Terror at G-20 By John L. Flynn

Several hours later, Mylee’s body was still sprawled on the makeshift stage when Kate Dawson walked into the ballroom of the InterContinental Hotel, and pushed her way through the people gathered at the crime scene. Her long blonde hair had been pulled into a ponytail; her blue eyes were dark and puffy from a lack of sleep.
Terror at G-20
Terror at G-20 By John L. Flynn

She’d donned comfortable jeans and loafers, a casual, button-down shirt haphazardly tucked-in and a light-weight windbreaker. She stared hard at the body, a slab of meat that had once contained all the hopes and dreams of a young woman’s life. It was hard for Dawson to imagine a more tragic sight, particularly when she considered that her daughter—had she survived that fateful bullet which took her life—would have been the same age as Mylee, thirteen. Two beautiful, young girls, with a whole lifetime of promise ahead of them, cut down even before they could become women. She looked at the body again, as if photographing it with her mind, and then turned away, shaking her head, looking at the crowd of homicide investigators that filled the room. The crowd was so much smaller than she had ever seen before.

Slowly, somewhat methodically, Dawson moved through the elegant ballroom, taking in every last detail, using her eyes to record everything, so that later she wouldn’t have to rely on crime scene photos to remind her of what she had seen. First, she walked by the coroner’s crew who were searching and probing the body, with the Chief Medical Officer. Then she walked past the forensics team who was unpacking a small piece of electronic equipment that would scan the room for clues. She side-stepped several plain-clothed detectives, including William Clark and Mikhail Jawara, who were conferring with some of the witnesses and hotel security. It had been their bad luck to pick up the call when they were just going off duty. As the cover officers, they had spent most of the wee hours of Monday morning collecting statements from the people who had been there. 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, looking over at her. “I’d much prefer to be home safely in bed with my wife than out on a cold night like this one. It’s flu season, you know, and if I’m not mistaken, there are a lot of people out sick.”

“Yeah,” the other one answered. “It seems like we’ve been doing a lot of double shifts to cover for those out sick.”

Dawson nodded. “I wondered why the turn-out was so light,” she commented. She spoke softly, just soft enough for them to have heard her, but loud enough not to be rude. “Keep up the good work, boys.”

Even though Kate’s star had been on the rise with the capture of the “Angel of Death” serial killer and the indictment of the President and her staff for conspiracy to commit murder in the death of a Fox News reporter, most people didn’t have a high opinion of the San Francisco Police Department. A Gallup poll, taken over the weekend, had found that the Department’s approval rating had plunged to its lowest in the last fifty years. Less than 29% of those sampled as a part of the poll rated the Department highly, while a whopping 71% of the people polled were critical of its roll in protecting the City. The local media, with its very liberal agenda, blamed the SFPD for putting the personal interests of its officers before the safety of the citizens they protected. But the issue was not as black-and-white as the press portrayed it. Due to recent budget cuts, not only were police officers required to supply their own handguns, but they were also obligated to bring their own ammunition and keep their weapons clean and in good repair. For most officers, this was a huge expense that they simply could not easily afford. A nasty dispute between some of the more liberal members of the City Council and members of the police union over these “unreimbursed job expenses” had led to the first-ever “sick-out” last Wednesday when a large percentage of police officers and detectives called out and stayed home rather than report to duty. By Friday, nearly half of the Force, complete with their support staff, had also called out sick. Their protests were born out of frustration and desperation, but not everyone saw it that way. Fearing another police protest might wreak havoc on Monday, the Mayor had ordered every cop in the City to report to duty first thing in the morning under threat of suspension and dismissal. That deadline was just a few hours away, and as she glanced at her watch, the last thing that Kate wanted to see was another “sick-out.”

“What was the cause of death, doctor?” Dawson asked, after she had completed a full circuit of the crime scene.

Edgar Brogan greeted her with more unwelcome news. The Chief Medical Examiner stood up wearily from the body as she approached, and sighed deeply. His cheeks were rosy red and windblown, like he had been spending most of the time during the “sick-out” on his sailboat in the bay rather than at the ME’s office. “She was poisoned, probably cyanide,” Doctor Brogan reported. “But unlike most poisons, like arsenic, cyanide does not go down unnoticed. It’s better known as a strong, bitter poison; noticeable when swallowed. If she died of cyanide poisoning, she may have ingested it herself.”

“Are we talking suicide, doctor?” she asked, looking at the body which had been roped off by Brogan to safeguard others from getting too close.

“That’s my preliminary finding,” he replied, flatly. “I’m still going to run a standard toxicology screen back at the lab to check for common exposures to narcotics and carbon monoxide, but that bloody froth that dribbled out of her mouth is a dead giveaway. I’d be surprised if the tox-screen came back with any other finding but cyanide poisoning.”

Kate swallowed hard. “How did she die, Edgar?”

Brogan folded his arms across his chest. “Cyanide poisoning has a wonderfully precise lethal action. As a form of histotoxic hypoxia, it disables the body’s ability to metabolize oxygen cell by cell, a kind of chemical suffocation that sets off a spreading cell-death meltdown in the body. Victims gasp desperately for breath, trying to fill their lungs, but find themselves unable to use the oxygen. Loss of consciousness is preceded by general weakness, headaches, dizziness, and confusion. As the organs start to die, the victim exhibits muscle tremors. They stagger and finally collapse. My guess is that the young woman ingested the poison, and was dead from cardiac arrest, within a matter of moments.”

“But that doesn’t tell me the ‘why,’ doctor. Why would a healthy, normal, young girl, like Mylee, take her own life?”

The Chief Medical Officer shook his head, and smiled. “I wish I could tell you, Kate. You want to know the how and the when, I’ve got you covered. But there are certain questions that science simply can’t answer. I suppose that’s the reason why some of us still turn to God for answers to those deeper questions.”

Dawson smiled back at him. “Thanks, Edgar,” she said, glimpsing her boss, the head of the Homicide Bureau, out of the corner of her eye.

James Roberts looked uptight and tense, irritable from the wait his lead detective had extracted from him. But as he was the one who had called her in the middle of the night and insisted that she take charge of the investigation, he could hardly complain if Dawson took a few extra minutes to acquaint herself with the crime scene. The Lieutenant was a big, hulking man who carried the weight of his office around with him, like most cops carried sidearms. He was known as a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, and played the game better than most. In fact, Roberts was the real reason why the Homicide Bureau consistently topped all of the other departments with a prosecution rate of 82% (or better). He just wasn’t a very good detective himself. He was such a slave to the day-to-day routine of the job that he lacked imagination, which was where, Dawson reasoned, most good investigative work happened. They had butted heads so often over this very same issue that she had actually started calling him a pragmatist, the rarest of God’s creatures, also known as a person with all four feet on the ground.

Dawson watched him fret for another moment, then decided to put Roberts out his misery. “Okay, people. I want to know exactly what happened here,” she demanded, the lead detective’s words summoning everyone to attention.

As if he had been switched on like a light switch, William Clark started reading from his notes. “According to witnesses, the deceased—known simply as Mylee—was one of six Thai national girls being auctioned off to the highest bidder as a sex-x-x s-s-slave…sex slave,” he stuttered, having to repeat it for clarity. “Apparently, auctions of this kind are held regularly, about once a month, for ‘members only’ at upscale venues like this one.”

“They must have left my name off the guest list,” Mikhail Jawara joked, but Clark did not pay his partner any mind.

“How come I’ve never heard of this?” Dawson asked, with a frown.

Clark shrugged. “Vice has been trying to close these down for years, but the promoters are very clever with how they advertise their shows for ‘entertainment purposes’ only. They get all the proper permits. They break no apparent laws because they’re not ‘actually’ selling sex slaves, even if they are, and they’re very well-connected downtown. I’ve heard the Mayor’s attended more than one.”

“Go on,” she ordered, with a look of disgust.

“After the first girl was sold to a Saudi prince for a record $50,000, Mylee was supposed to be the next girl on the auction block, but there was some kind of problem,” Clark continued his narrative. For someone with an eidetic memory for recalling all manner of facts and details, he kept extensive notes that could have easily formed the basis for a half dozen mystery novels. “She was either unwilling or unable to proceed, and that held the auction up for a good five or ten minutes.”

