The fourth chapter of my new novel. Thanks for reading, and all comments are welcome.
Wayne C. Grantham
Mars and Regis were searching Valerie MacDougal’s Gaslamp District loft, which had been converted from commercial use to residential condominiums decades ago.
San Diego’s Gaslamp District was an attempt, successful for many years, to convert the old, dingy, peril-filled downtown area into an upscale urban center with clean and nicely appointed bars and lounges, fine restaurants, entertainment houses, stores and theaters. Part of the effort was to take old garment works and other light industrial buildings, vacant as these business moved to less expensive business and light industrial malls away from the downtown area, place the stores, art galleries and restaurants in refurbished ground floor spaces and place upper floors for lease or sale.
These lofts, as they came to be called, were sold or leased as empty spaces, often the size of the entire footprint of the building, the interiors to be built and decorated to the desires of the buyer. Many were very luxurious; others were left bare, with temporary partitions and furnished sparsely, with a portion devoted to the owner’s hobbies or businesses.
MacDougal’s loft had been the third floor of a four-story hardware warehouse, which had been divided into four apartments, years previously. The apartment had two street-facing walls, both covered with multi-pane windows, facing the streets of an intersection. There was a restaurant/lounge with jazz and blues combos playing most evenings.
Her apartment had rooms built and looked a lot like an ordinary luxury apartment that might be located in a wealthy suburb. Walls were papered tastefully, the floor was covered with a good-quality carpet, the furniture was made of solid hardwood with quality finish and upholstery. Mars caught himself wishing he could afford a place like this.
Mars was digging into her computer, lining up files that might provide information about her associations and pastimes, to save on a disc for further study at his desk. Regis was going through dressers and closets.
“Nice clothes!” Regis said from inside one of the closets. “Some were hecho en Mexico.”
“From Freestate, more likely,” Mars said without looking up.
“Some from there, too. I hear there are no taxes down there.”
Mars tapped away on Valerie's computer. He paused and he looked up as Regis knelt to look at some storage boxes on the floor of the closet.
“Bullshit!” he said. “Where has there ever been a country with no taxes.”
“That's what I heard, from a, uh, sort of a relative from Guadalajara.”
“Careful, Partner!” Mars looked up again. “You got any relatives that are here illegally, and don’t report ‘em, you're out of a job.”
“They're tourists,” Regis grinned.
“Yeah.” Mars shut the computer off and pocketed a disc. He looked through the drawers of a dressing table that Regis hadn’t gotten to.
“Check this out,” Regis said, taking a small package out of a carton. “There are two whole boxes of these.”
After removing it from its packaging, Regis held up an object that looked like a rather large bracelet, about four inches wide. He pressed a button on the edge.
“The screen lit up,” he said, looking into its face. “Um, wait. There are little rows of icons, most of which are meaningless.”
“Meaningless to you. Probably not to her, and those who know how to use the thing. We'll take ‘em with us. There’s probably an instruction booklet or something in there.” Mars carefully put everything back in its place. “Why are we bothering, anyway. Horiuchi says he's gonna take the case over.”
Regis set two of the cartons on an evidence cart they’d parked in the living room. “We don't have to tell him everything.”
Mars went into the corner of the bedroom, next to the toilet, which had a pair of sinks and a makeup table. He looked through the makeup chest and the table’s drawers. “I ain't gonna tell him anything.”
Regis continued to examine with the electronic bracelet. He turned it in his hands. “I just found a little keypad in the screen. Not the same as ours, though.”
Regis touched some keys. The view on the watch face changed to a camera view. The image zoomed dizzyingly as he moved and turned the device. The image zoomed around the room, then settled on Mars’ full body at the desk, as Regis discovered how to aim it properly. The screen brought the image of Mars’ face into close-up as Regis played with the device.
Mars’ voice erupted from the bracelet-computer. “More Freestate shit. We'll take it with us.”
“Wow! Sound, too! Mars, this is something we can use!”
Mars finished looking through Valerie’s makeup cabinet. He looked into the toilet area, which was partitioned off from the rest of the bedroom.
