Copyright 2015 MillieAnne Lowe, Orange County, California
The music of laughter, toasts, and clinking glasses floated out the open windows of Alioto’s upstairs dining room. Mario Barla, the manager of the world renown seafood restaurant, stood in a dark corner of the room observing his well dressed guests, seated at candle lit tables. One of Mario’s great pleasures is to be credited for the excellent service offered his guests, and so each evening, he also watches with the vastness of an eagle’s eye, his staff as they wait on their patrons. The first unusual event of the evening had been the quick departure of the guests from the center table. The group that he suspected to be FBI Agents had order aperitifs. All seemed well as they enjoyed their drinks until a quick moving rumor floating from newcomers coming up the stairs reached their ears. The person Mario deemed the lead agent had used the slightest nod and a slight flick of his index finger to signal his men to leave. According to a code, the team retrieved their overcoats and left by the same stairs they had used earlier. The last of the group to leave tucked three twenty dollar bills under his drink, and left without comment to anyone.
“Mister Barla. What’s going on?” asked a young waiter. “They just got here. Their drinks have hardly been touched.”
The impeccably dressed manager in a black silk suit and bow tie pulled the waiter aside and whispered.”Stephen, in this business you need to have a sharp eye and tight lips. Capisce? Something terrible has happened up by the turntable and your guests departed because of it. I suspect that they were all FBI Agents.”
“How could you tell?” asked Stephen in the same quiet tone of voice.
“Listen to me. You need experienced eyes like mine. I know where to look.” He patted the young waiter on the side of his arm and said, “Start looking at things without being seen. You can learn a lot when you know what to look for.” Mario tilted his head upwards with the air of the more intelligent class. He added, “There is much you can learn if you know how. For an example, a quick sliding look across the front side of a gentleman’s coat while he is unbuttoning it might reveal a slight bulge, and the constant lift under the arm might be hiding a holstered gun. I practiced this technique when I waited on guests as you do now. Someday, you will have experienced eyes, too,” he added with a smile. “Now go. Clear that empty table and take the money to the cashier. You can keep the change for your tip.”
Mario watched the smiling young server head for the cashier’s desk. To his own delight he saw the movements of Stephen’s shifting eyes travel from guests to guest, scrutinizing men in sport coats and jackets. Stephen had put to practice what he had just been taught. Mario chuckled to himself, Soon this young man will be trying to solve crimes.
FBI Agent Robert Parker and his team traveled back to the cable car turntable saying no more than, “Excuse me, please,” as they slid through groups of people going in the opposite direction. Their authoritative voices captured the attention of those on the lookout for trouble. “Don’t they look like the FBI? Did you see their matching overcoats and ties?” said a tourist.
Parker and two other agents, Sanders and Bronson, approached the crowd hovering around the turntable. They badged their way up to a small group of men hovering low to the ground by the cement planter near the path to Fisherman’s Wharf. Presenting their badges to the people pushing against them for a look at the victim, they asserted themselves, “FBI, stand back.”
The cable car engineers nodded to each other when one of them read a walleted identification and badge. They stepped aside and relinquished their positions to the agents who looked like men of strength and had the firm voices of authority. “I’m glad you’re here, man. What do you want us to do next?”
Agent Parker squatted down next to Jake who still had his hand over the victim’s bloody neck. “Who found this man?” asked Agent Parker.
“I spotted him,” said Jake. “I thought he was a drunk who had passed out.”
Behind them came loud voices ordering people to stand back. Detective Vincent Fontino, and his two top men, Detectives Marino and Scully, along with more police had arrived. They barged their way through to where Agent Parker tried to study the lethal wounds inflicted on the yet unidentified man.
Fontino squatted down next to Parker. He identified himself, “I’m Detective Vincent Fontino, SFPD, who are you, sir?”
I am Special Agent Robert Parker, FBI out of New York. My team and I were in the area when we heard the rumor of a death here.
Fontino nodded his head in affirmation, leaned closer for a look at the victim and pursed his lips. “Who discovered the body?”
Jake answered, “I did. I am Jake Henderson, the conductor for the cable car standing behind us. In my last check before pulling out, I thought I spotted a drunk passed out over here. I tapped him on the shoulder and rolled him over. That’s when I saw all this blood.”
In the background, police officers raised their voices, telling the crowd, “Move back even further.”
“This poor man tried to say something before he died in my arms,” said Jake. “I leaned close to his face but I couldn’t figure out what he tried to say.”
“What did it sound like?” asked Fontino as he eyed his men and signaled with his arm for more quiet.
