Copyright Notice © 2016 Tim Knox
I finished my second cup of what Reuben called coffee and wished that I had hit a Starbucks on my way in from Santa Rosa. He brewed it in the little pot behind his desk that had probably never been washed, judging by the taste. It was Saturday morning, around five-thirty. We had the place to ourselves. Reuben sat behind his desk, turned sideways to face the computer sitting on a stand to his right.
He had already watched the video of Susan’s attack and didn’t seem too impressed. Now he was watching the video from the memory stick, Susan detailing Zoebel’s crimes and Cronenburg’s cover up. By the look on his face, he wasn’t too impressed with that either.
When the video ended he put his elbows on the desk and propped his chin on a fist. “I assume you think she’s telling the truth?”
I raised my eyebrows at him. “Why would I think otherwise?”
“Just because she says it, doesn’t make it true, Matthew,” he said. “Sure, it could be the truth, then again maybe it’s not. Maybe she didn’t want to die without telling the world her version of the truth. Or maybe she’s just a scorned ex-lover who wants to haunt Zoebel from the grave. Maybe none of it is true and she just wants to raise a stink for him now that she’s gone. Who knows why people do the things they do. Especially people in her condition. Was she always high?”
“I believe she’s telling the truth,” I said, ignoring his comment. “She wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.”
“Knew her that well did you?”
“I knew her well enough.”
He picked up his cup and brought it to his lips. He made a face at the smell, but drained the cup anyway and set it aside.
“So what do you think?” I asked.
“I think I really need to wash out that pot.”
“Not the coffee, idiot. What do you think about the video?”
He rubbed his chin and thought about it for a minute. “Honestly, I don’t know what to think. Why the hell didn’t she say something about all this three years ago?”
“She was protecting him,” I said. I took a photo of Susan and Zoebel from my shirt pocket and slid it across the desk. It was one taken on a ski trip. They were huddled at an outside table with steaming mugs of hot chocolate in front of them. Susan’s photo album was locked in the trunk of my car. I wouldn’t mention that I had other photos unless I had to.
I said, “She was in love with the son of a bitch,” I said. “She didn’t want her lover to go to jail.”
Rueben picked up the photo and stared at it. He set the photo on the desk and rubbed his eyes. “Even when Grumman was throwing her under the bus to get suspicion off Zoebel she didn’t say a word. She kept protecting the son of a bitch even though the heat was turned up on her. I’m not sure if that’s love or stupidity.”
“There’s more,” I said. “I found this in her apartment.” I took the origami swan from my pocket. I had wrapped it in one of the latex gloves. I dumped it on his desk.
“Now ain’t that pretty,” he said, poking at it with a pencil. “I think I could find better uses for a hundred dollar bill. What is the relevance of this?”
“I found it under her bed,” I said. “Dust it for prints. Bag it and tag it. The crap you guys do with evidence.”
He frowned at the swan, then at me. “This isn’t evidence.”
“Of course it is. It’s an origami swan. Cronenburg makes them. It puts him in her apartment. Or maybe Omar dropped it while he was there.”
“Or maybe Cronenburg made it for her years ago and she lost it under the bed.”
“She wouldn’t keep such a thing,” I said. “Not a keepsake from him.”
“Does Omar impress you as the kind of guy who’d carry around a paper swan?” he asked.
I shrugged with my eyes. “Maybe.”
He shook his head and used the pencil to push it toward me. “This is completely worthless as evidence.”
“Why is it worthless?”
“Number one, because we can’t prove who left it there. Number two, because you removed it from the scene. Number three, because you could have made that yourself and claimed to have found it in her apartment to implicate Cronenburg.”
“But I didn’t,” I said. “You know I wouldn’t do that.”
“Doesn’t matter what I think. This swan doesn’t prove anything. You might as well unfold it and buy me breakfast with it.”
He grinned at me. “You’re a lousy detective. I’ll bag it and tag it, but it’s not going to do us a damn bit of good.” He reached into a desk drawer and brought out a brown evidence bag. He guided the swan across the desk and into the bag with the pencil and sealed it up.
“Any other tainted evidence you’d like to give me? Any other wild geese you’d like me to chase? Or wild swans?”
“No, that’s it.” I sat back and let my head hang. I said, “What did you think about her claim that Cronenburg and Grumman knew what Zoebel had done and covered it up for the sake of doing a TV show?”
“Doesn’t surprise me a bit.”
“Think you can make a case against them? Hindering prosecution? Obstruction of justice? Tampering with evidence?”
“You’ve been watching too much Law & Order.” He leaned back and spread his hands. He said, “There’s probably nothing we can do. It’s just here-say. Grumman can’t cross examine the dead, no matter how good the fat bastard thinks he is, so he’ll try to get the video tossed out. This would never go to trial.”
“What about the three patients who died at home,” I said. “Surely you have to look into those deaths; if it’s nothing more than verifying how they died?”
