag. “Where's the fucking bottle? Goody-good take my fu’king bottle? Bitch."
He threw down the bag which slid across the sticky terrazzo into a granite bench. It split Safe from way, dumping bundles of papers into a chaotic mess.
“Piss on it, fuck it and the mother-fu’king goody-good too.” His eyes passed over the herd. They turned as if avoiding eye contact were a way to remain invisible to the pile of rags limping to the dark end of the platform.
Richard Franklin worked late; he always worked late. His wife made an issue of his hours -- but never his salary. She enjoyed his life, though he didn't -- or at least at home where she questioned everything he did, correcting him when she decided that he was wrong, complaining about all the ills in the world -- as if they were caused by him, each one a personal attack on her. The club and her friends were the life that he provided. She used them fully. He worked hard and provided well, she did neither.
He coasted down the escalator blocked by the damp crowd below him. His frame was a head higher, his crisp suit sharper, his tie more striking. His shoulders slumped as he watched the Bay Point train leaving the station without him.
"Damn it. Missed it." Franklin was always punctual, had memorized the train schedule the day it changed, but could not predict the timing of the crosswalks on Market Street. Another twenty minutes to wait till the next train.
“Damn!” He shook the rain from the sleeves of his trench coat as he stepped of the escalator, careful that the spray did not fall on anyone standing near to him. He was a considerate and attentive man, normally.
He headed for a granite bench – he would read until the next train. A few people milled about the platform, cell phones stuck to one side of their faces. A faint odor, almost a stench, hung in the humid air left by some passenger now boarded or exited. Franklin rubbed his nose to clear the smell and opened the paper under his arm.
The news -- except for usual disasters, disease, death, murders, famines, and celebrity parties -- was sparse. What a sorry world. Maybe Anne was rubbing off on him after all these years; nobody gives a damn any more – he shook the thought out of his shoulders.
Two toots from the end of the station, the sign for Fremont flashing overhead and a flush of warm air. His wait was half over. The pressure wave kicked up a few sheets of paper and blew them up against his foot where he snagged them with his well-polished Allen Edmonds shoe. Franklin watched the unrehearsed drama, amazed how people jostled and squeezed into nearly packed cars – with backpacks, shopping bags, and wheeled luggage. He shook his head as four colorful spandexed wrapped men pushed their racing bikes into the last car. The disapproval of the passengers was visible.
Franklin kicked the brown bag that lay against the bench. Loose papers spilled out adding to the collection pressed under his shoe -- stapled, clipped or wrapped with rubber. He hated disorder to the point of personal discomfort. He railed about it at the office (where it was attended to) and at home (where it was ignored). He reached down and took hold of the edge of the bag. It resisted, then ripped, further separating Safe from way and dumped the rest on the papers on the floorfloor. He gathered up the pages, flattened them on his ancient leather briefcase and peeled back the top sheet, exposing deeds, contracts, meeting notes, calendar logs and checks. All copies.
"Who the hell would leave these here?" Copies had no real value. That he was sure of. They were neat in sequence, and, from their smell, fresh. Their clean almost antiseptic smell bled into the subway air. Why here? Dropped, dumped, forgotten? His forty years of accounting experience told him that these papers represented a chronology of events and actions to someone. What they meant was a different matter. The name "Clayburn Company" headed most pages, the dates on the calendars and logs spanned the last eighteen months, and the names on the checks included newsworthy politicians from the South Bay as well as various re-election committees.
Another toot signaled a train from Oakland. He laid a hand over a corner of the bundle to protect it from the wind but continued to flip through; ignoring the passengers jostling up the escalator.
Clayburn was a well-known Bay Area developer. Franklin had read about his business dealings in The Chronicle and other business papers. You couldn’t miss his development signs all over Santa Clara and San Mateo counties; even a few near him in Lafayette. Properties for sale, new buildings for lease, and apartments for rent; he felt a like a voyeur peeping through the copies of another business life.
A soft breeze signaled another arrival from under the Bay; Franklin ignored the announcement, “9 car train for Daly City arriving on platform 2.” The cars jerked to a stop. He watched people walk and wheel off in dark raincoats, ponchos, and, catching his eye, one wearing a glossy black leather trench coat.
A few of the papers spread on his briefcase attracted his curiosity. He neatly folded them and slid them into his breast coat pocket to read on the trip home. He placed the others in the briefcase next to the insurance papers he had retrieved earlier in the day from his safety deposit box as two short toots and "BAY POINT.”
"What the hell. At least I'll have something that may be worth reading."
Richard Franklin opened his briefcase and placed the rest of the papers into it. He closed the top with an audible sigh.
