Finneas Obi stood at the sink washing two teacups. He was a slight man with a short chin beard. San Francisco Police Inspectors Larry Leahy and Hieu Trang accepted his offer of green tea and sat at the kitchen table. Before entering Obi’s apartment building, Larry told Hieu to look at the home across the street, yes, none other than 900 Lombard, made famous in Vertigo.
Larry thought about the similarities between the movie and this latest assignment. The central event in the movie was a suicide but doubts lingered, and doubts in this case had arisen as well. On July 11, 2020, Marlowe Hastings was discovered on the sunbathing roof of the locker room building at China Beach by a dog walker at just after 8 in the morning. Larry and Hieu arrived at 8:25 that foggy morning and saw Mr. Hastings had a gunshot wound in the mouth and a suicide note stuffed in his pants. For a reason Larry could not offer, he had borne the note in his jacket pocket for the last three days. Perhaps, it had a little something to do with Larry’s firm belief, vociferously voiced to anyone who’d listen, and there were few, that the suicide theory was about as broad as it was long.
“Where are you from originally, Mr. Obi?” Larry asked, not sure he should inquire about place of origin anymore.
Flaunting a petite but muscular chest inside a shirt wide open to the sternum, Finneas spoke in a lively accent. “I’m from South Africa. My father is Nigerian, but I never knew him. My mum is Irish and crazy-wonderful. When I got a job offer from Pfizer in South San Francisco in 2015, I emigrated. Pfizer sponsored me for a green card, which I just got. I met Marlowe through Pfizer. He’s an artist, and he donated one of his color chalk drawings to the company to be displayed in the lobby, and I found his artwork website, and we hooked up.”
“Congratulations on the green card, Mr. Obi,” Hieu said.
The upbeat mood is weird – Marlowe is dead, Larry thought.
Larry and Hieu had learned from Marlowe’s fraternal twin sister, Milo Hastings, that Finneas and Marlowe were boyfriends.
“How old are you, Mr. Obi?” Larry asked.
“You’ve accomplished a lot so far. I’m told you hold a PhD. Is that right?”
“Yes, PhD in Immunology, University of Pretoria, with a focus on research in preventive medicine.”
“Mr. Obi, I’d like to read Marlowe’s suicide note out loud. Would you mind?” Larry asked, couching his desire to insist on reading it with pacifying words.
Larry waited while Mr. Obi’s side of San Francisco warmed the kitchen. It was half past 11 on day 3 of the investigation. Larry looked toward the midday 3-D light streaming through an open window as the sweet charcoal odor of barbecue began wafting into Apartment 19, and it caused him to re-savor the flavors of the 4th of July. COVID-19 had quashed San Francisco’s fireworks, so Larry and his wife and Hieu and his wife had celebrated the night at home with prime rib from Alexander’s Steakhouse.
“Sit down, Mr. Obi, while I read Marlowe’s suicide note.”
I am ashamed of myself. I know God made me this way, but I’m not happy. I beg for your forgiveness, Finneas and Milo, the only people in the world who really love me. I love you.
Larry looked Mr. Obi in the eye and said, “Sound like Marlowe...Finneas?”
Marlowe’s sister told Larry that Marlowe could not have written the note, even though the handwriting looked like his, because it did not reflect how he felt about himself. Larry waited, massaging the rosary in his pocket, which he always carried in the event of his death and for Mary’s promises to Dominic when, at the incipient moment so much could be revealed, the doorbell rang. Larry wanted to hear Obi’s answer, but Obi hopped up and ran into the hall.
Obi opened the door.
“How do you do? I’m here to retrieve Leahy.”
Larry jumped up.
“C’mon, Leahy…and you, Trang. We have other business.”
Out on Jones Street, Dempsey said, “You’re going in the wrong direction. Treat the Hastings matter as a suicide. I read the report, the suicide note, the interview with the sister. It was a suicide. Move on.”
“That’s final. Good-day.”
Larry stepped up into the red Chevy Equinox he had parked in someone’s driveway and grabbed the steering wheel as if it were turkey throat on happy day.
The veteran, naturally disbelieving after 40 years as a police officer, thought earnestly and long.
If there were an eyewitness in every case, we wouldn’t have to consider circumstantial evidence, but we don’t have an eyewitness in every case and none here, but that doesn’t mean Marlowe committed suicide, so what does Dempsey want, and why did he show up without an invitation, not that he needed one, but it was so unusual, what must be going on his head, or is it outside interference, but I don’t plan on getting the wrong man and Finneas is from a foreign country and is making good. What do I do next?
