Chapter 9: Hot Seat
It wasn’t Thursday enough for me. Usually Thursdays were about coasting down the incline of the week towards the weekend. Not today. My whole week had flattened out and was crawling along on its belly. And the weekend kept moving further uphill.
No one went out of their way to specifically irritate me this morning. Peter was off at his contract job. No one at work paged me with anything urgent. No nasty e-mails waited for me at the office. It was just the barbed hook of Alicia’s death tugging at the back of my mind that was getting to me.
I’d never been a religious person. My parents sent me to Catholic school but it didn’t take. Oh, the guilt, that definitely took. That and a mistaken belief that life should be fair. Maybe some of what happened to Alicia was guilt. Guilt over failing Trisha. And some of it was balancing the books. If the universe wasn’t going to be fair, I would.
My phone rang. It was an outside call, so I answered with the full official greeting. “Good morning, Puget Regional Bank, this is Heidi, how may I help you?”
“It’s Special Agent Martins. I got your fax. Thank you for your help.”
The heated words with Rubin scurried around the pit of my stomach. “No problem, anything I can do to help.”
“That was why I’m calling. I wanted to talk to you about a few things.”
I thought the report was pretty straight forward, but you could never tell with non-computer people. “Okay, do you want me to schedule a conference room or should we ask Rubin if we can use his office again?”
Tracy’s voice almost imperceptibly changed tempo. “Why don’t you come to my office? As a matter of fact, can you come down today?”
I clicked open my calendar. I was stuck in a couple of meetings but the afternoon was wide open. Why not? I’d never been inside FBI headquarters. “Say around two? You’re just downtown, right?”
“Yes, corner of Third and Spring.”
Cool. I could just walk or take the bus. “I’ll see you then.”
The line went dead and I put the phone back into the cradle. I wondered if I needed to bring along a dead-tree version of my analysis script. She’ll probably want me to write up my notes as well. Maybe the FBI can take on Alicia’s murder if I explained to them how it might be connected to a cover-up. They surely had access to better information than me. Not to mention they had the legal right to investigate.
I didn’t ask Tracy how long the meeting would go. I might get follow-up work from her. I called Peter’s cell. He answered with a chirpy “Hi Babe.”
Oh yeah, caller-ID. I wished I had it on my work phone. “Petey, I got this thing tonight at work.”
His reply came as short huffs over the phone. He was doing his fake laugh. “I know, I know, always working late. Just thought I’d let you know.”
“I understand, I’ll make do. Anything else?”
“Naw, have a good day, sweetie.”
“You too. Later.”
Lunch turned out to be one of my cans of tuna at my desk. Such is the glamour of a Senior Technical Specialist. The network printer inventory took way longer than I originally thought it would. Plus I wasted a bunch of time in pointless meetings. But I did more or less clear off my work plate before two o’clock rolled around. I tossed a “got an off-site meeting” at Mitch as I dashed out the door.
I grabbed a free downtown shuttle and rode it all the way down Second Avenue from Belltown. I got off in the canyons of huge buildings of the business district. Since it was midday in one of the busiest sections of town, the sidewalks were pretty crowded. I got lucky. No panhandlers accosted me and no twerps hit on me. Maybe today could be a Thursday after all.
As I approached the corner of Third and Denny, I found no markings to indicate this was a Federal building, much less the Seattle FBI field office. The walls above the sidewalk outside seem overly populated with plastic bubbles, like cycloptic gargoyles. I recognized them from PRB. They were surveillance video cameras. In the big glass lobby, I noted the preponderance of flags inside. There was also a uniformed guard standing by the steel frame of a metal detector. Must be the place.
I pushed through the doors and the guard immediately stood up and faced me. “I’m here to see Special Agent Tracy Martins.” I tried my best to sound like I was supposed to be there.
He pointed to a plastic bowl. “Please empty your pockets and step through the metal detector.” Great. I didn’t count on this.
I filled the bowl. In went my work badge, cell phone, a PRB pen, pager, wallet, two quarters, half a roll of mints and my pewter NCC1701 key chain. I decided to leave my glasses on since they were thin-framed. The guard poked around in the bowl like a little boy sifting through his morning cereal for additional marshmallows. I walked through the archway of the detector and nothing rang, buzzed or beeped.
