Masks 19: Part 5

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Masks XIX:

A Disturbance of the Peace


Rodford Edmiston

Part Five

The morning of the next day - Tuesday - was mostly spent getting more background. It's amazing how much stuff is in libraries and newspaper morgues and not on the Internet. That includes a lot of current materials. We got back to our suite shortly after lunch, with the intent of resting a bit while we coordinated the morning's results. That afternoon we would be hitting local government offices to check on the business dealings of the deceased men. We hadn't been at the suite long when my partner called my attention to something.

"Harvek is at it again," said Sally, taking her headphones off and switching the TV to regular sound. "He actually came back to Seattle early to hold an anti-super rally. He's ranting about the killings we're investigating. Claiming this is just one more example of how not keeping supers on a leash leads to death and property damage."

I got in on his talk mid-speech.

"This is what happens when you let these elitists run around without supervision. Just because they can perform these feats doesn't mean they should be allowed to. Appeasing them doesn't work; they have to be federally regulated! Each super must be registered - for their own protection - and those who are not registered punished for evasion of the law!"

He continued for several minutes, talking about both super crimes in general and the recent murders in particular. Though he never actually accused Doro of anything - never even mentioned her name - he nevertheless managed to make her seem all but convicted.

"Okay," I said, after this distasteful display was over, "I'm now starting to come over to your side. Well, as far as my opinion of Harvek as a person goes."

"Wow," said Sally, surprise rapidly turning to anger. "I think that guy needs to have an accident."

"No!" I snapped, startling her. "Sorry. I know you're not serious, but in situations like this not only could statements like that be used against you, but against many others as well."

"Sorry," she said, looking sheepish. "I know that. I've done enough celebrity - including politician - bodyguard work that I've been trained in that sort of public relations awareness. I just... well, lost my temper for a moment."

* * *

The next day we had a late morning meeting back in the office of Ernest Chiodini. He provided a bit more information he'd been able to dig up, and we updated him. Unfortunately, neither side had much in the way of new leads to follow from here. We parted before Noon, and Sally and I headed off for lunch.

We were just finishing that meal when my phone rang. It was Shaw with news that the information from the vehicle rental place had hit a dead end. All the IDs used turned out to be fake; the debit card was prepaid under an also fake ID. The police were still trying with the composite image of the driver. Shaw promised to let us know what they found.

Once Sally and I finished lunch and were on the street I explained what the message had been about. We discussed what to do next as we waited at a bus stop. We finally decided to just play tourist for the rest of the day.

* * *

I got a text message from Shaw on my phone the next day as Sally and I were finishing breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I was, of course, Lorraine at the time, and actually felt a bit disconnected at reading a message for Henley. Still, it was significant enough I was glad I hadn't waited to get somewhere I could change. In what might be a major break in the case, several people - some of them law enforcement - around the US had identified the man in the composite image. There were high hopes he might be found soon.

"That's good news," said Sally, after I quietly informed her of the message's contents.

"We may actually be making headway," I murmured, feeling encouraged. "Anyway, let's get changed."

We found a large clothing store and ducked into adjoining changing rooms. I handed my big purse over the wall to Sally, and became Henley Regatta. Sally put her small purse in the big one along with her outer jacket, pulled her wig out and put it and a pair of glasses on and adjusted her makeup. A sharp observer would have noticed she was the same person, but by leaving separately and meeting again at the bus stop we were pretty sure that even if Loraine and her "niece" were being watched this would break the chain.

* * *

The next couple of days saw us doing little actual investigating, but being kept busy meeting with people who had information or wanted information from us. Most of what they had was unimportant or even irrelevant to the case. Sally thought things had stalled, but I actually felt encouraged. I had a feeling something was about to break, and maybe break big.

Sure enough, that afternoon we got an excited call from Ernest while we were leaving a follow-up meeting with a city detective. Our reporter ally wanted us at his office at the newspaper soonest! We took a taxi and made the trip in record time (well, according to the cabby, who was probably exaggerating to increase his tip). As it turned out, the news he had was surprising, and - if true - might turn the case around.

"So Harvek isn't the culprit?" I said, startled, after Ernest's dramatic announcement. Despite my voiced doubts I had come to - at least subconsciously - consider him a prime suspect.

