NOTE: Anonymous is Part Two of a murder investigation led by San Francisco Police Inspectors Hieu Trang and Larry Leahy, characters introduced to readers in Pretty City Murder. The first short story in the series is “Deaf,” and the second story is “Anonymous”. Both stories were written during the COVID-19 lockdown. “Deaf” has been submitted to online publishers, and the story awaits their decisions. “Anonymous” continues the story started in “Deaf." Because you cannot read “Deaf” until a decision has been made, I will summarize it here. This will help you have context for “Anonymous.” In "Deaf," Trang and Leahy investigate the death of a popular radio announcer. Trang gets a tip directing him to a blog. The blogger is deaf. In response to why she never posts her boyfriend’s picture, she says that he is travelling. Anonymous asks the blogger how her boyfriend could be traveling during lockdown. Trang visits the blogger and discovers her deadly secret. In “Anonymous,” the second story, which appears below, Trang suspects the murderer in “Deaf” had help moving the body to the edge of San Francisco Bay. Trang gets into trouble but perseveres and trails his suspect all the way to the truth.
COVID-19 ammonia disinfectant and a closed window in Hieu’s office made him feel as if he were choking. San Francisco’s lockdown compounded the unease brought on by a phone call saying that the video camera pointed at the front door of 748 Innes was broken and nothing was recoverable. That could mean Case Number 23, the Rocket murder, which was solved on May 7, just two days ago, might end before all the loose ends had been tied up.
A swig of iced S’mores Frappuccino from the Mason Street Starbucks slowly, slowly re-energized the flagging feeling that was supposed to arrive much later in the day. The smell of mint and an illusory campfire filled the troubled space between the right and left temples of Hieu’s coppered face. Yet, each time he sipped, a sweet, smoky aroma dreamily masked the ammonia.
Chief Inspector Larry Leahy, mentor and training partner, faced Hieu from the other side of the gray office desk. Hieu’s training period had ended months ago, and Larry had picked him for Case Number 23, but now he and Larry disagreed over what to do next, or if they should do anything at all. Rachel Spillane, the accused, stated earlier that morning in her holding cell that she had strangled Brock Rocket, her boyfriend and local radio announcer, on January 31, 2020, sometime around 1 AM. The murder weapon, they knew, was a looping cord that ran from the apartment doorbell to her hearing aid, and it was Brock’s brother, Terry, who had found the decomposing body months later at the bay’s edge.
Larry said, “I don’t think Terry is involved in this murder. We believed he was telling the truth in the first interview, and nothing in the second interview indicates he was lying. He might have thought the blog, which led us to Rachel’s apartment and the looping cord, was unimportant or irrelevant.”
“Did the Chief put the case on hold, or are we just…just done?” Hieu asked, trying to control a mental boil.
Larry sat back and sighed. “All he said was work on the other cases we’ve got, and we’ve got plenty.”
The numbers of the calendar pinned to the bare wall behind and just above Larry stared at Hieu and seemed to say, “What next, wimpy?”
“I say we interview Terry again. I say Terry helped move the body. It’s only half past ten. He’ll be at home and he will answer.”
Larry shimmied in his seat and said, “I came in on a Saturday, my day off, because you asked, but there’s no reason to go on.”
“I...I’m going to talk to Chin.” As Hieu stammered out the name of another inspector, he stood up forcefully and his metal chair squealed, and he felt keen, keen for the first time, knowing his mentor had hearing aids.
“Hieu, stop and think about what you and I are doing. We were given a task—solve a murder—and we did. The rest will work itself out. You did a great job, and I won’t even bring up the mistake you made in the case before this one. It doesn’t matter now. If I haven’t said it enough, I’ll say it again. You are one of our best inspectors, and you are smarter than I am.”
The disinfectant is making my eyes water, Hieu thought.
"Hieu, sit down and think. Terry Rocket could not be Anonymous on Rachel’s blog or the anonymous tipster who told us to look at Rachel’s blog.”
“Sure, he could. It’s all about the timing. Terry doesn’t tell us about the blog and then the tipster does. I’m calling him.”
Hieu pulled out his cell before he sat down, realizing this was the first time he had forged ahead without waiting for Larry, who looked like a spurned whore, but not a disappointed one.
“Mr. Rocket, this is Inspector Hieu Trang. How are you?”
When Hieu heard a yelp on the other end, he looked over at Larry with a feeling or wish that Larry explain such an odd noise.
