They were rolling with lights and sirens down Interstate 101 to the Peninsula. Dani drove. Agent Bryan manned the radio, summoning the force to the headquarters of Genepac Industries, a biotechnology research lab. Dani wasn’t sure what the company did. Something to do with genetics and crops. She didn’t care. She only cared that there might be a bomb about to go off in the building.
The freeway was choked with vehicles moving like sludge at an average of thirty miles per hour. Most of them were unable to move out of the way of the cruiser, but she kept a rapid pace by weaving through them. She rode the left shoulder as far as she could, hugging the concrete median barrier until the shoulder ran out, then she jockeyed over to the right shoulder and used that, dodging merging vehicles while Bryan stiffened and flinched in panic.
Gee, Dani thought, what’s this dude’s problem? We haven’t even had a near miss.
“Confirmed,” Bryan said into the radio. Then to Dani he said, “Everybody’s out of the building. Evacuation complete.” He had a nervous but reassuring smile on his pale, clean-shaven face.
In his thirties, he still had a full head of dark brown hair, parted on the left to reveal one clean white slice of scalp. His sideburns were unfashionably long and reminded Dani of the old cop shows from the eighties that she watched in reruns.
“What time is it?” he asked, glancing around the car like he’d forgotten where the computer display was.
“Is that thing on your wrist just for show?”
Bryan glanced at his wristwatch and chuckled. “Oh, right. No, it’s actually not…it’s not a timepiece. It’s…”
“Oh, like a Fitbit or something.”
Bryan vaguely smiled.
Dani pointed to the monitor to remind him that he could check the time there. Then she swerved, sending them through a narrow channel across two lanes.
“Watch it!” Bryan shouted, nearly climbing out of his seat.
“Do you want to drive?”
“Oh, no, no, no!” He looked terrified at the idea. “You’re doing a great job, Officer Barsetti. There’s just so much traffic. It’s unnerving.”
“Friday traffic is the worst! Just be damned happy it’s not rush hour.”
She stole a brief glance at him, at his delicate features and slightly rumpled navy blue suit. She couldn’t quite figure out Frank Bryan and she wasn’t ready to trust him. There was something off about him. Even his way of speaking was odd in a way she couldn’t place. Nope, she definitely wasn’t going to trust him if he wasn’t going to trust the SFPD by sharing his intel.
“We got no call,” she said, bringing up a question she’d asked earlier. “No bomb threat. You never did tell us how you know something’s going down today.”
He shifted uncomfortably. “No, I didn’t.”
So that was it, huh, thought Dani resentfully. That’s the way the FBI wants to play it. We’re supposed to put everything on the line for them and they don’t tell us diddly.
“This guy doesn’t know we’re onto him,” Bryan said, “and I want to keep it that way.”
In other words, Dani inferred, the FBI doesn’t trust city cops. Bryan’s body tensed as Dani abruptly changed lanes.
“Who is this guy anyway?” she asked. “This Leo Darius.”
Bryan relaxed into his seat. “Environmental activist gone militant. He’s on a one-man crusade to save the world from all those so-called conspiracies perpetrated against the common man by corporate America and the U. S. government. He thinks everything’s being poisoned—air, drinking water, food supply. And it’s all being hushed up.”
“What about the EPA and FDA and all the agencies working to protect people from being poisoned?”
“He thinks they’re all in on it too. A huge, worldwide cover-up. He’s paranoid, out of his mind.” He leaned over to read the clock on the computer again.
Dani made a mental note to tell all of this to Gemma. As a former FDA employee who very conscientiously had done her best to protect the public food supply, she’d be interested.
“Demonstrating peacefully wasn’t cutting it,” Bryan continued. “Nobody listening, no results. At least not fast enough. So now he’s taking it up a notch. He wants to get some attention. This is his coming-out party, blowing up Genepac Industries.”
“Genetically modified organisms. Food crops in this case. GMOs are public enemy number one in his book. At least we got the staff out of the building before it blows. Saved some lives.”
“You seem sure it’s going to blow.”
“Unless we can get to it first.”
Once they hit Burlingame, they exited onto city streets and headed east. The facility was near the bay under a steady stream of airliners arriving at San Francisco Airport. A gleaming white Lufthansa jet seemed to hang motionless over the shallow south bay before banking to the left to approach the runway. Sunlight glinted off its cockpit window like a laser beam.
Bryan checked the computer clock again.