"Word on the street has someone using him as a patsy, by taking advantage of his natural arrogance. He's someone who was chosen because others might see him as a reasonable suspect, but who actually has nothing to do with the crime. Harvek helped things along because he gave the appearance of guilt when his elitist attitude caused him to refuse to cooperate with the investigation and instead just flatly deny everything. He won't even provide an alibi. However, he has threatened to sue the city for daring to mention his name in connection to the crime. None of which means he's guilty. Or innocent, of course. However, I think that if he were behind the murders he'd hire others to do the dirty work, and make sure he had a solid alibi. It doesn't make sense that he'd even have an alibi if he weren't guilty."

"That reasoning is a bit convoluted," I said, musing over this information, "but from what I know about the guy that behavior fits."

"He does seem to enjoy making things more complicated for himself - for everyone, actually - than they need to be," said Sally, nodding. "Especially for his opponents."

"I don't think we can rule him out entirely just based on this," I said, firmly. "However, for now we should focus on other potential culprits. For one thing, we really need to find whoever actually committed the murders of the businessmen and the attempted murder of Doro."

"While you're here, I'd appreciate a fresh pair of eyes going through these papers I've collected," said Ernest, pulling an overloaded Manila folder out of a drawer. "Most of this is only related to the crime because it covers projects the decedents were involved with. Maybe there's something in these."

We spent hours on those damn papers, staying well after the newspaper office finished the regular workday. At first a large part of our effort was simply organizing the documents. Sorting through them and putting them into categories. We also started a chart on a marker board, trying to connect things. We didn't have much luck.

Ernest ordered out for food - some pretty good Chinese, his treat - and while we ate supper I thought over what we'd found in those papers.

"Ma... Uh, my mentor used to tell me," I said, slowly, as I scraped the last of my fried rice out of the box, "that if the case isn't making sense, maybe it isn't supposed to."

"You mean that whoever planned this planted a lot of false information," said Ernest, nodding, as I chewed.

"Yeah. We need to go over all we have - again, I'm afraid - and eliminate anything which doesn't seem directly connected to the actual murders. Anything which seems out of place to that event, no matter how interesting it might seem otherwise, gets put aside. Then maybe we can focus on the real facts, here."

"Okay." Ernest leaned back in his chair, tapping his fingertips together as he spoke. "Let's review a bit first, though. Just so we have a clear idea of what the crime actually is. We know three or four people - almost certainly men, probably big, strong normals - drugged Doro, got her to Seattle without attracting attention, got into that meeting room without attracting attention, murdered the men at the meeting without attracting attention, then shot Doro - which did attract attention, so they left quickly afterwards - setting her up to take the rap once the crime was discovered. Most likely because of that haste, they didn't confirm that Doro was dead. There may have been more than one group involved in different parts of the operation. Maybe one for the kidnapping, one for the transport, and one for the assault and setup. That would mean more people to slip up, but fewer with knowledge of the entire plot."

"You're sure they were normals?" said Sally. "Some of that stuff sounds like it would need powers to carry out."

"Probably not," I said, in partial concession. "Powers would make things easier, but they aren't necessary. I remember this magician who - back in the late Forties - used to stage crimes which everyone was sure only supers could have committed. He finally got overconfident and slipped up, and once he was caught not only confessed but bragged about how he'd fooled everyone. So, let's try breaking this down step by step and see if we can figure out how each step was done."

"Okay, do we know how Doro was drugged?" said Ernest.

"No. However, from what the doctors who treated her after the murders found, once she was out she was hooked to an IV, probably a saline drip with more of the drug in it. Running at a maintenance dose."

"That means they had at least a nurse involved," said Sally.

"Nurse, paramedic, doctor," I said, nodding. "Maybe even more than one person. There aren't a lot of folks who know how to hook someone superhumanly resilient to an IV. On top of that, whoever it was knew enough about tetrodotoxin to keep someone out on it for a couple of days without killing them. That may have been helped by a recently developed monoclonal antibody specific to tetrodotoxin which is useful in controlling the effects of both that and the pseudotetrodotoxin. The antitoxin is not commonly available and therefore likely easy to track. We can try that angle later."

"Do we know what, specifically, those deceased businessmen were planning to talk about?" said Sally.

"No," said Ernest. "I've tried to find out but so far am being stonewalled."

"Maybe Mr. Shaw can find out," I said.

We spent nearly two more hours going over all the information we had, separating it into two piles, setting the smaller one aside as currently considered unconnected to the case. Then we took the larger pile and divided it. We now had two general lines of potential pursuit, which started at different places before converging on the murders. One approach began with Doro's kidnapping; the other with what the businessmen were planning to discuss. In each of those piles we had several possible avenues of investigation. We then started going through the second - and much larger - of those piles together. Soon, something caught my attention.