“Why are you calling?”
“I apologize, Terry. Forgive me for being a nuisance so early in the morning, but I need to see you. It’s a little past 10:30, and maybe I can pick you up and bring you down here to Central for a short interview. How does that sound to you?” Hieu heard the TV blaring on Terry's side of the call.
Police just announced there has been an arrest in the case of Brock Rocket, the man found in the bay. The alleged suspect is Rachel Spillane, 29, resident of the Bayview. No other details were given.
“The plastic-hair announcer is saying something about an arrest,” Terry said. “The TV dude’s got my Boss brow-line eyeglasses that fade black to gray! Uh, well…I just finished off a Death in the Afternoon, but I’m fine and licorice puts me in a good mood. The virus has closed my hair salon, so I leave the TV on to keep me company, and I have a drink now and then. Believe it or not, I got myself ready to go. Somewhere. Anywhere.”
“I have a few questions about Rachel. I believe she had help. Can you help me out? I’ll pick you up in 15 minutes.”
All he needed was to hear an affirmative and he was off. Upon arriving, Hieu saw a vintage cream-colored Dodge Dart parked in the driveway of 84 Dorland Street. He stood in front of a single-family home that had been carefully renovated.
Terry opened the front door. A white fixie lay against a short log with an ax embedded in it, and Third Planet music played upstairs. Terry beamed in his skinny jeans and chukka boots. A black-and-blue-checkered hoodie overlaid a black baseball cap with its blue bill bent down on both sides. He looked to be about 6’2", 175 pounds, a sturdy Viking large enough to move Brock. The entry hall was immaculate, making Hieu think the rest of the house was, too.
With his back to Hieu, Terry took the first step up and started to say something.
“Terry…stop. We don’t have time. Please follow me out to the car. Love your Dodge Dart, bud.”
“I’ll take the Dart,” Terry answered.
Hieu kept Terry in his rear-view mirror.
On the sidewalk in front of Central, Terry said, “It’s my second time at a police station. I’m a good citizen, Inspector, but, uh, can I smoke a Parliament first?”
“Would you like my jacket, Terry?”
“It’s chilly, but I’m fine, I’m fine.”
Hieu watched Terry shiver and light a cigarette, and he left him there to finish his smoke.
Inside Interview Room #2, for the sake of social distancing, Larry stood to the right of the two-way wall mirror. Hieu assured Terry they were six feet apart by sitting on opposite sides of the desk.
Terry checked his surroundings carefully and brushed off his seat with a light blue handkerchief he had pulled out of his left back pocket with great exertion. “Do I need a mask?” With two hands he stuck the handkerchief into his right front pocket, which was not as tight, and sat down, a row of tiny sweat beads ringing his forehead.
“No, Terry. We observe social distancing inside Central. This will be an informal interview, but it will be recorded. Do you understand?”
“Terry, were you close to Brock?” Hieu asked.
“Very close. I loved him.”
“Anonymous said some pretty awful things about his girlfriend, Rachel, on her Discord blog. What was your relationship like with Rachel?”
“The news said she killed him, and she’s been arrested. Right?”
“Yes, absolutely right, but...isn’t there more to the story...wouldn’t you say?”
“Well, I can tell you about Brock. He and I argued a lot. One time he threw an ax at me.”
“I saw an ax in your foyer. Was that the ax he threw at you?”
Larry interrupted, “Were you Anonymous on the blog making all the negative comments about Rachel?”
Hieu knew it was the wrong time to ask that.
Terry stood up. Out flew his arms and he raged, “Are you accusing me?”
Larry answered quickly, sternly, “Trang does the questioning. You know what he wants.”
Hieu spoke up quickly, “Listen, Terry, I’m not here to accuse you of anything. We want to know who might have helped Rachel. Anything you tell me will be helpful.”
“I’ll testify at Rachel’s trial because I love my brother. Last time you and I talked, I admitted I read her blog, and, if you want to know the truth, I suspected her all along.”
Terry’s statement of suspicion triggered Hieu’s memory.
Rachel said one of her “clients” attempted to strangle her. Is it just a coincidence that Brock was killed by a looping cord wrapped around his neck?
“Did you visit Rachel at her apartment?” Hieu asked.
Terry remained standing, arms crossed, looking big and sweaty and churlish.