“Well, what was it? Unwilling, or unable?”

“I don’t know, Kate, and no one else seems to know either.”

“I’ve interviewed about half those eyewitnesses for Clark,” Jawara interjected, “and the only thing that they would all agree on was the likelihood that Mylee and the auctioneer had a dust-up backstage.”

Dawson shook her head as if to clear it. “Are you kidding me? Do you know what they were fighting about?”

“No idea,” Clark confessed, with a shrug.

“Nada,” Jawara added.

“But when she finally did emerge from behind the curtains, Mylee was holding her stomach, walking kind of funny.”

“Walking funny? Shit, no! That woman had been beaten up,” Jawara said, correcting his partner. “She could hardly keep one foot in front of the other. She looked like she was completely disoriented.”

Clark elbowed him in the ribs. “I was just getting ready to report that.”

“Christ, Clark, when are you going to learn to cut to the chase? This isn’t fuckin’ Murder, She Wrote, you know,” Jawara insisted.

“Well, guys, what was it?” she pressed, growing impatient.

“According to the eyewitnesses, it looked like Mylee had been beaten up pretty badly,” Clark reported, notes in hand. “She was disoriented, and could barely walk down the runway straight. When she reached the end, she just collapsed.”

“More like, fell flat on her face,” Jawara concluded.

“I said that,” William Clark added.

“No, you didn’t.”

“Were there any bruises on the body, Dr. Brogan?” Kate asked.

The Chief Medical Examiner looked at the body. “Negative,” he replied. “There are no obvious signs of blunt force trauma. If she was struck in the lower abdomen, it’s possible the broken blood vessels beneath the surface of the skin may not have had the time to form into a definite indicator of damage. But then, just remember that bruising does not always indicate injuries sustained deeper within the body, such as in the chest cavity and around the lungs. I’ll have a much better idea once I’ve conducted a complete autopsy back in the lab.”

“You still think it was suicide?”

“Mylee died of cyanide poisoning,” Brogan replied, after a moment’s hesitation. “Now whether it was suicide or the deliberate act of someone attempting to kill her, I cannot say for any degree of certainty. Cyanide continues to be a favorite poison for professionals as well as amateurs alike. A single tablespoon of potassium cyanide will kill 90% of the forty-three people who ingest it, or about thirty-nine people, in two hours or less. But it is a bitter substance, and anyone who ingests cyanide will taste it. It wouldn’t be my drug of choice.”

Confused, William Clark turned back to his notes. “Has Mylee’s death been officially ruled a homicide?” he asked, thumbing back through the pages. “Or are we still working under the assumption it was suicide?”

“That hasn’t been decided, Clark,” Dawson said, with a frown.

“Why would anyone want to kill a sweet girl, like Mylee?” Clark asked. “She was barely thirteen-years-old.”

Jawara objected. “How do you know she was so sweet? You never met her. She may have been a real bitch on wheels! Why do we always give the pretty ones a pass? For all we know, she may have been evil incarnate, and there was a long line of people who were anxious to see her dead.”

“You’re such a cynic, Mikhail,” his partner concluded.

“I’m a realist,” Jawara corrected him, “and whoever poisoned her was willing to sacrifice thousands of dollars in potential revenue in order to put her down. For what it’s worth, my money’s on the guy who held her pink slip.”

“And what if you’re wrong?” Clark asked. “What if Mylee was so humiliated by the circumstances of her life—the whole degradation of being sold as a sex slave—that she chose to end her life, rather than face a lifetime of shame?”

Dawson got between them. “That’s enough speculation, gentlemen. I need you to be focused on the facts in the case, not idle speculation.”

“Okay,” Clark replied.

“You’re right, Kate,” Jawara added.

While Dawson continued to work the evidence, her boss clung to the edges of the crime scene, running interference like a perfect offensive lineman. He kept several noisy reporters out of the ballroom, and with the help of several police officers, maintained a proper cordon around the witnesses. He also served as the perfect liaison official with the front desk and other hotel officials. James Roberts stood in the door, with his arms folded across his chest, and his eyes swept the room, a commander of all that he beheld. So, when a tall, handsome, African-American man tried to push his way through the entrance to the ballroom, with badge in hand, Roberts glowered at him. The look eloquently said, You’d better not piss me off.

“I’m the agent from—” the stranger started to say.

“Yeah, I know who you are,” the Lieutenant interrupted him, with a dismissive tone of voice. “You think that Justice Department badge is gonna get you a free lunch or something down here?”

“No,” he replied. “Maybe just a little professional courtesy?”

Roberts smirked, and it took all his police officers could do to stop themselves from laughing out loud at the stranger. “In a city with half of its officers out on strike three days before hosting the G-20 International Summit next door at the Moscone Center. You gotta be fucking kidding me.”

“All right. Forget courtesy. How about just being professional?”

“Look, I’ve dealt with you self-important pricks from Justice before,” Roberts replied, shooting him one of his patented steely looks. “You talk a big game about professionalism and cooperation when you need something from us, but the minute my men do your dirty work, you hightail it back to Washington, and take all the rewards. Well, that’s not going to happen this time. This is my crime scene and my investigation. If, and only if, I allow you to join this party, things are going to be done my way, or it’s the highway, bub.”

“Whaddya think they’re going to say in D.C. when I call and tell them the brass is refusing to cooperate with me?” the stranger asked, threatening him.

“I don’t really give a fuck,” the Lieutenant replied. “Why don’t you call them right now, wake up a few of those assholes, and find out?”

“I don’t need to wake anyone up,” he said, with his trump card. “I just need to make one phone call to pull all the federal funding for the State of California. Funding for roads, hospitals, Head Start—you name it.”

Roberts grunted. “You wouldn’t dare.”

“Your boys can dust down that entire crime scene, and they’re not going to know any more than what I know already.”

The Lieutenant scratched the stubble of beard that was growing on his face, and then reached up to adjust the small, horned-rim glasses on the end of his nose as if to bring the microscopic image of the Justice Department agent into focus. “So, what are you? Some kind of psychic?”

“No,” he replied. “I just don’t need the results of a forensics investigation to tell me this girl’s death was part of a case I’ve been working on for several years; actually, part of a much larger, ongoing investigation that we’ve been conducting into human trafficking. You know, Justice tends to be pretty thorough with its work.”

“Agent Whatever-the-hell-your-name-is, don’t start believing your own press,” Roberts cautioned him. “The Department of Justice doesn’t do anything unless it’s politically expedient to do so.”

“I take my orders from the Attorney General,” the agent said flatly.

“Then you’re a bigger fool than I thought you were,” Roberts said, signaling a couple of his men. He pulled them to one side, and whispered several orders. He then turned back to the man from Justice. “Now, you want a front seat at the party, fine. Knock yourself out. I’ll even send the Attorney General a fuckin’ commendation for your assistance with my murder case. But the minute I hear a single word about jurisdiction or your taking control of the investigation, I’m going to bust your ass all the way back to Washington. Is that clear?”

“Crystal,” he replied.

“Toomey and Loomis, kindly escort our new ‘friend’ to Inspector Dawson,” Roberts instructed his men. “Make sure, he doesn’t get lost.”

Flanked by two burly officers who towered over him by a foot, the agent was escorted into the elegant ballroom. He was middle-aged, perhaps thirty-five or forty, and well-groomed, with a neatly trimmed goatee and shaved head. He wore an expensive suit, a three-button one-piece that was just a touch too fashionable to identify him as a police detective, but not trendy enough for court or the Wall Street crowd. He appeared to have an edge to him, a swagger and confidence that belied a man who lived his life, one day at a time, with a semi-automatic pistol at his side. But his street-smart, urban toughness seemed to be at odds with the sensitivity that shown through his eyes. Unlike his burned-out counterparts, that sense of feeling revealed a man who wore his heart on a sleeve.

He walked up to the makeshift stage, and gently pulled aside one corner of the blanket that covered Mylee’s body. He was visibly moved.

“Did you know the deceased?” Dawson asked, glancing at the two police officers who escorted him before turning her gaze on him.