He nodded. “I’ll certainly bring that one up with ADA Lynch when he arrives.” His cellphone vibrated. It danced across the desk. He picked up and squinted at the screen. “Speak of the devil. Lynch is on his way up.” He gave me a stern look. “Let me do all the talking.”
* * *
Assistant District Attorney Stansfield Lynch was wearing a blue jogging suit and tennis shoes with black socks when he arrived a little after six. His thinning hair was standing up all over his head. He wore thick glasses that kept sliding down the bridge of his nose. He kept pushing them back into place with his index finger. He was smart; he brought his own coffee, a big one from Starbucks. He leaned against the door frame rather than coming in to take a seat. He did not look too thrilled to be out this early on a Saturday morning.
He listened quietly while Reuben ran down the details: the videos, the medical records, the cover up, the three new patient deaths, the possible involvement of Ahmed Omar in Susan’s death. When Reuben finished Lynch said, “Is that it?”
“That’s it,” Reuben said.
Lynch let out a long sigh. “I’m not sure that was even worth getting out of bed for.”
“I didn’t say I had a bloody glove waiting on you, Stan,” Reuben said. “You were the ADA on the original case. That’s why I called you.”
Lynch nodded. “Well, the cover up is old news. Everybody knows there was a cover up. There’s nothing there worth pursuing. What else?”
“There are three new bodies,” Reuben said. “We have to look into those.”
“Yes, agreed, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Just because they were Zoebel’s patients doesn’t mean we’ll find anything more than three more people who killed themselves on his watch.”
“What about the video of Susan being attacked?” I asked. Reuben shot me a look that I ignored. Clearly I was supposed to be a wall flower at this party.
Lynch shook his head. “We don’t actually see her being attacked. All we heard was what might have been a scuffle and some muffled voices. Hell, it could have been a pizza delivery guy for all we know.” He looked at Reuben. “Didn’t you say Santa Rosa PD said the place was clean; no sign of a struggle?”
“Neat as a pin,” Reuben said.
“What about Ahmed Omar stalking her the day she was killed,” I said. “She told her boss that she was being followed by a black man in a black SUV. She identified him as Ahmed Omar, an employee of Marc Cronenburg. Omar threatened her three years ago, told her if she didn’t leave town he would come back and make her disappear.”
They didn’t share my sense of alarm. Lynch pried the lid off his coffee and swirled it around. He said, “I always wondered what happened to Ahmed Omar.”
“He played for the Raiders for twelve years,” Reuben said. “Recruited out of Michigan State his junior year. Back then his name was Laurence Levon Ricketts; changed it after a few years in the pros to be cool, I guess. They called him ‘Freight Train’ because he liked to run over other players.”
“You’re right,” Lynch said, remembering, wagging a thin finger in the air. “As I recall, he still holds the record for the most penalized player in the history of the game. Doesn’t sound like someone you’d want to meet in a dark alley.”
“His bad habits finally got the best of him,” Reuben said. “He was kicked out of the NFL six years ago on drug charges and spent eighteen months in the joint for assault. He beat the hell out of his ex-wife and an ex-teammate he caught screwing her in his ex-house. Put both of them in the hospital, as I recall, claimed he was high on pills of some kind. He has a long history of violent behavior.”
I suddenly felt like I’d stumbled on an ESPN set. I said, “Guys, can we get back on track here?”
“Wish the Raiders had him this year,” Lynch said. “Okay, let’s talk about the busted patio door lock for a minute. You said she told the landlord the lock was broken on Friday morning, then she killed herself Friday night.”
“Ahmed Omar killed her Friday night,” I chimed in. Lynch waved a hand at me and kept eye contact with Reuben.
Reuben answered, “Correct.”
“So perhaps someone – perhaps Ahmed Omar – busted the lock the day before to make it easier for him to surprise her when the time came.”
“It’s a possibility.”
“Does the complex have any surveillance cameras that you’re aware of?”
“I don’t know,” Reuben said. He made a note on the deskpad. “I’ll find out.”
“Do that.” Lynch crossed his arms and looked toward the ceiling. He tapped the rim of the cup to his chin. “Okay, let’s talk about her frame of mind prior to death.”
Reuben said, “She had terminal breast cancer, not long to live. She had told multiple people, including our friend Mr. Cruze here, that she planned to end her life at the assisted living center where she worked and sometimes lived.”
“Surrounded by people she loved,” I added. “Not alone in her apartment with a bag tied over her head.”
Lynch asked, “Was there a note?”
“Not in the traditional sense,” Reuben said. He tapped a finger on Susan’s laptop that was sitting on his desk. “Might be something on the computer we haven’t found yet. The majority of suicides don’t leave notes, about twenty percent.”
Lynch looked at me now. “Was she the type to leave a suicide note, Mr. Cruze?”
I didn’t think about the answer. I just said it. “I don’t think she would have left without saying goodbye.”