“We don't want to give those things to Horiuchi,” he said.
“He'd just sell 'em,” Regis agreed.
There was another, smaller closet near the entry. It contained jackets and a couple of coats. While Regis set the two cartons on an evidence cart, Mars went through the outerwear. Then, Mars turned his attention to a small desk outside the door of the closet, going through the drawers one by one.
“There’s some Freestate money in here.” Mars said, as he rattled through many small items in the drawer. “Gold and silver coins of smaller denominations, as well as some US money. Coupla boxes of those....bangers.”
“Those explosive cartridges? We’d better take them with us,” Rodrigues suggested. “What’s the Freestate money like?”
Mars examined several coins as he picked them out of the drawer.
“Who knows? They’re marked in fractions of a troy ounce and some are in grams. Two gold dime-sized coins, a silver ‘quarter,’ a coupla copper ‘pennies,’ and a gold octagon a little bigger than a quarter.”
Mars dumped all the coinage into a ziplock baggie and put the cartridge boxes on the evidence cart.
Regis’ unmarked police sedan parked in the lot in front of the Free Trade Company, which had been the name on some pay stubs found in Valerie’s apartment. Mars and Regis went inside to find a tastefully furnished reception office. A pretty young receptionist, apparently of Mexican ancestry, was on the phone. Receptionists, Mars mentally confirmed an earlier observation, are always young, and pretty.
“I'll give you his voicemail. Good afternoon, sir.” She said in accent-free English. She punched keys on her phone, and then looked up and greeted the officers. “My name is Elvia. How may I help you gentlemen?”
Mars and Regis flashed their badges.
“Your manager, please?”
“Mr. Gambucci. A moment?” Elvia pushed buttons, spoke to the intercom. Mr. Gambucci? Some gentlemen are here to see you. San Diego PD.”
“A moment.” A smooth voice answered.
“We heard,” Regis interrupted. “What kind of business is this?”
“Imports,” she answered.
“Imports? What do you do, though?”
“We facilitate getting shipments through Customs, for our clients.”
A fit-looking, impeccably groomed fortyish gentleman came in from a rear area. He wore a very stylish, very expensive-looking pin-striped black suit that fit him perfectly.
“I’m really in the wrong business.” Regis muttered to Mars.
“Officers, I am Sergio Gambucci. I manage this office.” He came over and shook hands with Mars, then Regis. “How may I help you?”
“I’m Lieutenant Marlowe, this is my partner, Detective Rodriguez. We have a few questions.”
“Of course.” Gambucci indicated the door from which he’d come. “Shall we sit?”
They stepped through the door, into a short hallway and entered a conference room. Gambucci indicated that they sit around a hardwood conference table in a room with a large chalkboard on one wall and a larger video screen on another. The chairs were upholstered in leather, and were very comfortable. Elvia entered with a platter with coffee and rugelach. She served the guests first, then her boss.
“Do you have a Valerie MacDougal in your employ?” Mars broke the ice.
“Oh, Valerie.” Gambucci shook his head. “Has she gotten herself into trouble again?”
“Bad trouble,” Regis said. “She's dead.”
“Oh, no!” Gambucci cried.
Mars could see no deceit in his surprised and shocked look.
“Murdered. Last night.” Regis continued.
“What did she do here?” Mars asked.
Gambucci took a deep breath to help compose himself. “She was a field agent. She worked at the port, mostly, inspecting shipments with Customs officers.”
“Does your firm have business arrangements with any Freestate California exporters?”
“Of course not,” Gambucci said, not hiding his bitterness. “I'd love to, if Sacramento wasn't so hard-headed about it. Because of the lack of state regulation of manufacturing there, they're constantly creating new consumer goods, hardly any of which appears on this side of the Wall.”
“I've seen some of their stuff,” Mars admitted. “Too bad we can't get any of it here.”
“Sixty years ago, Baja California was a sleepy little Mexican state in which everyone was poor, overtaxed and...”
“...Lazy.” Regis put in.