“No, not really,” he said, shaking his head. Tears had pooled up in the corners of his eyes, but he did not shed a single tear. “She had been part of an ongoing investigation that the Justice Department was conducting into human trafficking, but I never knew her real name. She was always just #4, out of the six women we were tracking.”

“Mylee,” she said.

“My-lee?” he repeated awkwardly.

After she pulled the corner of the blanket back into place, Dawson dismissed Toomey and Loomis, and looked long and hard at the handsome stranger. While her curiosity about him was fleeting, at best, she had been more than satisfied by the view. It wasn’t every day that a well-dressed man walked into her life, and gave her pause. But Kate knew better than to trust him. Her last beau had been an agent with the Department of Justice, and he not only exploited their relationship for political gain, but also broke her heart when he stole secret microfilm she was protecting. She never forgave him his deceit.

“I don’t know if that was her real name, but that’s the name they called her,” she added.

“Were you here when it happened?” he inquired, politely.

“No, I’m afraid not,” she replied, gazing at him. “I was called about an hour later by the head of the Homicide Bureau, and asked to take over the investigation. So, like you, I’m a relative latecomer to the party.”

“What do you know about her death?” he asked, meeting her gaze.

Dawson shrugged lightly. “We’re not really sure. Eyewitnesses claim that she had a scuffle with the auctioneer, and then, a few moments later, collapsed to the floor and died, but to what extent the scuffle contributed to her death, we just don’t know yet. The Medical Examiner thinks its cyanide poisoning, but no one really knows if she ingested the poison on her own, or was force-fed the poison by someone, looking to kill her.”

He closed his eyes for a moment, as if imagining Mylee’s violent demise, and then squeezed back tears. “How can I help you?” he said, at last.

“Why don’t we start with introductions?” Kate asked solicitously. “My name is Kate Dawson, and I’m an inspector with the San Francisco Police Department.”

“Gregory Morris,” he said, shaking hands with her. “Special agent, Department of Justice.”

“Agent Morris, what can you tell us about your investigation?”

“Not much,” he replied, with a shrug of his shoulders. “It is still ongoing, but what I can do is talk to you in very general terms. Perhaps even provide the framework for what must have transpired here tonight.”

Dawson nodded. “Okay, anything you share with us will be helpful.”

“Human Trafficking is a billion-dollar a year business,” Morris said, speaking directly to Kate but also making eye contact with several of the other detectives, “that is controlled not only by the criminal gangs but also large cartels that operate with military-like precision in nearly every corner of the world. They operate right out in the very open, and are unafraid of the sovereignty or military might of any nation. In fact, in many third-world countries, they offer the only real order those nations have seen in decades. It is estimated that some 300,000 women and children are traded every week on the black market by these groups, and each trade builds more wealth and power for them. But make no mistake, this isn’t something that’s happening ‘over there.’ The Asian sex trade, for example, is very real, and if you think it’s just limited to Southeast Asia, then you’ve got a rude awakening coming at you. The sex trade is in every major city in the United States and Canada. In upscale venues, just like this one, which cater to Wall Street types, dot-com millionaires, and even Saudi princes. It is a trade that includes not only sex, but pedophilia, human slavery, and even organ harvesting. With hundreds of thousands of women and children being brokered on the open market, this is human slavery on a scale that hasn’t been seen since the Pharaohs first enslaved Jews to build the Great Pyramids in Egypt.”

“I had no idea it was that big or as far-reaching,” Dawson confessed, taking a moment to digest everything that he had said.

Furiously, William Clark was taking notes. “Agent Morris, you stated the ‘trade’ not only included sex but also organ harvesting as well,” he repeated, almost word for word. “Exactly how does that work? They couldn’t possibly have the resources or medical expertise to maintain a large enough pool of organs for transplant.”

The Justice agent stared at Clark, without expression. “Each year, tens of thousands of those who are held by the cartels are tissue typed, and then routinely killed once a matching recipient in Europe or the United States is found for their organs,” he said, as a matter of fact. “Their precious kidneys, livers, and hearts are sold on demand and transplanted at enormous profit to overseas patients, who can afford them. All they have to do is keep their ‘donors’ alive long enough to be profitable to them.”

“That’s really cold, man,” Jawara commented, eyes sullen.

“I’d say they were the lucky ones,” Morris added. “At least they don’t have to suffer a lifetime of humiliation and abuse. They just have to wait a few months, while chained up at a prison camp, to be freed of all of their cares.”

“I’d like to know why this isn’t better reported,” Clark said.

“Most Americans don’t have a clue,” Morris replied, with a snicker, “and honestly, wouldn’t care if they did know all of the facts. They live in their safe, cookie-cutter, gated communities, shop at Wal-Mart or Costco on the weekends, and drive their little darlings in SUVs to the Kiddie Academy at the corner. Their shallow lives remain untouched by the world around them. That is, until a child goes missing or the pretty blonde next door disappears. Then, suddenly, their whole world comes apart. The last trace of their loved ones are the names and photos that show up on the sides of milk cartons, but by then, it’s way too late to save them. Their loved ones have already been swallowed up whole by a billion-dollar-a-year business that only sees them as a commodity to be sold or traded. Not a human being at all.”

Dawson nodded. “Of course, I’ve seen it happen time and time again. They’re completely disinterested, until it happens to them. Then, when it’s their own loved one at stake, they push the panic button, and turn to government agencies, like the Department of Justice or the F.B.I., to do something about it.”

“There’s very little that we can actually do,” he said, with a sigh, “except file a report and hope for a miracle they’re found.”

“But what I don’t understand,” she objected, “is how the Asian sex trade found its way to our shores? I was under the belief, like most Americans, that the lawlessness was confined to the third-world toilets of Southeast Asia.”

Morris replied, “Thirty-five years ago, there was a thriving sex industry in Thailand that catered primarily to the U.S. military and ‘sex tourism.’ Visitors to Bangkok could satisfy any kind of sexual pleasure or perversion, as long as the price was right. If you wanted a virgin, no problem. Pimps in the local bars sold virgins for $500 a pop. If you were looking for a light-skinned Thai girl from the northern region of the country, the brothels of Patpong Road and Soi Cowboy in Bangkok’s red-light district were teaming with them. If you happened to be a known pedophile from the States who sought to buy a teenaged boy or girl, even children, you were welcomed with open arms as long as you had money to spend. Most people just looked the other way, or paid Thai police to look the other way. In time, prostitution became such an important part of the gross national product of Thailand, the Thai government’s Interior Ministry enacted special legislation that protected those who profited from the sex trade. No one seemed to care about the victims, the young women and children who were raped or killed as a part of the industry. Profit was all that mattered, and soon other countries were trading sex for profit. In India, exotic women from the Himalayas were brought to Calcutta and other cities for their perceived beauty. Chinese nationals seeking a better life for themselves and children crawled through the malaria-infested jungles of Laos and Burma to reach Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, only to discover they were sold or trapped into working the sex trade in some of the border towns. Expansion by the criminal gangs and cartels into the other nations in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, means higher profits and greater demand for more product.”

“Christ almighty!” Dawson swore.

“Aren’t they concerned about HIV/AIDS and other diseases?” Clark asked, turning to a new page in his notebook.

“No, not really,” Morris replied. “The cartels have an excellent record at policing their prostitutes for drugs and sexually-transmitted diseases. Women and children who are diagnosed with HIV/AIDS or herpes are summarily executed to reduce the likelihood of an epidemic, while the others with curable diseases are isolated from their peers to give antibiotics a chance to clear everything up.”

“You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kidding me,” Jawara added.

“I wish that I was,” he remarked.

Clark said, “I guess they take their business pretty seriously.”

“That isn’t the half of it,” the Justice agent continued. “Today, while the sex trade still exists in Thailand, trafficked girls, especially the pretty ones, do not necessarily end up in the brothels of Bangkok. Pimps and other shady characters bargain for their ownership and services, demanding nothing less than their full loyalty. Some of these women are kidnapped, others are sold off by their parents and relatives, while still others are orphans. Most of them are traded, as many as seven to ten times, between pimps and criminal thugs. The lucky ones move into a world that is far more hidden and far more sinister than they could ever possibly imagine. They are taken to internment camps, which have been built deep in the jungle, where they are caged like animals and trained as sex slaves, then sold off to the highest bidder. Their pimps dress them in fine clothes, which are stolen from Chinese shipments bound for New York or Paris, and the girls end up here, on runways just like this one, in cities across the country.”