"This," I said, tapping a specific stack of printouts with a fingertip.

"What is that telling you?" said Ernest. "Frankly, I don't see any solid connections between those papers."

"I do. The reasons those particular companies were bought by the vultures is that they'd been caught at or suspected of poor work. That caused them to lose business and their value to sharply decline, though that was more social than financial. One or two businesses in this city in that span of time would not be unusual. However, so many reeks of an organized plan, with someone providing substandard materials and services, taking advantage of the rapid rebuilding after the war. I suspect the folks in Corporate Salvage were meeting to discuss finding those problems in companies they had scavenged. They may have even planned to do something about that. Perhaps to someone specific."

They both looked startled.

"You sure?" said Sally. "About the pattern of substandard work, I mean?"

"Yeah," I said, nodding slowly. "Things failing, but the failure only being discovered after payment has been made. Things not working as promised or even not at all. When the customers make a fuss the providers make bland reassurances or ignore them. When the customers get fed up with that treatment they try to sue, but the providers tie things up in court so that the customer has to drop or postpone the suit and have repairs made by someone else to open on time. There are also contractors who get the bid, do shoddy work, then are nowhere to be found when a government agency or business discovers the work is bad. They're not incompetent; they hid the bad work under an acceptable veneer, and likely paid off inspectors. Then there are the payments by various parties to vaguely worded other parties for vaguely worded purposes. Over and over, with many variations on each theme."

"Organized crime?" said Ernest, looking thoughtful. "That would make sense, but why target businesses and the city government here so much?"

"They're not singling out Seattle," I said. "I've heard about similar problems all over the country, which is why I spotted them here. Probably happening all over the world. It's not as pervasive most places as we're seeing here, though, so I bet the fact that it's happening so much here could be traced to one person or small group. There may even be a connection to Harvek, who has a lot of business interests here. However, he isn't closely involved with construction. At least not that I've been able to find out. He's mainly a property owner and middleman for construction supplies. Someone could have been supplying him with bad materials. If those businesses which got in trouble and which Corporate Salvage bought out revealed to the deceased executives that something underhanded was going on, someone involved in the scams might have panicked."

I sighed tiredly and leaned back in my chair.

"Harvek might be involved. Or this could all be some machination by a rival of his."

Ernest looked startled, then suddenly swore.

"You think of somebody?" I said, smiling and leaning forward in anticipation.

"Yeah. A sleazy - and I mean really sleazy - politician who came into prominence after the war and promised the Moon, then seemed to be delivering... for a while. Big in the city council, lots of local business dealings, with influential state and federal contacts to help get matching funds pushed through quickly. Only, she's looking more and more corrupt as time goes on. So far, though, she's managed to evade any prosecution or even close investigation. There's lots of talk about large sums of money being passed under the table in several directions."

"'She'?" said Sally.

"Teresa Huang. Her family has been in the area for more than a century. She's rumored to have connections with both Chinese and Japanese crime families. She also has a major hate-on for Harvek."

"And that, my friends, is why a good detective makes contacts with the local press," I said, nodding in satisfaction as I sat back again and folded my hands.

"What does that really get us, though?" said Sally.

"The guys who set up the operation against the law office said that was done by someone who was in disguise - including his voice - but the cops say from their description he was the same size and shape as Harvek," I said, rubbing my chin as I thought. "That resemblance was almost certainly deliberate. So, do we know anyone that size and shape who is connected with Ms. Huang and possibly willing to participate in this? Harvek is far from unique, but he is a pretty rare body type; tall, broad and barrel-chested, with a considerable spare tire and a short, thick neck. Combine that with his booming voice... Though the men who attacked the law office said their contact whispered, so we can't use that."

"There's a handful of people who have impersonated Harvek for comedic purposes," said Ernest, frowning. "None are local, though. Most are also vocal mimics who don't really resemble him physically. Neither have any of them been in the area for performances, at least recently."

"It sounds like you already thought of this," I said.

"No. I just normally work the entertainment section. I'm pretty aware of what performers are in town and for what."

"So, do any of these celebrity mimics actually resemble Harvek?" said Sally.

"Yeah. Owen Wegrzyn. He's actually local, but has been in Las Vegas the past several weeks. However, he's supposed to be taking a vacation back home - that is, here - in just a few days. I could probably get an interview."

