A Collection of Short Stories from the City of the Golden Gate
Jodi L. Puglsey
Shelley Gordon Cure
Latest chapter (Continuations the story builds. Click to pick up and read on).
Story 1 – Spiders Walk, by Keith Johnson, Carl Duke and Foster Johnson
Spiders walk, cross legged. Natural darkness creeps across a once
brazen horizon. San Francisco will not sleep yet. San Francisco only draws a breath.
“Man, it’s cold. Not normal cold, this place cold. San Francisco has a cold like no other town. The sun can be shining when you wake up. You step out on the balcony with a cup of coffee and slip like a vaudeville clown on a patch of ice where you watered your tomatoes.”
I was careful, looking both ways, scanning the tracks. Not afraid of the security guards. Not even the cameras. To them I was another homeless man in a place where they didn’t want me to be. The entry to the Millbrae tunnels. Millbrae Bart station, a good southern entry point on the peninsula’s Bay Area Rapid Transit rail circuit.
What I was waiting for was the right time. Track that heads north, busy. The platform teeming with suits, skinny jean punks, hipsters, pinheads and freshly made up frillies trying to put their eyeliner away before the doors opened. All swerving. Pushing yet trying so hard to avoid touching bodies. Eyes focussed always down at their mobile subconscious replacements. When the beep went off and “closing doors” was announced, I flexed the balls of my feet. The train accelerated. The driver glanced at me with no emotion in his eyes. When the train left the station I slipped beneath the platform and ran as fast as I could behind it.
Into that hole. The black sooty tube. The entrance to the underbelly of the Golden Gate city. Alarms went off. But the security barely started off their perches. Too cold. Too ridiculous to even think about chasing me. Bart smelled bad enough without getting my aroma on their fingers.
Two hundred yards in I found the entrance to a utility room. Locks shattered. I fumbled with my phone. A waste of time. No service. No WiFi God forbid. But the location had to be at this distance somewhere. A forgotten room. Inside, a fluorescent light flickered. It hummed and seemed to cast off a bit of dust at each vibration. Switching on and off. My eyes adjusted and then the smell. The stench of something dead. Something dead? More like someone dead. Who was I kidding? It reeked just on the other side of another door. I leaned against it. Hard to budge, something blocking it. Something heavy but also soft. When the door cracked a bit that stench knocked me to the floor. I applied a smear of Vicks Vapo rub pulled hastily from my jacket pocket. Since I was on the ground I used my feet and legs to force the door open.
The other side. A dead man. Dead for a while. I’d say two weeks or more. Dressed in blue jeans, army surplus jacket, no shoes. His feet were white, but at the ankles his skin was black with soot. Somebody was wearing those shoes having removed them post mortem. Had to find my gloves, surgical gloves. I rolled him over. Checked his pockets. No ID. I pulled down on his shirt collar so I could see his shoulders. He had the tattoo I was looking for. Poor guy was an Army Ranger in better days. No sign of a violent end to this wretched man’s life. Nothing. But it doesn’t take a surgeon to see that whatever made him stop breathing was not a natural cause.
No evidence that he died there either. Definitely dragged into this room from the one I came from, heel marks like snail tracks through the dust and soot. None on his heels. I took photos with my phone. Fired up a cigar even though I didn’t smoke. I needed it just to breathe. This was a tough one. And trying to see something probably not there wasn’t going to happen by persistence. I recalled the number of steps it took to get to this location, backed quietly out and jogged along the tracks until I could find an exit with cold grey sky on the other side.
A quick phone call to the authorities. And another to my bosses.
“Hello. This line is not secure. Jonsenn reporting in. Found your package. Not enough info to confirm that what I was looking at was another one. But damn sure he was a Ranger. Heading to the locals place. Will follow up before daybreak.
3:00AM. San Francisco Coroner’s Office.
“Who the hell let that guy in here? Get him out.”
“Hey Mark. It’s me Stanford. Calm down.”
“Geez you stink. You smell worse than this guy.” The Coroner, Mark Stetter pointed to my Ranger buddy stripped naked with his chest cut open on a cold stainless steel table.
“That’s only because that guys had a shower. And I haven’t in about eight days.”
Stetter laughed. Then he stopped and looked me in the eyes. “Is this what I think it is?”