Kate shook her head, in utter disbelief. “I guess I just don’t get the whole thing,” she confessed. “In a city like San Francisco, where women outnumber straight men ten-to-one, why would a man spend his life savings to buy a young, Asian girl? He’s got his pick of women at any age, including Asian women. So, what’s the big deal? Why are men so infatuated with these Asian women? Is it because women from Asian are more subservient than Western women, or is it because they make easy sex slaves?”

“I wish I could give you a simple answer, Inspector,” Morris replied, “but it’s a great deal more complicated than you can imagine.”

“Really?” she asked, with a dumb look on her face.

“According to everything that I’ve learned, most men prefer them to Western women for reasons that go well-beyond their ready submission,” the Justice agent reported, as he began counting down the top-five reasons on his right hand. “For one, Asian women are hardworking and faithful, two qualities that men are naturally hard-wired to like—”

“I could say the same thing about your average cocker spaniel,” she quipped.

“The physical appeal of Asian women is undeniable. Their perfect teeth, their long, silky jet-black hair, their slim, firm, petite bodies, and their graceful manner all belie their social status,” Morris continued, pointing out two additional reasons, “and they are not only attractive in their 20s, but also in their 30s, 40s and 50s—unlike white women.”

“There’s plenty of fat, unattractive Asian women, too!”

Morris half-smiled. “Asian women tend to possess a sense of innocence that makes men curious to know more about them. And finally, they make perfect wives.”

“Don’t you mean ‘slaves’?”

“Wives,” he repeated himself. “Beyond everything else, they have strong family values and love to cater to the man.”

“The perfect, little Geisha.”

“Yeah, something like that,” he replied.

Kate Dawson looked like she was going to be sick to her stomach. “You really know how to boost a woman’s ego, Morris,” she complained, holding her head. “The way you talk, women like me should be adopting stray cats and taking up a spinster’s rocking chair instead of trying to find true love on Match.com. You do realize there are still a few of us Western women out there that are looking for husbands and companions, and have no desire whatsoever to compete with the likes of them.”

“I meant no offense, Inspector. I was really talking more in generalities, based upon my observations, and not making a critical statement about—”

“So, what about the sex?” she asked, abruptly interrupting him. “Are Asian women really sex-crazed and willing to do anything to gratify their men in the bedroom? Do they really want to ‘love you long time’?” Dawson had finally asked the one question that all of her detectives wanted answered.

Morris was blasé, brushing off her query. “Sex doesn’t have the same meaning in the Far East that it does to us Westerners. I mean we’ve built up this whole mystique about sex, whereas Asian women view sex as just another form of affection, like kissing and hugging. They’re far more proficient at sex than Western women, and leave absolutely nothing off the table. I suppose that’s what makes them so desirable to Western men. They will do anything to please their man, and not feel guilty about it later. If he wants to have a threesome with her hot girlfriend, she’ll do everything to make it happen, while most Western women would be on the phone with their attorney discussing a divorce.”

Clark had opened his notebook. He said, “I’ve read articles, written by so-called ‘bitter’ Western women, who believe that guys into Asian girls aren’t ‘strong’ enough or ‘man’ enough to handle a ‘real woman.’”

“I won’t dispute that because I have met plenty of Western women who actually dislike their counterparts in Asia,” the Justice agent replied.

He thought about Clark’s point for another moment, and then looked over at the crowd of men who had come to leer at naked sex slaves and were now considered accessories to murder. They were sitting in a roped-off section of the ballroom, isolated, under arrest; Kate’s neighbor Lenny was among them. Most were nervous, fretful, and even apprehensive as they waited, and watched, and listened. Morris regarded them, for an instant with disdain, and then added, “During my travels to Thailand, I’ve also encountered a certain type of Western man who is attracted to Asian women. He tends to be older, socially awkward, unattractive, white and, yes, let’s not mince words, creepy! Take a look around, and you’ll see that stereotype is well-represented here. This is the real reason why human trafficking and the sex trade exists. For these men, and millions of others just like them.”

Jawara had heard enough. “Suppose you cut off the money source? Wouldn’t you stop the sex trade cold?”

“That would be a good first step,” he conceded, “but the problem is education. Until people realize the global consequences of their actions, there’s always going to be some guy who thinks he’s above the law and the sex workers who yield to him.”

“We should castrate the lot of them,” Dawson muttered, without realizing she had actually spoken out loud. Angry with herself, she shook her head. “Sorry. This whole thing makes me think of my own daughter being forced to have sex with some dirty old man. It just doesn’t sit right with me, at all. In fact, it makes my skin crawl!”

“You don’t have anything to apologize for, Kate,” Jawara assured her.

“We were all thinking the same thing,” Clark added.

“Thanks, guys. This is just very unsettling to me,” she replied.

After a moment of silence, Clark picked up his pencil, and opened his notebook back up. He asked, “So, are Western men really ‘the ticket to a better life’ for these Asian women? Or is that just another myth?”

Morris shook his head. “No, not at all. Pimps working the system exploit their girls’ weaknesses by telling them stories about a better world where people with money live, but it’s done for the most cynical of reasons. To extract the best possible sexual performance out of them. Girls living in these third world countries have no real idea about America, just what they’ve seen on television or been told by their pimps. They think Dallas and Dynasty are real places, and for all intents and purposes, their pimps reinforce that fantasy by telling them exactly what they want to hear.”

“‘Telling them exactly what they want to hear,’” Kate repeated his last words to herself, over and over, until she saw a glimmer of truth in them. She didn’t have to hear any more from him. A burning anger was building in the back of her brain, and, from the hazy cloud of unknowns related to Mylee’s violent death to the intense attraction she felt for the Department of Justice agent, one thing was becoming increasingly clear, Gregory Morris might have been an extremely knowledgeable man when it came to details about human trafficking and the Asian sex trade, but he had not been forthright about his investigation. Morris hadn’t given them anything of real value that they couldn’t have discovered on their own. He had merely told them exactly what they wanted to hear, while he had gleaned most of the important details from their own investigation. Dawson felt like she had been sold out.

For the next twenty minutes, or so, she kept Morris at a distance. She listened to him talk to her detectives and waited patiently for him to finish. She then watched him shake hands and exchange final pleasantries with the team. Finally, as he made his way for the door, she caught up with him in mid-stride.

“Wait a minute, Morris,” Kate said, betraying nothing. Her face was as set and hard as an ancient ceremonial mask. “You’re not leaving, are you? It’s early still.”

He glanced down at his watch, and replied, “I’m still on Eastern Standard time, Inspector. For me, it’s very, very late.”

“Okay, then give me five minutes.”

“Five minutes?”

She nodded, without expression.

“All right,” Morris conceded, turning to listen to her. “Five minutes.”

Dawson stared at him blankly. “For the last hour, I’ve been trying to make up my mind about you,” she said, sounding like she was all business. “On the one hand, you breeze into my crime scene with a badge from Justice, offer to help us, and then spin a narrative that partially supports the evidence. But then, on the other, you’re not very forthcoming about your own investigation. In fact, you’re actually evasive with your answers. If I didn’t know any better, and I don’t, I’d say you were deliberately trying to derail my investigation.”

“And just why would I do that?” he asked, with one eyebrow raised.

“I don’t know,” Kate confessed, shaking her head. “Maybe there’s some larger issue at hand that you don’t want us to find out about. Perhaps a State Department official who got caught with his pants down? Or maybe it has something to do with military payoffs to one of the cartels for helping to destabilize an unfriendly nation? Whatever it is you’re trying to cover-up, I will find out. I’m not afraid of the Department of Justice.”

“You sound paranoid, Inspector.”

“Paranoid? Probably. But you know what they say? Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t still out to get you.”

“And who would ‘they’ be?”

Dawson side-stepped his question. “You weren’t actually looking for Mylee, were you? You had someone on the inside that tipped you off about the auction? Just what was your purpose in coming here tonight? Disinformation?”