“It sound like he said, “Save…arilyn. Save somebody… I couldn’t make out the name..and then he died right here in my arms. I couldn’t do anything to help him…” Jake’s voice trailed off. Fontino saw Jake shudder as he recalled that moment of death.
The 5′ 6″ handsome but overweight detective, in charge of investigation of all the recent murders in the great city of San Francisco, took in a deep breath and let it out. His mind searched for the right words to comfort this caring old man. Fontino shook his head in acknowledgement of the sadness Jake expressed. In the small amount of lighting from the lamppost, he could see that the conductor still held the dead man’s body as if protecting him somehow. Tears glistened down Jake’s aged lined face, spurring Fontino’s thoughts to the many tearful faces of the grieving survivors he had encounter in the last few weeks. The burning anger inside him grew and he felt his temper about to explode.
Agent Parker pushed on his knees to a standing position and offered Fontino a hand to get up. “I had planned to come see you tomorrow. My men and I are working on a case that led us here from New York.”
“Excuse me. Excuse me.” The urgency in the voice of the man trying to push through officials caught their attention.
“Who are you and what’s your business?” demanded Detective Scully.
“I am the owner of the restaurant across the street – the Buena Vista Cafe. My name is Allen Aherne.”
Agent Parker spoke up. “Let this man through. I know him.”
“How’s that?” asked Fontino.
“I remember him,” said Parker to Fontino. Then he turned to cafe owner. “Mr. Aherne. I’m FBI Agent Robert Parker. I had dinner at your place tonight.”
“I think I can identify your dead guy there,” Allen said as he pointed toward the body in Jake’s arm.
“I think we both know who it is,” said Parker.
As Allen moved forward, Parker brought out his left arm to block him. Fontino tried to pull Allen back. But both men were not quick enough. The horror that spread across Allen’s face confirmed his recognition.
“Oh, my God. I was afraid… I prayed it would not be him. It is Jim Stetson. I’ve known him for years. He is a police officer for the SFPD.”
“What makes you so sure this is him,” tested Fontino.
“His face and neck… it’s a mess, but I know those clothes and his haircut.” Allen choked, “We go to the same barber.” Allen turned his head away. An FBI Agent offered an arm, and the sobbing owner of one of the city’s great landmarks grabbed onto it as he crumbled at the knees.
“It seems all three of us know this man,” said Fontino. “Let’s not say any more until we get him down to the morgue.”Mr. Aherne, please do not share with anyone that you can identify the victim. We have to keep the information confidential. This is a murder investigation. Do you understand what I just said?”
“Yes. Yes, I do,” said Allen standing up straight now. “I’ll get my assistants to close up and I’ll meet you down at the station.”
“One of my men will come with you. He’ll drive you down to police headquarters and bring you to my office. We don’t want anything to happen to you,” said Fontino.
Allen’s jaw dropped. “You think I might be in danger?”
Both Fontino and Parker nodded their heads in agreement.
“Yeah, okay. Whatever you say,” said Allen with a trembling voice. He headed back to the cafe. Officer John Vickers acknowledged Fontino’s nod. “I’ll take care of him, sir,” and followed Allen through the unknowing crowd.
Fontino said aloud with frustration, “Where’s the ambulance? Did anyone call an ambulance?
“We changed the order and called the Coroner, boss,” replied an officer setting up bright orange traffic cones to cordon off the scene.
Blaring sirens and flashing red and white lights of an Emergency Medical Technicians’ van came to a quick halt. Two men carrying a stretcher approached Detective Fontino. “Why are you here? The Coroner and his men are supposed to be here.”
“The Coroner’s men are working overtime with pick-ups tonight. We’re here to help out,” said a technician whose name tag said Zachery. “It’s been a horrific day, sir,” he added.
“Don’t I know it,” said Fontino with sarcasm. Then he quickly added, “Man, I’m sorry. I’m starting to lose it.”
“All of us feel that way, sir.”
“Okay, but first, wait for the forensics team to take pictures. Deliver the body to the Coroner Gregory Simpson, and tell him that per my orders, he is to take charge of this body and report to me right away. Do you know who I am?”
“Yes, sir. You’re Detective Fontino, in charge of the…”
“Okay, all right, all right. I just wanted to make sure. Tell Gregory that this is double stat urgent.”
Stepping close to Parker, Fontino said in a low voice, “Thank you for coming here with your support. As you can see, this city’s resources are falling apart tonight.”
“What can I do to help right now?” asked Parker.