He pushed the bowl back to me with a bored “Thank you, please see the officer at the desk.” Behind a big window at the back of the room sat another guard. Next to him were a dozen black and white monitors. Maybe for all the cameras outside? I poured the junk back into my pockets and walked over to the window. I supposed the glass was bulletproof, like what we use down at our drive-through line. The guard looked at me expectantly. I repeated my earlier request. “I’m here to see Special Agent Martins.”
The guard nodded and stood. That’s when I noticed the black rubber handle of a sidearm in a belt holster. He pushed a small pad of Post-its and a ballpoint pen through the slot under the window. “Please print your full name and I will inform her that you’re here.”
I fumbled with the task of writing without a surface to lean on, but I wrote my name in my neatest penmanship. He took the yellow square and made a phone call. I couldn’t hear what he said but I guessed he was verifying my story. He hung up and slid me a green plastic badge with a clip. Written in large white letters are the words “Visitor, FBI Escort required.” Just like the bank, but with more guns.
I dutifully took my seat in the plastic waiting chairs at the far side of the lobby. The entire lobby was over a thousand square feet. Other than the guard and his metal detector, it was deserted. It looked like a lot of wasted floor space at downtown premium square-footage prices. Your tax dollars at work.
I checked out the shrine to America, the only other feature in the room. There was a large flag, complete with tassels hanging from a post. Next to it, the classic green flag for Washington state. I saw no signage in the entire lobby that indicated that this was an FBI facility.
A loud click-shunk startled me out of my thoughts. As the sound echoed through the chamber, a side door that I didn’t notice earlier swung open. Tracy, in yet another dark pantsuit, walked towards me, her heels clicking on the marble floor. I stood and gave her a nice hello. She greeted me with a nod and immediately directed me to follow her back through the door.
She led me down a carpeted hallway, past numbered doors with little windows that had shutters. She keyed a numbered pad and opened another door into a smaller marble lobby. This one looked a lot friendlier and more like how I imagined the FBI should look. The walls were lined with little glass displays, like a museum. I paused to glance into one of the alcoves and saw an old-style revolver mounted on a velvet panel. Noticing my interest, Tracy commented, “That’s what agents used to carry back in the Hoover days.”
“Interesting.” Too bad I loathed firearms. We walked on.
By the elevators, I saw a giant seal hanging on the wall. It was your standard Government Issue symbol, round with stars and leaves and shields and that kind of stuff. No eagles though. On the seal itself, their motto was written in three scripted words: Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity. FBI. Seems that computer people aren’t the only ones who like to make their acronyms fit.
We rode a deserted elevator to the third floor in silence. We exited onto a floor full of offices and the buzz of people working in them.
The wall across from the elevator had ten plastic frames mounted in two rows of five. Each held a blue and white wanted poster, complete with a scary photograph and a shopping list of crimes. Tracy quickly led me down another hall and into a small conference room.
The conference room had the look of a typical PRB conference room, including the cheap plastic-metal chairs and laminate table. One thing was different, there was a long metal grab bar mounted across one wall of the room. It looked like those things you’d see in handicap bathrooms.
Tracy said, “Please have a seat. I’ve got to get my notes and I’ll be right back. Would you like some coffee?”
“Uh, no thanks. What’s the bar for?”
Tracy blinked twice before she answered, “For securing subjects.” She left and shut the door with a click. I was alone in the foreboding room.
Securing subjects. They handcuff people to those bars when they’re interrogating them? I couldn’t help rubbing my wrist.
Tracy’s manner had been rather stilted and formal. Up until today, she’d been much friendlier. Now that I was at her office, she was all business. It bugged me when people were like this. It gave me the feeling that they’re really upset about something and trying too hard to mask their emotions.
Back when I first started at the help-desk at PRB, we had this manager, Jim. He was one of those older guys with long hair that was braided into a ponytail. If Jim had thought he could have gotten away with it, he would’ve worn Birkenstocks to the bank. He’d been at PRB for years, working his way up from mailroom to help-desk manager. Whenever we had a problem user, he’d defuse the situation with his disarming laid-back manner.