Not giving in, Gambucci added, “Lazy, at least partly because there was no incentive to work. Mexico took nearly everything you could earn, leaving you poor whether you worked or not.”
Regis picked out a rugelach; popped it into his mouth.
“And then?” Mars asked.
“And then along came Thorsen. He brought billions with him. You know, nobody realized how wealthy Thorsen was. He was rated only in the four hundreds by Eurobank...”
“...But he kept a lot of South African diamonds under his bed.”
“But Mexico didn’t repay the loan at the scheduled date,” Gambucci continued. “When Thorsen foreclosed on his loan, he insisted they give him sovereign ownership of Baja in lieu of payment, as stipulated in the loan contract. Presidente Zorrillo got nasty and refused to deliver.”
“Coincidentally,” Mars added, “Presidente Zorrillo was found dead in his safe room...”
“...Shot three times in the head with his own pistol. Noticias Mexico reported it as a suicide.” Regis paused to scoop up another rugalach. “Mmmm! These are good! His VP assumed the office and immediately fulfilled the terms of the contract...”
“...And Thorsen got rich all over again selling real estate.” Gambucci took a long drink from his coffee cup. “There was no shortage of people with money to invest in tax-free ventures.”
“And live in a tax-free country,” Regis said, looking at Mars.
“I still don't believe that tax-free shit. Everyone would be going there,” Mars scoffed.
“Everyone is,” Gambucci said. “I’ve been thinking about it myself. Unfettered by taxes and government regulation, they're creating an amazing variety of consumer goods and services.”
“This is a lot of fun, but let’s get back on topic,” Mars said. “We have a murdered woman, who appears to have been, among other things, a dealer in illicit goods. Miss MacDougal had a lot of Freestate goods in her apartment. It seems convenient that she happened to work for an import house”
“Could she have been making private deals?” Regis asked.
“Well, that'd be smuggling, wouldn't it.” Gambucci smiled over his coffee cup. “I'm sure it's possible, given her political views. She was no dummy, though, and did nothing to arouse the suspicions of our staff. She's never gotten into any trouble.”
“The first thing you asked when we mentioned her name was, ‘has she gotten herself in trouble again?’” Regis reminded him.
“No, I was referring to her politics,” Gambucci explained. “She was always agitating--rallies, protests. Nothing serious.”
Mars set his coffee cup on the table and stood. “Getting killed is pretty serious.”
A half-hour later, Mars and Regis were driving on the freeway headed toward downtown. They were in heavy traffic, moving fairly fast, given the roughness of the pavement. Regis was driving. Mars was on the car's computer.
“See if you can miss one of those potholes occasionally,” Mars grumbled as his finger was jounced from the “enter” key to “delete.”
“Hitting as many of them as I can, Partner,” Regis said, checking his mirror and making a lane change. “Well, that was kind of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink interview, wasn’t it?”
Mars tapped away at the keyboard. “She was freelancing, but he knows it. He may have even been taking a cut. She would've needed the firm's resources.”
“None of our business, unless he killed her.” Regis’ words were distorted by one of the rugelach pastries Gambucci had insisted on his taking, as he chewed. A paper plate on which a couple remained was sitting on the dash. He swerved within his lane to try to avoid a nasty pothole, but hit it anyway. H
“He didn’t kill her.” Mars said. “He liked her. Maybe loved her, though he kept that from showing. Much.”
“I don’t think he killed her, either. He doesn’t seem like the killer type.” Regis glanced in the side mirror and changed lanes again. “I think some Freestate tech would do California a lot of good.”
The car hit another nasty pothole, shaking the entire vehicle.
Mars swore. “A little road repair would do us all a little good!”
A black Suburban with darkened windows, followed. It made repeated quick lane changes in an attempt to pass cars, causing nearby traffic to brake and swerve.
“Strange....” Regis mused.
“What's strange?” Mars kept pecking away and didn’t look up from the computer screen.
“How, even with all that money, Baja California could go from being the asshole of the beach resort world, to not only the best thousand-plus-mile beach resort on earth but a first class high-tech mecca, in just fifty-odd years. Whoa! Look here!”