Gregory Morris shook his head. “I’m not permitted to comment about an on-going investigation.”

Kate’s eyes never left his face. “You’re looking for the ringleader, aren’t you? The one they call “the auctioneer”? And those other five girls? What’s in it for you, Morris? A big, fat promotion, so that you can buy that row house in Georgetown and walk to work every day? Or do you get a kick-back directly from one of the gangs?”

“Now, you’ve gone too far!”

Morris pushed by her. He walked out of the ballroom through the double doors, without a backward glance.

***

Two hours later, as the third hour of the investigation dragged on, Kate Dawson walked towards the back of the ballroom with one of the uniformed officers, and singled her friend Lenny out from the group of men that was under house arrest. Dawson didn’t waste any time in reading his name from the top of a list. “Mister Provolone, we’d like you to come downtown and answer some questions for us.”

He stared at her for a long moment, a slight smile on his lips. “Are you arresting me?” he asked, as the officer pulled him out of the chair.

“If that’s the way you want to play it,” she replied, all business.

“Just out of interest, are we talking the whole thing?” he stuttered, suddenly nervous. “You know, Miranda rights, handcuffs, the one phone call?”

“Just like in the movies, buster,” the police officer remarked, guiding him out of the make-shift cordon, and then forcing him to stand in front of the Inspector.

“Will that be necessary, Mister Provolone?” Kate asked, nose-to-nose.

Lenny hesitated for a moment, as if on the verge of a panic attack, and quickly swallowed down several deep gulps of air. His face was pale, like a white linen shroud. “No, I don’t think that will be necessary.”

“Then let’s get going,” said Kate, as she escorted him from the room. “I’m due in court in a couple of hours, and you’re not going to make me late.”

They had driven a few blocks from the InterContinental Hotel before Dawson finally broke the silence. She leaned forward in the driver’s seat of her BMW 5.25i, and looked over at her friend while she continued driving. “Lenny, just what the hell were you doing going to that slave auction?”

“Having fun,” he replied, with all of the innocence of a child. “I go to the slave auctions once or twice a month. It’s all just in fun. You know, a way to blow off some steam, and hang with your buddies.”

“You’ve got your pockets stuffed with cash,” Kate said, pointing at the ten and twenty-dollar bills hanging out of his pants pocket.

“Just tip money,” Lenny said, with a shrug.

Dawson swallowed hard. “You must think I’m really stupid.”

“Honestly, Kate. I don’t know why you’re so upset. It’s no big deal.”

“No big deal? Why don’t you try explaining that to poor, little Mylee?” she said, her eyes focused on the road.

“Who?”

“The woman who died.”

Provolone looked down at his feet. “I didn’t know that was her name, but she was my favorite. Lot 133. A real dream-boat!”

“The number she was wearing around her neck matched a list of six names we found lying next to the podium,” Kate reported. “Lot 133 was a Thai national, and she was only thirteen-years-old.”

“Thirteen?”

“Yes, thirteen,” she repeated, with an angry tone of voice. “Your dream girl was just thirteen! Men who get involved with little girls, Mylee’s age, are called pedophiles. Do you have any idea what the average jail sentence is for a convicted pedophile? Eleven years, but here in the State of California, we add a little bit extra to the sentence. We start with ‘Chemical castration,’ which is also mandated for all sex offenders, so that the sexual appetite is completely squashed.”

“What has that got to do with me?” Lenny asked, playing dumb.

Dawson got right to the point. “You can stop pretending that these so-called ‘slave auctions’ are anything but real. This is not some new form of adult entertainment, or some new-fangled strip-show. Those six women who were paraded around on that stage tonight were being auctioned off as sex slaves to the highest bidder. And if Mylee hadn’t died during the auction, each and every one of those little girls would have ended up a nameless victim of some sexual predator more than twice her age. The really tragic part is that there are millions of women and children around the world, just like them, who are hopelessly enslaved by gangs that trade in human flesh. They live in dark places—in brothels and bars, brick factories, fishing boats and slums—and rarely see the light of day.”

Lenny Provolone shook his head. “How was I supposed to know? I read a blog online about a new service that helped guys like me meet cute, young girlfriends for between $20-50,000. That seemed like a reasonable price to pay. After all, lots of people pay matchmakers to find them suitable matches.”

“Christ, Lenny, you’re already dating my best friend.”

“I like Rosa Romano. We have a lot of fun together, but I’m just not attracted to her the way I am with younger women.”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember. You said something about ‘saggy tits and wrinkled skin,’” Dawson quoted him verbatim.

“I prefer younger women, and I’m not going to allow you make me feel guilty about my personal preferences,” he replied, defensively. “There are plenty of men out there who only date younger women.”

“Just keep telling yourself that, if it helps you sleep at night,” she said, trying to reach him on some level. “But the real reason why you don’t like women your own age, and prefer little girls, is that they wouldn’t deal with your emotional immaturity for one second. Little girls aren’t as discerning.”

“Thanks a lot.”

Kate pulled her car to a stop at the intersection, when the light turned red, and glanced at her passenger in the adjacent seat. “Well, right now, my friend, there’s the body of a thirteen-year-old girl headed to the morgue who would still be alive today if it weren’t for you and men like you.”

“You can’t put that one on me,” Lenny said, indignantly. “I didn’t have anything to do with her death. I love women. I’d never hurt one.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Dawson persisted, pulling away from the traffic light after it had turned green. “Young girls, strippers, prostitutes, sex slaves, you don’t really care about women, do you? You act like a gentleman, pay lip service to liking women. The bottom line is that you’re nothing but a misogynist.”

Lenny had a pained look on his face. “Now, you’re just being cruel.”

“No, I’m being honest with you, and don’t you think it’s time you started being honest with yourself?”

“I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about,” he replied, folding his arms across his chest. “I told you once already that I wasn’t going to allow you make me feel guilty about my personal taste in women. That should be enough.”

“I can see we’re not getting anywhere with this conversation,” she said, taking a deep breath and letting it out between clenched teeth. “In fairness to Rosa, I really do think you owe her the truth. You need to tell her that you enjoy her company and that she’s a lot of fun, but you’re not interested in her romantically.”

“That’s really none of your concern,” he said, curtly.

“Christ, Lenny. I’m only looking out for my friend. If situations were reversed, I’d say the same thing to her.”

Lenny sat silent, brooding.

They rode for another mile, and then Dawson turned into Bayside Village Apartments on the south side of town, near San Francisco’s hip, trendy neighborhood of South Beach. She pulled into a parking spot near their building, and turned off the engine of her car. Finally, she climbed out of the driver’s side, and grabbed her briefcase from the back seat, while Lenny fumbled with the lock.

She looked at him, trying to find the gentle, kind friend that he had been to her, but only saw what appeared to be a stranger. “Look, it’s really late, and I’ve got to be in court in a couple of hours. Why don’t we just table this discussion until later, when we’re both better rested, and talk about it some more then?”

“Whatever,” he said, stumbling out the door of the car.

“Listen, could you do me a favor?” Kate asked.

Provolone’s shoulders slumped as fatigue and despair washed over him. “What do you want? I’ve just about run out of favors.”

“Could you send me a link to that blog site?” she said, without waiting for him to fully respond to her question. “You know the one that promises to find you a girl for $50,000. I’d like to ask Clark to follow up on it.”

He turned his back on her, and headed towards the stairs. “Yeah, sure, whatever,” he muttered, over his shoulder.

She stood there on the parking lot, looking apprehensively at him for a moment longer, and when she realized that he wasn’t coming back, she walked alone to her apartment. It had been a long night.





CHAPTER TWO





At 8:55 on Monday morning, Kate Dawson scrambled down the third-floor corridor of the Hall of Justice building, and stopped outside Courtroom #5. She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her right ear, checking herself as she walked past the darkened windows of the offices lining the hall. To be presentable for the judge, she was more formally dressed, adding her Versace blazer to cover her piece. No one would have mistaken her for an attorney, particularly when she had to read the docket on the door in order to make sure she was in the right place: “9:00 a.m.—Bail hearing in the State of California versus Jonathan Prinze.”