One day we had this big all-staff-must-attend meeting. I popped by Jim’s desk to ask him who was covering phones during the meeting. He told me that the help-desk wouldn’t be answering support calls during the meeting. Vice president Hartford wanted full attendance. A dozen but-but’s ran through my head, although only one got out of my mouth before he told me there would be no exceptions. Those were his exact words, “there will be no exceptions.”
The entire staff of the Finance department crammed into the lunchroom auditorium. Rusty thanked us all for backing him up on all the changes he’d made during his first hundred days on the job. He told us that he was building something important and we all had a stake in it. Then Rusty began to talk about how certain individuals were not fitting in with his new vision. This is when I knew what he was talking about. Jim was slow and touchy-feely while Rusty’s culture was one of fast-paced accomplishment backed up by the ravenous drive to succeed. Needless to say, Jim got the axe that day, right in front of everyone. He had to know it was coming. Jim was the kind of guy who should have retired with a big going-away party at his favorite tavern. Instead Rusty bullied him into attending his own public execution.
I was jolted out of my memories as the door opened. Tracy walked in with a foot-high pile of folders. How long had she kept me waiting? Nice of her to dump me in this bare room to stew for a while. I hoped she didn’t do it on purpose. I’m not a criminal to be interrogated.
She smacked her folders down onto the conference table and took the seat directly across from me. She said nothing and fussed with her folders.
The awkward moment of silence stretched into several minutes, as Tracy efficiently sorted and stacked folders. She didn’t seem to be looking for a folder in particular, just putting them in various categories.
“Is this really about the report I did for you?”
Tracy answered quickly, which surprised me. I thought she hadn’t been paying attention. “It’s about the on-going investigation.”
“All these folders… this is some of the stuff that turned up in Canada?”
Her answer didn’t come as quickly this time, “Yes.”
“So did you catch someone within the bank trying to use the information in some kind of scam? Like what the Chief was doing?”
Mentioning the Chief momentarily broke her rhythm and it took her a second to find herself and explain. “No. The Chief chooses his victims carefully and then creates an elaborate false persona to go along with it.”
I nodded an uh-huh.
“What we’re talking about here is large scale, assembly-line identity theft. Not something a single individual like the Chief would be doing. We believe that certain persons are making use of the credit information.” Her voice lowered to a monotone. “While other persons, most likely persons within Puget Regional Bank are stealing the identities and selling them.”
“Yeah, I figured it was some kind of identity theft gang.”
Tracy said nothing for several awkward seconds. “There’s speculation that it might be someone within your bank’s computer group.”
“I see...” Was Tracy already aware of what was on Alicia’s computer? The script was definitely the work of someone with a decent amount of computer skill, but I didn’t think it was created by one of our people. But where did she get it? Not from Alexy, he wasn’t much of a computer guy. So where?
“Your credit report shows sizable credit card debt and nearly no assets. You’ve got quite a few money problems, Heidi.”
Tracy suspected me? Is this why she called me here today? I hadn’t done anything illegal. Was I in trouble because I did a little work for a few shady characters? It was legitimate work. It could get me fired, but arrested? She was staring at me waiting for an answer. The best I could come up with was “Me?”
She looked me in the eye and said, “Look, I want to trust you. My gut tells me you’re not a bad guy.”
“Bad guy, network guy, I seem to be a lot of things to a lot of people.”
She ignored my remark. “But you are involved in this.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Some of the things that were found in the Canada raid traced back to Puget Regional Bank.” She looked over at the folder piles. “And some of those things traced back to an address in Rainier Valley.”
“Rainier Valley?” I repeated her out loud.
She continued, “We found a mail drop set up to handle false addresses for stolen identities,” she added, “Among other things.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“We had that mail drop under surveillance.”
The whine of the building air-conditioner filled the room with a dull throb. I heard sporadic scraping noises as I fidgeted in my chair.
Tracy’s voice was low but clear when she asked, “Is there something you want to tell me.”
I remained silent.
She opened a folder from the top of her pile. She slipped out an 8x10 black and white photograph. It was a street picture of the printing office. A young woman in glasses was exiting from the front door. You could clearly see her face. My face.
“Ms. Hoffman, you are making yourself a person of interest in this investigation.”
My answer was a growl. “I think I’m the only person interested in this investigation.”
Squat from Tracy. Her scolding tone reminded me of Sister Mary Fortuna. Suddenly I was back in school and this time it was serious. Were they going to expel me? I wasn’t thinking straight.
