a mystery novel
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Chapter 17 -- More Secrets, More Lies
The next morning (Yes, I got up while it was still morning for the mundane world), voices seemed to be coming from the yard. Investigating, the patio still had two of the long tables set up with six women at each, all going through the files from the boxes. Besides Meg, Marion and Marion's mother-in-law, and Sally, this time there were several ladies from Meg's book club and a few others I didn't recognize. When I went out there, carefully staying within the limited boundary the electronic monitoring permitted, Meg greeted me, then said, “Don't worry, all of the discarded items are examined twice to make sure we don't miss anything. We've already finished three boxes and we're more than halfway through the fourth. And Sally and I are going through the relevant ones and collecting copies and versions of the same document, putting them in order so Tanya can review them more easily. She called: she's tied up this morning but should be here early this afternoon.”
Sally hadn't looked at me once and, more significantly, hadn't said a word to me since I'd been released, not even at yesterday’s festivities. I got my wife's attention then indicated Sally with a questioning shrug. Meg got up and motioned me inside out of earshot. “Sally feels badly that she was short with you on the phone that day. A policewoman had just left after a second visit with a lot of pointed questions about you. She was so upset by what had happened and the cop’s questions that she didn't know what to think.”
“Well, hell, none of us did. Tell her to forget it. I'm not mad at her or anything; just happy she's here helping.”
“I already did, but it might be better coming from you…. Oh, and I found out how the police got your fingerprints and DNA. The cop asked if they had anything you might have touched. Jackson gave them…”
“The cans from a couple of nights before when I watched a game with him on their new widescreen TV! I had a couple of Cokes then and must have left the empties with his beer cans. They always saves their recyclables, too; I didn't even think about that.”
“You got it. With everything going on, it totally slipped her mind until today when I went over some of what we were concerned about. She feels badly about that, too.”
“What, that they didn't conceal evidence from the cops? OK, I'll talk to her. But that explains something else: Tanya's contact said they processed three samples from a soda can, but it must have been really one sample from each of three cans, the one planted at the scene and the two I left at Jackson's.”
I went back outside, carefully, and addressed all of the women, “I want to thank all of you for helping with this. This probably doesn't need to be said but I'm going to say it anyway. Your main goal shouldn't be to find something that exonerates me – although that would be great – but to find anything that points to what actually happened. Anything you find, no matter whom it seems to implicate, will help us get to the truth and that's what will benefit me the most. And,” I looked straight at Sally, “if the occasion arises, you should of course cooperate fully with the police. Thanks again.” As I walked inside, Meg gave me a silent 'well done.'
By the time Tanya left, exhausted, the next night, between her and the Team Kurt Ladies Auxiliary they had actually turned all fifteen boxes of trash into half a box of well-ordered and indexed information. I'd thanked the ladies again, profusely, but later Meg told me they were more than happy to assist and couldn't wait for their next assignment. Did I mention their club focused on mystery books?
Later I performed the weather ritual again.
“Grab your gonads, old man, have I got a story for you! Don't know what it has to do with your case, but it's a beaut. And it didn't even cost you: fibbie who owes us talked for free. One of ours, Donnley, did him a real solid a few years back when he was assigned to the embassy in Istanbul searching for the source of some leaked intel getting to Iran. He got in a pissing contest with the resident cowboy who wouldn't let him interview somebody they were trying to recruit. He was getting nowhere until Donnley gave him a good lead – mainly to help him take out the other end in the Turkish government and get an asset of ours promoted, but he didn't know that. Anyway, he nailed his leak and alerted the Turks to theirs and made his international bones; put him on the fast track with the bureau.”
“Good play: two birds and all that.”
“Actually three, cause it pissed off the cowboy. And now four, since Donnley reached out to the fibbie and called in the favor, bought you this.”
“Damn, Donnley's still around? Figured he'd have froze to death or gotten eaten by wolves by now. He still out in the Montana boonies?”
“Yeah, and that's just about same thing he said about you, except he figured the smog or earthquakes would have gotten you. Now take notes.”
“Starting at the end, your vic was shot and falsely arrested in one epic fibbie fuckfest. She…”
“Wait a minute: where? We checked – her background was clean.”
“In California, San Francisco. Still using her married name even though she'd been divorced for a few years; she took back her maiden name afterward.”