“What do you think it is?”
“Who are you working for this year. Army, Air Force, Marines?”
“Judge Advocate General. I got sent over last summer.”
“The Department of Defense does not send a man in costume to check up on a routine autopsy.”
“No they don’t. Unless the guy on the table used to be one of three past members of D.O.D. and recently on similar tables. And especially if the guy is a Ranger. No ID I bet?”
“I seen him before.”
“Alive or dead?”
“That’s on a need to know basis…”
“Get the hell out of here.”
“OK. OK. I can’t tell you how or when. But I do have an idea from a photo passed to the FBI and then onto Army investigators. In their database, apparently this is staff sergeant Michael McHenry. Went missing from the VA downtown, about four months ago.”
“That figures.” He said.
“No it doesn’t” Stetter stared at me with a inquisitive gaze, rolled the staff sergeant over and rubbed a recently sutured wound on the back of his knee.
I kept talking. “You see. Mr. McHenry here wasn’t homeless. Not even close. He was in the VA for a knee replacement. And the knee he was replacing was shattered on a construction site where Michael here was the lead architect. As a matter of fact, he owned the practice and from what I can tell. In his case the Architecting business was good.”
Stetter sat down on a three wheeled chair and began to glide across the floor circling McHenry’s body. “I’m not going to say that this is above my pay grade. Because it’s not. But I don’t know about what you’re talking about and I got a feeling I don’t want to. You better unload your intel to the chief of D’s. He’s on his way.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Homicide lead Binus Dukemejian. He’s on his way over.”
“Oh shit! Well that sounds like a great excuse to disappear. Stetter.” I started moving silently backward toward the door. The last thing I heard from Stetter was something about sticking around to co-sign his report. He had his face in McHenry’s chest cavity and barely noticed I was gone.
As I walked I felt like someone was trailing me. I searched in vain in the reflections of windows and the side view mirrors of cars stopped at traffic lights. I shrugged it off, just paranoid. Just like I should be. I didn’t know it at the time. There was another player in the game. Not a pawn, not a rook, a king or queen. A spy. Sitting on that Millbrae Bart platform. A while back. Watching me. He recognized me through the homeless guy costume. Therefore he had already formed a conclusion on what I was in San Francisco for and what I was attempting to find out.
Did I mention it was cold. Like no other city cold. It was a San Francisco style chill. Walking briskly back toward the tombs wasn’t warming my blood the same way a Bloody Mary would. So instead I headed to the seediest of hotels I had already found. Intent on taking a shower.
The motel room smelled of a thousand sweating unhappy sojourners on a trip to nowhere. The torn light shade. Shoe marks above the floor trim. Old covers, old pillows old and severely abused bed. The shower was the only place to take refuge. I closed my eyes and let the cleansing hot water diffuse the cold. Black camouflage makeup formed small puddles and rivulets near the drain of the tub.
Feeling clean, respectable I glanced at my reflection and wondered if I had still had the fortitude to catch another killer. All of the filth I had felt on the outside of my body was replaced by a deeper and everlasting layer just beneath the skin. The shower was just a short reprieve.
Then a cryptic text message on my unclassified mobile.
“Meet me if you’re really in town. Heading to the Boondocks”.
So, there was a man I needed to see about a horse. A sea horse to be exact.
He sat alone at the mouth of the Bart rail tunnel, miserable in the piercing, cold Bay wind, wondering whether this would be the day he decided to just not move off the tracks when the train came, or maybe he’d just quickly, without too much thinking, lest he talk himself out of it, reach out and snatch hold of the third rail and see if he could cause a city-wide blackout.
Fuck that. A Starbucks was just around the corner, and he could always panhandle enough for his favorite hot drink: a double espresso mocha with cinnamon. There was a time not too distant in the past when he could have purchased every Starbucks from Benicia to Santa Cruz. But that was before Stanford Foxton Jonssen blew into town on one of those frigid winds.
Stanford Foxton Jonssen did blow into town, but he was unnoticed by this chief rival, KJ Johnsstone as I reveled in the languid breezes that blew through my work place, before 7:30 P.M. They were rough, cold wet, as the gentle rains poured down. They came from the west the traditional direction at that time of the year, October through March, the time that the sea was too rough for ships the biggest thing that mankind could present to the power of Neptune, pagan God of the sea. They came limping in to be repaired at that season because otherwise they would fail and be destroyed.