“Why do you keep checking the time?” Dani asked.
He shook his head. “No reason. Just a nervous habit, I guess.”
“Darius didn’t happen to say what time this bomb was going off, did he?”
“No, no, of course not.” He laughed with an undercurrent of nervousness. “I wish he had.”
Yeah, Bryan was keeping his secrets, she thought bitterly. She didn’t like not knowing the score. Not having all the facts put officers in danger, and one thing the SFPD sure didn’t need right now was another incident. Just yesterday they had said their formal good-byes to Art Martinez in a gut-wrenching ceremony during which Dani couldn’t stifle the waterworks. She wasn’t the only cop there with tears running down her cheeks. Art’s wife Carla and his two little boys sat front and center, all three of them looking shell-shocked. Art never knew what hit him. He was shot in the back of the head on the street by a frizzed-up junkie who couldn’t tell the difference between a cop taking a lunch break and one coming after him loaded for bear. Senseless. The day before, Martinez had slapped her on the back good-naturedly and laughed his peculiar honking chortle. Everybody liked him. One day he was goofing around at the station, and the next he was just nowhere. It could happen to any of them any day. Which is why Dani never wanted to walk out of the house in the morning without making sure Gemma felt loved. This job never let you forget you were mortal.
Three other black and whites were there when they arrived, SFPD units waiting for Bryan’s orders. He had the lead on this one. There were also two fire trucks on site with a full complement of firefighters and a bomb squad. A group of civilians stood together a safe distance from the building, about a half dozen button-down shirts and khakis with a couple of conservative skirts thrown in. The evacuated staff of Genepac, Dani concluded.
An industrial building of metal, glass and concrete, two stories high, utilitarian and ugly, stood before them. Puffy white clouds were reflected in the top story windows. The scene was peaceful.
While Bryan went to talk to Sergeant Tyler, Dani briefly checked her phone. There was a message from Gemma. “I’ll be late tonight. It’s Mom again. I’ll be at Palm Terrace after work unruffling some feathers. Can you pick up something for dinner? Love, G.”
Not again. Dani shook her head. Gemma’s mother Harriet was becoming a pro at ruffling feathers. Most of the time she was docile, but she had episodes when she couldn’t remember where she was or why she wasn’t home. That’s when she got frightened, angry and sometimes violent, which Dani had to admit seemed like a reasonable response to losing one’s mind. Palm Terrace was the third nursing home for Harriet. She’d been kicked out of the first one for a string of nasty incidents, the last one being when she’d bitten a nursing assistant. They had moved her out of the second place, River Gardens, because Gemma was in almost constant conflict with the staff and it had worn her out. The current place was pretty good so far and Harriet seemed to be adapting better to institutionalization. Dani hoped Gemma could fix it, whatever Harriet had done this time. Otherwise, they were going to run out of places in the city to keep her.
Dani walked over to Bryan and some of the other officers, including Sergeant Rhonda Tyler, one of Dani’s buddies. She was in uniform, lean, tanned and freckled from the summer sun, her eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses.
“No sign of anybody,” reported Tyler. “The place is dead. If he’s here to watch his handiwork, he’s well hidden.”
Dani scanned the area, taking in parking garages, warehouses, storage units, sixties-era office buildings. Lots of industrial, no residential. Darius could be tucked inside any one of those buildings with a pair of binoculars, waiting for the fireworks.
The bomb squad was suited up and ready to go in with their dog, a relaxed-looking black German shepherd. If there was a bomb, they’d find it. Everybody else was ordered to stay well away from the building, so they all moved across the street. Tyler walked over to Dani with a freshly lit cigarette, then jerked her head toward the building and said, “Do you think there’s a bomb in there, Barsetti?”
Dani shrugged. “Bryan seems pretty sure of it.”
She blew smoke out of the side of her mouth, deliberately aiming away from Dani. “I wish he’d share some of that intel.”
“He said Darius is protesting genetically modified food. He’s some kind of an environmentalist gone militant.”
“Yep, that’s the story. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to take his word for it. We’ve come up with nothing on Leo Darius. And I mean nothing. And Bryan says his sources are classified.”
“Have you ever worked with him before?”
Tyler shook her head and knocked the ash off her cigarette. “No. Never heard of him before two days ago. He’s an unknown entity. When we get back to the station, I think I’ll ask around.”
“Why? Is there a problem?”
