Murder on Air Force One By John L. Flynn

Kate Dawson was sitting up in bed in her small, studio apartment at Bayside Village, watching the television with the volume turned off while her boyfriend, John Prescott, slumbered next to her, snoring softly, when the call from the dispatcher came in.
Murder on Air Force One
Murder on Air Force One By John L. Flynn

They had spent the day sightseeing at Alcatraz Island, sampling chocolates at Ghirardelli Square, and riding cable cars before returning home to eat Chinese takeout from cardboard boxes, and making love. It was yet another fast-paced weekend for Kate, one that had come to typify her long-distance relationship with John. After nearly a year together, she had come to accept the fact that he would never leave his job at the Department of Justice to move in with her. So, once a month, she’d pick him up at San Francisco International Airport after his five-hour direct flight from Reagan-National, spend a few pleasant days together, then pack him off on his red-eye flight back home to D.C. She hated to see the weekend end and would often sit up in bed next to him mindlessly flipping through channels with the remote just so she could have a few more hours, feeling him next to her. She didn’t even mind his snoring as long as she could look over at the lovely man that lay beside her.

The phone rang, and it rang again. Kate swung her legs over the edge of the bed and picked up her iPhone from the night stand.

“This is Dawson,” she answered, then paused to hear the news. “Okay, I’ll be there in about an hour.” She hung up weary.

For a long moment, Dawson just sat there, staring off into space. Officially, she was on duty that night as the senior member of the Homicide Bureau. It had been a quiet Sunday night; hadn’t expected much action. In fact, she had hoped to spend the last couple of hours with John before his flight, but now it looked like she was going to have to go to work.

“Is everything all right, honey?” John asked, rolling over.

“No, I have to go in.” She rubbed his back. “Do you mind terribly if I drop you off at the airport earlier than usual?”

“Don’t worry about me,” he responded groggily. “I’ll just take a cab.”

Kate climbed back into bed and pinned him down on the mattress, taking hold of each of his hands in hers. “Not on your life,” she said playfully, leaning over and kissing him. “You’re not going to rob me of one of my great pleasures…spending the last few minutes of my weekend with you.”

“Okay, okay, but we’d better get moving then.”

“Not necessarily,” she replied, naughtily. “We’ve still got a couple of minutes. The crime scene is out at the airport.”

“Homicide?” Prescott asked, almost indifferent, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“Yep, Caucasian female, approximately thirty-three years old, apparent 6-0-1. I understand they found her body lying flat on the floor of the rear restroom, no panties. The real kicker is that the plane is Air Force One.”

“Air Force One? Are you serious?” he queried, suddenly quite awake. “Listen, Kate, I think you might want some help on this one.”

“Why is that?”

“Because it sounds like you got a homicide that may involve the President or a member of her detail aboard Air Force Once. It may be sticky. Have you ever worked with the Secret Service before?”

“No, but a homicide is a homicide.”

“Kate, you don’t realize what you’re up against,” he said, scrambling into his clothes.

“Well, we’ve got about fifty-five minutes until I’m supposed to be there,” she said, heading for the bathroom. “Why don’t you explain it to me?”

***

By the time Kate and John got dressed and out the door, ten minutes’ time had passed. She stepped on the gas of her BMW 5.25i, laying tread out of her apartment complex. She wasted little time picking up Highway 101, the Bayshore Freeway, and cut south and west across the city. San Francisco International Airport was located thirteen miles south of downtown area, near Millbrae and San Bruno in the unincorporated County of San Mateo. Technically, the airport was not even within ten miles of the city limits, but SFO was still owned and policed by the City of San Francisco. Since most of those who lived and worked in the Bay Area relied on Highway 101 to get them to and from the airport, the traffic was always heavy, especially near San Bruno where it almost always came to a crawl. Dawson made a left turn onto Aviation Boulevard to get around some of the traffic, then took the ramp to the commercial hangars that served UPS and FedEx.

Up ahead they saw the lights from the main terminal building. The place was lit up like Christmas with lights flashing from row upon rows of mobile news trucks that surrounded the Arrival and Departure gates like an occupation army. Reporters from CNN, Fox, MSNBC, ABC and other cable television networks stood just outside the gates on the cement curb talking into their news cameras. The media feeding frenzy had already started.

Dawson drove to the bottom of the ramp and stopped so they could get their bearings. The flat expanse of the airport runways was laid out ahead of them. She turned right towards the hangars and crisscrossed the back roads until they reached the hangar where Air Force One had been stored temporarily. A uniformed patrolman who recognized Kate pulled aside a makeshift barrier and waved her through the labyrinth of police cruisers parked in front and on the opposite side of the street from the hangar. She pulled into the first available spot and stared out of the windshield with John at the usual crime-scene carnival.

Dozens of uniformed police officers and plain-clothed detectives moved in and out of the hangar in a random but orderly fashion. Several of the crime-scene boys were gathering their equipment from an unmarked van, while, at the same time, Doctor Edgar Brogan had formed his techs from the ME’s office into a small detail and were about to process through the Secret Service screening. A police spokesman was talking with some interested bystanders. In addition to members of the San Francisco Police Department, she counted several military types, a handful of TSA cops, and suits from Homeland Security, the F.B.I., and, of course, the Secret Service. On top of all that, soldiers with M-16 rifles formed a secure perimeter. She wasn’t really surprised by the huge turnout of law enforcement officials and military personnel, considering the multi-jurisdictional aspects of the crime. After all, a homicide had taken place onboard the President’s plane, a first in the history of Air Force One. Kate just thought it was a little bit of an overkill to think they needed so many people to catch a single perpetrator when there were likely multiple homicides happening on the streets of San Francisco tonight that would go unsolved because of a lack of manpower.

Inspector Dawson climbed out and stood with John Prescott on the pavement in front of the hangar, looking up in awe at the plane. With the large hangar doors open, Air Force One towered above them. Almost as tall as a six-story building and as long as a city block, the aircraft with the familiar white and blue markings that ran the length of the plane’s fuselage just barely fit in the largest hangar at San Francisco International Airport. The “flying oval office,” as it was known in political circles, had been produced by the Boeing Aircraft Company, customized from the highly popular Boeing 747-200B transport. Designated VC-25A by the military, the four-engine jet plane included a Presidential Suite, which was comprised of a conference/dining room, lounge/bedroom, and office space for senior staff members. A second conference room, which could easily be converted into a medical facility, dominated the middle section of the plane in addition to a rest area for the flight crew. The rest of the interior contained work and rest areas for a small presidential staff, while the rear of the aircraft had been transformed into first class seating and work space for the few media representatives who traveled with the President. Normally, the plane carried the four members of the flight crew (including two pilots, navigator and flight engineer), twenty-three additional crew members, and seventy passengers.

As she admired the huge aircraft, emblazoned with the words “United States of America,” the American flag, and the Seal of the President of the United States, Dawson couldn’t help but feel an undeniable presence. It was an impressive achievement in modern aviation. She was just surprised when her boyfriend corrected her use of the term “Air Force One.” Like most people, she thought that Air Force One referred to the two, highly-customized, Boeing 747-200B transports that operated solely for presidential travel by the United States Air Force. But in actuality, Air Force One was the radio call sign for any Air Force plane carrying the President.

“That’s really interesting. I never knew that,” Dawson declared, walking slowly along the pavement.

Prescott looked over at the metal detector, then back at Kate. “Have you decided how you are going to deal with the Secret Service? You’re probably going to find them to be very irritating, especially tonight.”

“Not really, no.”

Prescott said politely, “Then perhaps I can suggest a strategy that we should follow.”

“That’s fine with me. I’d be grateful for your help. You seem to know these guys better than me.”

“All right. Since you’re the senior member of Homicide on call, it’s probably best if you take charge of the crime scene right off the bat.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t bother to introduce me, or refer to me in any way. Don’t even look in my direction,” he instructed her. “They’ll know who I am from my identification, but won’t know my significance here.”

“I think I understand.”

“Officially, I don’t even exist. I’m a nonentity. You, alone, are in charge of the investigation. Besides it’s doubtful that anyone at the Justice Department, other than the Attorney General, even knows.”

“All right.”

“It’ll help to be formal. Stand straight. Wear your badge on the outside of your suit jacket and keep the jacket buttoned. Give clear, concise orders to your men, and show them that you expect results from their forensics work. Stay focused. Never look around. Never appear distracted. Keep your voice calm and even. Keep your thoughts and personal comments to yourself.”

“I have done this before, John,” she said, a little annoyed.

“You and I both know that, but they don’t. They’re going to be testing you, probing for your weaknesses, trying to trip you up. Remember, they don’t want your investigation to succeed. They’d prefer to keep everything in house and private. But since they don’t have any other choice but to cooperate with local law enforcement, they’re going to do everything in their power to see that you fail. Handle it as best you can. But whatever happens, don’t lose your temper.”

“I never lose my temper,” Dawson blatantly lied.

“Is that right, Kate?”

“Well, almost never.”