Hieu spoke up, “Larry, avoid Columbus Avenue. I hear there’s going to be a demonstration in front of Saints Peter and Paul.”
“Right up there with removing the Columbus statue on Telegraph Hill. These rioters are Marxists who hate America and the Catholic Church. But don’t worry, Hieu, the Church has been on earth for 2,000 years and will be here until the end of time.”
“I know, Larry, you’ve told me that several times.”
“Oh, sorry, Hieu, but it’s upsetting watching anarchists destroy my city…and yours.”
Hieu remained quiet and looked out the window.
In his partner’s profile Larry saw the repercussions of all that was going on in the police department and around the city and especially in the lurid halls of governance.
He’s upset, too. How can you tell a police officer, who is sworn to uphold the law, not to arrest looters who are breaking the law? Morale is low, and Hieu is keeping a positive attitude. Yeah, I do love you, Hieu, and all the other officers.
They hadn’t moved an inch from the driveway of “who knows who”.
“Hieu, you have the Hastings file with you, right?”
“On the back seat.”
“Read it to me, please.”
He reached for the yellow folder and opened it.
“Body found July 9, 2020. Name Marlowe Mark Hastings. DOB 5/5/1990. Address 712 Steiner, San Francisco, Ca. We interviewed the person who found the body, Lance Bartlett, 330 Sea Cliff Avenue, San Francisco, Ca. He said his bedroom overlooks China Beach. He got up that morning at 7:05 and took his golden retriever out for the customary morning walk. Lance said he heard nothing unusual during the night. When asked if he heard a gunshot or anyone screaming, he said no, but the pounding ocean waves would make that difficult. He was asked if he has video cameras on the exterior of his home, and he answered in the affirmative. He has a Night Owl 4K system of eight cameras with night vision, monitors in the kitchen and master bedroom, one camera over the front entrance and one camera over the rear entrance. He was asked if there is a camera on the Sea Cliff Avenue side, and he said the camera has a partial view of the street. We told him to give us video from that camera for the day the body was found and the day before. He said he would comply. Hieu...uh, I asked, ‘What did you see?’ Answer: ‘I saw a dead body lying on the sunbathing roof of the locker room building. It was fully clothed. That’s when I called 9-1-1.’ The call came in at 8:05 AM. We judged Lance to be telling the truth. The medical examiner’s report lists 1) one puncture on the upper left extremity, 2) the presence of a lethal amount of Botulinum neurotoxin in the blood in the amount of 0.14 µg, 3) a single gunshot wound in the mouth, 4) one 9mm shell that penetrated the head and exited the nape and lay approximately five feet from the body, and 5) a Kimber Micro 9 Amethyst firearm found approximately three feet from the body. No fingerprints were lifted from the gun, and the serial number was scratched off. No drag marks at the scene indicates the body was carried, meaning more than one person was involved. Wallet found in a back-pocket that included CALIFORNIA DRIVER’S LICENSE NUMBER E0997589, etc. etc. Cause of death suicide.”
“Righto. We know Marlowe and Milo owned matching aqua-blue, convertible-top Porsche Boxsters. Video showed several cars going down and back up Sea Cliff Avenue. All we could see were tires, and license plates couldn’t be read.”
In the rear-view mirror, Larry thought he saw Finneas driving a…a shiny-new Jeep Grand Cherokee.
That’s right. I saw a Rolex on his wrist and a gold chain on that dark-skinned chest. How can he afford these things? He’s only been in this country five years or so? Do a google search on what scientists doing research make per year. These looters and the man following me all have malice aforethought. Maybe I should get Immigration Services involved.
“Hieu, look up green card requirements.”
Hieu was looking at his cell phone and googled it.
“Larry, Homeland Security...Immigration says, ‘You may be eligible to apply as an immigrant worker if you are a first preference immigrant worker, meaning you have extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics, or you are an outstanding professor or researcher.’ Finneas is a researcher!”
“Now look up the salary of a researcher working for a place like Pfizer.”
In under a minute Hieu found what they needed. “Pharmaceutical scientists just starting their careers earn an average salary of $85,000. With experience and increasing responsibility, their compensation can grow significantly. They also can receive bonuses throughout the development of a new drug.”
“Look behind us. See if that’s Finneas driving a Grand Cherokee.”
Hieu did and said, “It could be.”
“All right. We’re close to Macondray, my favorite dead-end. He won’t know it’s a trap if we get him on an unfamiliar street.”
“Yeah, we need to make Finneas to talk.”
“Yeah, what he needs is a high colonic at a Napa fat farm to force everything out.”
“In one ear and out the other!”