“No. I just like to know who I’m working with.” She smiled ironically. “I know that look, Barsetti. Don’t worry, I’ll be tactful.” She frowned. “Look, I can be tactful.”
“I didn’t say a word,” Dani objected, but to herself she admitted her doubt that Tyler could be tactful. It just wasn’t in her. She had the discretion of a wolverine going after a squirrel.
“Your wife is in the food business, right?”
“Yeah. She’s a nutritionist.”
“What’s her take on this GMO stuff?”
“She usually tells people they’ve been eating it for years. Eighty-eight percent of the corn and almost all of the soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. And you know those two grains are in everything. People who think they can avoid GMOs these days are fooling themselves. They’d have to grow all their own food to escape them.”
“So it’s not poison like these guys say?”
Dani shrugged. “I don’t know, but I’ll tell you what is poison.” She nodded toward the cigarette in Tyler’s hand.
Tyler scowled. “Can it, Barsetti!” She took a drag, then rubbed the cigarette into the dirt with her boot. “Damn, this waiting makes me jumpy.” She shoved her hands in her pockets as another jumbo jet roared overhead.
Dani kicked absentmindedly at the gravel, tense and nervous. Like Tyler, she didn’t like waiting and doing nothing, especially when there were lives on the line.
From across the street, Bryan’s frantic voice reached them. “Get out! Get out!” he shrieked at the bomb squad. “It’s too late! It’s going to blow! Take cover!”
Bryan and the bomb sniffers in their heavy suits and helmets streamed out of the building and bolted across the street to safety.
“How does he know?” Tyler asked, her face scrunched up in anxiety and confusion.
She and Dani ducked behind one of the patrol cars. Two other officers joined them just as a deafening explosion rang out. Dani dropped to a prone position without a second thought as all of the second-floor windows blew out, raining glass over the strip of lawn in front of the building. Shards of glass pinged against the other side of the car. Then, except for the ringing in Dani’s ears, there was silence. They held their positions for a couple of minutes more.
“Are you okay?” Dani asked Tyler, who lay beside her on the grass.
Dani peered over the hood of the car. Black smoke billowed out of the pane-less windows, and within seconds flames were visible licking at the edges of the window frames on the second floor. The fire trucks pulled into position and the firefighters went into action pouring water through the upstairs windows, dousing the flames and sending up even more black smoke.
“Looks like he had it right,” Tyler said, back on her feet. She brushed down her uniform. “Right down to the minute.”
“Yeah,” Dani agreed. “Too bad he didn’t have that all figured out in time to stop it.”
Gemma watched as Dani ran along the surf with Tucker at her heels, her long, tanned legs carrying her easily along the shore of Aquatic Park. Tucker barked with excitement, hopping around her feet, looking comical. His snout was a little longer and his ears more floppy than a purebred Boston Terrier, but his coloring was classic black and white. Dani thought he was part beagle. Gemma had no guess, as she knew very little about dog breeds. Nor did she care. Whatever he was, he was cute, sweet and happy, and he was their baby.
She leaned back in her seat at the foot of the bleachers, enjoying the autumn sunshine on her face. The bay was calm today and dotted with white sails beneath an uncompromising blue sky. Off to the west, just beginning to embrace the orange steel girders of the Golden Gate Bridge, the fog bank inched toward them.
Predictably, Tucker dashed into the surf, anxious to play fetch. Dani obliged him by pitching a rubber bone over his head. It bobbed on the water for two seconds before he nabbed it in his mouth and swam back, dropping it at Dani’s feet. She tossed it out again, then wiped her hand on her sweatshirt and laughed when Tucker’s overanxious lunge at the toy popped it out of the water and on top of his head. Dani glanced toward the bleachers to see if Gemma had been watching. She waved to let her know she was.
She turned her attention to the fishermen on the pier and the sailboats further out in the bay, acknowledging that she felt blissfully happy. How else could she possibly feel? She was a lucky woman, living in this beautiful city with the love of her life and working in a rewarding career. She thought of her mother, whose mind was gradually turning to mush. There was that, she thought, the lone shadow over her bliss. But she wasn’t the only one facing an eldercare crisis. At twenty-six, though, she was one of the younger ones. Gemma had been born long after her parents had given up trying to have children. They were told it was impossible. And then suddenly at the age of fifty-three, her mother had gotten pregnant. A miracle, they had called their little girl. It had not always been ideal having parents old enough to be grandparents, but there were advantages. They were stable, loving and patient people. But her father had died when she was eighteen and her mother was now wasting away in her last days of life. She dreaded the day that her mother would leave the world completely. It would be so lonely without her.