Prescott smiled warmly. “I’m sure you’ll do just fine. You probably won’t need my help at all. But if you find yourself in a bind, you’ll hear me say ‘Perhaps I can be of assistance.’ That will be the signal that I’m formally asserting the power of the Attorney General. From that point on, it will be the clash of two Cabinet-level titans — the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security — and it’s anyone’s guess who will win. But at the very least, the pressure will be off you, and I suspect the Secret Service will be much more eager to help with your investigation rather than give everything up to Justice. Okay?”

“You make it sound as if we’re just pieces on a very large chess board,” Kate said, a strange, almost bewildered, look upon her face.

“Pawns, actually, but I am glad you’re starting to come to grips with the reality of this homicide. The woman that was found dead on Air Force One wasn’t murdered by some ordinary perpetrator. There were some very powerful and influential people on that flight, and everyone who boarded that plane at Andrews Air Force Base had a security clearance, even the members of the Press. Make no mistake, she was killed for a reason, and that reason is at least as important as the identity of the person who killed her.”

“Gee, thanks.”

Prescott took her by the arm, peering deep into her eyes. “Would you rather I lie to you about what you’re facing?”

Dawson stared back at him. “No, but I’m just wondering now what would have happened if I’d told you to take that cab.”

“You’re going to be just fine, Kate.”

“From your lips to God’s ears,” she said under her breath, barely audible.

“What?” he asked, with a puzzled glance.

“It’s an expression my father used to say. ‘From your lips to God’s ears’ is a phrase that literally means all desires spoken aloud will be heard by God and answered,” she remembered fondly.

“I’ll be right there with you,” John reassured her.

“Okay, then, let’s get this show on the road.”

Dawson walked with Prescott the length of the pavement in front of the hangar, stopping at the checkpoint that had been set up by the Secret Service to screen all visitors to Air Force One. Several men in black suits with noticeable earpieces were milling about, while a soldier holding an M16 rifle stood guard. Three other suits were stationed at the metal detector.

“Kate Dawson, Homicide,” she said, holding her badge out in front of her.

One of the men at the metal detector looked at her badge and police identification card, and closely compared the ID photo against her face. Satisfied, he said, “Inspector Dawson, come right on through.”

But no sooner had Dawson stepped through the gate-like structure than the security alarm sounded, indicating the detection of a concealed weapon. All at once, she was encircled by Secret Service agents with their guns drawn. As a homicide detective, Kate Dawson had carried a twelve-shot .9mm Beretta in a triple-draw holster under her left arm nearly every day of her life for the last ten years. It had become such a familiar part of her daily wardrobe, like a belt or a pair of shoes, she had completely forgotten to mention it to them. Carefully, she raised her right hand in the air, and with her left hand, slowly pulled back the lapel of her Versace jacket to reveal her service weapon. The men in black suits maintained their ground.

“Your weapon,” the lead agent said, with his hand out, “is not permitted on Air Force One, but you’ll get it back when you leave.”

Dawson acknowledged, slipped the gun out of her shoulder holster, and handed it over to him. Without a word, the second man took it, and routinely removed the magazine and cleared the chamber. He passed the Beretta onto a third man who, in turn, entered the make and serial number in a logbook. He then locked it and the magazine into a small portable vault on the screening table. With the weapon finally secured, the men in black suits sheathed their guns, and went back to milling about.

Kate Dawson let out a deep sigh between clenched teeth.

Next Prescott stepped through the metal detector, without alarm, and came up behind her. “They’re just trying to intimidate you, Kate,” he whispered. “Whatever you do, don’t let them see you sweat.”

“I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” she said under her breath, feeling a wave of cold perspiration wash over her body.

Firmly, the lead agent said, “This way, please.”

The three of them walked up a rolling staircase, which had been pulled up to the plane’s rear cabin door, stepped onto the aircraft, then climbed a staircase to the middle deck. After passing through heavy drapes that had been drawn shut, they entered the press area. The Press Lounge looked very much like the first-class section of an ordinary jetliner, with large, comfortable leather seats and flat-panel monitors. Four work tables with docking bays for laptop computers were positioned at each of the four corners of the cabin. The soothing pastel colors of tan and light green made the lounge feel even more comfortable and luxurious. Towards the rear of the cabin, Kate could see a narrow corridor and several restrooms where her technicians and forensics people were gathering their samples.

“Inspector Dawson,” the agent said flatly, without emotion. “You and your investigative team are restricted to this deck, in particular, the press lounge and the rear restrooms. The rest of the plane is off-limits to you. Please be mindful of the fact that you are a guest here.”

“Thank you, agent…?”

“Smith.”

“Thank you, Agent Smith,” she repeated and started towards the crime scene, but stopped dead in her tracks.

“It’s about fuckin’ time you got here,” Matt Balardi said to her, sidling up. He was wearing a checkered, polyester jacket, a thin leather tie, and skin-tight corduroy jeans that barely covered the flab around his waist.

Kate Dawson gritted her teeth when she saw him. Balardi looked uptight and tense, irritable from the wait for the duty officer to arrive. She took some solace in the knowledge that every department had one; the guy nobody wanted to work with. She hated the fact that he had been assigned to her detail. From what she knew about Balardi, he had been transferred from one division after another, never staying very long in one precinct or with one partner. No one ever had the courage to come right out and give a reason why. He just rubbed people the wrong way. At all times outspoken, Balardi had made enemies in every department he had ever worked, including a few in the chief’s office. At forty-six years of age, his career was over. Now an embittered, middle-aged detective, with few prospects and further advancement unlikely, he was just there to put in his time. He didn’t really care whether he was liked or not. Personal integrity meant nothing to him; it was just a big joke. If he kept his nose clean, Balardi figured the union would protect him until he could retire and collect his pension.

“You know, this is all bullshit, Dawson,” Balardi said, with venom. “We can’t even take a piss without asking one of them for permission. I really hate these fuckin’ Secret Service guys!”

“What have you got to report, Balardi?” she asked.

He continued ranting, “They’re nothing but pussies. You should arrest the lot of them for obstruction of justice, so we can conduct a proper investigation.”

“Your report?” She cocked her eyebrow.

Balardi inhaled and exhaled sharply in retaliation. “The woman’s name was Meghan Kendrick,” he said, reading from notes that he had scribbled on the back of his bill from Pacific Gas and Electric. “Thirty-three years-old, five-foot-nine inches tall, blonde hair, blue eyes. A real beauty. Apparently, she was a star reporter on the Fox News Channel, attached to the President’s Press Corps.”

“Okay, that’s a start. Now I want you to find out everything you can about her: boyfriends, co-workers, rivals, anyone that would want to see her dead. You know, beat the grass and see what crawls out.”

“Shit! That could take hours!”

“Yeah, it’s called police work,” Dawson said with a grin, as she headed towards the rear section of the plane.

Slowly, almost deliberately, she moved through the cabin, observing everything, using her eyes to take a photographic record of the crime scene. She made special note of the security cameras embedded in the walls and ceiling. Prescott and Balardi followed closely behind. She then walked past the forensics team, who was unpacking a small piece of electronic equipment, acknowledging each of them, and side-stepped several plain-clothes detectives conferring with members of the Secret Service, but kept moving. Finally, she came upon two crime scene boys who were working the room for trace evidence.

“How’s it going, boys?” she asked, crouching down next to them.

“Not bad,” one replied, with a ticked expression. “I’d be doing a lot better without all the interference from the feds.”

“Yeah,” the other one answered. “These Secret Service guys are a real pain in the ass.”

Dawson peered closer. “Say, what have you got there?” she asked, spotting what looked like a woman’s handbag in their evidence kit.

“The victim’s purse,” the first one said.

“I found it,” the second added, handing it over to her.

Pulling on a pair of latex gloves, Kate Dawson took the purse in hand and searched through its contents: a cell phone, a wallet with credit cards and a reporter’s identification card, a compact, breath mints, a nail file, sunglasses, stamps, a hair brush, Purell, a tampon, and roughly twenty dollars in cash. Through years working Homicide, Dawson had developed a theory that the contents of a woman’s purse revealed a lot about her personality. Was the woman organized and always prepared for the unexpected, or was she a scatter-brained free spirit? She concluded that Meghan Kendrick was not only well-organized and detail-oriented, but had a place and purpose for everything. The only thing Meghan seemed to be missing was lipstick, which seemed odd for a television personality who was often called upon, at a moment’s notice, to report news live on camera.

Dawson was still thinking about the missing lipstick when she handed the victim’s purse back to the crime scene investigator. “See that forensics gets her cell phone so that we can have a record of her calls.”

“Okay, Inspector,” the second one acknowledged.

“Hey, Dawson!” the police photographer called, running over to her side.

“Ritchie, what’s wrong? What’s going on?” she asked, standing up.

“They’ve just confiscated all of my film.”

“What?”

“Yeah!” Ritchie was visibly upset. “No sooner had I shot all the pictures of the crime scene, this big guy in a black suit comes over, takes the camera right out of my hands, and removes the SD card.”

“Which guy? Where?” Kate said, searching the area.