“Terry, please sit down. Uh, stay here. Inspector Leahy and I need to release a young man in another case. It should take five or six minutes. All right?”
Terry re-seated himself, and Hieu and Larry exited the interview room.
“Larry, can you run a background check on Terry?”
Before Larry moved to fulfill the request, he reminded Hieu, “Let him talk himself into a hole.”
Hieu reentered the interview room and noticed Terry looking groggy.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, just a little tired. When you called, I had just gotten out of bed.”
That’s odd. Terry said he was dressed and ready to go.
“Terry, tell me about Brock and his howling.”
“He had lycanthropic intermetamorphosis. He thought he was changing into a wolf.”
“Was he seeing a psychiatrist?”
Larry reentered the room and handed Hieu a folder.
Hieu looked through it and said, “Terry, you’ve had several arrests for assault on women, but none stuck, because the women were afraid to testify.”
Terry opened his mouth and snarled, “Not true,” and squeezed out a hiss between clenched teeth.
Did I screw up or did I get the reaction I wanted?
“Well, tell us more about you and Brock.”
“I see a psych. It all began when we were kids. I like the night. Thee knoweth not what that means.”
What the hell is that?
“Tell me about the life you and Brock had as children.”
“You have no evidence against me. I didn’t do anything illegal and you can’t arrest me!”
“Inspector Trang, can I see you outside?” In the hall Larry said, “This is not going well. What are you planning to do?”
“Get him to tell us more. There’s something about his relationship with Brock and Rachel he’s not telling us.”
“Be careful not to get into a position where you make an arrest too soon.”
“Yeah, I know, Larry. You've said that before.”
They reentered the room.
Terry said, “I take Linzess for irritable bowel syndrome. I have a lot of body pain. I might have to leave.”
Larry asked, “Where’s the pain?”
Larry laughed. “Well, a lot of shit comes out of there.”
“Terry, Terry...pay no attention to that comment. If you’re not feeling well, help yourself to the bottled water in front of you. Do you want a smoke?”
“Yeah, I do, but I think I can help you understand Brock if I tell you about a dream I had. Can I?” he asked, almost meekly.
Hieu said, “Sure.”
Terry’s eyes became fixed and his body frozen as he told his dream. “It was like this. I said, ‘Why are you ganging up against me? All of you are family. Brock, you’re my brother. You’re supposed to be on my side.’ Their stony faces stare at me. Why? Why? I can’t focus. They are disappearing, and I run after them but cannot find anyone. I feel terrible, as if I’m dying, and no one is around to help me.”
He slowed. “A weird thing happened during the dream, Inspector. A woman was talking loudly outside, somewhere in the back, which was something I hadn’t heard since COVID-19 began. I heard, ‘Get up. Get up!’ But it was me talking. I walked to the bathroom. I had hair all over my body. My fingernails were growing fast. I turned around quickly. No tail. I turned around again. My beard was thick and long.
“I’m as fit as David Beckham and just as good-looking. I like myself. The mirror is super clean. I own this home and can keep the TV blaring if I want, and it’s a mecca neighborhood.”
Hieu asked himself, What is happening? Is he somewhere between dream and reality?
Terry went on. “Easy to understand why Brock was so roughly smitten by Rachel. My brother was a bastard and deserved what he got. Same for Rachel. So, now I carry on the Rocket name alone.”
“Were you the one who called in the tip?” Hieu asked.
Terry bent over and clutched his stomach.
“Did you hate Rachel?” Hieu asked.
“I loved her at first, but that changed.”
“When did it change?”
“I used to see them together. I knew about her lifestyle. She used Discord to solicit men…or men and women.”
“But you said you loved Brock. Then you hated him. Why?”
“For falling in love with her.”
“You hated Rachel and you hated Brock. So, you helped Rachel kill Brock and then you called in the tip, making us believe that she was the killer and you were not involved.”
Larry, who had been quiet, quickly put himself between Hieu and Terry, and said, “Mr. Rocket, you are free to go. If stopped on the street by the police, tell them you were called in for an interview by Inspectors Trang and Leahy.”
After Terry had left, Larry lit into Hieu. “You had no cause to make an arrest!”
“I didn’t do anything, but he’s guilty. I know it. I know it.”
“Guilty of what?”
Hieu stormed out of the room, and Larry followed.
They reached the front lobby. Terry was standing outside Central, vaping.
“We should look at the cell phone record—calls between Terry and his brother before his death,” Larry said.