“Yeah, her married name was Harper, Jean Ellen Harper. But we searched for that as well as all the usual variations with her middle name. Nothing.”
“And you still won't find anything. Now shut up and listen. About twenty years ago she was working as an office manager for an import/export business owned by a couple of brothers, Chinese. She started taking Mandarin classes at night, without telling anybody; figuring to make herself more valuable I guess, or maybe to open up her own business. Anyway she understood enough of something she overheard to make her realize her bosses were smuggling and told a girlfriend who was a fibbie. They wired the place and got Harper to play up to the brothers, like she was cool and could be a big help as long as she got a little piece of the pie.
“She learned when a shipment was coming in, and the fibbies raided the place right after it was delivered. Only problem, the local narcs also had a tip and went up on the delivery guy's cell phone. They followed him to the place with a half-filled-out no-knock warrant and raided at the same time. Major confusion, shots fired, the whole nine yards. When the smoke cleared, the brothers and Harper were lying cuffed on the floor while the locals and the fibbies screamed at each other for half an hour until somebody finally noticed Harper was bleeding. Ricochet caught her in the gut.
“Long story short, she had a bunch of internal damage and then a couple of strokes from blood clots. Doctors indicated her condition was exacerbated by the delay in treatment. She came out of it with moderate brain damage, diabetes, and reproductive organs so screwed up she couldn't have kids – although looks like they kind of missed the boat there.
“But while the locals and fibbies were still pointing fingers at each other, somebody didn't get the word on Harper. She was booked and even video-arraigned while doped up and handcuffed to a hospital bed. This was before she had the strokes when they still thought she was going to be OK. Nobody listened when she kept mumbling about working for the feds. Young local prosecutor trying to make his bones rushed everything, hoping to get her to cooperate and provide info before the feds took over.
“Punch line: the stuff being smuggled wasn't even drugs – not the usual kind, anyway. It was some Chinese voodoo medicinal powder that isn't approved here. Only a damn misdemeanor even though it sells for more than smack in Chinatown.
“Situation had all the makings of a major shitstorm, and there'd be more than enough to bury everyone involved up to their noses. The narc’s warrant was crap and this was at one of the times the fibbies were spouting a lot of bullshit about inter-agency cooperation and the SAIC was supposed to have notified the locals but of course he hadn't. Also hadn't registered Harper as a CI or gotten permission to use a civilian undercover in a sting. He must have had a hell of a rabbi because he didn't get fired, not even transferred, just told to clean up the mess he'd made.
“Somebody got Harper a lawyer, could have been the brothers but probably her girlfriend – who else knew? She would've been fired or stationed in Antarctica if they'd been sure. Anyway, the lawyer and both agencies got together and worked out a settlement, pulling money out of their asses or some drug dealer's pocket. All the records went away, Harper got a trust fund with an annuity that gave her enough to live on for life, and she got help finding a government job she could handle. Feds told the brothers that because the stuff was similar to some endangered species powdered bones, they'd get a decade in Supermax for every damn grain if they ever talked. To everybody's advantage to forget it ever happened, so they did. Fade to black. The end.”
“Wow! What a mess! But there would still be records: the indictment, the arrest, the hospital – gunshot wounds have to be reported. We found none of that.”
“Neither did we. What can I tell you, they made it all go away.”
“Well, we need to talk to the girlfriend; she still a fibbie?”
“Not anything any more. Died a couple of years ago of cancer. Our source got the story from her back at the time. I think they were screwing even though he denied it: totally against J. Edgar's puritanical rules. Unless they were both cross-dressing at the time.”
“Damn, this thing just keeps growing and growing! What's next, the President was Jeanie's lover?”
“Him or the UN Sec General, maybe a threesome; wouldn't be surprised. But none of this may be relevant to your problem.”
“Yeah, but it's too much of a coincidence if it isn't. Well, thanks. Be in touch.”
“No, old man, thank you: most fun I've had in ages! Good luck. Out.”
After thinking over this new information I found Meg and gave her the outline. She knew better than to ask where the information came from. I'd always kept that part of my life separate and she respected that, and accepted that there were a lot of places in the world that we could never visit. At least, I couldn't. By the time we met, I was pretty much out of the operational aspects anyway, mostly just functioned as an adviser for connected security firms until I retired.