“I’m giving you a lot of leeway here. I need you to trust me.”
I tried my best, but my response still came out whiny and pleading, “But you can trust me.”
“Then talk to me.” She slid the picture back into the folder and dealt it back onto the pile.
I let out the breath I’d been holding. “Alicia had a bank account at this mailbox service in Rainier Valley. I was checking it out.”
“What do you mean by checking it out?”
“I didn’t know it was a mail drop. I just thought it was the address of someone involved.”
“How did you come across this particular address?” Now the cop-questioning tone, “How exactly?”
“Looking at Alicia’s accounts,” I mumbled.
“Did Mr. Jimenez ask you to do that?”
The blood rushed to my head and I snapped at her. “What?! Rubin? Are you kidding? He doesn’t even think it was a murder. None of you do.”
My sudden outburst made Tracy pause. After a few seconds, she came back at me, calmly enunciating each word. “Listen, I investigate financial crimes. I do not handle murders.”
“And just what are financial crimes?”
I got what must be the textbook answer. “Fraud, embezzling, identity theft, money laundering, check forgery—”
“Do you really think PRB is being used to launder money?”
Tracy looked at me for several seconds before she said, “I’m not sure.”
“But you do know that stolen identities are involved.”
She looked exasperated by my fishing expedition. “These things get complicated. We know there’s a stream of dirty money coming from Europe that flows down through local financial institutions. It’s hard to sort out the distinct entities and who is doing what.”
“Listen, what are you doing? If I find out you’re involved...”
I stared and said nothing. Tracy continued, “I’m giving you a chance now to come clean with me.”
My answer surprised both of us, “Oh, I’m involved.”
This warranted a squeak as she pushed her chair back a half-inch from the table. Again, the clear slow enunciation, “How are you involved?”
“I’m involved because I care. Because I think Alicia was murdered.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Isn’t this whole thing suspicious? She has all that expensive stuff at home. My report clearly shows that she was the one stealing financial data. Then all of a sudden, before you could ask her about it, she turns up dead. What if her accomplices killed her?”
Her answer was fast, blurt. “Accomplices? Who would you be talking about?”
I wished for a good answer to give. None came. “The mailbox people?”
Her expression was absolutely blank. I continued to toss ideas on the table. “Or maybe someone at the bank?”
“Do you know anyone else involved? Someone you think is an accomplice?”
You mean like Alexy and his friends? Instead I said, “Yeah, but he doesn’t work at the bank.”
“Who?” She was much louder now.
“Well, I was asking around with Alicia’s family...” My voice sort of trailed off but this sparked a fire in Tracy. She nodded and said, “Okay, I should check-in with Alicia’s next of kin.”
The look on my face betrayed the cold lump in my stomach. Tracy probed at it, “What?”
I didn’t answer.
“Heidi, if you want my help, then you need to trust me.”
I mumbled, “I’ve already spoken to Alicia’s mother.”
“She thinks I ratted her daughter out.”
Tracy threw her hands up in frustration
“I’m sorry. It all started with this e-mail from Alicia. I asked her mom some questions about it...and well, it just sort of happened.”
“What else just sort of happened? Are you aware that it’s a Federal crime to intercept electronic mail without proper consent?”
“But it’s my job,” I quickly responded, “Like you said before, the users give us permission to examine their computers. There isn’t any privacy.”
“Does that include their personal bank accounts as well?”
Ulp. She had me there. Tracy shook her head but said nothing.
“Anyway, her bank records are how I got the Rainier Valley address.”
Tracy stayed silent, so I kept going, “Look, I think that mailbox place is involved in her death. I saw a lot of printing equipment there was pretty high-end. Strange for a place like that. I bet it was geared-up for counterfeiting or making fake documents. And the guy working there was kinda shady.”
“So did you go in there and start asking questions about Alicia?”
“Well, not exactly but kind of, yeah.”
“Stay away from those people. They are dangerous. Don’t you think they’d be on the alert for someone asking questions? That’s the reason we put those places under surveillance rather than barging in.”