“Or calls between Terry and Rachel. Larry, I think we should follow Terry and see what happens. He’s already in wolf mode.”
“I wouldn’t do this, Hieu. It’s a waste of time.”
“I can go alone.”
“No. Don’t do that. I’ll go with you.”
Hieu hustled into the garage, Larry close behind, and they hopped into Hieu’s black Toyota 4Runner.
Hieu spotted the Dodge Dart heading up Columbus Avenue at a mere 15 miles per hour.
They passed under the Transamerica Pyramid.
“I’m hungry,” Larry said.
“Larry, I know I’m right. I’m going to follow this through to the end.”
“Drop me here.”
“No. I need you. When he stops, we will stop.”
For the next two hours, they followed him up Market, down Castro, into Dolores Heights, and deeper into Noe Valley. On Duncan Street, which ended on a cliff, Terry got confused and was forced to backtrack. Hieu turned quickly onto Castro, which dead-ended at another cliff, and hid out next to a family of four crows feeding on roadkill.
Terry headed down Dolores Street to 17th, where he turned off his motor in the driveway of 414 Dolores and was greeted by a flamboyant man who threw his arms around Terry’s neck.
Larry knew the pastor at Mission Dolores a couple of blocks away, called him, and told Hieu he was going to have a late lunch at the rectory.
Hieu sat alone, surveilling Terry from the front seat of the 4Runner.
At 4 PM, Hieu called his parents, checking in on them as he did every day, even though they lived three blocks apart.
At 4:15 PM, Hieu called his wife and asked what she was doing. He said, “No, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
At 4:30 PM, Hieu called Larry, who said he was bringing Hieu a sandwich and coffee.
Terry reappeared outside the apartment building looking more agitated than when he had entered.
Hieu called Larry back and told him to run.
Larry held the coffee cup and sandwich while Hieu got behind the Dart.
Hieu managed to gulp it all down during the next few hours as they followed Terry through SOMA, Dogpatch, and finally to India Basin Shoreline Park, where the body had been dumped. Terry stopped on Hunters Point Boulevard under a purplish-red sky, a short distance north of the park.
“Stop here, Hieu. We don’t want him to see us.”
“Terry thinks he’s alone. I succeeded in trailing his ass.”
Terry looked out at the bay. He seemed to dawdle around the back of the Dart. Then, suddenly, he opened the trunk, pulled out a blue tarp, and carefully laid it down on the street.
Hieu and Larry looked at each other.
Terry delicately extracted an ax. Hieu could clearly see the head of the ax, which was a bright blue, different from the red ax in the apartment.
Hieu leapt from the 4Runner and got behind Terry, who was still standing with the ax in both hands and staring into the trunk.
“Terry Rocket, you are under arrest for the murder of Brock Rocket.”
Terry turned, looking completely surprised, and said, “How did you know I helped Rachel?”
At that moment, Larry, who had caught up, answered, “Brock was missing a hand.”
Terry dropped the ax onto the tarp. “It’s a big deal over nothing. Rachel had called me about 1 AM asking for help. Brock had hit his head and been knocked out chasing her around the apartment with his hunting knife. Now I had the chance to take care of things. I loved Rachel and wanted her for myself, and I hated Brock. He bullied me my whole life. I tried chopping off both hands and feet to hide his identity, but Rachel got scared and wanted to go home.”
“You didn’t need to cut his hands off, Terry. The bay water saturated his body and obliterated his identity,” Hieu said. “What made you turn on her?”
“I was the tipster, like you thought. I wanted a permanent relationship with her, and all she wanted was a man to pay the rent, which is all she ever wanted from Brock, and now I don’t care about her, but there’s something else. Rachel knows about another murder. The murderer was one of her johns.”
Hieu placed Terry in handcuffs, and Larry called in the arrest.
They waited for a squad car and the Situation Investigation Team to arrive and take possession of the ax.
After Terry was whisked away, Hieu said, “Rachel didn’t know Terry was the tipster and had betrayed her. That’s why she would not identify him as the man who helped kill Brock. She thought Terry was still her lover. Terry might have been Anonymous on Rachel’s blog, the man who attempted to strangle Rachel. Thanks, Larry. Without you, I don’t think we could have done this.”
“You’re welcome. That dream Terry told us about...well, a dream can be a source of self-knowledge or self-loathing. For Terry, it was the latter.”