"That... could actually be a big help," I said, slowly, thinking it through. "If we can talk to this guy... Even if just to eliminate him..."

"Owen Wegrzyn. I think I'm pronouncing that right. Let me make some calls."

As it turned out, Ernest's information was a bit out of date. Wegrzyn had actually left the states. He was visiting relatives in his home country. He had been gone for two weeks and wouldn't be back for another couple of weeks.

"So, he's out," said Sally. She looked at me. "A shapeshifter?"

"Maybe we're overcomplicating this," said Ernest, frowning.

"You mean, you now think it really was Harvek?" I said, joining him in frowning.

"Yeah. If it looked like Harvek and acted like Harvek and no known imitators of Harvek were in town..." said Ernest.

"Thing is," I said, tossing my pen onto the coffee table in disgust. "We still don't have a solid motive. Not just for Harvek; for anyone! If we could just figure out why those men were murdered... Well, beyond the obvious; that they were hurting owners, management and labor."

I leaned back in my chair, scowling. Motive was turning out to be the real bitch in this case. Sure, there were a lot of people who were glad these men were dead, with Harvek likely among them, but that wasn't a strong motive. It was barely a weak one. What had these businessmen done or learned or been suspected of doing or learning that would motivate someone to kill all of them?! Our speculation that they were uncovering a pattern of shoddy work was just that; speculation. The silence hung heavy in Ernest's office.

Then I noticed our reporter friend had an interesting expression on his face. An expression I'd seen before, on people who'd had a revelation. My empathy was also giving signs of odd emotions going on in his head. I sat up again, paying attention, as he began to speak.

"Here's an idea," said Ernest, slowly, still thinking it through. "We know Harvek was a middleman in some of those deals, delivering materials supplied by others. What if some of those crooked suppliers worked for Harvek? Not directly, but..."

"Through one or more intermediaries," I said, nodding. also slowly. "Or simply were independents who were part of a scheme. Having a whole chain - from supply to application - of people involved in the scam work would make a coverup easier. The vultures bought up some of the companies hurt by the faulty work, and started to notice a pattern. Harvek learns of their concerns through the folks actually doing the crooked work, and gets worried. That setup would provide a closer connection to Harvek, more reason for him to worry, a better motive. Still not firm, but better."

"I thought we'd eliminated Harvek," said Sally, looking confused. "That we thought it was a double an enemy of his had used to imitate him. You're the one who kept pointing out that just because he's an evil slum lord doesn't mean he arranged the murders."

"That might still be the case," I said, nodding in a distracted way as I continued to work this out in my head. "However, the simplest answer - as Ernest pointed out - is that Harvek himself is behind it. That he not only used these Corporate Salvage murders to eliminate some political and business enemies who might have been about to expose one of his schemes - and frame Doro in the process - but also to cause trouble for Teresa Huang."

"That's the simplest solution?!"

"Unless you can think of something simpler or more direct?" I said, raising an eyebrow at Sally. I frowned. "I wonder if he's feeling desperate because of the extra attention being paid to political movers and shakers these days due to the Donner scandal..."

She actually tried to think of another option, scowling in thought for several seconds, then standing to pace around Ernest's crowded office. After a few minutes, she gave up.

"No. It fits. If he can get away with this - and so far it looks like he might - then it's a win-win-win for him."

"There may even be a couple more wins to add," Ernest said, nodding. "If he manages to keep from being charged he can milk the accusations of the police and his enemies for sympathy to help with a political campaign. For himself - he's said he still wants to be President - or someone he supports."

"We've pretty much hit a dead end, though," I said, with a tired sigh. "The cops aren't seriously trying to connect him with the crime just now, and we just have speculation."

"They aren't trying to connect him with the murder investigation. There's signs he's involved in plenty of other illegal activities." Ernest patted a stack of papers. "We've got a lot of it right here. If we can get hard evidence of something serious enough that the police will be thorough in following up on it, there's a good chance they'll be able to pin the murders on him, too."

"If he's guilty," I said, pointedly.

"So how do we find something on him which will lead to an investigation?" said Sally.

"I have some things to try," said our host. He yawned, and stretched. "I'll call you if I find anything."

* * *

Once we were back at our suite Sally and I had our own discussion of what our next move might be. After all, Ernest didn't know we were supers. We had resources to bring to bear on this problem which he didn't.

Of course, I also had social resources to call on. Some of them significant.

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