Franklin had a tough time keeping his eyes open after the long day. Fighting the train’s narcotic affect proved hard, and the pages of grant deeds, option contracts, and canceled checks between politicians and companies and Clayburn Development didn’t help. Most dealt with land in south Santa Clara County just off Highway 101. He remembered the undeveloped property visible from the historic El Camino Real on trips to Carmel and Monterey. This dirt road had been built in the days when Spain ruled and were California’s first developers.
The train exploded out of the tunnel under the East Bay hills and clattered downhill into Orinda. Franklin looked out the window and watched the cars kick-up rain driven spray that sparkled in the endless stream of freeway headlights. He left the house that morning and, heeding the weather report, slipped on his dark green trench coat and stuffed the collapsing umbrella into his briefcase. This rain was welcome even though inconvenient, it would help to end the drought.
He shot his sleeve, the gold Rolex read 11:19. Looking out the window the reflection from the car’s interior showed a leather clad woman; she bumped his arm, perfume filled his nose. He paid little attention. Anne would be pissed. She seldom saw him for more than four hours at a time due to either her schedule or his. It reduced their time together to periods between events. Time together, just the two of them, never happened anymore. Later this month, after tax season, he promised himself to get away, just the two of them, maybe Paris or Hawaii. Anne still had not decided which or at least told him her decision. He remembered how he heard about their last vacation, a friend's wife told him at a cocktail party.
An annoying beat began pounding the walls as two slackers pushed their way through the sliding car doors. White boys with maybe a touch of brown or jaundice. Franklin looked up; he hated rap especially when pushed on him by obnoxious teenagers. By the look of their tattooed arms, black baggy jeans, silver and black Raider’s jackets, and ball caps turned just enough to give a cocky look to the silver crucifix earrings dangling from their ears, the skivers were almost men. They cased the passengers up one side of the car then down the other, turning up the volume. They looked maliciously into every face that dared to look at them, challenging them. Riders try never look at the other passengers on a train; never. Their yellow eyes touched every curious face. Like jackals circling a herd of antelopes, they looked for signs of weakness; probing with their eyes; the music was bait. For a moment Franklin was pissed, but he let it slide: thugs, amateurs, hoodlums, druggies. These hooligans were nothing to what he had seen and dealt with in Vietnam. They were posers, scum, nothing more -- nothing less. He ignored them.
He stuffed the papers back into his scuffed briefcase, closed the worn lid and pushed in the well-burnished latches of the case that he had carried for almost twenty years; it was his oldest friend, older than his time with Anne. Everything important in his life rested there, account numbers, his diary, extra keys, blackberry, phone -- his portable office. Anne said the case was disgusting. She tried three times and the dusty black leather briefcases in his closet attested to her determination to rid him of his most loyal associate.
Franklin stood and moved toward the door as the train slowed. The signs for Lafayette flashed by as the train slowed to a stop, the doors slid open and rain blew over the first exiting passengers. He opened his umbrella and stepped onto the platform; the cold wind did little to muffle the pulsing beat still knocking against his ears; he hoped the two thugs would stay on the train.
Most mornings Franklin arrived before 7:00 and had a short walk downhill through the parking lot to the station. His call to the East Coast office of his insurance company delayed him this morning. Even with his umbrella, tonight’s walk would be long and wet; he sat on a bench and slipped rubbers over his Allen Edmonds. Franklin smiled to himself as he left the dryness of the station. Above him, brightly lit, a billboard advertised the town's newest luxury condominiums, proudly brought to Lafayette by The Clayburn Company. If he had made the 10:38, the sign would have made no impression; now the name Clayburn had a completely different meaning.
The uphill climb took his breath. The overhead lights flared off the two-month-old Christmas present to himself; a BMW 750i. He thought about the Li model but with its six inches of additional length but all it would do would make the back seat more comfortable for his wife’s friends -- which was far more than he ever wanted to do for them. It had been a good year, his toys made his life more enjoyable. Pointing the key fob at the car, like a Star Trek laser, he gave a squeeze and the car chirped like a bird. It always gave him a kick, eighty thousand dollars for a big squawking bluebird that had flown from Germany to land in his garage, he hit the fog again, chirp.
The sound of flat soles slapping fast on wet pavement slowed his hand as he pulled the handle of the car door. He only had enough time to pitch his briefcase into the back seat but not enough to brace himself before the two kids from the train slammed him against the side of his car.
"What the fuck," he yelled into the face that pinned his forearm against his chest. "What the hell do you want?"
"The keys man, give me the fucking keys, now!" the taller of the two screamed in his face.