The police photographer scanned the room, then pointed at a man who was just coming through the closed drapes. “That’s him!”

“Excuse me, Inspector,” Agent Smith said, politely, suddenly standing at her side, “but all film stays in-house. Orders.”

“Whose orders?”

“I’m not at liberty to say.”

Smith’s evasiveness was beginning to piss her off. Dawson said, “Well then, once your superiors have reviewed it and determined the photographs don’t break any of your security protocols, I will expect its return.”

Prescott shot her a look, but remained silent.

“I’m not sure that I can make that promise, Inspector.”

“That was not a request, Agent Smith,” she said firmly. The look she gave him said it all. Dawson was done with playing his infantile games and was prepared to take things to the next level should she be forced to do so.

“But Inspector —”

“Oh, and one more thing,” Kate said, cutting him off. “See that Detective Balardi gets a copy of the plane’s manifest. Until they’re cleared, everyone who was on board Air Force One is a suspect.”

“Except the First Family.” Agent Smith interjected.

“Especially the First Family.”

Abruptly, she turned away, left him standing there with his mouth open, and moved into the narrow corridor at the rear of the plane. Flanked by Prescott on one side and Balardi on the other, Dawson leaned into the restroom, and regarded the victim’s model face.

“How long has she been dead, Doctor Brogan?” she asked.

“Two to three hours is my guess,” the Medical Examiner replied, hunched down over the body. “You see, rigor mortis is progressive. After a person dies, the muscles in the arms and legs become rigid in a couple of hours; in twelve to eighteen hours the body is, as the saying goes, stiff as a board. Given the temperature on board the aircraft and the state of the body, I would guess death occurred two to three hours ago.”

“Do you think you could be any more precise?”

Doctor Brogan looked down at the dial on the thermometer he had placed in the victim’s abdomen and checked his watch. “Ninety-six degrees. Give or take an hour for each degree, I would place the time of death around 9:00 P.M., plus or minus a couple of minutes.”

“Cause of death?” Dawson asked.

“Maybe strangulation,” Brogan answered, as he pointed at the victim’s throat. “The redness, swelling, and bruising on the neck is usually a clear indication that a person has been strangled. But I also look for fingernail marks, handprints, pronounced red spots on the whites of the eyes or on the cheeks and face. Blood red eyes or subconjunctival hemorrhages are usually a dead giveaway for severe trauma to the neck in cases of strangulation.”

“What is this world coming to?” Balardi cynically.

Kate Dawson bent down and took one of Meghan’s hands in her gloved hand, examining her manicured nails. “Doesn’t look like she put up much of a struggle.”

Brogan shook his head. “No, but that’s not the only thing bothering me.” He reached for a clear plastic bag he had tucked inside his evidence kit. “The boys found this stuffed deep in the trash bin.”

“What is it?” she asked, taking the plastic bag from the Medical Examiner’s hands.

“An ordinary plastic bag. You know, just like the kind drycleaners use, only this one has smudges of her make-up and lipstick and hair fibers on the inside.”

“So, what did he do?” Balardi interrupted, breaking Dawson’s line of inquiry. “Try to suffocate her with the bag, and when he realized that wasn’t working, he decides to strangle her instead?”

“Or maybe he strangled her first,” Brogan proposed, “and put the bag over her head to make sure she was truly dead. There’s enough evidence here to suggest that she’s been strangled before. Some of the bruises and lacerations on her neck are much older than the ones from tonight. In fact, you can see where she’s tried to hide them with make-up.”

Balardi surmised, “Okay, maybe she was just a battered woman? We see a couple of dozen a month down at the precinct.”

“No, she wasn’t a battered woman,” Kate Dawson said matter-of-factly. “Just look at her clothes, her make-up, her grooming. Meghan Kendrick lived a pampered life! She wasn’t beaten up by a jealous boyfriend or an enraged husband. Something else happened to her. Something that we’re just not seeing.”

“Maybe she OD’d on coke?” Balardi said, pulling a small wooden toothpick out of his pocket and lodging it between his teeth. “Wouldn’t be the first time one of those show-biz types snorted a little too much blow.”

“I don’t think so,” Dawson said, scouring the area with her eyes.

Brogan offered, “We did find trace elements of a white, powdery substance on the restroom counter, and Meghan’s nostrils had traces as well. I’ll have a much better idea once I run a complete toxicology screen down at the lab.”

“See, what did I tell you?” Balardi added like a smart ass.

Kate Dawson turned away from her fellow detective. “Is there any evidence that she was sexually assaulted, Doctor?”

The Medical Examiner adjusted the glasses on his face with his right index finger. “The external genitals are pretty raw, and there’s some seminal fluid down there, but it doesn’t look like forced intercourse. She had sex with someone, but I’m not sure she was murdered. At least, not by him. I’ll need to conduct a complete autopsy of the body and run some more tests before I know for certain.”

“Come on, Doc, you gotta be kidding me,” Balardi said.

“Are you saying this wasn’t a murder?” Dawson added.

“I’m saying that I don’t know,” Doctor Brogan replied. With much effort, the portly man climbed to his feet, extreme pain from the arthritis in his knees causing the features in his face to squeeze temporarily out of shape. Once the discomfort had passed, he pulled out a white handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow with it. “She was strangled all right, and may have even suffocated to death, but I believe those were actions she initiated or willingly took part in.”

John Prescott listened closely, but didn’t say anything. He kept his eyes on Dawson, but her face was a complete blank.

“I think she may have been a ‘gasper,’” the Medical Examiner said.

“A gasper? What the fuck is that?” Balardi asked.

“A person who is sexually aroused by asphyxiation or the sudden loss of oxygen to the brain through strangulation or suffocation,” Brogan explained.

Balardi was struck dumb. “Get the fuck out ‘a here.”

Kate Dawson backed him up. “No, I’ve heard of this before. When the brain is deprived of oxygen, it induces a lucid, semi-hallucinogenic state that increases feelings of giddiness and pleasure. Combined with orgasm, the rush is said to be more powerful than cocaine, and highly addictive.”

“The state is called hypoxia, but in conventional circles it’s referred to as erotic asphyxiation or breath control play,” Brogan added.

“And with fuckin’ six, you get egg-roll,” Matt Balardi broke in. “You’re not buying all this crap he’s selling, are you, Dawson?”

“Why not?” She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head.

“I’ll put together my report and have it to you no later than Monday afternoon, Inspector,” the Medical Examiner said.

“Thank you.” Kate felt as if she was on a roll. She then made eye contact with Agent Smith. “Now I’d like to talk with the agent who found the body. Where can we find your friend, Smith?”

He didn’t answer immediately, but stared hard at her. Dawson could almost see the wheels turning in his head, plotting his next move, figuring out how to best protect himself and his fellow agent. But then again, Smith seemed to be the kind of person who rarely did his own thinking. When he was asked something that didn’t conform to any standardized instructions, his basic programming seemed to break down. He was slow to respond because he simply didn’t know what to say.

“You gonna tell me?” asked Kate. “I’d like to ask him a few routine questions about how he found the body.”

Smith hesitated a moment longer, then gave in. “I’m afraid that he’s not here. He’s been assigned to protect the First Family.”

“And where’s the First Family?”

“The First Family —” Smith started to say, but was cut off by a deep, operatic voice that bellowed, like a great pagan god issuing commands to his subjects, throughout the small cabin. The words themselves seemed to hang out there — grand, theatrical, larger than life.

“— is of no concern to this investigation!”

Harlan Reinhardt, a tall, chunky figure of a man dressed all in black, pushed his way through the closed drapes. He was perhaps fifty or fifty-five, with the broad shoulders of an NFL half-back. His complexion was very pale; looked like a man who had spent a lifetime living in the shadows. It was likely that he had not seen the direct rays of the sun in decades. His hair was mostly white, peppered with a few darker strands, and his eyes were gray but appeared milky white. He was breathing hard as he stormed into the Press Lounge.

Dawson wasted little time in walking over to him. She stood toe-to-toe with the big, hulking man who towered over her, like some giant, mythical behemoth. “As long as this is my investigation, I’ll make the determination of what is or is not relevant to it.”

Smith said, “Sir, this is Inspector Dawson with the San Francisco Police —”

“I know who she is,” he interjected.

“Then you have me at a disadvantage,” she said, flatly. “You know who I am, but I don’t know who you are.”

He looked down at her, like a puny bug under a microscope. “Harlan Reinhardt. I’m in charge of the President’s security.”

“Excellent! Just the man that I should be talking to,” Dawson said, standing her ground. “Now, if you’ll provide me with the name of the agent who found the body, I have a few questions for him.”

Reinhardt acted as if Kate’s questions were too boring, too basic to bother to answer. “The agent’s real name is classified, but you can refer to him as “Jones.” Right now, he is part of the detail protecting the First Family.” His body language said, “end of story.”

Dawson asked, “Where’s the First Family?”

“Classified.”

“Classified?”

“That information is on a need-to-know basis only, and, at this time, you don’t need to know.”

