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Authors: M. P. Cooley

Faint Trace

BOOK: Faint Trace
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Dedication

For my grandparents, John and Pat Kelly

 

Faint Trace

2009

“M
OTHER
T
ERESA
?” E
RNIE
held the plastic bag at arm's length, a letter visible inside. “Is nothing sacred, Lyons?”

I rose from my crouch next to a box of thousands of signed Alex Rodriguez Texas Rangers baseball cards, the rush of blood leaving me dizzy. This was the sixth file cabinet of counterfeit goods I had cataloged. The metal roof of the storage facility conducted heat, and inside this glorified tin can it felt like 120 degrees, easy. I was ready to ditch, keep walking until I reached the San Francisco Bay, and jump in.

After all this, we better catch Hu. Or the Saigon Death Squad. Or both. I wasn't picky.

I looked closely at the letter that had offended Ernie. Apparently from Mother Teresa, the note was dated May 19, 1987, the 7 slashed through, the Gs big and loopy, almost girlish, encouraging good works for God's glory. I pulled the plastic tight over the paper, squinting at the greeting.

“This one was addressed to Pope John Paul II,” I said, and Ernie was back on a rant. He grabbed for it but I pulled it out of reach, tsk-­ing. “The FBI has no jurisdiction over blasphemy, Aguilar.”

This room full of counterfeit goods had something to enrage everyone. From cabinet after cabinet of autographed baseball cards to handwritten letters from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the breadth and scope of the forgeries and fakes was staggering. One of the crime scene techs was ready to torch the place when he found twenty-­two baseballs signed by Barry Bonds, dated August 7, 2007, the day Bonds hit his record-­breaking 756th home run.

The group of us were taking pictures of the contents of the cabinets, boxing the goods, and sending them off to air-­conditioned labs, but it was slow going. There were two bright spots. Our first win was in evidence processing. The forger had been very diligent about keeping the items in pristine condition, which meant that all the evidence came pre-­bagged. Our second break was bigger. We found files full of shipping manifests, bills of ladings attached to each one directing trucking companies from the port to locations around Oakland, including storage facilities but also, oddly enough, private residences. This was a very big win because the one thing the Death Squad had stolen when they broke down the door of the business office and beat the clerk half to death was the contact information for the trucking company that had dropped off the cargo.

The lilac blouse I wore was streaked with sweat, and the fabric pulled against my lower back as I took one last photo and sealed the box I was working on, initialing the tape to prevent tampering. I picked it up and carried it outside to the waiting van.

We were close to the Baylands, just outside the port of Oakland. In the port, giant cranes that had been the model for Star Wars' Imperial Walkers stood guard, vigilant against the silicon menace creeping across the Bay Bridge, dragging ironic T-­shirts and artisanal coffee shops in its wake.

Ernie dragged behind me carrying two stacked boxes, his face flushed with either heat or anger—­I wasn't sure. I felt bad. In the past he and I'd worked heavy undercover, pretending to be tweakers buying drugs from the Rolling 88s in a Fremont suburb or doing stakeouts for months at a time to bust the Mara Salvatrucha in the Mojave Desert. Officially, this detail wasn't on a white collar squad but it might as well have been, the two of us cataloging countless fakes while the rest of the agents chased down the Saigon Death Squad.

The Vietnamese gang, based out of New York City, had made a special trip to the West Coast to shoot up a storage pod full of goods that gang considered their property. Ernie probably would have been assigned to a reactive squad raiding an Eastlake neighborhood home right this minute, but instead we were here. I was benched, with my husband in his thirteenth month of disability due to cancer and a three-­year-­old daughter needing my attention. So as my partner, Ernie was on the JV team too.

“This shit is all fake,” Ernie said. “Why don't the Death Squad just make more?” He rolled his eyes, using his sleeve to wipe sweat off his neck. “What am I saying? They're greedy bastards.”

“We're not talking small change, here. Ballpark number of the value of that stuff we found? Five or six hundred thousand.” I thought of the room packed with fake documents and memorabilia, the autographs and signatures all carefully rendered. “And capturing Hu, the guy who created all that? Worth a whole lot more than half a million to the Death Squad.”