"No fucking way." He tried to push back.
"Listen motherfucker, give me the keys now or I'll blow your god-damn motherfucking head off."
Only then, in the glare of the overhead lights, Franklin saw and felt the chrome cannon held hard against his cheek. Jerking one arm free he grabbed the barrel and pushed it down toward the wet asphalt.
The roar momentarily deafened them. Franklin felt the fire of the bullet’s searing track through his chest, ribs, and abdomen; then, looking for new options, it ripped into the left rear tire of the BMW. He was already dead as the air exploded out of his lungs and the tire.
The shorter kid, at the sound of the gunshot, dove into passenger side of the car, throwing the ghetto blaster into the back seat. The shooter pulled the keys from Franklin's grip, kicked away the body, jumped into the driver’s seat, and, with practiced skill, jammed the keys into the ignition, twisted the engine to life and with his right hand put the car in gear and floored the accelerator. On wet paving a BMW with four good wheels is a handful; on wet paving -- with three good tires -- is uncontrollable.
The auto lunged ahead and instantly began to fishtail. The killer panicked, over-corrected, and forced the car into a sideways slide; sparks flew from the chrome and steel of the left rear rim. It spun across the lot until it slammed head-on into a parked pickup. The BMW's interior brilliantly exploded and filled completely with the white, almost fluorescent, glow of air bags. In seconds the bags were gone and only two forms were left, slumped forward onto the dash; rain sheeted across the windshield. Silence, two seconds passed and as the driver began to straighten his window exploded, throwing glass over the punk, he then jerked upright and violently twisted into the lap of the second thug. The blinding rain increased to biblical ferocity, obscuring the crashed cars and most especially the sprawled body of Richard Franklin. The rain added to the dark puddle draining from his body. It flowed through the parking lot to an inlet that said “No Dumping, Drains to the Bay”.
Kevin Bryan hated rainy nights, especially those that involved a dead body. Tonight, a bonus: two dead bodies and a seriously banged up third.
After a twelve hour shift in the Lafayette detective’s squad room, and, hoping for a quiet night, all he wanted was an hour with the latest Connelly book, warm Fig Newton’s and a short scotch that would hopefully lead to another; the combination always helped him sleep. Now, standing in the rain, no hat, cold water running down his back and his brown leather shoes submerged under an inch of water, his is only thought was unrequited vengeance against those that put him here.
“Hi Bobby, what do you have?” he said to the uniform standing over the prone body in the center of the lot.
“Dead white male, about 60, well dressed, haven’t check for an I.D., waiting for Miller. Dispatch said the deputy coroner was at a dinner party for some rich dude; politics or something like that.” Bryan wondered why anybody whose job was to cut up dead people would be invited anywhere, especially to a dinner party where everyone would wonder where those hands had been that day.
“What about the others?” he asked as they walked over to the BMW.
“One dead, looks like the driver, the other banged up, but no significant injuries. Seems strange that the driver died, couldn’t have been going too fast, blood everywhere,” Bobby said.
The rain abruptly stopped leaving everything shiny and reflective, red and blue lights from the squad cars flashed off every surface. Abrasive radio chatter filled the silence with staccato bursts from the police interceptors of the Lafayette and BART police that covered the parking lot. It could have been a used black and white car auction. Two Contra Costa sheriff patrol cars turned into the lot, their lights added to the party like the Fourth of July, their beige color lessened the impact of the black and whites.
Bryan walked to the ambulance. The injured man moaned and rolled his head side to side. Bryan could see, as the lights played across the man’s wet face, that he was really a boy, white, clean, very short dark hair, tattoos on his neck and a dark bruise already forming on one side of his face.
“Condition,” he asked the attendant.
“Not too bad, face lacerated, probably from the airbag. No obvious broken bones but his internals need to be checked, took a good wallop inside the car. Vitals don’t seem to show significant trauma just shock. He’ll be at John Muir in ten. They can let you know more after an hour or so.”
“Bobby, what do ya think?” he asked as they walked back to the center of the lot.
“Bad carjacking I would guess, pretty damn sure that the BMW was not the driver’s. This fellow, on the ground here, was about to get in his car and was pounced by these two, then shot either in a struggle or just because these two assholes wanted to shoot him. We got a flat tire on the BMW, maybe shot out. The two took off in the car, lost control, slid into the truck. Airbags blew.” Bobby’s summery was good and to the point, the way Bryan liked it, the detailed report would come from the county CSI’s that would be arriving directly behind the sheriff.
“BART police were first on the scene, Detective Bryan,” Bobby said, “after someone pushed the panic button there.” He pointed to the top of the lot where a tall pipe and box arrangement stood; its light sat like a blue flashing hat.