We helped them, gave them the needed sustenance that babies need to survive, we repaired them in their lessor months of commence. My hands contracted as the bolts of electricity coursed through my body, the sound of the “old guys'” behind the big lights laughing as the shock went through me registering into my future. I wanted that future to be mine at that time but knew that my time was then. Knew that I was “that guy” and had shown it to be so, was there because I had earned my place. The ” Old Guys” knew that it was true, though they didn’t stoop to say it. I didn’t care. It was water off my hip boots that contained three Bud’s in one leg and three in the other. And a sack in the watch pocket. I knew that the job was the thing and I was there for it.
The mild breeze that blew Stanford into town was welcoming in that it didn’t warm up the Bud’s that had been placed on the blocks on the apron of Dry Dock #2 at Bethlehem Steel Ship Building Facility at San Francisco, CA. They were welcome later that night, as the cold that came close to midnight was intense, not so bad as it would be at 6:00 A.M. as was always the case. That night we had a four foot swell that washed onto the apron. We laughed because the 1,000 ton ship that we worked under did not move one wit. The four foot swell did not reach us as we drank the beers. As the brews were consumed I felt a twitch of something that I might have been concerned with if I had been someone else.
That twitch was the feeling that there was a threat to my existence. It could also have been fatigue.
Dog Patch is an area that might not exist in S.F. any more. That is where we met up to decide who we were as Men. Stanford Foxton Jonssen and me. “The Boondocks” was the place, not the original one at Third and Collin Kelly Way but the new one on Three
Street in S.F., Potrero Hill 21st Ave. one block down from 20th and Illinois.
A Seahorse can mean many things as an object or even a real thing. When I was younger I found one at Ocean Beach entangled in seaweed where the waves washed up. It was smaller than I expected, I wanted them to be enormous, not the size of a real horse. But not as small as 1 and 3/4 inch. Reminisces are fine but that leaves out the fine points of this tale.
Stanford Jonssen was to meet me this time at the real Boondocks. It was up the street to the west of pier 38 and 40 at the corner of Thomos P. Kelly Alley. I was known there from the many hours that I had spent there. The owner, Willie did know me as KJ, because he had read my graffiti on the surfaces of the mens room. I had written on the ceiling, “KJ is above it all!”
Willie was tall. San Miguel Darks were cold and good there as was everything after a hot afternoon day on steel decks of a Navy Ship. I waited and this time sipped instead of drinking as I usually did. Time was wasting. I had to get across the Bay bridge as soon as the traffic calmed down. This day I sipped because I was to meet my rival, a pretty formidable guy in his own right, Stanford Jonssen.
There was something I had to tell him. Because there was an investigation he had been working on that wasn’t common knowledge. It had gotten back to me because people tell me things, they always had and they always would.
Corpses were turning up in unusual places and they had similar secrets. Two days before, I had been walking along the edge of the bay and had seen a group of three people looking down into the water. I strolled up to them. It had been a difficult day at work so I was not in a hurry. When I reached them and looked at what had drawn them to that spot. I saw a floater. Not uncommon to this area of water.
A floater, is a dead body in the water. I had seen many between Pier 28 and Pier 40. This one was different. It had a tattoo on it’s shoulder. It had the mark of an Army Ranger that was still visible even though his hands had been eaten by the crabs and water creatures that live to eat dead things.
I stared for a while taking in the details. Then I left knowing that there was only one person that I could tell this incident to. My rival. I called him, he didn’t answer, the voice mail said ” You’ve reached my computer. I am not here at this time, leave a message and I will call you back as soon as I can” He called back in twenty six minutes.
“What, do you need?” He asked me.
I told him that I had info that he might want. His response was “want or need?”
My response was “you pick.”
I didn’t know at the time that Stanford Jonssen was a computer guy. Back in the days when I heard about the guy they were not common and I would have shot it with my 9mm pistol if I had seen it. A computer was the mark of the Beast to me at that time. Even now I feel the same. They are too close to the reality of our existence, surrounding every facet of our lives. Ah, that’s now maybe. Not then when they were not as important, or pervasive in our lives.