She stared at him a moment, disbelieving, all cordiality evaporating instantly. “You mean, you’re not going to tell me what I need to know as the lead investigator.”

He looked back at her without a reply, deadpan eyes, expressionless.

“I noticed there are a number of surveillance cameras in this cabin,” Kate Dawson persisted, pointing at one directly over Reinhardt’s shoulder. “What would it take for me to see the video from earlier tonight?”

“Not much,” he answered monotoned, “just an act of Congress.”

Son-of-a-bitch! Dawson’s thoughts belied an outward exterior of calm, as a feeling of rage burning deep within her began to bubble up to the surface and reach the boiling point. She bit down hard, clenching her teeth together in an attempt to keep it together, having had her fill of bullshit for one night from the Secret Service. What she really wanted to do was grab Reinhardt by his balls, slam him up against the bulkhead of the plane, and clamp him in irons for obstruction of justice, but she thought better of it. “Maybe you didn’t understand my request? I’m asking to see the surveillance tapes,” she said, repeating herself a second time.

“Not a chance, Inspector.”

Dawson finally lost her temper. “That’s it! I’ve had enough of your bullshit!” she exploded, reaching for her nonexistent side arm. When she remembered she didn’t have her sidearm, she reached for her cuffs. “Harlan Reinhardt, I’m putting you under arrest for obstruction of justice.”

Reinhardt made no effort to resist, just stood his ground. His agents took flanking positions, with their weapons drawn. “You have no authority here,” he said calmly. “May I remind you that as long as you are aboard this aircraft, you are a guest of the Federal Government?”

“This is still my city and my investigation,” she said, unyielding.

For an instant, the temperature in the cabin turned icy cold, as everyone froze solid in place. Doctor Brogan and the detail of crime scene investigators did not move a muscle, even though several were in the middle of deploying a portable three-dimensional laser scanner. A couple of the cops paused in mid stride as their counterparts in the dark suits stood, holding their guns out in front of them, in a combat stance. Even the hands on the clock seemed to stop moving, as if they were somehow trapped between the tic and the tock of that instant in time.

“Dawson!” Balardi yelled, from the back of the cabin. “Will you just fuckin’ cuff this asshole!”

Kate Dawson heard his words, but her expression didn’t change and no one moved. She seemed to be blind to everything except the smug, self-righteous face in front of her. For a fleeting moment, she imagined what she could do to alter those features. The cabin and the other men in it were miles away. All that mattered to Kate was wiping that smug look off Reinhardt’s face. It was then she noticed it, a single drop of perspiration on his brow.

“Let it go, Kate. He’s not worth it,” John whispered.

At that, Dawson relaxed her shoulders a tad, took a deep, tortured breath, and let it out through clenched teeth. Kate was upset with herself that she had lost her temper, particularly in front of her boyfriend, but felt justified that she had made her point. “I’ve had it with this fucker,” she cursed under her breath. Dawson turned and started to walk calmly away him, ignoring the blunt snouts of the pistols still trained on her.

“Perhaps I can be of assistance, Inspector,” Prescott said, holding his identification up in the air. With a slow, almost deliberate pace, he stepped forward, moving between the two combatants, and waited for the tension to subside before identifying himself to the Secret Service chief.

Indignant, Reinhardt motioned for his men to put away their guns. “I wasn’t aware that anyone from Justice had been called.”

“Let’s just say that I’m an interested third party. I happened to be at the airport catching a plane back to D.C. and these officers were good enough to invite me along to the crime scene.”

“I’m sorry they wasted your time. There was no crime committed here tonight.” Reinhardt stood with his hands crossed in front of him in defiance.

Prescott looked at him, his eyebrows raised, silent question marks. “Well, if I’m not mistaken, what I see over there is a homicide.”

“You are mistaken,” Reinhardt corrected him. “Meghan Kendrick died of an apparent overdose.”

“Overdose? What about the marks around her neck?”

“Self-inflicted.”

“Self-inflicted?” Prescott was astonished.

“Yes, that’s what I said, self-inflicted,” Reinhardt insisted. He looked from face to face, then back at Prescott. “It’s unfortunate her death was reported as a homicide, but then what do you expect from the media. A sensational murder makes for far better ratings than a simple drug overdose.”

For a moment, John Prescott thought about this. Something didn’t seem to make sense to him. He continued to puzzle over it, until all at once, the answer came to him. He looked deeply offended.

“You son-of-a-bitch,” he swore under his breath.

“I’m only thinking about the good of the country, particularly at this critical juncture in history when we stand locked with the Iranians over their plans to build a nuclear arsenal.”

“And what happens to Meghan Kendrick? You just sweep her body under the rug and pretend she never existed.”

“Believe me, it’s for her own good.”

“She was one of them,” John protested, pointing out towards the flashing lights and vans. “The media will never accept this as a simple drug overdose. Never.”

The Secret Service chief said, “If you tell a lie that's big enough, and you tell it often enough, people are going to believe you’re telling the truth, even when what you are saying is total bullshit.”

“You can call it whatever you like, Reinhardt, but we both know this was a homicide. Meghan Kendrick was murdered by someone on this plane.”

Reinhardt snorted. “A man of integrity…”

Kate Dawson grew weary of listening to their banter and turned back to the crime scene. She couldn’t seem to get over the feeling that they were missing something. She asked, “Agent Smith, during the last hour or so of the flight, can you give me a sense of what members of the press corps were doing?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied respectfully. “We had had a great deal of turbulence during the flight and nearly everyone spent the whole time buckled in their seats watching movies.”

“Movies?”

“Air Force One has its own internal audio-video system, and there are fifteen movies available, which Press Secretary Nora O’Donnell usually selects prior to the flight. The movies include: The American President, Diabolique, Skyfall, Independence Day, Waiting to Go Home, Kill Bill Again, Stress Test, and Fargo,” Agent Smith reported. “As always, the reporters in the press cabin voted to see Fargo. Fargo has become the Rocky Horror Picture Show of the White House Press Corps, and the reporters kept requesting it again and again. And as soon as the movie was finished playing, the technicians would start it over, so that after a long flight, it was very possible to have seen Fargo several times.”

“Is that right?” Dawson queried.

“Yes, ma’am. In fact, many of the reporters left their headsets off and shouted the dialogue at the screen.”

Changing subject, she asked, “Would you mind showing me where Ms. Kendrick was seated on the plane?”

The Secret Service agent indicated with his hand. “She sat in the first seat in the last row, usually by herself.”

“Ok,” she said, as if Smith had confirmed something she had already suspected was true. “Thank you. You’ve been very helpful, Agent Smith. I’ll let you know if I have any further questions.”

“Right you are, ma’am.”

Kate moved down the aisle and sat in Meghan Kendrick’s seat, inspecting everything within reach. She tried the seatbelt, raised and lowered the seatback, and searched through the pocket in front of her, finding the usual assortment of magazines and passenger information about the Boeing 747-200B’s safety features. She felt on the sides and beneath the seat cushion. Nothing.

Dawson hesitated a moment, as if on the verge of giving up, when she reached over to the seat next to her and patted it several times. She felt something hard beneath the leather seat cover.

With a surprised look on her face, she had a quick look around to see if anyone was watching her, but they were either involved in their work or had taken a break to listen to the two men talk. Kate Dawson craned her neck to overhear their conversation, but she only caught the occasional word or phrase. Once she thought she heard Reinhardt refer to her as a “bitch,” and several times, she heard the word “sorry” as Prescott pretended to be a remorseful parent. It seemed like he was apologizing for the way in which she had been conducting the investigation.

Cautiously, Dawson reached over to the seat next to her, and pulled out an elegant shiny black lipstick container with a pretty silver collar from under the leather seat cover. She was certain it was the missing lipstick from Meghan Kendrick’s purse. She palmed it in her hand long enough to slip it into her pocket without alerting the Secret Service agents who were all around her. Dawson then stood up and brushed out the wrinkles in her Versace suit.

***

Twenty-three minutes later, Kate Dawson was escorting John to his departure gate. The DC-bound flight was scheduled to take off at 11:41 P.M., and they had to hurry their pace to get through the media circus that had snarled traffic and doubled the lines at the check-in counters. As they worked their way through the lights and television cameras, Dawson listened to the reporters tell their story, but failed to hear the words “woman” and “murder” in the same sentence. Instead, she heard a lot of them saying “the investigation is ongoing” or “all information will be forthcoming.”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of the way the media sensationalizes every news item,” Kate said, glancing over her shoulder. “So many stories involve violence, celebrities, sex, or “shocking surprises.” It's not bad enough that they emphasize these stories, but they often mislead us as well. Call it fake news.”

Prescott patted her back. “It’s all about ratings, love.”

“Last week, I heard a ‘tease’ on the news that said, ‘Mitt Romney makes an important announcement about running for President in 2020.’ Of course, when they returned from the commercial, I learned that the ‘announcement’ was that he had not changed his mind and still had no plans to run again in 2020.”

“Yeah, I heard that report, too.”