With a sigh of relief, Dawson entered the courtroom through the rear door, and looked around briefly to get her bearings. She hadn’t been in Courtroom #5 since they completed the renovations to the south end of the building earlier in the year, but the room didn’t look all that different from her recollection of the place. At the back, where she stood, the gallery was one-quarter filled, mostly with the usual reporters, curious spectators, and other interested parties. They sat on pew-style benches made out of a dark, mahogany wood that looked like they belonged in an old Episcopal church rather than a modern courtroom. With all of the advances in modern technology and ergonomic furniture design, she was surprised they were still using benches that had been made over a century-and-a-half ago. At the very least, they could have provided bench cushions or some other form of padding. As she completed her scan of the gallery, Kate was surprised to see Gregory Morris sitting in the last row. The fact that he had nothing to do with the Bail hearing was unsettling to her.

Dawson turned away from him, and walked toward the front of the courtroom, glancing to her left at the Defendant’s table. Gina Victor, a former district attorney and friend, was at the defense table, talking with her client, a black lawyer, and a couple of interns. She had always thought that Gina was a very sexy, youthful woman, but the more Kate examined her hip, puckish style, the more she realized that her former friend had abandoned all of her principles in order to put her sexuality out there as a weapon to disarm juries. She was no longer the refined district attorney that she once knew; had, in fact, morphed into a woman that Kate no longer recognized. Then, of course, there was Jonathan “Jack” Prinze. Back in the day, Gina would have never represented a scumbag like him, but with Prinze’s face plastered on every newspaper in the country for allegedly killing his pregnant secretary, she was enjoying a notoriety that she had never experienced before in her short career as an attorney. Even if she lost the case, Kate figured that Gina’s next paycheck was bound to be in the seven figures. Dawson looked at the silver-haired, multi-millionaire in his fifties who was handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit, and wondered if she was sleeping with him, too. Just then, as if he had heard her thoughts, Prinze looked up at Kate, and caught her glare.

Without a second glance, she continued walking along, past the jury box, which was empty, and stopped at the District Attorney’s table. Assistant DA Luke Wilson, already seated, was studying notes on a yellow legal pad. Dawson leaned on the lectern between the two tables, where the lawyers would argue their case before the judge, and said, “Hello.”

Wilson turned toward her. “How are you holding up?” he asked.

“I’m okay. Maybe a little tired, but I’m ready to go.”

“Any idea where Matt Balardi is?” the Assistant DA asked, checking his watch against the clock that hung in the courtroom. “He is the investigating detective on record.”

Kate shook her head. “No, but I’m sure Matt knows how important this bail hearing is. The two of us spent three months putting this case together. I can always stand in for him as the lead detective.”

“Well, let’s just hope he doesn’t have the flu,” Wilson added.

“He’ll be here.”

Through the front door, the Bailiff entered the courtroom, and Dawson followed him with her eyes as he crossed in front of the judge’s bench and the witness stand. He stood next to the desks where the court clerk and court reporter sat. Some spectators, knowing the routine, started to get to their feet. “All rise,” he said.

The rest of those gathered in the courtroom slowly got to their feet as the judge in a plain black robe entered through the front door, and sat down behind the desk. Hot upon the heels of her arrival, a soft wave of murmurs flowed throughout the courtroom, like ripples on a lake, as people began to take notice of their new judge. Even the Assistant DA got in on the act as he leaned over to Kate.

“We’ve got a new judge,” he whispered, with a surprised look.

Dawson was dumbfounded. “I can’t believe it.”

“Where the hell is Zumbo?”

“No clue,” she replied. “Maybe he’s out sick with the flu?”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, criminal court is now in session,” the Bailiff announced. “The Honorable judge Luisa Hernandez-Lopez presiding. All persons having anything to do with this court draw near, give your attendance and you shall be heard. God save the City of San Francisco and the great State of California.” The Bailiff looked up at the great seal of jurisdiction and the flags of the United States and California, respectively, behind the judge, and nodded his head in satisfaction.

The judge settled into her seat, and then looked up at the people who were gathered in the courtroom. “Good morning, everyone. Please be seated,” she said, as a matter of fact, all business. She waited until everyone was seated, then said, “Due to an unforeseen conflict of interest, Judge Salvatore Zumbo has recused himself from this case. I’ve been brought up to speed. So unless the State or Defense wishes to object, let’s proceed with the bail hearing. The State may present arguments—”

Luke Wilson, the Assistant DA, got to his feet. He walked over to the Defense table, looked at them, appraisingly. He then turned back to the judge, and with great effort, took a deep breath and exhaled. “Your honor, under California Penal Code 12-70.5, a defendant charged with a capital offense may not be granted bail when proof of his or her guilt is evident. DNA evidence not only puts Jonathan Prinze at the crime scene, but also proves that he had sex with the victim within an hour of her murder.”

There were a few whispers from the courtroom.

“Your honor,” he continued, “the defendant, Jonathan Prinze, is a man of unlimited financial means who has mocked the authority of this court and brazenly violated the terms of an earlier bail agreement. He has proven beyond all reason that he is an extreme flight risk. Therefore, the State moves that the defendant be remanded to the custody of the court for the duration of these proceedings.”

“Duly noted,” the judge remarked. She was now sitting at the bench, wearing her reading glasses. Papers were spread out in front of her. “Anything else, counselor?”

“Not at this moment, your honor,” Wilson replied.

“Very well,” Judge Luisa Hernandez-Lopez said, with a nod. “Ms. Victor, does the defense wish to rebut?”

“Yes, your honor, we do,” Gina replied. She picked up a yellow legal pad from the Defense table, and approached the lectern in the center of the courtroom. “The State’s arguments to deny bail to my client are chock-full of half-truths and convenient omissions from which they offer no real evidence against my client. Only baseless conclusions. Let us consider CPT 12-70.5, for just a moment. The statute expressly prohibits bail when, and I quote this directly from the statute ‘the presumption of guilt is great.’ And yet the State has failed to produce a shred of prima fascia evidence connecting my client to a crime or even shown that a crime was even committed.”

For an instant, a few murmurs disrupted the provisional silence in the courtroom, but the judge simply hammered them away with her gavel.

“Now, as to the assertion that my client is a violent criminal and, therefore, a menace to society and not worthy of bail, I would like to know exactly what evidence the Prosecution has found that would back up their point,” she continued, glancing at the Assistant DA. “His personality? The Defense is prepared to stipulate that Jonathan Prinze, on occasion, is a petulant, self-involved, ego-maniac—”

“To what end, Ms. Victor?” the judge asked, almost bored.

Gina shrugged her shoulders. “The point I’m trying to make here, your honor, is that even though Mr. Prinze is an asshole with an abrasive personality that does not make him a murderer. But that’s exactly what the Prosecution would have you believe. They don’t have any substantive evidence against my client so they’re putting his ruthless, and sometimes boorish, reputation on trial here instead. Had they done any additional research, beyond what has been written about my client in the tabloids or the blogs, or spent any time investigating his background, they might have found out that Jack happens to be one of the most generous, most loyal persons that has ever owned a Fortune-500 company. With no history of criminal behavior, and not one incident in his past of violence, ever, he is the model of a perfect, taxpaying citizen. So, for Mr. Wilson’s claim that Prinze is a dangerous felon and a threat to the public, at large, I find it to be a ludicrous, irresponsible assertion—”

Rising to his feet, the Assistant DA broke into the conversation, “I object.”

“Overruled,” the judge replied.

“As for the minor infraction the State claims demonstrated a disregard towards law enforcement or the authority of this court,” Victor added, with a slight smile, “or that he is a flight risk, I respectfully ask the court to consider that Jonathan Prinze has a multi-million-dollar company that employs over five hundred workers in this city, and appeared in court this morning as instructed. Therefore, the Defense requests that Mister Prinze be released on his own recognizance, without bail.”

Judge Luisa Hernandez-Lopez looked over the top of her glasses. “All right, thank you, counsel,” she said, flatly, without emotion. She examined several of the pieces of paper in front of her, and then thought long and hard about her decision. “Jonathan Prinze, I am reinstating the bail at $1,000,000, and the court will retain your passport. You may not travel beyond the limits of San Francisco, Marin, and San Mateo counties. Is there any part of my order that is unclear to you, Mister Prinze?”