“We also responded and were a few minutes behind them. After we walked the scene we called you. County was in Concord dealing with some flooding, they are only just getting here.”
“Probably pass it on to them when the techs arrive,” Bryan said.
They could see the carved lines and loops in the pavement from the BMW’s rim. The BMW and pickup were connected with a looping string that tied the two dead men together. Bryan studied the body on the pavement and gently padded its lower back and seat, he felt the outline of a wallet. He slowly drew it out. He turned the leather toward Bobby’s flashlight; blood poured out, the soaked bills showed a macabre mixture of red and green. Bryan asked for a plastic bag and one appeared from behind.
“Good evening deputy coroner,” Bryan said without turning around.
“Good fucking evening to you too, Detective Bryan,” answered Dr. Ralph Miller, deputy coroner and political wanna-be; he did not want this job to be permanent. “Don’t you hate it when the wallet’s full of blood, makes a civilized identification so much more difficult. It would be easier if they just left it out. Bryan, did you move the body to get the damn thing? Was he photographed before you pulled it? Where the hell are the techs? Shit, I always have to do this myself. And Bryan, you know damn well that man is dead and you do not touch him. Shit.”
“Felt for it and pulled it, too dark to see the blood with all this rain, forgot gloves,” Bryan said. These days a good cop never touched anything or anybody, especially bloody, without latex.
“Go to my wagon and wash well with alcohol and chlorine and some disinfectant I got there,” ordered Miller. “I’ll go look at the other one, you did not touch him did you?” Miller stood over Franklin’s body for a moment and then walked toward the BMW.
Bryan rummaged through boxes in the coroner’s station wagon until he found the disinfectant. There was no sting when he poured it over his hands; hoping it meant there were no cuts or nicks. He finished and waved his hands in the air; they quickly dried even in the damp air, they felt cold. Stupid stunt, he said to himself, damn stupid stunt.
He watched the deputy coroner stand and back away from the door of the BMW. Glass sparkled, like glitter, over the body. The kid’s head was thrown back, his arm hung down his side. The fingers, slightly curled, pointed to the ground; bloody water dripped on the pavement from the tip of the index finger. Blood covered the lap of boy and floor of the car.
“He was shot through the neck,” Miller said to Bryan. “Through and through, and it looks like the bullet ended up in the seat of the passenger. Blew out his left jugular and everything behind it, almost severed his head. Died fast, maybe instantly. Bled out quickly too, blood everywhere on this side of the car. Looks like the shot went through the closed window. Helps to explain the glass.” Miller turned to Bryan. “One big fucking mess. The joker on the passenger side, was he hit?”
“No, no holes.” answered Bryan.
“Lucky son-of-a-bitch, looks like a large caliber gun, maybe a rifle, we will find out. The slug could have easily passed through this kid and through the other. Maybe even through the door panel. We will look for the slug later.” Miller continued to look into the front seat of the BMW. “Gun!”
Miller stood back as two CSI techs began to take pictures of the interior. When they completed their pictures he reached in and suspended, on a pencil, a huge chrome cannon.
“Could not see it, covered in blood and gore.” One tech spoke into a small recorder, the other took a photo of the deputy corner holding the gun up like it was a trout he had just caught. Bryan prided himself on his memory and attention to detail, but reminded himself to get a transcript of the recording as soon as possible; he did not want a copy of the photo.
“You think the old guy shot him?” Bryan asked Miller.
“I don’t think so, no significant glass on the ground outside of the car. There are just a few shards on the ground. Anybody open the door before I got here?”
The BART cop, who was first at the scene, admitted that he opened the door, just to see if the man was hurt, saw the wreckage, and admitted that some glass may have fallen on the ground.
“How many times do we have to go through this,” Miller said. “Touch nothing until I get here, got it?”
“Yes, sir, I just thought he might be alive,” the patrolman answered. Bryan heard him mutter something about the parentage of Miller under his breath as he walked back to the clique of cops standing off to one side.
“The fellow up there looks like he died before he hit the ground. His body angle doesn’t make it look like a struggle after the shooting. Let’s take a look,” Miller led the small party of techs and cops back to the body of Franklin.
The flashes from digital cameras helped to spot their destination. Miller changed latex gloves, kept the old ones and put them in another of his never-ending supply of plastic bags. He knelt and firmly rolled the body onto its back. Franklin’s eyes were open; his face frozen in fear and shock. To Bryan his eyes looked like they still held his last moment, his last look at life. The rain started again and Franklin’s eye sockets began to fill.