Dawson continued, “In print, they use these big, bold letters to catch our eye because most people who don’t have time to read the entire article just skim the bold print. But those are just teasers, too. Look at the way they’ve been treating this crisis with Iran! It’s all got to stop.”

Jokingly, John stopped and half-turned toward his girlfriend. “So, what do we do? Throw out the First Amendment, and kill the next reporter who says something we don’t like.”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Honey, you can’t be serious?”

For a moment, Kate Dawson seemed to be a million miles away as she wrestled with her thoughts and fears about Meghan Kendrick. More important than who killed her was the answer to why the news reporter had been killed. Long before she realized it, the woman’s murder was under her skin, gnawing at something deep within her soul. She squared her shoulders. “Of course not.”

John squeezed her hand. “You had me a bit concerned.”

“Sorry.”

“No need to apologize. We’ve all got a dark side.”

Dawson stared at him, unblinking. “You know, that’s something John Munroe used to say. He was convinced that every one of us was capable of murder because of the mindless primitive that we keep all bottled up inside. He thought that one day we’d lose control and the beast would run amuck.”

“I really wouldn’t worry about that, Kate.”

“I don’t. It used to bother me, though,” she confessed. “I’d wake up nights in a cold sweat, imagining Munroe had come back from the dead. But I haven’t thought about that in over a year.”

Prescott never took his eyes off her. “Good, I’m glad. Old wounds can take a long time to heal.”

“You’re damned right!” she exclaimed, inhaling deeply. “But it’s more than just that, John.”

“So why don’t you tell me what’s really on your mind.”

“Okay.” Kate hooked her arm into his, a warm and affectionate gesture, and continued with him to his departure gate. They passed by several fellow travelers as they maintained a fast pace. “For the last couple of hours, I’ve been wondering why anyone would kill a member of the press.”

“You’re talking about motive now, or superstition?”

“Motive.”

“Well, you just said it yourself,” he explained. “Maybe not in so many words, but you agreed to a comment I made earlier in jest about killing journalists who report a story you don’t like.”

Suddenly, the proverbial light bulb came on over her head. “I see! The reason why Meghan was murdered was for something she said…”

“…or had planned to say…”

“…or had planned to say,” she repeated his words.

“Discover the motive, and you’ll find your killer.”

They stopped walking just short of the gate, and he turned to look into her eyes. “Everything’s gonna be all right, Kate. You’re a very competent detective. I have every confidence that you can solve this case and bring Meghan’s killer to justice.”

Kate looked down at her feet. “I just wish you weren’t going home right now. I could really use your help.”

Lifting her chin, he said, “You’ll do just fine on your own. But if you do run into any trouble, please don’t hesitate to call me.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got your number on speed-dial.”

John Prescott reached for her, and gathered her into his arms. She melted into them, peering into his dreamy blue eyes. He placed his right hand under the back of her neck and kissed her deeply. She responded, her tongue meeting his, dancing happily in place; their bodies pressed firmly together as if they were meant to be forever joined into one form. But just as quickly as they had come together, they parted. His left hand reached up and stroked her cheek as she leaned forward and kissed him one last time.

“I love you,” she said, breathless.

“I know,” he replied playfully.

As he turned to board his plane, Prescott paused on the gateway, the other passengers moving around him. He looked back at her, saying, “The First Family always stays at the InterContinental Hotel when they’re in San Francisco. It’s located at Fifth and Howard streets.”

Dawson shot him a look of surprise. “And when were you going to tell me that?”

“I think you’ll also find Madam President has several events planned throughout her four-day stay, including a speech in Pacific Heights this morning and several private fundraisers with Democratic donors scheduled to keep her busy in the afternoon and evenings,” he added, then hurried down the ramp.

After a moment or two, Kate Dawson walked away from the gate, smiling.





CHAPTER TWO





Several hours later, as a heavy fog began rolling over the San Francisco Bay area, Kate Dawson drove towards South Beach, taking Highway 101 north until it merged with Route 80. She then followed the Bayshore Freeway to Bryant Street, and turned right at Beale. But as she rounded the corner at Delancey Street, she screeched to a stop. Police cruisers were everywhere and uniformed police officers were moving in and out of her apartment building. She rolled down the driver’s side window and looked up towards the third floor.

“Ma’am, I’m afraid you can’t stop there,” a policeman said, shining a flashlight in her face. “You’re blocking traffic.”

Dawson held up her badge to block the light. “That’s okay, officer. I’m a detective from Homicide.”

“Sorry, Inspector,” he apologized, after checking her identification. The policeman inspected the row of cruisers, then added, “I’ll get one of the boys to pull up, and you can park right over there.”

“Thanks,” she replied, idling her car’s engine.

Within a few moments, they had cleared the bottleneck of police cruisers, and Dawson pulled into a parking spot across the street from her building. She rolled to a stop at the curb and killed the engine. It struck Kate that they might be there waiting for her; a thought that sent a chill down her spine and caused her to shiver.

She scurried across the sidewalk and climbed the steps to the third floor of her apartment building. Kate lived in a small, studio apartment at Bayside Village on the south side of town, near San Francisco’s hip, trendy neighborhood of South Beach. She had always dreamt of living there, a few steps from the Embarcadero and nearby AT&T Park. So, when her marriage ended so tragically with her daughter’s death, she decided to make her dream a reality and moved into the only apartment she could afford on a civil servant’s salary. But soon she realized that dreams of a better life and a brand-new start could not replace the sense of loss she suffered. No matter how hard Dawson tried to enjoy her strolls along the water’s edge, gazing dreamily at the sailboats on the Bay, she felt very empty. Nearly three years later, she still struggled with feelings of guilt amplified by her partner’s death at the hands of the serial killer she later brought to justice. The site of police cruisers and the usual crime-scene carnival outside her apartment building dredged up all those thoughts and feelings.

When she rounded the corner of the third floor, Dawson breathed a sigh of relief to see her apartment undisturbed by the SFPD. But as she looked closer, she saw uniformed policemen going in and out of her neighbor’s front door. Dawson approached Lenny Provolone’s apartment, and paused for a moment outside. She had not seen him in a couple of weeks, but had chalked up his fourteen-day long sabbatical to the new woman in his life. She hoped that he was all right.

Dawson pulled out her badge and, with it in hand, pushed her way past the police at the front door. As she entered the apartment, she gagged on a pungent odor that was tinged with a mild seasoning of sweetness. Immediately, she put a handkerchief to her nose. The smell in the apartment was one that she had encountered many times before. Dawson knew that a dead and decomposing body smelled like nothing else in this world. When she tried to describe it once to a friend, she said, “Try to imagine a piece of rotting meat over which someone has sprinkled a few drops of cheap perfume.” And that was exactly the odor she smelled in her friend’s apartment. She prayed that she wasn’t going to turn the corner and find Lenny’s dead body on the floor.

In its place, she found the kitchen had been turned into a dumpster. The CSI boys were picking through rotted food, slices of week-old pizza, half-eaten tins of sardines, cardboard containers of sushi, fast food bags, leftover French fries, empty soda bottles, discarded newspapers, and all manner of trash. They seemed to be searching for something that was not immediately apparent to her, but their probe had spilled over into Lenny’s bathroom which smelled worse than a public toilet. She peeked around the door, and saw two technicians from forensics scooping up the dead carcass of a skunk, its entrails spilling over their gloves as they shoved it into an evidence bag. The scene might have been laughable if it hadn’t been so morbidly repulsive. What on earth had Lenny been doing these last two weeks?

Dawson walked into the living room, and watched as more police officials combed through Lenny’s personal belongings. Boxes and bags, and even his personal computer was being searched. Two guys wearing ATF jackets from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives were carefully going through several of his collectable props from Star Wars. His prized Obi-Wan Kenobi lightsaber was among them. At the front door, a couple of uniformed cops stood around, talking and taking in the sights. It was like a policemen’s convention.

Lieutenant Emmanuel Ramos folded his arms across his chest as his eyes swept over the room, a commander of men. “Search every room and closet in the apartment, and make sure you do a thorough check of his storage space in the basement,” he barked out orders.

“Yes, sir,” one man responded.

“I’m on it, Lieutenant,” another one answered.

Dawson watched as the two policemen snapped to attention, then marched off to complete their tasks. She asked, “Are you in charge here?”

“Yes, I am. And just who are you?”

“I’m Kate Dawson. I live in the apartment next door.”

“This doesn’t concern you,” the Lieutenant said, all business. “Keep your nose out of this, lady.”

“It’s Inspector,” she corrected him, flashing her badge. “I work in Homicide. I’m also Mr. Provolone’s friend.”

Ramos didn’t reply right away. He stood there, looking everywhere but at Dawson, refusing to make eye contact. “I’ve seen you around.”

“Yeah, as I have you,” she said, trying to be polite. “Would you mind telling me what this is all about?”

“What’s it to you, Inspector?”

“Occasionally, Mr. Provolone works as a consultant for the Homicide Bureau and, as I mentioned, he’s also a friend.”