Prinze had risen to his feet, and was standing right next to Gina Victor at the Defense table. “No, your honor. Your order is crystal clear.”

“Furthermore,” the judge added, “you will be fitted with a GPS ankle bracelet, and if you wander one foot beyond those limits, no excuse in the world will keep me from throwing your ass back in jail. That’s all. You’re dismissed.” Hernandez-Lopez signed off on a couple of papers the Bailiff had handed her, and then, without any fanfare, she stood up at the bench and quickly exited through the front door.

Elated by the judge’s decision, Jonathan Prinze turned to a police officer who was leaning against the empty jury box, and raised his shackled wrists in the air. The cop sauntered over, unlocked the handcuffs, and released the chain and shackles on his ankles that had bound Prinze as a county prisoner. Almost immediately, he walked around to his attorney, and gave her a polite hug. He then reached out to the black attorney and the two interns at the Defense table and shook their hands.

“Thank you,” Prinze said, his eyes bright with mirth.

Victor studied his face for a long moment, then said, “Wipe that smile off your face, Jack. Half of the reporters in the State of California are in this courtroom, and they came here to chronicle the fate-filled story of an innocent man falsely accused of murder. Not a criminal mastermind who had just beaten the system.”

“Do you really think I care?” he replied, glancing around as the light-bulbs and digital flashes caught his image.

“Perception is reality,” she reminded him.

At that instant, he caught sight of Dawson and smiled, whispering a few words to his attorney. Gina Victor looked up. She followed the direction of his gaze, looking at Dawson and smiling at her former friend, her eyes full of amusement and contempt. Then she finally looked away. The two of them continued to talk clandestinely with each other, but Jonathan Prinze’s stare never left the police inspector. He seemed to be fixated on her, as if memorizing every last detail.

Naturally, Dawson was aware he was staring at her. She shook hands with Luke Wilson, the Assistant District Attorney, and walked away from the table. She then wandered through the courtroom, biding her time, checking the place out. She exchanged pleasantries with several people she knew, making the rounds, always aware of his attention. Dawson was at once repelled and fascinated by the playboy. She couldn’t believe that the court had taken such a lenient approach with him. He had already proven his contempt for the legal system by meeting his buddies in Lake Tahoe for the weekend without permission. And now, he seemed to be sticking his finger in the eye of the Prosecution that had argued to ground him without bail. He seemed to be playing a game with all of them where the rules simply didn’t apply to him. Kate Dawson seemed to lose sight of him in the sea of reporters and interested bystanders and onlookers just as she reached the rear door to the courtroom, but that’s exactly where he was waiting for her.

The silver-haired, man in his fifties, wearing the orange jumpsuit, stood between her and the door. He pretended to be surprised to see her, but like everything else about Jonathan Prinze, nothing was as it seemed. He looked long and hard at Kate, and looked away feigning disinterest. Then he looked at her again, more deeply. His steely, blue eyes unsettled her. They were wide but knowing, and as they swept over Dawson like beams of light, she felt naked, like he could see right through her.

“I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot,” Prinze said evenly, closing the gap between them. He wouldn’t or didn’t want to acknowledge anyone in the room but Kate. Even though there were many others vying for his attention with their cameras and small, digital recorders, he stayed focused on her. “I’m really a nice guy.”

“I guess that’s a matter of opinion,” she replied.

“You see, you’ve already made up your mind, and you don’t know a thing about me,” he said softly but loud enough to be heard by Kate. His eyes never left her face. “What’s it going to take for you to stop looking at me as some hardened killer and see me as a man wrongfully accused of murder?”

Dawson shook her head slowly, deliberately. “I’m really the wrong person to ask about that, Mister Prinze.”

“Really, why is that? What happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty’?”

“You can’t be serious,” she answered, a hint of incredulity. “After all, I’m part of the team that’s working with the District Attorney’s office to put the man who killed Alicia Summers on death row.”

Jonathan Prinze leaned into her, crowding her space, his eyes boring deeply into hers. “And you think that man is me?”

“It’s not important what I think,” she replied, refusing to play. Kate stood toe-to-toe with the State’s number one suspect. “I wasn’t there. I didn’t see what happened the night she was murdered. I can make an educated guess, but in fairness, it’s all about the evidence. And right now, the overwhelming physical evidence points directly to you.”

“Do you think it’s possible you made a mistake?”

“Possible? Yes,” she responded curtly. “Likely? No.”

“Evidence can be wrong, sometimes misleading,” he suggested, with an unctuous smile. “You’re too good of a detective not to consider that.”

“A compliment?”

Their eyes were locked now, as if they were trying to see into each other’s skulls. Prinze was the acknowledged master of the mind fuck, but Kate had learned enough to acquit herself well. Tension crackled between them, like a short in an electrical box. Finally, he blinked first. “Inspector, you should really take the time to get to know me. You’re going to like me once you realize I’m just a regular guy.”

“I doubt it,” she said, with a nod. “I already know a lot about you, and I don’t much care for the man that I know.”

“You mustn’t let a little thing like murder get in the way of our happiness.”

There was a moment, a long moment of silence. Kate stared at him without any kind of emotion, a blank slate.

“Are you hitting on me, Mister Prinze?” she asked, without curiosity.

He was blasé, brushing off the query, as if he were brushing cookie crumbs away from his state-mandated, orange jumpsuit. “Maybe, or maybe I was just trying to imagine how empty your life must be, Inspector, without a real man in it. But what difference does that make?” Prinze reached out, and stroked the side of her face. “I can see how conflicted you are about the whole thing. You’re very attracted to me, but you’re also honor-bound by a code of justice that won’t let you feel the kind of primal urges that you’re feeling when you get close to me. Duty can be a harsh mistress.”

“Primal urges,” she repeated, the two-word phrase stuck midway in her craw. “I suppose you know a lot about primal urges?”

“Yes, of course. Particularly in women.”

“Is that the line you used on Alicia Summers?”

Prinze’s smile had turned upside down. “No, I didn’t use a line at all with her. Alicia was in love with me the first day we laid eyes on each other at my corporate headquarters downtown. She had been a naïve, young literature student at the University of San Francisco, with her head in the clouds. I suppose my singular, erotic tastes must have seemed a bit intimidating for her, at first, but she gradually took to them. She was so desperate to get close to me, and I’ll admit that I wanted her, too—but only on my terms.”

“I’m beginning to understand.”

“What about you, Inspector? Care to explore your primal urges?”

“The only primal urge that interests me is murder,” Kate said, flatly. “Specifically, why a man would murder his secretary, the mother of his unborn child, and then work so hard to hide the fact that a murder had taken place.”

There was another pause, a long moment of awkward silence, as Prinze regarded her expressionlessly. He had become acutely aware of the flurry of activity around him, and backed away from her ever so slightly. The small gap was suddenly filled by members of the media shouting questions at him.

“You shouldn’t play this game,” Jonathan said, at last, over the din.

“Why not?” Dawson said, “I like this game.”

Prinze shook his head. “It’s not going to come out the way you want. You won’t learn anything from me. I don’t confess any of my secrets just because a beautiful woman happens to turn my head.”

“I’m more than just a beautiful woman.”

“I know,” he said, acknowledging her statement. “But you’ll never learn anything I don’t want you to know.”

Kate smiled thinly at him. “Yes, I will.”

“No, you won’t. You’re simply not in my league, Inspector.”

“But I’ve already learned so much already.”

“Consider that a gift,” he replied, a sour look on his face. The reporters had already overwhelmed him, and they were threatening to swallow him whole. “That’s why they call it ‘the present.’”

His defense attorney, Gina Victor shoved her way through the crowd of reporters, and then literally pushed her client through the back door. In moments, Victor was hard at work doing a fast repair job on her client’s image. She stood with Theodore Long in the corridor outside of the courtroom, apologizing for him and restating the reasons why she considered him to be an innocent man. Prinze wasn’t paying much attention. He smiled a faraway smile as he watched Dawson exit the courtroom. He continued to watch her as she walked slowly down the corridor of the Hall of Justice.

