As told by Cris Lombardi
Holidays are not something I look forward to. I prefer to keep to myself, reading, or playing with my pups. Thanksgiving and Christmas invitations are mostly out of pity because I’m alone. I guess they feel if you’re with other people you will be happier than if you’re alone. In my case, just the opposite is true. But I go, and smile, and pretend I’m grateful for the attention. And I am in a way. The food is good – too good. I eat more than I should.
The sad part, I don’t fit in. I’m surrounded by people who have history with one another. Their conversations tend to reflect the past, leaving me out on a limb with no clue as to what they’re talking about half of the time. I smile as if I’m enjoying the banter but I’m not. I’m bored silly. I suppose I do it to avoid being labeled anti-social which I’m not. Let’s just say that I’m selective with whom I associate. Perhaps a little too selective but that’s who I am.
To make matters worse, I don’t drink alcohol, which is always available in great quantities. I feel silly asking for milk so I sneak into the kitchen and fill a glass with water, put in a few ice cubes and a slice of lime if I can find one, and pretend I’m one of the boys. I know, you’re thinking ginger ale. I don’t like that either.
Eventually, the guests begin to slip away from their sober selves and take on their subtle inebriated personalities which I do not enjoy. The more they drink, the more invisible I become. At some point I excuse myself. Everyone echoes a perfunctory thank you for joining the group, not caring if I stay or go.
The last event I attended was a New Year’s Eve party which got totally out of hand when a husband and wife got drunk and began brawling with each other along with a few of the guests. I slipped out and swore I would never attend another of these events.
What most people don’t know or understand is that I was raised in an orphanage. Holidays were celebrated, nothing to be remembered or looked forward to. I’ve often wondered if having a real family would bring happiness. I’ve been on my own for a very long time. I don’t mind it. In fact, I prefer it. As I’ve said before, I’m not anti-social, I just get along with myself. Happiness may have eluded me but contentment is mine. At the end of the day, I am content. It’s a blessing I treasure.
I live in San Francisco on Nob Hill at 830 Powell Street, a small walk-up brownstone behind the Fairmont Hotel. It’s a blockbuster, owned by the Fairmont Hotel. I guess they wanted to make sure no competition built there. The building is old but well preserved with all the grace and charm of yesteryear, unlike modern sterile accommodations. I live on the third-floor front. Two rooms, each with an ornate bay window and beautiful sliding doors between, a kitchen, and a bath. I like the bathroom because it has one of those unusually long claw foot tubs in which I can stretch out, soak, and nap – with the background sound of the occasional cable car rumbling by, the conductor orchestrating his bell ringing expertise.
They have a bell ringing contest at Fisherman’s Wharf once a year to determine the best bell ringer. While I’m soaking in the tub I can usually identify the regular ringer going by as opposed to a substitute. It’s one of the charms of living in this beautiful city.
The cable car conductors certainly get enough exercise. There are two in-the-floor control levers. They release one, which is the brake, and pull on the other one which grabs the cable running below street level, and away we go – followed by delightful bell ringing, alerting would-be riders in the distance. There are circular wood turn-around platforms at the end of each route. The cable car rolls onto the platform, the conductor pulls the brake lever, then gets out and pushes the cable car around for the return journey. Tourists love to be part of the operation.
I take the Powell Street cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf on Sunday mornings to buy a newspaper and pick up sourdough bread at Boudin’s bakery. If it’s a pleasant morning, I’ll take a seat facing the Bay and peruse the paper while nibbling a slice of fresh sourdough bread, which is unique to the Bay area – nothing like it anywhere, or so I’m told. Has to do with the sourdough starter. Starter grown in the Bay Area is unique to anywhere else in the world, thus the beautiful taste. Boudin’s Bakery will not sell their starter – it’s a guarded secret. And I don’t blame them.
Upon returning to my apartment, I’ll leash Charlie and Bailey, my pups, and take them for a long puppy walk down California and back up again.
The rest of the day is spent either reading or catching up on editing I do for the San Francisco Herald. I’m able to work from home, going into the office once or twice a week just to let them know I’m alive and kicking. They want me to do reporting, but I haven’t the soul for it. I’ve thought about writing on my own, but can’t think of anything anyone would be interested in reading.
Thanksgiving was a week away. I was determined not to accept any invitations. I have other plans, but thanks for asking, was to be my standard excuse.
Instead, I decided to treat myself to dinner at Scala’s Bistro on Powell Street, a few blocks from my apartment. It’s an old-school Italian restaurant. I’ve had lunch there many times, often enough to get to know Chef Larry Finn. Just talking with this culinary artist is an education in Italian cuisine. His accent is so thick, you really need to understand Italian in order not to lose the thread of the conversation with him. I made a reservation for dinner on Thanksgiving Day.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Lombard; I can seat you right away. We’re never busy on the holidays. This way, please. Have you dined with us before?”