Thank God for Dani, she thought, searching the beach for her tousled brown hair. There she was, her sandaled feet in the lapping surf, clapping and calling to Tucker as he swam in with the toy on a more or less direct course toward her. Gemma shook away thoughts of her mother. She leapt off the bench and took off running to join her family. Today was a lovely October Saturday and they had nothing to do but love life. Maybe that was an exaggeration, but those pesky weekend chores would wait a few more hours.
Dani’s naturally wavy hair was windblown and damp, sticking to her cheek. She needed a haircut. She didn’t like getting haircuts, so she put it off until her bangs were hanging into her eyes and she couldn’t stand it anymore. Gemma liked the messy look. It went well with Dani’s playful personality and her many snarky expressions.
Gemma fished her phone out and snapped a couple of photos of Dani and Tucker playing on the sand, the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rising out of a damp blanket of fog behind them. What an irresistible scene, she thought, admiring her composition.
“We should probably start back,” she said, coming up beside Dani as she wrestled the bone from Tucker’s mouth.
Dani nodded and smiled, then threw the bone into the bay one last time before the two of them started walking. Tucker was soon beside them, spraying them with a whirlwind of cold water drops as he shook himself off. Dani slipped her hand into Gemma’s and they walked along the curving shoreline past the Maritime Museum and on to the base of the steep hill up to Fort Mason.
Looking up the hill, Dani grinned. “Ready to run?”
“Sure you are,” laughed Dani. “A month ago you wouldn’t have been able to walk it without stopping to catch your breath.”
It was true. She’d gotten in much better shape fast since the two of them started running together in preparation for the Bay Run for the Homeless, which was now only three weeks away. Gemma had never run a half-marathon, but each day she felt more confident that finishing was possible. After a month of training with Dani, she felt stronger than she ever had.
They started jogging up the hill at a moderate pace. Dani had been in good shape ever since Gemma had known her, but even she was more muscular now, better toned and, Gemma liked to think, healthier all around due to the not-always-welcome dietary changes Gemma had imposed on her. Gemma knew that Dani cheated on her diet, snagging chips and doughnuts during the workday, but Gemma had her for breakfast and dinner so it all evened out okay.
As they reached the top of the hill, the bridge came into view again, even less of it visible through the mist. In the distance, a foghorn sounded. They jogged through the park and over to the street, where they stopped at the traffic light, both of them breathing heavily.
“What do you want to do for dinner?” Dani asked.
Gemma shrugged. “I don’t feel much like cooking. Why don’t we stop at the deli and pick up something.”
They dropped down onto Beach Street in front of the Marina Safeway where Dani attached the lead to Tucker’s collar. Then they walked away from the bay toward home.
“You seem preoccupied with something today,” Gemma said.
“Sorry. It’s this case.”
Dani jerked her chin up in affirmation. “We’ve got no leads. Nobody saw anything. The bomb was something anybody could put together from their local hardware store. It was in a cupboard on the second floor. Security at this place was totally lax and the cameras had been switched off at the main electrical panel, so there’s no video. They said they didn’t worry much about security because mostly what they’ve got in there are plants and seeds.”
“Plants and seeds?”
“Yeah, they do something with GMO crops. So this guy, Darius, apparently comes in in the middle of the night, goes through a vent cover in the basement that’s not wired, shuts off the cameras, then walks upstairs and puts his package in a cupboard. A five-year-old could have done it.”
Tucker planted himself on a strip of grass alongside the sidewalk. He was worn out. Dani scooped him up and carried him in one arm against her chest, his wet fur dampening her sweatshirt. “Agent Bryan seems to think Darius is going to strike again if we can’t find him. But we don’t know a thing about him except his name, Leo Darius. I guess I should say his pseudonym. We don’t know where he’s from or where he lives or who his people are. He doesn’t cast a shadow. Bryan knows more, but he isn’t sharing. This isn’t the way I like to do things.”
“Of course not. You want to be in charge.” Gemma turned and grinned at Dani. “Everywhere. Always.”
Dani laughed. “True.” She squeezed Gemma’s hand. “So we’re just blindly following Agent Bryan, trusting him. There’s just something strange about that guy.”
“How do you mean?”