Well, anyway I had seen the floater, the effect that it had on the passerby and myself. I wanted to leave before it began to stink. It was bloated and any break in it’s surface would have produced a stink that you would not be able to imagine. I split and walked up the street to Boondocks a safe distance away. The smell would not reach me there unless I expected it or waited for it.
I ordered two San Miguel’s knowing that I would need them or Stanford would get there in a short period of time, he was expected. I didn’t want to tell him what I knew, because information is the thing for a king. I knew he wanted this info, but I wondered what I could get for it. To me it wasn’t worth anything, but to someone else It might have had some value. After waiting through a beer and a half, he showed up. Walked through the double doors, using only of them.
I had been aware of him for a number of years never having seen him or met him. I knew at that time that it was Stanford Jonssen by his person. I was set aback by his personality and physical prominence. It didn’t cause me to fear, but he did make me want to be cautious. I could see that he had a Colt .45 under his armpit, my choice being a Smith & Wesson Special, made me consider the importance of this dude. The people that he dealt with on his daily basis. I changed my opinion quickly as I asked him to sit down. He sat with an inquisitive glance and then looked down at the table.
He then asked me, “what are we drinking?”
I looked at him and said “maybe some shots now”
A way to maybe catch him off guard. I didn’t expect it to work but I needed any advantage that I could think of to keep on an even keel. I told him of my walk up from The Embarcadero and finally worked back to where it had started. That thing floating in the Bay…
Spiders Walk Chapter 2
An interesting meeting with K Johnstone produced more data than you could hold in a case of San Miguel Dark. It also produced a severe hangover. A necessary evil symptom for getting the word on the streets. I was drinking soda water, glass after glass to help me capture the info on computer before it slipped away into my scattered long term memory place. Taking notes while talking to a man like Johnstone was the type of thing frowned heavily upon by not only him, but the denizens of the Boondocks as well. So I hopped upon hope that the dialog in its entirety would be worthy and true. It would need to be, as I expected it to be a part of my trial testimony sworn to under penalty of perjury. That is if the puzzle came together and produced the expected arrest and confinement of a serial killer.
Club soda has an amazing side effect on memory. As I entered the info into the secure laptop the pattern became fuzzy at first and then remarkable in the coincidences I was hoping to see and finally found.
Three human bodies. Devoid of life. Three tattoos, simple the word “Rangers” in all caps across a label shaped like a patch for a soldier’s outside shoulder. One identified the others not yet. It’s easy to identify the body of soldier even with no dog tags. Everyone photographed on entry and on exit from the service. What did they have in common? The one I found recently visited the VA hospital. The one that started this whole thing died in a VA hospital. The one in the bay? We may never know. They were homeless men or at least appeared to be homeless men. This was an interesting point as I thought about the ease it took to make my own self appear to be homeless.
So were they really homeless? The body I found was not. He was a successful architect. I immediately requested a records request on James Hardy, the man who at first was believed to have died of the flu the in a VA hospital in Virginia. Post autopsy it was discovered he died of complications of a damaged immune system. symptoms were more like a person poisoned. My gut instinct was he had the flu and a little help by someone intent on killing him. Just as I punched in Coroner Stetter’s number into my handheld, the record arrived in my inbox.
James or Jimmy as he was commonly known, was not homeless. He actually was a local celebrity of sorts. Especially at his local veterans association where he donated 22 thousand dollars at Christmas for renovations of the club house. Well known to the general public as a morning radio show host.
- Last known appearance on the radio in Jan of this year.
- Called in sick to his employer a week later.
- Wife filed a missing persons report three days later.
- Identified after being found in an alley with someone else’s driver’s license and insurance card. The VA determined his identity after another patient stubbornly continued to call him Jimmy on sight.
- Lapsed into coma three days after waking multiple days but unable to speak.
- Expired the last week of February on a Sunday.
- Autopsy completed on the following Tuesday.
Apparently at this VA, if the flu puts you into a coma, people get suspicious.
I called Stetter.
Hey Mark. It’s me Jonssen. Anything pop out at you on the tox screen for staff sergeant Michael McHenry?”
“Who? Oh the ranger. I haven’t looked at it.” He paused making the sound of gathering papers. “Hold on.”
A moment later he picked up the phone again. “Seems your man here, died of the flu.”