* * *
The next morning when Tanya arrived after church (her, not us) Meg and I sat her down and filled her in, ending with, “Don't ask where the info came from, just believe it's good. Whether or not it has anything to do with my case, that's a different matter.”
She sat silently for several minutes, then said, “There's only one way this could have happened: Factual Innocence.”
“What's that,” I asked.
“OK, you know the two possible verdicts in a criminal case: guilty and not guilty. That's whether it's a jury or bench trial – that's where the judge decides without any jury. Well, in some places, including California, there's a third possible verdict that only comes from a judge: factual innocence. It's so rare some lawyers don't even know how it works, probably some judges, too. It is so hard to get it's almost impossible. The defendant has to prove beyond any possible reasonable doubt that he or she absolutely could not have committed the crime. The standard is so strict that if Christ were to be charged with suicide, He wouldn't be able to prove He hadn't nailed Himself to the cross sufficiently to justify that verdict.”
“Then we just have to check the records in San Francisco, see if that happened,” Meg stated.
“No, you don't understand. With that verdict, the judge issues orders to every relevant agency to completely seal for a period of time and then destroy all – and I do mean all – records that reference the case and all evidence, and then to destroy the orders themselves. No indictment, no arrest, no police notes, no court filings, no fingerprints, no DNA report, no ballistic report, absolutely nothing left. The same orders are also issued to outside agencies, like the feds. Of course, they aren't under the judge's jurisdiction, but they usually comply with that kind of order anyway. That means no info on NCIC, no fingerprints in AFIS, no DNA in CODIS. As the final step, all records of court proceedings, including the factual innocence verdict itself and the associated orders, are expunged. No official records of any kind remain and, legally, the entire criminal procedure never happened. In fact, the person can say on a job application and even swear under oath in court that he or she was never arrested, never charged, and it isn't perjury. It simply did not happen. That must have been done for Jeanie – and the Chinese brothers, too; it’s the only explanation.”
“So there's no way to verify this?” I asked.
“Only from witnesses or outside sources, like news accounts or on-line reports, things like that. And, from what you've told me about this fiasco, I doubt any pertinent information even reached the press. Plus the FBI undoubtedly scared any witnesses silent.”
“What about that number you found on the box,” Meg asked, “Couldn't you use that?”
“No, I checked. There was no such case, not in California anyway.”
There was a pause, then, “Maybe there's no such case because it was expunged like you said. So why not try the numbers a couple higher and lower? They should be from the same area and about the same time, right?”
Tanya and I stared at Meg open-mouthed. Finally I said, “Damn, Girl, you should have been working with me forty years ago!”
Tanya didn't say a word; after giving me an odd glance at my comment she just started pounding on her laptop. A few minutes later she exclaimed, “That's it! The numbers three less and one higher are from felony cases in San Francisco twenty-one years ago. Three missing numbers, so the Chinese brothers and Jeanie must have had separate cases. Holy Shit! This case is an enigma wrapped in a mystery inside a puzzle hidden in a box of lies! What the hell have we stumbled into? My investigator’s going to be working overtime!”
“Yeah, but we still don't have anything tying this to my case. It could all be one massive coincidence.”
Tanya and Meg both stared at me as if I were deranged. OK, I didn't believe that coincidence crap either.
* * *
We spent the next couple of hours preparing for our first press briefing per Tanya's agreement with the media. It was scheduled for one thirty and should last about thirty minutes, timed so the television reporters from back east could make their six o'clock news deadlines. We didn't have much to tell them, or at least that we could tell them, but we had to keep it interesting enough that they would stick to the agreement. We had decided to hold these meetings on Sundays since it seemed we were going to have most of our judicial conferences on Mondays and this way we could, to quote Tanya, “Drop a bomb without giving the opposition time to respond before court.” That, of course, presumes we would ever have said bomb to drop.
When the time came, the selected twenty marched into our backyard. Meg stayed inside, leaving Tanya and me to face the barbarians. Actually, they were surprisingly civil. Tanya described the status of the case at that point, then we took questions, most of which were directed to me. And most of which I could answer honestly with, “I don't know – I never met the lady.”
At a few minutes past two Tanya ended the session and, again surprisingly, they all left with a minimum of protests and importuning 'one last question' shouts. Tanya told me that this time they were satisfied just to be able to report that they had actually talked to the accused butcher; next week we would have to supply some real information.