Dani shook her head. “I don’t know. But that’s what’s bothering me. Something’s fishy, but I can’t figure out what.”
Their apartment was the ground floor of a two-story Victorian. The upstairs was rented out to another couple. Fortunately, the single-car garage belonged to them. Unfortunately, it was being used as storage instead of parking. It was full of stuff Dani had brought with her when she moved in and some of Gemma’s mom’s furniture that had been moved out of the house. Gemma knew her mother was never coming back, that she could get rid of her things, but she wasn’t ready to do it yet. It would seem too much like declaring her mother already gone.
They were lucky to have a place in the city, and the quirks of this old house didn’t bother Gemma much. So many of their friends commuted in from the East Bay, South Bay or even further away. Gemma’s mother had lived here ever since her father had passed away, moving to San Francisco to be near her daughter. She kept saying she would come home when she was better, and Gemma let her think so. There was no reason not to.
She pushed open the door to the dim interior and switched on the entryway light, illuminating hardwood floors and the living room furniture, most of it her mother’s. On the left side of the hall were the two bedrooms and one bathroom. On the right was the living room with a separate tiny room they used for a desk. At the end of the hall, at the back of the house, was the kitchen, arranged like so many of these narrow apartments carved out of Victorians.
“I forgot to tell you,” Gemma said, closing the door behind them. “Your sister called earlier. She wants you to go with her to the bridal shop Monday afternoon if you can take the time off.”
Dani wrinkled her nose. “Bridal shop? Those places give me the creeps. Why doesn’t Mom go with her?”
“I didn’t ask. You should do it.”
“I guess so,” Dani said reluctantly. “I should tell her to put you in the ceremony so you have to wear one of those god-awful bridesmaid dresses.” Dani laughed. “I’d like to see that.”
“That’s not going to happen,” said Gemma flatly. “The last time I wore a dress was to my senior prom.” Gemma dropped her tote bag into a living room chair. “I’d say on the butch-femme scale, we’re both just a little on the flat-soled shoes side of center. Well, maybe you’re a little farther toward the toolbelt set, my love.”
Dani put Tucker on the floor and wrapped her arms around Gemma’s waist. “Gem, baby, all I know is that you’re all woman and that’s the way I like it.”
They kissed long and slow until Dani released her, a dreamy smile on her face.
“Nice,” Gemma said quietly. “Maybe we should skip dinner and go right to dessert.” She nuzzled Dani’s neck, then kissed her just above the collar of her sweatshirt, slipping her hands under it to feel the warm skin of Dani’s back.
Dani’s mouth sought hers and they kissed again until Gemma felt something wet land on her foot. She looked down to see Tucker sitting on her sandal. “You know your dog has to have a bath, right?”
“My dog? He’s always my dog whenever he’s in trouble.” Dani picked him up and touched noses with him. “She loves you just as much as I do, Tuck Tuck.”
“Maybe now,” Gemma admitted, “but if you hadn’t begged on your knees two years ago, he’d probably belong to Miko right now.” Gemma shook her head, remembering how Dani had pleaded to keep the stray.
Dani held Tucker in front of her face and baby talked to him. “Miko never had a chance with you, did she, boy? You were mine the minute I saw you.”
An image of Dani holding a baby flashed through Gemma’s mind. She needed to tell her what she’d been thinking, that it was time to start a family. They’d talked about it vaguely in the past, so she knew Dani wanted kids at some point. Gemma hadn’t been ready in the beginning, not until she could be absolutely certain that she and Dani were strong enough together, financially secure with a clear path to the future. She was ready now. With Dani’s sister’s surprise announcement that she would be a pregnant bride, Dani might be ready too. Her family was about to produce a new generation. She wouldn’t want to be left out of that.
“Poor Miko.” Dani flashed a toothy smile at Gemma and turned Tucker to face her, dark soulful eyes, moist black nose, white stripe down the center of his face. “Aren’t you glad she didn’t get him?”
Gemma nodded. “I’m glad because if she had, she would have named him Oreo. She told me so.”
“Stupid, stupid Miko,” Dani sputtered into Tucker’s face. “You’d hate being named Oreo, wouldn’t you, boy?”
“I’ll go pick up dinner while you clean him up. How about something light like a Greek salad? I can get a couple pieces of baklava for dessert.”
Gemma smiled to herself, watching Dani rub noses with Tucker. As long as she loved their child as much as she loved that dog, they’d all be just fine.
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