Larry gave out a horselaugh that took his Chevy in the direction of a parked car. With the Chevy nearly righted again, he said, “That’s what Dempsey does, the end of every day.”
Hieu looked the other way, but Larry could see his smile.
“Well, Hieu, this brother following us is from another country, so it’s possible he doesn’t know, and he’s about to learn, you don’t follow a cop in America.”
From Jones above the Broadway tunnel Larry turned right onto Bernard. There was a chance Finneas might balk at going the wrong way on a one-way street, but he didn’t. Another right and Larry was positioned to enter Macondray. He slowed down at #126 and pulled ahead one space to allow Finneas room to park. Careful to avert their eyes from the Grand Cherokee as it slowly approached, he and Hieu walked back to the wooden gate at #126, which Larry knew would open with little more than a push, and in they slipped. There they hid behind the retaining wall holding up the street and listened for the engine to quit. Larry left the gate ajar just enough to let Obi think he could enter, but not enough that he would see them crouching, and Larry confidently knew he would hear Obi’s steps because a short man wears boots.
The squeaking gate swung against a wild fennel blasting its way out of a crack.
Larry inhaled sweet licorice and with a big smile said, “Surprise!”
Hieu jumped forward to prevent Finneas from falling down the rest of the steps, for the house hid in a cavity of the hill.
“What brings you into my world, Finneas?” Larry asked.
“This place is dope.”
“No, it’s not. It’s dirty and steep. You almost fell into the front door, or is it the back door? Explain why you were following me.”
Finneas put his hand against the retaining wall to balance himself, and Hieu stepped back.
“You didn’t get a particularly good opinion of me. I wanted to make sure I made a good impression. Nothing wrong with that.”
“Only Jesus Christ has made a good impression on me.”
“Mr. Obi, in your apartment, Inspector Leahy asked if the suicide note sounded like it was written by Marlowe?”
“I don’t want to know the vulgar details of his suicide, so if you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Mental health experts say it’s best to talk about suicide, especially if you are a family member. Don’t you consider yourself a member of the family?” Larry asked.
“He went to the emergency room a couple of weeks ago with symptoms of the coronavirus. He was depressed about that.”
Larry said, “The autopsy showed he had it but was good. Didn’t he have a follow-up with his doctor? You would know.” Larry knew that the autopsy said nothing about Marlowe being free of the virus.
Obi crossed his arms and said, “No. Symptoms can linger for more than a month. There’s that actress Anna Camp. She suffered at least that long. The virus can lead to pneumonia, respiratory failure, and septic shock, ending in death, complications having been caused by cytokine release syndrome, also known by its more colorful appellation, cytokine storm. It happens when an infection triggers your immune system to flood your bloodstream with inflammatory proteins called cytokines. They kill tissue and damage organs, and, for your information, Mar didn’t mention a follow-up visit.”
“There was a follow-up. Why wouldn’t he tell you?”
“That’s my business.”
“No. It’s my business. Marlowe is dead, and an investigation is underway.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
“What did you hear?”
“Your captain was talking to you outside my building.”
“You heard a conversation out on a busy street from three floors up?”
“Then why was he at my apartment and why did he order you out?”
Larry’s thoughts were tumbling.
What now? The paramedics told me the COVID-19 symptoms: chest pain, confusion, blue lips, can’t fully wake up, cough. Haven’t seen Finneas coughing. His lips look normal for a morning in San Francisco. He’s a researcher and has to be alert. I can’t wrestle with his head. Oh...give it up. We’ll get at this another way.
“Do you have allergic asthma?”
“No, Mr. Leahy, I don’t have the virus.”
“You’ve been tested?”
“Yes, at work.”
“All right, Obi, make sure you confine yourself to home and work and don’t go anywhere else. Now take your delicate self back up those stairs and get out of here, and next time we visit, put your face mask on. Am I clear?”
“More than 100 vaccine projects are underway and remdesivir, the drug used against Ebola, is looking good. Good-bye, Inspector Trang.”
Larry turned to Hieu after Obi left and said, “You learn our business by doing the dirty work. What bit of garbage about this man will we pick up next?”
“Dempsey said to lay off.”
“I know, but you know that’s never stopped me from doing a side job.”
“Larry, I have something.”
“When we were in Obi’s apartment, I grabbed some toothpicks. Remember, we saw toothpicks scattered around Marlowe’s body, and I bagged them. Well, when we were talking to Obi, I saw some toothpicks in a little porcelain cup on the table and grabbed some. Want me to send them to the lab?”
“Was there any DNA on the toothpicks at China Beach?”
“I’ll call the lab,” Hieu said.
“No, let me.”