“Well, ‘your friend’ threatened to kill a young woman, nearly half his age, if she didn’t submit to having sexual intercourse with him,” the Lieutenant reported, dead serious. “A protective order has been issued, instructing him to stay away from her and not to contact her in any way. The Court has also instructed him to turn over any firearms and ammunition to the police.”

“I presume you have a warrant?” she inquired, with her hand out.

Ramos took out what looked like an official document from the chest pocket of his jacket, and handed it to her. “Warrant is signed by a judge. Everything is in order.”

Dawson read the warrant. “Hardly, this doesn’t give you permission to go through his trash or disrupt his household. This warrant just permits you to confiscate any weapons he has. Anything else you’ve done or taken far exceeds the parameters of this document.”

“You sound like an attorney,” said Ramos, as he threw his head back and guffawed. “I hate fuckin’ attorneys.”

“I demand that you and your men leave these premises immediately.”

“Or what?”

“Or I will be forced to press charges of criminal trespass…” Dawson said, as she watched hopelessly as the men under the Lieutenant’s command stumbled through the apartment, knocking over Lenny’s precious collectables. A bull in a China shop might have done less damage. “…and vandalism.”

One of the ATF agents took Lenny’s prized Obi-Wan Kenobi lightsaber from the shelf, and threw it carelessly into an evidence bag.

“Hey, will you be careful with that,” she said, reprimanding him. She then reached into the bag, attempting to rescue the priceless prop. Unfortunately, the plastic lightsaber blade had broken off from its metal hilt. She held the two pieces in her hands, addressing the ATF agent, “There was nothing deadly about this lightsaber. It was a prop from a fuckin’ movie. But now you’ve broken it, asshole.”

“Looked real enough to me,” he said, remorseless.

“It was a movie prop. It was supposed to look real.”

Emmanuel Ramos smirked. “Perhaps I should arrest you for obstructing an official investigation.”

“An investigation into what, exactly,” she countered shrewdly. “I thought you were here serving a warrant?”

“It’s all right, Kate,” said a familiar voice. Lenny Provolone appeared at his bedroom door in his moth-eaten, dingy gray t-shirt and briefs from Fruit of the Loom, and shuffled across the floor, like a dead man walking. “I’ve already informed the Lieutenant that he and his men are free to inspect anything they like. I don’t have anything to hide.”

Dawson walked over to his side and handed him the two pieces of his lightsaber. “Lenny, I don’t think you understand,” she said. “They have a warrant that empowers them to take any firearms or ammunition you may have. However, the warrant does not give them permission to conduct a search of your apartment.”

“What difference does it make? My life is over!”

“It makes a big difference, my friend. They could impound everything you own, including your assets, and those could stay tied up in the courts for years. I’ve seen it happen. You could find yourself out on the street, or worse.”

“I don’t care. My life is over,” he repeated.

“Well, you better start caring, or the next intimate relationship you’re going to have is with some hairy beast named Bubba behind bars.”

“You might as well let them shoot me; put me out of my misery.”

Kate shot him a sideways glance. “You’ve had worse ideas,” she said, with a hint of sarcasm, “but right now, you’re going to pick yourself up out of this muddle of self-pity you’re trying to drown in, and act like a man. You’re going to put on a pair of pants and grab your toothbrush, then we’re going over to my place and you’re going to sleep it off.”

“Will you have sex with me?” he pleaded.

“No! You’re sleeping on the couch.”

“I’m such a pathetic loser,” Lenny said, feeling sorry for himself, as he shuffled back to his bedroom.

Dawson turned back to Lieutenant Ramos, glowering at him. The look in her face said it all: You’d better not piss me off. “Your investigation is over. I want your men out of here immediately.”

“I’ve already given them the word. ‘fraid they won’t have time to clean up that mess in the kitchen.”

“Right now, that’s the least of my problems.”

The police lieutenant walked over to the door, but stopped short of leaving. “I work a lot of domestic violence cases in the span of a year,” he said, speaking over his shoulder. “In about half of those cases, abusers violate their restraining orders and perpetrate even worse forms of abuse on their victims.”

“What’s your point, Ramos?”

“I’ll be keeping a close eye on your friend,” he said, turning with a bitter expression written across his face. “Creeps like him who prey on little girls half his age belong behind bars, with the other perverts and wackos.”

“You’ve got the wrong idea about Lenny,” she protested.

“Right, that’s what they all say. But I’ve got a protective order from a little girl who’s frightened out of her mind that says different.”

Dawson could not believe it. “Everyone knows that restraining orders and orders to vacate are granted to virtually all who apply. The low burden of proof has led to a great deal of misuse, with a large percentage of allegations being thrown out of the court for lack of proof.”

“How typical! Blame the victim for everything.”

“I was just saying —”

“I’ll make it easy for you,” he said, walking out the door. “You just keep him away from her, and everything will be fine.”

“Good night, Lieutenant,” Dawson said, closing the door behind him.

***

The next morning, when Kate climbed out of bed, Lenny was still sound asleep on the couch. She decided to let him sleep it off and tiptoed around her apartment so that she wouldn’t wake him. In less than fifteen minutes, she had showered, dressed, put on her make-up, and was heading out the door when he heard him beginning to stir. Kate stood at the door, with her arms folded across her chest, and looked down at her houseguest. The last thing that she wanted to do was wake him; she didn’t have time for a long conversation. She was also concerned that, in his present state of mind, he might do something to himself or his ex-girlfriend Rebecca that he’d later regret. It was a sticky situation, and the longer she stood there, the more she realized she was going to have to make a choice.

With a delicate, almost maternal touch, Kate pulled the comforter up over his shoulder, then leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Lenny, we’ll talk about what happened later tonight. Just get some rest and lock up when you leave. Whatever you do, stay away from Rebecca! If you’re feeling energetic, you may want to clean up your apartment.” Satisfied, she walked out the front door.

Minutes later, Dawson was making the right from Delancey Street onto Brannan when her cell phone rang. The caller ID on her car’s Bluetooth device identified John Prescott as the caller. She pressed the ‘talk’ button on her steering wheel and was instantly connected with him through her car stereo. The convenient, built-in, hands-free link allowed her to talk while she continued to drive, a feature she liked a lot.

“How was your flight?” she asked.

“Uneventful.” It sounded like he was seated in her back seat. “How about you? How are you holding up, Love?”

She thought about it a moment. “Okay, I guess. I had an unexpected wrinkle come up, but it’s really not worth discussing.”

“I understand. Things are actually pretty crazy here for me. There’s a lot of concern that we may be going to war with Iran over the nuclear arms stand-off. People are just scared.”

“Well, you be careful…please, John.”

Prescott was silent for a moment. “Listen, Kate, I sent a couple of agents to check out Meghan Kendrick’s residence this morning. The apartment was completely empty. Wiped clean. Other than some furniture, there wasn’t any evidence that she had ever lived there. When they questioned the building superintendent, he told them the Secret Service had taken everything, including her garbage. This morning. Just after midnight.”

“Wait a minute,” Dawson said, stomping on the brakes. Coming to a complete stop, she reached for her briefcase on the back seat and pulled out a small notebook. The vehicle directly behind her and several others in the lane started honking their horns as she thumbed furiously through the pages. Finally, she reached a page she had scribbled a few notes on.

“Kate, are you still there?”

Dawson threw the car into gear and stepped on the gas. It lurched ahead, like a dragster on nitrous oxide out of the starting gate. She left the other vehicles behind her in a cloud of smoke.

“Kate, answer me!”

Glancing at her notes, she said, “Meghan’s body was found just after 9:00 P.M. With the three-hour time difference, between the East Coast and our Pacific Time, the Feds would have gotten to her place just a few minutes later.”

“How is that possible?” John asked, confused.

“I don’t know, but I am beginning to smell a cover-up.”

“Well then, you’re not going to like this any better. Her Capitol Hill apartment is registered in the name of McMillan & Associates.”

“The name doesn’t mean anything to me.”

“I don’t know why I expected you to know that,” he apologized. “Maybe it’s just an inside-the-beltway kind of thing, but McMillan & Associates are huge contributors to the Democratic Party.”

“The Democratic Party? Why would they be holding the lease to an apartment that a Fox News reporter is using?”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking.”

Dawson turned the corner at Sixth Street and pulled into a parking spot opposite police headquarters on Bryant Street. “I just got to work, and I’m running a few minutes late.”

“No problem, Kate. We’ll talk later on tonight.”

“Do you think you could do me a big favor?” she asked.

“Sure. Anything. Whatever you want.”

“I need a list of everybody who was on board that plane. I asked Agent Smith for it last night, but now I’m thinking he may only give me a partial list or none at all. I need the original manifest that was filed at Andrews Air Force Base before Air Force One took off.”

For an instant Prescott was silent, then said, “I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, you be very careful.”

“I will.”