“You can tell that from a tox screen?”
“Well sort of. The report shows an unusual sample of a flu virus in his blood. “
“Yes, because it also shows he was vaccinated for the latest flu. The flu in his body is not the strain that is going around this season. It’s a flu virus that manifested a few years ago. McHenry had the Avian flu. The bird flu! His tox screen showed H5N1 in his blood. A small amount of THC from ingested marijuana.”
“Was he a user?”
“Hard to tell. You can get that amount walking down any street in San Francisco if you pass the right alley. There are a number of chemicals in the report, that don’t make sense. But, you did say he was an architect. Was he onsite, building an oil and gas refinery?”
“No. He was a condo builder.”
“This guy reads like he worked at Dow Chemicals. Listen Stanford, I’m going to put him back on the table. Run a check on lung tissue and liver tissue again.”
“Ok. Hey, can you keep me posted?”
“I’ll do my best.”
Also, do me a favor. Now that he’s been cold awhile, run the black light on him. See if he has any micro puncture wounds?”
“I checked myself. Wait. What do you mean micro?”
“If he was injected with the bird flu with a regular needle the killer would know you’d find the puncture wound. There’s other ways to get some virus into a body even if its carried in with a solvent like MDS.”
“Time to get out the microscope camera. I’ll call you tomorrow or the next day.”
We said our goodbyes and tapped off. Three dead rangers. I was willing to bet the floater in the Bay wasn’t feeling good enough to go for a brisk swim. I was thinking if he would only surface, but Johnstone described him landing on the dinner table of the creatures of the deep and made that a highly unlikely possibility.
I had two service records to comb through. Before I could get started. Stetter’s face showed up on my phone. When I answered him he was shouting.
“You better get down here. I’ve got two more. One of them is in such bad shape, you’ll need a hazmat mask. The other I can’t tell, if he has a tattoo, or I should say, had a tattoo. He’s missing his right arm. Not recently either.”
“I’m on my way.” I said. tapping off the phone and tossing it into my jacket. This just got critical. Serious. Like serial killer serious.
I have never seen so many people crammed into the viewing area of the coroner’s morgue. Apparently more people knew about this situation than just me, Stetter and KJ Johnstone. I casually observed the room. Two could have been reporters. Two were street cops. And four men looked a bit too serious and similarly dressed to be anything but Justice or DOD. I needed to get close to them and the only way I could was to slide in front of them. They were mumbling in whispers. I couldn’t make out any of it. But I did get a strange sensation in the ear hairs that my original assumption was wrong. These four were not investigators. No. These four where politicians or at the least aides to politicians.
Stetter pulled back the sheet on the torso of a bloated body. KJ’s floater had surfaced. Unfortunately without arms and legs. When he did that he looked out at me and waved towards me and to his assistant to let me in the door. I started to move. But before I could slide away from the politicians one of them put his hand on my forearm.
“Stanford Jonssen?” He asked politely but with no sign of being an acquaintance.
“And you are?” I asked.
“First confirm that you are Jonssen.”
“OK. I’ll play. Yes I am.” I said more politely than I expected to.
“I’ll show you mine when you show me yours.” I replied.
“Look, I’m Severeid. I’m the vice secretary for Secretary Jack Gerome. The Navy.”
Hey quickly passed me an official DOD business card. I showed him my badge and ID.
Stetter was still staring at this little greeting party from the window. Then he quickly walked up to it and knocked on it.
“Guys, I need to go.” I said to the four bluesuits.
“We need to talk as soon as you are done.” Severeid said. It sounded more like an order than a request. I glanced at the auxiliary door of the autopsy room. Then nodded to affirm.
“This might take a while.”
Severeid nodded to affirm as well. All four of them reached for their phones as I moved into the autopsy room.
“Jesus! I need a mask.” I almost shouted. The assistant handed me a respirator. Stetter waved me over and then began to roll the torso over very slowly.
“What do you got?” I asked. “Another Ranger?”
Stetter let go of the torso, now on it’s stomach. “See for yourself” He wheezed from inside his respirator. “Get your phone out and get a photo of this.” Stetter pointed to a large tattoo of a 19th century Navy Cuttership. It was from shoulder to shoulder. Elaborate, fully colored beneath the bloated waterlogged skin. I did as he asked. Took four photos at different angles.