That kid probably reported me. After all, Alexy called me right after I showed up at the mailbox. Now I really wondered what that little trip to the office in White Center was about? If they thought I was a cop, they surely wouldn’t have introduced me to more people. They must have checked me out and verified that I worked at the bank. Alexy might have assumed that I was Alicia’s silent partner or something. Oh God...and I introduced myself to him as her friend from work. Jesus, no wonder he was so chummy to me. Was he going to set me up and remove me like Alicia?
“Are you thinking about just how deep you’re in?” Tracy’s voice startled me.
I snapped a response, “Yes. No. I mean they didn’t seem so dangerous.”
“Didn’t you just say they might have killed Lyons?”
Lions? Oh, Alicia. “Yeah, maybe. Maybe to cover things up?”
Tracy held up her hands in mock surrender. “You’re asking me? Look, when I found out about her death, from Rubin no less, I checked up on it. Coroner said she had a mix of alcohol and Diazepam in her stomach. Prescription Valium for her depression regarding her husband’s death. She probably took too much and jumped or fell into the bay and drowned.”
“What about all the shady things she was doing? Don’t you think that makes her death suspicious?”
Tracy shook her head, “More likely that she was despondent about going to prison. Especially if her motivation for fraud was her husband.”
Hell, I was just not going to convince her. She wasn’t interested in pursuing a murder investigation. I didn’t realize that cops were as compartmentalized as the bank. Might as well use what I could. “What about the other Russian guys? The ones doing all the fraud stuff behind the scenes. Don’t you want to catch them?”
“Okay, there’s another address.”
She gave me a firm smile. I continued. “An office in White Center. Krysha Enterprises.”
Tracy’s smile went slack. She turned back to the pile of folders and retrieved a picture of the interior of the dingy White Center office. The boxes of toner had been ripped open and tossed across the floor. The drawers were stacked on top of the desk, the papers strewn about. Even the little television was cracked and in the corner.
I gave Tracy what must be a pitiful look .“You already raided it, huh?”
“Found it that way. It took me a while to get a warrant to check the place out. Someone beat us to it.”
“Someone? You mean you think they were tipped off?”
“The rental records listed a Mr. Alex Nottings and a phone number.”
“Alexy, yes! Find him and you’ll get your answers.”
“You know him.” It wasn’t a question.
I nodded. She gave me a sad look and said “We found a cell phone in Port Angeles with that number.”
“You traced it! Cool.”
“Not exactly. The phone was found near this.” She slid another black-and-white 8x10 in front of me. The image appeared to be of a large smooth paper bag spattered with dark ink. It was hard to tell what it was without color.
“This was found dumped alongside the road in the high grass. We estimate he’d been there for a day or so. State Patrol noticed the birds and thought it might have been a deer hit by a car.”
A second picture. This one more recognizable. In a way.
“From the minimal amount of blood, we assumed he was murdered somewhere else. We couldn’t run fingerprints because his hands had been removed.”
The air in the room was getting thin.
Another picture. A close up of the face.
“Do you recognize him?”
No, I really couldn’t. It took effort to sort out the facial features.
“Yes, as you can see, we can’t run dental records either.”
Oh God. Alexy.
“Do you see what you’re dealing with?”
I nodded, silently.
“I hope he didn’t say anything about you before he died.” She tapped the picture, but I wasn’t looking at it anymore. The room was downright frigid.
“If this is Alexy, then these guys are playing rough.”
She paused a minute. “They didn’t care if he was found. The sanitization of the body was so we wouldn’t get involved.”
I didn’t know what else to do but agree.
“Alicia’s death was totally different. It’s most likely a different case and the locals will handle it. Not the FBI.”
I found my voice. “I think they are the same people. I hope you can at least point the locals in the right direction.”
A professional’s knowing smile was her response, it seemed that I didn’t know any better.
I needed to get out before I hurled. “Listen, I gotta get back to work.”
“I think we’re done. For now.”
Escaping from the building was easy. Tracy escorted me down the elevator, through the marble FBI museum lobby and out a side-door into the street. As she walked me out, Tracy gave me one of those “Stay out of trouble” speeches. Like I went looking for it on purpose? Maybe, but I had my reasons.
It was quite a walk down Second Avenue back to Belltown, maybe a dozen blocks. I could have taken the shuttle, but I needed time to think. Besides, I was in absolutely no hurry to get back. I just wanted to go home, curl up on the couch with Petey and forget all of this. Maybe I should have just gone to grad school like everyone else. What are a few more student loans?