***

Kate Dawson scrambled into the conference room at police headquarters, grabbing a cup of coffee, a couple of sugars, and a donut as she passed the cantina. She sat down at the conference table, directly across from Lieutenant James Roberts, who was standing there glaring at her, nostrils flaring. Rather than return her boss’s look, she took headcount around the room. Most of the detectives from the Homicide Bureau were assembled at the table, including William Clark, Mikhail Jawara, Matt Balardi, and several others she didn’t know well. Her partner Jorge Ramirez was noticeably absent. As she mixed the sugar in her coffee, Kate sifted through the pile of photocopied materials in front of her, and listened to the detective who was talking to the group.

“…and once we obtained the subpoenaed records from his Internet Service Provider, we were able to link his IP address with the emails he sent to the contract killer,” reported William Clark, reading from his notebook. “When we confronted him with the evidence, he confessed to taking out the hit on his wife. In fact, we couldn’t shut him up once he started talking.”

“Cried like a baby is more like it,” Mikhail Jawara corrected his partner.

Clark looked down at his notes. “We’ve referred everything over to the D.A. We’re just waiting for a court date.”

“I still say that rich boy would’ve done better on Divorce Court,” Jawara joked, sparking a round of snickers and laughs from his fellow detectives. “I’d take my chances against a roulette wheel any day of the week. Now he’s going to spend the rest of his life in jail, then what good is all that money going to do him.”

“The point is,” Clark said, trying to correct him, “he didn’t think he was going to get caught.”

The African-American had the final word. “No, partner. He just didn’t think.”

“Great. Good job, Clark, Jawara,” the Lieutenant said. “Corcoran, Farris, where are you guys on your case.”

“Crime scene is clean. No weapons, no prints, no witnesses,” Farris reported.

“The couple was shot at point-blank range by an assailant who probably hid out in the house and waited for them to come home,” Corcoran added. “The family thinks they were killed by a crazy ex-wife who’s had a history of stalking the ex-husband, but her alibi is solid. She was a thousand miles away in Colorado.”

“We’re following up on other leads,” Farris said.

The Lieutenant put his hands on his hips, pushing back his blazer, in a commanding stance. “Okay, keep on it and see what you can do about getting me an update by Friday.”

“Yes, sir,” they replied in unison.

“All right, what about you, Dawson?” Roberts said, turning to glare at the female detective. The look of irritation on his face fixed her right in place. “What have you and Balardi got to report?”

Fumbling with the notes from her briefcase, Dawson finally said, “Last night, shortly after 9 p.m., a Secret Service agent attached to the President’s security detail aboard Air Force One reported finding a woman’s body in the rear restroom of the plane. Apparently, she had been strangled, although that is now being disputed. Her name was Meghan Kendrick, a thirty-three-year-old reporter for Fox News attached to the Presidential Press Corps.”

Jawara perked up at his seat. “Are we talking about the Meghan Kendrick? The ‘fair and balanced girl’ from Fox News?”

“The one and only,” Kate replied.

“Oh, man! I’ve had a hard-on for her longer than I can remember.”

“She was a real beauty,” Balardi added.

“Do you remember the GQ spread she did?” Jawara asked, with a faraway look in his eyes. “She was wearing that skimpy black dress. Barely. Man, that was some serious ass skin. Made you want to join the Republican Party.”

“I cut that picture out of the magazine and had it pinned up over my desk for over a year,” Balardi reminded them.

“Yeah, I remember.”

“So much for family values,” Clark interjected, with an eyebrow raised.

“Maybe she figured it worked for Sarah Palin, so why not give it a shot,” Jawara defended her.

“She certainly gave ‘stiffies’ to a lot of conservatives across the country.”

Clark added, “Maybe a few to Democrats as well.”

“I’d wager she caught the First Man’s eye,” Jawara joked. “He’s got an eye for tall blondes just like her.”

“He’d be my first suspect,” Balardi said, grinning.

“When you’re finished being rhapsodic about your favorite celebrity crush, we can get back to some real police work,” Roberts demanded as he sat down hands folded, leaning forward in his chair at the end of the table. Then he turned to Dawson. “You referred to the woman’s death as a homicide, but you also said that was now being disputed. By whom?”

Dawson looked back in her notes. “Harlan Reinhardt. He’s in charge of the President’s security.”

“Let me guess. The woman’s injuries were self-inflicted?”

“That’s right, Lieutenant,” Dawson acknowledged. “The thing of it is, when I first received the call, they said it was a homicide, but then Reinhardt started saying that it wasn’t.”

“I’m really not surprised,” the Lieutenant said. “No doubt cooler heads prevailed, and that’s when they started to evolve this rather elaborate story of their own. I think you’ll find the man who reported it as a homicide will be guarding an igloo in Alaska for his next duty assignment.”

Dawson took a sip of her coffee. “I just don’t understand why they don’t want to cooperate with us.”

Roberts explained, “The Secret Service just doesn’t want to risk a full investigation that might expose the President, her husband, or any one of the officials on board to allegations of murder, particularly on day thirty-four of this nuclear arms stand-off with Iran. They’d rather sweep it under the rug now and conduct their own investigation later, when the press has more important things to think about. Better a page-five story on the day when the front page announces an end to the crisis than a front-page story now while the President is trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the stand-off. I really can’t blame them, but it’s a shitty way to treat a woman’s death.”

“Agreed.”

“What does Doctor Brogan think?”

“He plans on releasing his coroner’s report this afternoon,” she answered.

“Well, pending the results of his report, let’s continue to treat Meghan Kendrick’s death as a homicide,” Roberts said, all business-like. “I want Clark and Jawara to do a complete work up on the plane’s manifest and find out if there was anyone on the list that had it in for Meghan Kendrick. That includes members of the First Family, officials, press, stewards, and the flight crew —”

“Sir, I’ve already assigned that task to Detective Balardi,” Dawson interrupted.

“I want you and Balardi to get the low-down on the coroner’s report, then follow up with the person who initially filed the homicide report. Get him to talk. Find out why he thought Meghan was murdered.”

“Yes, sir,” she responded.

“With all due respect, Lieutenant, I don’t want to work with Inspector Dawson,” Balardi said, exchanging glances with her like the crossing of swords. “She’s unlucky, sir. She has a way of getting her partners killed or seriously fucked up in the line of duty, and I don’t want to be next on the list.”

“We’ve been over this before,” Dawson growled, swallowing her anger.

“C’mon, cool it, man,” Jawara said, looking at Balardi.

“There’s no point in opening old wounds,” Clark added.

“Well, maybe I’m still not satisfied with her explanation,” he taunted Kate, with a sing-song inflection in his voice.

“You know damn well that I had nothing to do with Frank Miller’s death!” she shouted.

“You keep saying that,” Balardi said, egging her on, “but I have a hard time understanding why you didn’t have his back.”

“How many times do I have to go over it? Frank Miller was my partner and my friend. We were chasing a suspect. We got separated. By the time I got back to him, he was dead, and the suspect was nowhere to be found.”

“Yeah, right. Maybe if you’d spent less time boffing Monroe’s brains out, you’d have seen him for the cold-blooded killer he was.”

Red-faced, Dawson sprang to her feet, ready to reach across the table and rip out his throat, while Clark and Jawara struggled to pull her back down to her chair. “You son-of-a-bitch,” she snarled.

Matt Balardi was on his feet. “C’mon, tough guy, hit me. Show me what kind of man you are.”

Roberts shot the pair of them one of his patented steely looks. “All right, that’s enough, Balardi, Dawson,” he said, shaking his head with disgust. “I’ve warned you about this before. I’m not going to have two of my homicide detectives brawling in the conference room.” Standing, his big, hulking form towered above them, like a giant over insects. “Look, I get the fact that the two of you don’t like each other, but this isn’t a Sunday social where you get to select your partner. This is the San Francisco Police Department, and as your superior, it’s my prerogative to make the workforce assignments. The day that you can’t live with that is the day I want to see your resignation on my desk. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Kate said, grudgingly, finding her chair.

“Right you are, Lieutenant.” Balardi smirked, cutting his eyes at Dawson, as he sat back down.

Roberts sat down in his chair and read the agenda. “Okay, we’re moving onto the last item,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Some of you may have heard already that Jorge Ramirez’s wife went into premature labor last night around 8 P.M. and gave birth to a little girl.”

Everyone looked surprised at that, but Dawson jumped as if she had just been given an electric shock. “Is she okay? What about the baby?”

“The mother and the baby are fine,” he reported to the group. “Ramirez told me his wife, Angelina, was scheduled to be released today, but the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the hospital was going to be monitoring the baby’s underdeveloped lungs for the next few weeks. He seemed very upbeat and positive, and wasn’t concerned that his newborn still has a ways to go.”

“Does she have a name?” Kate asked.

Roberts had notes. “Layla. Born 2lbs, 12oz. She’s already become a celebrity on Facebook, thanks to the mug shots Ramirez took of her in the arms of the nurses in the NICU.”

“Wasn’t there a song from the 70’s called “Layla?’” Jawara asked.

Dawson told them, “Yeah, by Eric Clapton. My father loved that song, and I’ve always had a sweet spot for it myself.”

“The song was inspired by Clapton's unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend and fellow musician, George Harrison,” Clark added.