Stetter turned to the viewing room, and glanced at the four bluesuits. After a pause he carefully shifted in position looking me straight in the eyes as he tried to not make it obvious he was blocking their view. He motioned with his thumb at a part of the tattoo with an intricate symbol.
“Not a Ranger.” He whispered.
In the riggings of the Cutter an eagle perched behind an anchor, head facing down. In one talon a flintlock pistol. The other gripped a trident. John Doe might just be a Navy Seal. I took a few more photos of that detail as well.
I glanced at the naked body of a one armed man. Stetter followed my glance. We both shifted to the side of this body, again blocking the viewing window.
“So this fellow here showed up last night. He was found in a wooden crate at US Customs at San Francisco airport. The crate arrived in a frozen food shipment. He’s as fresh as the day he died. As you can see no tattoo on his left arm or shoulder. We obviously don’t know if he has one on his right arm. He showed up without it.
“ID?” I asked.
“No. I was leaving that to you.” Stetter grinned beneath his mask.
“What about his clothes? Shoes…”
Stetter cut me off. “How you see him is how he arrived in the crate. Completely naked. “
“I’ve got dental records. A blood test is in the works. I was hoping maybe you could locate his arm?”
“Are you kidding me?”
Stetter was serious. “He lost his arm a long time ago. I’m talking about a prosthetic arm.” He rolled the frozen body on it’s side. “Take a look at this. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Stetter pulled down a piece of rubber material that capped the top of his forearm bone. The tissue was sheared surgically so he was amputated by a surgeon. He obviously didn’t lose the arm in an accident or a battle situation. At the end of the bone was an aluminium connector of sorts. It was smooth, round and attached with silicone bands to the flesh. The odd part was a flat panel on either side with electric junction posts.
Stetter ran his gloved finger over the interface. “Artificial arm with sensory connections and input output circuitry. I’ve seen this in robotic prosthesis that take human nerve stimulus to make the arm behave nearly like a normal human arm.”
“Not cheap. Not something you see everyday. If it was experimental we can find it. If it was built to replace a the valuable arm of say a sniper or a future soldier project, we are out of luck. It might not be science fiction. It will certainly be top secret.” I’ve seen two interfaces like that before. One for a very wealthy tennis player who lost an arm to cancer. The other was for scientist developing devices to detect land mines. Unfortunately he was a hands on kind of guy who just happened to have a very bad day testing in the field. Both prosthetics were developed by the same major university in London. That alone made me curious.
“Wait a minute. How do we know that this guy is even in the military?”
“We don’t.” Stetter replied slowly.
“I emailed them to you this morning. There’s a serial number on the surface. No evidence of a common manufacturer. That’s why it’s probably a defence product. I have no idea other than…” Stetter trailed off and stared into space for about thirty seconds.
“Take a look on the stencil on the crate he arrived in.” Stetter showed me a photo of a wooden crate. I recognized it immediately as custom built box for an over the shoulder rocket propelled gun. But, it was the wrong length.
“That’s not U.S. Army.”
Stetter look surprised. “I wouldn’t know. But look at the stencil”
On the lower left corner in a hastily sprayed stencil the words “Who Dares Wins” was spray painted. I had to think for a moment.
I looked at Stetter and said. “Special Air Service, U.K.”
Stetter lifted his mask to rub his chin, then thought better of it. Dropping his mask he leaned back against the table, and nodded at the bluesuits.
“Somebody is trying to tell you guys something.”
I have an uncontrollable tic that fires off sometimes and makes me look like a gnat flew up my nose. This time it was so bad it shifted my respirator. Stetter looked at me slightly widening his eyes.
He counted his finger tips. “Two US Army Rangers, one possible Navy Seal and one possible British SAS.” While he was talking his assistant handed him a digital tablet. He glanced at it and looked up at me.
“Each one of them died from complications of a weakened immune system and the Avian flu. You need to find out who has access to that much H5N1 virus.”
“And…” I followed, “how it got to Heathrow, Virginia, San Francisco and Davey Jone’s Locker” I pointed to the tattooed torso.”
Stetter turned his back to the bluesuits and whispered to me the answer I already knew. “Atlanta”.
to be continued…