Van Hu was the person we all wanted to find. Counterfeiting is what the Death Squad did best, but from reports the gang leaders had Van Hu doing a little bit of everything: falsified land deeds, fake driver's licenses, and of course the stuff in the storage facility. They would execute him once they found him.

The FBI wanted him just as badly, but planned to capture rather than kill Hu. We wanted to get all the information Hu had on the inner workings of the gang—­as a longtime member who'd defected, he knew enough about its operations to steal at least six shipping containers from them, redirecting the cargo using false bills of lading and invoices. We were betting he knew a whole lot more. There was the small matter of the fourteen warrants out for his arrest on state and federal charges; but those could probably be forgotten, if he gave us the evidence we needed against the Saigon Death Squad.

The problem was finding a man who falsified documents for a living. Over the course of the last few years The Bureau had dug up six different aliases across four states that at different times listed his ethnicity as Asian, white, or Pacific Islander. It seemed impossible that we wouldn't be able to find a picture of someone in this digital age, but Van Hu remained elusive.

I looked at storage facility's business office, the front window now covered with plywood. The door swung open, and the owner ducked out, blinking in the noonday sun.

“Hey! FBI ­people!” he yelled, waving us over. Looking over his shoulder I could see destruction: papers strewn across the floor and a bloody handprint where the night manager had tried to stop his slide to the floor after having his head smashed in with a folding chair. The owner handed us a copy of a driver's license. “Platon Valcaral was the name on the rental. This is the guy you're looking for, right?”

“He's passing himself off as Mexican?” Ernie was offended.

The picture on the ID showed a heavyset young man, age listed as twenty-­three, head tilted back, his eyes hidden behind rolls of fat. I thanked the owner, who went back to reorganizing the documents the gang had dumped on the floor. Personally, I would have begun the cleaning by scrubbing the blood off the wall.

“The ID is fake,” Ernie said blowing out a frustrated breath. “But I'm bettin' the picture isn't. Why did the Squad grab the shipping documents but leave this behind?”

“They know he's probably got three other aliases in play—­his name means nothing. But the transportation contract, that could help them figure out which trucking outfits are moving the stolen goods from the port to more permanent storage—­like this place.”

“And then they'll what? Beat up some teamsters? I'd like to see them try.” Ernie pulled the copy of the photo close. “Van Hu was in the Saigon Death Squad for over ten years and on the FBI wanted list for the last three. Surveillance must have picked him up at some point.”

“Backroom guy,” I said. “I read his file, and he got started all the way back when he was fifteen.”

“So a late bloomer,” Ernie said. “And I take it there's no school photos, tasteful portraits with rainbow laser effect glowing in the background.”

“Don't think we would have found those even if he had finished high school. His mom was in the life—­prostitution I think—­and his dad . . . well there's no sign of him. Hu got his start on the drugs side of things. Not dealing, but forging prescriptions. But Pham Manh Due, the guy who started the Death Squad, he could spot talent, and started cultivating Hu's gift for fake signatures and forgery.”

My phone rang.

“Is that Stanzler?” Ernie asked, crowding into my shoulder so he could see my phone. Jim Stanzler was special agent in charge of the FBI's Bay Area Gang Task Force and more importantly, our boss. He was the reason that Ernie and I were here instead of participating in the raid on the Saigon Death Squad. Ernie didn't like him, but I thought Stanzler was ok. Back when I'd first explained that Kevin's short term leave for cancer treatment was turning into long term disability, Stanzler had offered me modified work assignments and even put in a call to the Albany, New York field office to see if we could arrange a transfer. The call was useless. I lacked seniority, a frozen budget meant they had no money to add a desk, and my years of experience in anti-­gang work made me practically pointless in a regional office where the big focus was anti-­terrorism.

“Good news, Lyons and Aguilar,” Stanzler said, his voice tinny over the speaker. “The operation was a success.”

“You got Hu?” I asked.