I wondered what kind of options Alexy had in life. He seemed to enjoy his role, whatever it was. Could this have been payback for what he did to his cousin? Or were they both victims of their professions? Most of all, I wondered what Alexy told them before he died.
A car honk woke me up and I realized that I’d almost walked into a busy intersection against the light. The pictures of the torn-up body wouldn’t fade from my mind. Who would do that? Mobsters? Isn’t that the kind of thing they do to each other? Maybe Alexy was a squealer. Don’t they make a mess of the person as a message to others? Was his gang cleaning house?
I passed a woman wearing a shabby coat and ripped pants selling newspapers. In Seattle, there’s a project that gives the homeless jobs writing and selling their own newspaper. I nodded and she beamed as she handed me a paper. I dug into my wallet and gave her two bucks. Her face sprang to life, she was so happy over a tip of just a dollar. I smiled back weakly and trudged on. At least I could do one nice thing for one person today.
A few more blocks and I saw our building. I checked my phone. Clock said it was nearly five. I decided to just make straight for my car and bag. It’d been a helluva day. A helluva Thursday.
As I turned towards the lot, I saw that Coffeeguy still hadn’t packed up. I needed chocolate and bad. I changed course toward his cart and that’s when I spotted the tall dark suit striding out of the building. Rusty.
He spotted me. Worse, he spotted me noticing him. I offered him a wave but he walked up to me. Crap. “How are you doing, Ms. Hoffman?”
Wow, he remembered my name this time. Fancy that. “I’m doing good. Just finished running an errand and...” I caught my voice sort of trailing off. Instead of staring past me like he normally did to lower echelons, he was looking right at me. He was actually paying attention to me. I was unnerved and for a second, I almost forgot about all the murders and death.
“I heard that you were instrumental in our hitting our latest milestone for the Apollo project. We finished ahead of schedule thanks to you. Great work.” He held his hand out at waist level and it took me a few seconds to realize he wanted to shake.
I slipped my hand into his. His grip was solid but not crushing—just a statue’s hand of warm metal. “Thank you...sir. I’m just part of a winning team.” I hoped I was getting better at my yay-team smile so I gave it a flex.
He returned it with an executive-class smile of his own. As he released my hand, he added, “I’m having a small celebration for my key people. I think you qualify.” He stood close enough that I could smell his cold minty breath.
“Uh sure. In the lunchroom downstairs?” I really hated obligatory fun, especially here. Although politically, this would be a very-good-thing. Especially if I wanted him to pick me for his network commandos over Mitch-boy.
He chuckled. “No, it’s a small affair. As a matter of fact, keep this to yourself. I’ve just invited the important people.”
I nodded and he continued, “We’re having it offsite at an exclusive club at six tomorrow.”
“Can you e-mail me the address?” Aw hell, I needed to remember that I was talking to a vice president, not one of my technoid friends. Rusty looked confused for a second as I tried to recover. “Let me just write it down.”
I yanked the homeless newspaper out from under my arm and a pen from my pocket. He dictated a short address and then bid me farewell. I thanked him and he headed off toward the executive parking lot. Whew.
I looked over at the cart. A hiss of steam puffed up from behind the machine. Coffeeguy was running the nightly cleaning cycle. I missed my chance. I walked to employee parking.
I got out of the downtown traffic exodus just in time. Another five minutes or so and I’d have been stuck in rush hour. I zipped south down the Viaduct. As I wheeled into my apartment complex, I saw that all the resident parking spots were taken. Jeeze, it was barely past five o’clock and our lot was full already. What was the fricken deal with this place? I pulled my car back out onto the street and parked there.
I trotted my usual course by the dumpster and headed for the stairs to the apartment. That’s when my front door swung open.
That’s right, today Peter only worked a half-day at his contract job.
A young woman with pink-streaked blond hair bounced happily out of my door. Who was that?
She paused in mid-stride with a smile and whirled back to the doorway. Then she leaned back inside for a second.
From inside the apartment, I could see arms reach out. One arm came across her back and the other cradled her head. As she leaned forward into the hug, one of the man’s hands slid down her back and squeezed her butt playfully.
It was Peter’s hand.