“Saying goodbye to you in particular?” Lynch said. He gave me a curious look.
I said, “Saying goodbye to those who cared about her.”
Lynch and Reuben exchanged a look. Lynch said, “Mr. Cruze, exactly what was your relationship to Miss Harris?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Did your relationship go deeper than what you’ve indicated so far? If I put you on the stand and Allen Grumman reveals that you two were anything more than a reporter and a source, we will have a big problem. Let me rephrase that: YOU will have a big problem.”
“There was no personal relationship,” I said. “She was a source who I got to know over several meetings. That’s it. The woman was dying of cancer, for Christ sake. It wasn’t hard to be sympathetic.” I felt ashamed of myself for lying about my feelings for her, but it was what Lynch needed to hear at that moment and what I would swear to in court if and when the time came.
Lynch straightened his back and crossed his arms. He lifted his chin to look down his nose at Reuben. “And why did you not catch all this before, Detective Morales, during the first investigation three years ago?”
Reuben shot right back at him. “Because your office shut down the investigation before I could get that far, counselor. If your boss didn’t have Cronenburg’s hand so far up his ass we might have uncovered this the first time around.”
Lynch smiled at him. “Can’t argue that one.” I got the impression there was no love lost between Lynch and his boss, the district attorney. Lynch said, “So the only new information we really have are the deaths of the three patients we previously didn’t know about. You said you have all their medical records?”
Reuben held up the memory stick I’d given him. Lynch said “Okay, I can see how that plays downtown, but I’m not holding my breath.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means we don’t really have shit, Mr. Cruze,” Lynch said. “We can’t reopen on the twelve previous deaths because those charges were dropped three years ago, and under today’s laws governing medically-assisted suicide, there was no crime committed. That may also be the case with the three home deaths. If we can get an investigation open to look into those we may find something worthy of charges, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
“But what about Susan’s murder?” I said. “What about the video? That’s Ahmed Omar’s voice. He’s still roaming the streets free as a bird. Can’t you at least bring him in for questioning?”
“Other than a muffled voice there is nothing on that video that ties Ahmed Omar to Susan Harris’ death. That could have been Barry White on there for all we know.”
“I think Barry White’s dead,” Reuben said. “Maybe the All State guy.”
“It was Omar,” I said. I hoped I didn’t sound as helpless as I felt.
“According to Santa Rosa PD the woman killed herself,” Lynch said. “There was evidence of pills and alcohol, a bag around her head.”
“A bag that Omar put there,” I said. “She would never die like that, not alone, not with a bag over her head.”
“Again, we need more than your gut to build a case, Mr. Cruze.” He tossed his coffee cup in the trash and waved a hand at Reuben.
“Can’t hurt to do a little sniffing around, Stan,” Reuben said. “I’ll do it on my own time.”
Lynch thought about it for a moment. He said, “Okay, confer with SRPD. Tell them we suspect foul play and need that apartment sealed until you can get down there to check it out yourself. Take one of our CSI guys with you; prints, fibers, the whole deal. We need her body autopsied and held until I give the okay to release it to the next of kin. Hopefully Mr. Cruze didn’t trample on whatever evidence might have been in the apartment.”
“I wore gloves,” I said. “And took my shoes off.”
“Lucky us,” Lynch said. “Reuben, get everything you have together and meet me downtown in an hour.”
Reuben saluted him and Lynch started to walk away. He turned back toward me as he reached the door. “And Mr. Cruze, you might want to make yourself scarce for a few days. I have paperwork on my desk requesting the issuance of an arrest warrant for you. Seems certain parties would like to have you picked up so they can revisit the topic of your bail and press for additional charges against you. If anyone asks, I never saw you here.”
“I appreciate the tip,” I said.
“Please don’t take it as a sign of affection,” he said. “I’m not doing you a favor. I just don’t want you sitting in jail if I need you as a potential witness for the prosecution.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
Lynch leaned over me and lowered his voice. “One more thing. I certainly can’t tell you how to do your job or suggest that you do anything with the information you have brought us regarding this case, but if this news were to get out, say on the front page of the Times tomorrow morning, it might just cause enough of a public outcry that my boss would have no choice but to reopen the investigation, in spite of his relationship with those involved.”
I shook my head to make sure I was hearing him correctly. The ADA was telling me that it was okay to print what I knew, or what I thought I knew, on the front page of one of the country’s biggest newspapers, which would start a media firestorm that might potentially help his case. Perhaps public outcry could convince the D.A. to bring Omar in for questioning.
I wondered if John Winger would agree to give me my job back, at least temporarily.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said. “How far can I go?”
Lynch thought about it for a moment and held a hand out to Reuben. Reuben said, “Leave out the swan for now,” he said. “That way Cronenburg won’t know we have something that directly connects him to Susan Harris. Other than that, I think you can go all the way.”
“There you go,” said Lynch with a smile. “Have yourself a field day, Mr. Cruze. And please, try to stay out of jail.”