Just as she reached them, Victor was saying, “My client deserves the same protection under the law as any person who has been accused of a crime. He should not be penalized for his wealth.” She stood poised, cool, in complete command of herself, as she rattled off her talking points to the press. In turn, they were respectful, drinking down the Kool-Aid that she served them like mindless cult members. The well-educated woman had a way of commanding an audience that few, except perhaps Kate, had ever seen. She enjoyed seizing and holding the spotlight like a young, Hollywood starlet.

Dawson looked sharply at her old friend, and smiled, but Gina Victor was too ensconced in her impromptu news conference to acknowledge her in any way. She continued walking down the corridor, but slowed her pace. Kate was curious about what she’d say, and listened carefully as the rhetoric mounted. In fact, she was so focused that she completely missed someone calling her last name. When she heard it again, she stole a glimpse over her shoulder, and saw that Greg Morris had followed her out of the courtroom.

“Dawson!” he cried, trying to get her attention.

She ignored him, her gaze fixed on Victor. She looked at the defense attorney with something that resembled respect. In reality, Kate had always admired her friend, but in the last few years, she had also come to despise her as well. She still despised her. It was truly a first for her. Admiration and scorn, all bundled together in a neat package for a woman she once called her friend.

“Dawson, for Christ’s sake, didn’t you hear me calling you?” Morris asked breathlessly, as he scrambled to her side.

“No,” Kate replied, turning her gaze to him. He was breathing heavily. “For a field agent, you ought to be in better shape.”

“What would you know about it?”

“I dated a Justice agent for more than a year,” she explained, as the memories of her ex-boyfriend washed over her temporarily. “He had the perfect body, but then again, he really worked at it every day.”

Morris shrugged. “I suppose this ‘superman’ has a name?”

“John Prescott.”

“The name sounds familiar,” Morris replied, thinking about him. “But then again, I’ve been on assignment in Southeast Asia for the last couple of years. I haven’t exactly had access to the latest in Nautilus fitness equipment.”

“But you can barely breathe,” she reminded him. “I can hear you wheezing just walking down the corridor.”

“Cut me some slack, Dawson,” he said, returning her stare. “I just gave up a five-packet-a-day smoking habit.”

“Nasty habit,” she said. “How’s not smoking?”

“It’s fucked,” said Morris shortly.

They held each other’s eye for a moment longer, then Kate looked away. She turned back to Gina Victor and her client. She listened for a few minutes, then concluded the press conference seemed to be winding down. Finally, Dawson said to the Justice agent, “What do you want, Morris?”

“I need your help,” he replied.

She snorted. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“No, I’m very serious.”

Kate Dawson smiled thinly. “I’ve already been fucked over once by the Department of Justice. What makes you think I’d be stupid enough to crawl back into bed with them? Besides you ain’t got nothing I want.”

“You want the same thing that I do,” Morris said, with a shit-eating grin.

“Really? And what is that?”

“You want to catch these bastards, and put ‘em behind bars, so that they won’t be able to hurt another innocent, like Mylee.”

“I don’t need your help for that,” Dawson growled.

“But what if I told you I had a line on the one they call “the auctioneer”?” he asked, with an opening move that was worthy of a grandmaster in chess. “Maybe even the five other girls they were auctioning that night?”

Dawson’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Bullshit. If you really had a line on them, you wouldn’t be bringing it to me.”

“I would, if I needed the resources of your department.”

“So, that’s what it is,” Kate concluded, as she continued down the corridor with Morris trailing a step or two behind her. “You want the SFPD to do all the dirty work, so that you can go back home, clean as a whistle, and take all the credit. That’s not going to happen on my watch, if I have anything to say about it.”

Morris shook his head. “You’re wrong. I don’t give a damn about the credit!”

“Well, that’s a first.”

“I’ve been tracking this cartel for over two years now, and they’ve always managed to stay one or two steps ahead of me. I’d like to be in a position where we’re actually ahead of them for once, and I can grab the son-of-a-bitch ringleader.”

Dawson shrugged. “Why don’t you just go back to your buddies in D.C., and get them to write you a big, fat appropriations check?”

“Because by the time I do that,” Morris reasoned, like a reasonable man, “my suspect would’ve already blown town, and I’ll end up with butt-kiss.”

She was silent for a moment, still wasn’t buying it.

“Besides your people are already here, right now. It might take me days or weeks to mobilize a task force.”

Dawson swallowed hard, barely restraining her resentment. It was a bitter pill for her to swallow, but the Justice agent was right. If they had waited too long, their chief suspect might have slipped right through their fingers. They continued walking in silence, and stopped right outside the Homicide Bureau.

“I suppose you’re right, Morris,” she said, at last. “We would be better off working together, but I’m still not certain if I trust you.”

“Well, I don’t trust you either,” he replied.

“So, what do you say? Do you wanna to pool our resources?” Dawson asked, more of a rhetorical question, but he understood exactly what she meant.

Morris nodded. “It could have its compensations.”

“Professionalism?” she suggested, with a raised eyebrow.

“Agreed,” he responded, affirmatively. He thought about it for another moment, and then added, “Understanding?”

“Possibly,” she replied, with a shrug.

“Cooperation?”

“Maybe.”

“Trust?” asked Morris, going way out on the proverbial limb.

“Out of the question,” Kate said, finally. “Trust is the one thing you’re still going to have to earn from me, Morris.”

“I need a cigarette,” he said, tired.

“I thought you quit.”

“So, I’ll quit tomorrow.”

Dawson reached into her slacks and fished out a key. She threw it to him. “You’ll find some cigarettes in the top drawer of my desk. Third row, on the left,” she said, heading off in the opposite direction. “I’ll meet you in the parking garage, near the entrance.”

“Where are you going?”

“I still have to square all of this with the Lieutenant,” Kate replied, over her shoulder as she walked into her boss’ corner office.





***

Twenty minutes later, Kate Dawson pulled her BMW 5.25i out of the Hall of Justice, heading east on Bryant Street, with Gregory Morris in the passenger seat. She made the left at Third Street, and drove past the Moscone Center. They both could see dozens of city workers busy installing banners announcing the G-20 Summit or erecting barriers that would be used to control the flow of traffic, but not a single cop was on duty. Dawson shook her head as she made the slight jog in the road, and then turned left at Geary. When she reached Grant Avenue, she turned right and headed north to Bush Street.

They had driven a few blocks from the Hall of Justice before Morris finally broke the silence. He leaned forward in the passenger seat of her BMW, and looked over at her while she was driving. “My biggest fear is the Tongs,” he said, with a degree of reverence in his voice. “We don’t want to run afoul of them, but at the same time, we’ve got to be prepared for the fact that “the auctioneer” may be hiding out among them. My last confirmed sighting was at an opium den a few hours ago.”

“Tongs? That’s ancient history, Morris,” Kate dismissed his fear, with a smirk. “These days, the only tongs you’re going to find in Chinatown are the cooking utensils that are used in a Chinese restaurant.”

“When I was in Southeast Asia, the Cartels hired certain Tong groups as enforcers and armed them with AK-47s,” the Justice agent reported. “They were highly effective in dispensing with local militia groups and hired mercenaries.”

Dawson directed her car down along Grant Avenue, taking the shortest route that she knew to Chinatown. “Okay, I’ll admit that the City had more than its share of run-ins with the Tongs. At one time, they ran protections rackets, gambling, opium distribution, and prostitution, and were more deadly than any of their Mafia counterparts in Chicago or New York. But that was the 1940s and 50s,” she explained. “Today, the Tongs are, for the most part, members of Chinese benevolent associations. They provide essential services for Chinatown communities, such as immigrant counseling, Chinese schools, and English classes for adults. They care for their members and their respective communities, and are really not that unlike the Freemasons or the Knights of Columbus.”

“The Hip Sing Tong is a member of organized crime, and has been involved in drug-trafficking in Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco. In fact, a recent drug raid in Portland, Oregon, turned up the largest stockpile of heroin in the world. You may have been lulled into thinking that the Tongs are little more than a charitable organization. But the fact of the matter is that they have made in-roads into every major city in the U.S.”





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