“Thank you, Mr. Trivia,” Jawara joked. “One of these days I’m going to harness that eidetic memory of yours, partner, and we’re going to go to Las Vegas and make lots and lots of money.”

“Promises, promises,” Clark joked.

“Well, your trip to Las Vegas is going to have to wait just a bit longer,” Roberts said, on a sour note. “Ramirez has asked for a few days off to be with his daughter in the hospital, and I’ve granted him family medical leave in accordance with union regulations. But that just means his current caseload has to be divided amongst the rest of you.” He started handing out folders to the detectives around the table.

“Thanks a lot, Lieutenant,” several of them grumbled aloud.

Jawara groaned when he picked up his stack of folders. “Just when I thought I was going to see the light of day.”

“Look on the bright side, partner,” Clark said, “with all this work, we’ll never have to worry about standing in an unemployment line.”

“Yeah, I guess we should be grateful that people keep killing other people.”

William Clark chortled, “Think of it as job security.”

“I don’t know about you guys,” Balardi complained, “but I’m hoping Ramirez was a better writer than speaker, or else we’re all going to need a “Spick” dictionary to figure out what the fuck he’s talking about.”

Farris and Corcoran chuckled, but the other detectives regarded Matt Balardi’s racial comments with disdain. Kate bit down hard on her lower lip, barely able to contain the anger smoldering deep within her.

Roberts finished doling out the folders. “Okay, that’s the lot. Now I want you to take some time reading each case file and bringing yourselves up to speed on the facts in the case. If you have any questions or you’re not sure about something, talk to me, and we’ll figure it out. Oh, and one more thing, whatever you do, don’t miss a court date. I don’t want to get any complaints from the D.A.’s office.”

“Hey, Lieutenant, what’s the word ‘wetbacks’ used for in homicide?” Balardi joked.

James Roberts fixed on him like death daggers. “That’ll be all,” he said, dismissing his detectives.

Dawson gathered the case files into her arms, stood up, and pushed the chair back with her hip. As she headed towards the conference room door, she pushed by Balardi who was joking with his friends, Corcoran and Farris, and exchanged a momentary look full of anger and rage, worthy of Medusa, and by all rights should have turned the man to stone.

She returned to her office, collapsing at her desk, under a pile of work.

***

An hour and a half later, Kate Dawson was driving down Van Ness Avenue towards Lafayette Park; her partner sitting in the passenger seat with his elbow hanging out the window. Dawson would have never admitted it, not to Prescott, not to the department shrink, not even to herself, but John Monroe was right. Everyone had the capacity to commit murder, and right at that very moment, she was struggling with her own inner demons, trying not to reach for her weapon and fire a round right into the temple of Matt Balardi as he sat next to her. She hated the man with every fiber of her being. She regarded him as an arrogant, wise-cracking son-of-a-bitch who treated women like playthings and showed nothing but contempt for other ethnic groups. In fact, she could think of nothing the least bit redemptive about his character. She let her mind go for a second and imagined collecting a medal on the steps of City Hall for exterminating the vermin before he could reproduce. Her daydream was broken when she slowed for another car in front of City Hall and watched the normal foot traffic going in and out of the domed building.

They had ridden a few blocks from the Hall of Justice before Balardi finally broke the silence, saying, “This is bullshit, Dawson. You’re not going to get within a mile of Lafayette Park. The place is going to be crawling with Feds protecting the President from John Q. Public.”

“That’s what I’m counting on,” she replied, determined.

“Just what makes you think this joker is going to be there? For my money, he’s in Alaska already, freezing his nuts off, guarding that igloo,” Balardi huffed.

“A hunch,” Kate said simply.

“I get hunches, too. And I’ve got a pretty good hemorrhoid cream that I can recommend for them. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.”

“Besides,” she added, ignoring his comment, “Reinhardt said the agent was assigned to the detail protecting the First Family.”

“And you believe that asshole? Well, you’re dumber than you look, Dawson.”

Dawson thought about something Reinhardt had said. “I suppose if they’re going to be telling this big lie about Meghan Kendrick, then some parts of it must be true.”

“You’re dreaming.”

“We’ll see.”

They drove a few more miles on Van Ness, heading towards Pacific Heights, and just past Geary Boulevard, the traffic slowed to a standstill. This time, Kate broke the silence. “So, what do you think, Balardi? Cut over to Franklin Street, then make a left on Pine?”

“Doesn’t really matter to me. I already told you we’re not going to get within a mile of Lafayette Park.”

“Christ, Balardi, you never give up, do you?”

“No, not when someone’s being a jackass.”

“Why don’t you just shut that fuckin’ hole of yours and let me drive!” Dawson snarled, as she made the turn at Franklin.

There was silence for some time, then Balardi spoke up, “This is a fool’s errand, Inspector. Even if we do get close to the location where the President is speaking, how do you plan to identify Agent “Jones” from among all the other agents that are there? Let alone, talk to him?”

“Reinhardt’s going to point him out for me.”

“You’re out of your frickin’ mind. He’s never going to give up one of his guys, especially to you.”

Dawson made the left at Pine and stepped on the gas. “I happen to know that the Feds were all over Meghan’s apartment last night.”

“Big deal. I’d be surprised if they hadn’t.”

“Less than five minutes after she was reported dead?”

All of a sudden, Matt Balardi sat up in the passenger seat. “Are you shitting me? That would mean those assholes knew about it the whole time, or actually had planned to take her out.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Dawson cautioned him.

“I suppose the guy you’re humping at Justice told you.”

“Yeah, he called me this morning, and told me all about it on my drive into work.”

Balardi rubbed his hands together, giddy with anticipation. “I can’t wait to see the look on that asshole’s face when you confront him. Five will get you ten, he craps right in his pants.”

“I’m sure he already knows.”

“What? No fuckin’ way,” he disagreed with her.

“But it doesn’t really matter,” she said, pulling up to the curb, “he’s still going to give me what I want.”

They climbed out and studied the street barricade the police had erected to discourage motorists from driving through the Pacific Heights neighborhood. A block away, the President stood on a make-shift platform that had been constructed on the grounds of Lafayette Park. On the platform sat an array of dignitaries from local and state government. Nearby, a handful of Secret Service agents stood on flanking sides of the wooden structure, watching and waiting, while others wearing black suits and sunglasses were strategically deployed around the rolling green hills of the park. Local police officers struggled to contain the crowd of about five hundred people who stood directly in front of the platform. Red, white, and blue bedecked cheerleaders, who made the event seem more like a political rally than a speech, knelt on one knee in the buffer zone between the President and her constituents. Meanwhile, protesters carrying signs, which read “NO TO U.S. WAR ON IRAN,” “GIVE PEACE A CHANCE,” and “END THIS CONFLICT,” walked to and fro in the background, chanting slogans from a bygone era. They seemed to be aging hippies who had been bused in from Haight-Ashbury to add color to an otherwise colorless event, and they definitely caught the eye of the news reporters on hand.

At that distance, Dawson strained to hear the President’s voice, which could be heard coming from a remote loudspeaker system. From what the detective could tell, the President sounded like an excellent speaker who drove hard toward her arguments and crashed down on each of her points. She certainly captured the attention of the crowd as her edgy voice rang with sincerity and angst, “…there is no higher priority than protecting the citizens of the United States of America from the tyranny of a rogue nation that has disobeyed international law and now seeks to intimidate the world with nuclear terrorism. By arming themselves with nuclear weapons and targeting cities in the Western hemisphere, they are defying several key resolutions that have been adopted by the United Nations Security Council.”

The President paused briefly to drink in the adulation and applause, then launched into the next section of her speech with renewed vitality. “Some have sought to justify this belligerent behavior on the part of the leadership in Iran as a step to protect their own borders from the possibility of preemptive strikes launched against their nuclear arsenal by Israel or the United States. But that is simply a stratagem they are employing to turn public opinion to their side. Never in the history of this great nation has the United States launched a preemptive attack against a foreign government, nor do we have any plans to do so now. While we all agree that sovereign nations have every right to protect themselves and their borders against their enemies, they do not have the right to intimidate others with huge arsenals that threaten mass destruction among their neighbor nations. America is committed to a nuclear-free Iran and will do everything in its power to stop this nuclear proliferation.”

As they searched for Harlan Reinhardt in the crowd, a policeman on foot patrol walked around their parked vehicle and came up from behind them. “Ma’am, you can’t park here.”

“It’s okay, officer,” Dawson said, turning around and handing her identification to him. “I’m a detective from Homicide.”

The policeman checked her ID and handed it back. Politely, he said, “Sorry, Inspector, but I’m still going to ask you to move your car. In a few minutes, the Presidential motorcade will be coming this way, and we have orders to keep the street cleared.”

“I understand. I was just hoping that I could have a brief word with the Secret Service agent in charge.”

“I’ll be happy to point him out to you, Inspector, but I must insist you move your car first.”

“Hey, numb nuts, this is official business,” Balardi shouted, flashing his badge.

“What did you say to me?” the policeman asked, straightening up and putting a protective hand on his service revolver.





* * *

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