“How about an update from the time you met this victim. Come in my car down to headquarters. We can talk on the way there.”
“I’ll leave instructions for my team to be of assistance. We’ll hunt down this crazy slicer together.”
In the car, Detective Fontino found the details Parker shared were as fascinating as a hit movie. He absorbed the details of bank robberies fortified with bombings, and savored the clues that dragged Parker and his team across the states.
When they arrived at Police Headquarters, new reporters swarmed around them at the entrance. “We have no comments at this time,” said Detective Fontino. “We have a few leads, but as you know, we can’t share that information without ruining the case,” he said with a slight smile and a subtle wink of his right eye, the only charm he had ever given the press. He knew that at this high-tension time across the whole city, he had to keep a softness in their news devouring hearts or they would eat him alive in seconds.
Flashbulbs flared from cameras and the disappointed news hounds dispersed to the telephone booths to make their reports. One of Fontino’s men whispered in his ear. “The Police Commissioner is on the phone for you.”
Fontino nodded and said to Parker. “Meet me in my office. There’s a phone call I have to take.”
Ten minutes later, Fontino came through the door of his office so hard the door banged against the wall. He threw his overcoat on the credenza behind his desk. His two most trusted men, Marino and Scully, stood behind Agent Parker on either side of the cracked frosted glass door.
“Thank you, Agent Parker for sharing what you know and your offer of assistance. I just got the ramrod from the Police Commissioner. My whole department is in jeopardy of dismissal. I can use all the brain power I can get.” He paused and picked up a pencil. Twirling it between the fingers on one hand he said, “As you’ve seen, the city is filled with tension. People are scared.” He pulled out a stack of file folders from his lower desk drawer. The murders attributed to the Serial Killer have escalated. This collection,” he held up the folders, “are my murder files from just the last two weeks.” Fontino paused and looked around the room. No one said anything in response. “Now, with or without motive, this killer slices anyone he pleases. That is, if we are assuming correctly, that Stetson’s murder occurred while tracking down the Serial Killer.”
Fontino put the files away and sat down at his desk. “Parker, here’s a detail you didn’t know about Stetson. Chief of Police, Michael Logan, demoted and suspended him from his duties this morning. The specific reasons have not been disclosed, and maybe never will be shared. The Commissioner wants this matter kept as private as possible. Let me think… the Commissioner said, ‘I don’t want the public to have any more, police shenanigans to laugh about.'”
Detectives Marino and Scully shifted in their stance. Detective Fontino saw the understanding look on Parker’s face and continued. “The Chief of Police is fuming, too. One of the big questions is, Why, why was this cop having dinner with a suspected criminal?”
The lead detective dug in his desk drawer and poured out two Aspirins. He rubbed his brows with the palms of his hands. “Many of the men in the force already know about this. Stetson, an ass of a jerk, loved showing off his authority to women, and he loved making men squirm and do his dirty work. I think his brain was wired to collect information to use as leverage and profit.”
“You mean he blackmailed his own men?” asked Parker.
“Yeah. I’ve seen him do it from a distance, but I didn’t have any proof and none of the men involved wanted to step forward to testify against him.” Fontino tossed his pencil back on his desk. “We’ve all been hoping that one of the higher ups would do something about him. But this, this isn’t what we hoped for. And, the timing is terrible,” Fontino yelled. “Stetson’s death complicates all our investigations.”
Fontino swiveled left and right in his chair. “There’s always someone who is going to leak information or start rumors, then the media will have a rip roaring time citing dissatisfaction. Who’s going to believe that cops want to protect the city when they’re corrupt among themselves?”
Agent Parker nodded in agreement. “I understand your predicament. You will have my full cooperation. In the morning I will contact the regional office to qualify this case for additional support.”
A knock on the door interrupted their conversation. “Boss, it’s me, Pete.” Fontino nodded and Marino opened the door. “That owner of the cafe, Allen Aherne, is here to speak with you.”
“That’s good. Show him in, Pete.”
Fontino turned to the three men in the room. “So, while we hear what Allen has to say, my other men are questioning his staff about seeing Stetson tonight. Parker, I want you to sit in on my questioning. After that we’ll have him work with a police artist and see what we get.”
“Then I’ll take a look to make sure we are thinking about the same person,” said Parker as he stood up and rolled his shoulders. “My hunch, is that Stetson’s dinner guest is the Serial Killer, and I’m almost sure that this is the same man I’ve been hunting for across the states.”
Copyright 2015 MillieAnne Lowe, Orange County, California