“Some crazy bastard behind us,” Regis said, shifting his eyes back and forth between the road ahead and his mirror, “is trying to get someone killed. Black Suburban, fairly new. I’ll let him pass and get his tag, and call it in.”
Mars picked up the mike; took a look back. “I’ll call it in now. Shit! He doesn’t have a front tag!”
The Suburban, closer behind the police car now, cut off a truck. The truck, brakes screeching, swerved onto the shoulder.
“Units northbound I-5 south of Imperial. Reckless driver late model black Suburban. I’ll have the tag in a minute.”
The Suburban pulled alongside. The two detectives didn’t notice the Suburban’s passenger side window going down right away, nor did they see the pistol appear.
“Here he comes,” he added. “I....Shit!”
Regis saw the gun just as the window beside him blew inward. Holes appeared in the windshield. The car swerved. Regis' head snapped back against the headrest, blood splattered on the car’s interior and on Mars’ suit jacket and on his face. Mars grabbed the wheel, fighting to keep the car under control and simultaneously grabbing for his pistol and ducking low in the seat. Before Mars could do anything more, the Suburban bumped their car, which careened off the freeway and down a ten-foot slope.
Mars, head and shoulder covered in blood and glass fragments, fell out of the car, gun in hand. He stumbled around to the other side of the car, keeping himself from falling by holding onto parts of the car. He checked Regis, who was very obviously dead, part of his skull blown away. Mars lowered his head for a moment, letting anger build. He half scrambled and half clawed his way up the slope to the freeway shoulder.
Traffic was moving normally, still crowded, but moving near fifty to fifty-five miles per hour. There was no sign of the Suburban.
A car had stopped on the shoulder. A man, dressed in a shirt and tie, ran toward him. Mars leveled his pistol; the man quickly raised his hands in front of him and stopped.
“Police officer,” Mars challenged. “Hold still and keep your hands where I can see ‘em. Did you see what happened?”
The man complied. “Yes, sir. I saw the Suburban crash into your car. Looked to me like it was deliberate.”
Mars lowered his weapon. “Did you see where he went?”
“He just kept going,” he said, pointing in the direction they’d been traveling.
“Did you see the shooting?
“Shooting? No! I didn’t see any shooting!”
A black-and-white screeched to a halt, partly blocking the right lane, lights flashing. A uniformed officer got out, pistol drawn. He used his car door for cover.
“Drop the weapon and raise your hands, both of you!” Mars and the witness complied. The officer approached, pistol held ready.
One of the few good things that have changed in California law enforcement since sovereignty was declared was that because of a court decision five years previously, police were no longer allowed to compel suspects to prostrate themselves. Mars had never liked that, and had refused to do it. He preferred the “hands on the wall, step back and spread ‘em” technique. Making a man lie down on the bare ground was both distasteful for Mars and humiliating for the suspect. Not all suspects are guilty.
“Detective Lieutenant Eric Marlowe, San Diego PD, Homicide. Can I show you my shield?”
The officer stopped about fifteen feet from the two men, keeping them covered. “Very slowly.”
Mars produced his badge holder, held it at arm’s length, open. “Get a call out. Late model black Chevy Suburban. Collision damage to right side. No front plate. Occupants armed and dangerous. Coupla minutes north of here by now.” Mars ordered.
The officer moved close enough to take the badge holder from Mars, stepped back to examine it, then holstered his weapon.
“Stand easy. Patrolman Art Niedermeyer, Chula Vista PD. You’re injured, sir. Are you ok?”
“Make the call. Now!”
That was when Mars noticed the holes in his jacket sleeve, and felt blood on his arm.
The officer stepped back and called in on his shoulder mic. Mars picked up his gun and put it away. He took the badge holder back from Niedermeyer and pocketed it.
“I’m ok. My partner's been killed. This citizen's a witness.”
Niedermeyer spoke again into his shoulder mike, “Officer down. Northbound I-5 at......”