“No, but we got seven members of the Saigon Death Squad. Found their little hidey-­hole and cleared them out. You know the old saying, give me a large enough lever and I can move the world? I think we found our lever.”

I didn't want to point out that Van Hu was an even bigger lever. He knew where the bodies were buried—­or rather, where the documents were filed—­with his expertise going far beyond faking signatures. If we could get him to turn state's evidence, there was the possibility that we could take down the entire Saigon Death Squad, not just out in California, but in Minneapolis and Philadelphia and even New York, where it got started.

“We might have a lead on where Hu is living,” I said, reading Platon Valcaral's address off the license.

“I will bet my firstborn that the Death Squad won't bother checking that address. It's a fake,” Stanzler said, and I had to agree. “But of course we don't want anything to fall through the cracks. Why don't you two go visit, see if that's where Hu is living these days.”

My car's air-­conditioning was a relief, Aguilar turning the vents so the air blew on his face. I followed the 13 to the Piedmont area, and I found myself scanning the neighborhood not just for our address, but to judge if it would be a nice place for me, Kevin, and Lucy to live. I preferred the East Bay and San Francisco to the flat peninsula of Silicon Valley, the hills making me feel at home in a way that lowlands never did. Kevin would tease me about needing defensible positions, but really it was the landscape I loved. Kevin just needed proximity to computers, space to bike ride, and good concerts. Not that we did any of those things anymore. Nonsmoking Kevin had lung cancer, according to the doctor's current theory, and it left him breathless.

We arrived at the house, quiet in the midday sun. Ernie knocked and we waited for a reply. A black Mazda full of young men rolled by, the growl of the car signaling significant engine upgrades.

“Gang members?” I asked. “In
this
neighborhood?”

Ernie watched the car closely. “Are they a crew, or just little turds out demanding respect they haven't earned?”

“Either,” I said. “Both.”

“Maybe,” he said. “Probably.”

Ernie walked to the edge of the porch, watching the car turn before returning and knocking on the door again. Dolphin wind chimes next to the door hung silent in the still air, and a bucket full of shells sat by the steps. Oakland was such a big city I sometimes forgot that we were minutes from the Pacific Ocean.

A man opened the door wearing a T-­shirt and jeans, just roused from a nap judging by his flyaway strands of hair on a balding head. Looking past him, I could see an elderly woman sitting on the couch. She had cushions propped on three sides, and I wondered whether she'd be upright without the pillows.

“Hello?” the man said, squinting. We introduced ourselves, explained who we were looking for, and asked if there were any tenants or other family who lived at this address.

“Hey, Ma!” he called behind him. “Any illegitimate kids you got stashed in the basement?”

The man laughed at his own joke; Ma seemed unimpressed. He called in his daughter, a woman in her twenties who lost interest after determining we weren't looking for her boyfriend.

As Ernie gave the family our contact information I watched the street. I saw the same black Mazda turn the corner, driving slowly with its engine quiet.

“Ernie,” I said. “Please tell the family to go back inside and move away from the window.” He pushed them in from the doorway, shutting the door behind them, and dropped low behind a bush while I hunched down behind the car in the driveway, pulling my SIG Sauer. Our positions wouldn't protect us from bullets, but would prevent us from being easy targets. The Mazda came to a complete stop in front of the house and a barrel of a rifle thrust out.

“Gun!” I called, and Ernie dropped flat. The car hesitated a moment before speeding away, the engine's roar echoing through the streets.

I edged along the side of the car towards the street to see if I could get the license plate, but no luck—­the car was too far away. Ernie stood up, holstering his revolver and dusting off the knees of his pants.

“Guess Stanzler owes us his first born,” he said.

A
F
TER
FIVE
YEARS
of marriage, Kevin and I were really good at talking in code. Not only about my cases and the violence, but also about how he was and how he felt.

He grinned as he slipped a piece of paper across the tiled kitchen counter. “My red blood count was better.” He looked up from the chicken and peppers he was skewering, glanced over to Lucy at the dining table, and dropped his voice. “They say that I'm good to start C-­H-­E-­M-­O again on Thursday.”

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