“Yes, many times. So often, I’ve become friends with your Chef, Larry Finn.”
“Oh, how nice; what a delightful man. Here we are.”
“Wait,” I touched the hostess’s arm. “Would you seat me near the priest over there, please?”
“Yes, of course, if you like,” she was surprised but obliging.
“Thank you,” I whispered, as she led the way.
“Your waiter is Mario. He’ll be right with you.” She smiled and returned to the front of the restaurant.
“Good evening, Father.”
“Good evening. How are you?” came a genuine greeting.
“Hungry,” I answered, and paused, contemplating my next words, “Are you dining alone?”
“Yes, I am. Would you care to join me?” He seemed pleased I had asked.
“I hope I’m not being too forward. I’m not selling anything.”
“Of course not. And for the moment, neither am I.” His face lit up at his own humor. We laughed at the instant comradery.
“Thank you, Father, I’m… “
“Freddie; please call me, Freddie.”
“Ok, Freddie; I’m Cris Lombard. And you may call me Mr. Lombard,” I paused, deadpan, and hoped for the best. Freddie looked at me, then burst into laughter.
“Just kidding. I’m not of the Catholic persuasion, but neither am I prejudicial.” I thought I’d push the envelope a little to see what lay beneath the rabat in front of me.
“Well, that’s good to know. We can exchange ideas without proselytization getting in the way. I’m Frederick Monahan, and I’m very pleased to meet you. I really don’t care to dine alone. Your appearance is not only opportune but in a sense, miraculous, wouldn’t you say?” He grinned.
“Yes, of course. I like that.” I was charmed by his kindly humor and demeanor.
“Ah, here comes Mario with menus.”
“Good evening, Gentlemen. May I get you something to drink?
“Water will do me just fine.” Freddie smiled.
“Same here, Mario.”
“Thank you.” Mario left the menus and departed.
“Cris, you look Italian. Is that your given name?”
“Oh, no, I use it for convenience. Saves the comical looks and awkward questions. It’s actually Cristiano Fabiano Lombardi.”
Freddie chuckled, “That’s very amusing. You’re a follower of Christ and a bean farmer, from the Lombardy area of Italy. That is if my Italian serves me well.”
I could not keep from smiling. “You’re absolutely right. How amazing. I thought I was the only one who knew.”
“But your name is very curious. I’ve heard or read it before, somewhere. You say you’re not of the Catholic persuasion?”
“Not anymore.” I probably should not have said that, as it opened a door on a subject not worth discussing.
“Ah, I’ve stepped into forbidden territory. I apologize.”
“No, that’s okay. You say you’ve seen my name before?”
“Yes. I’m a guest speaker at Santa Clara University. Your name or one similar came to my attention recently. I was doing archival work at…”
“The Jesuit School of Theology.”
“Ah, so I did see the correct name.”
“I was a seminary student there for a very short time, many years ago.”
“A short time? Because … if I may ask?”
“It wasn’t for me. I had a lot of questions and wasn’t finding or getting the answers. So, I left.”
“That’s interesting, because the record I came across, which caught my attention, showed a promising aptitude. In fact, one of the notes indicated you asked a good many questions. The tone of the note, however, suggested the instructor wasn’t all that pleased about it.”
I had to laugh. “You’re right. I drove the poor man crazy. I was so eager to know everything, I couldn’t help myself.”
“I probably should say I’m sorry to hear that you left the seminary, but I won’t. Sounds like you heard another voice calling you.”
“I suppose.” I had not thought of it in those terms.
“Found any answers to all those questions?”
“Some, but not all.”
“Gentlemen, have you made your selection?” Mario arrived with pad and pen. We gave him our orders and spent the next few hours quietly discussing various aspects of theology, mixed with a good deal of laughter. He spoke with me as a fellow traveler with no pontifical overtones. His only interest was in my point of view on a number of topics, comparing them with his own views. I found it interesting, amusing, instructive, and most enjoyable.
The evening ended with a warm handshake and well-wishing. During my climb up Powell Street to my apartment, I reviewed this remarkable encounter. It wasn’t like me to be so familiar with a stranger, especially in a restaurant. I wondered why I did it. As I entered my apartment building, I was sorry I had not asked how I could keep in touch with this blessed man.
“I’m sorry, sir, our records show no Frederick Monahan has ever been a guest speaker at the University.”
“That’s odd … he also told me he was doing archival work at the University.”
“He would need a University guest pass to do that. I issue those, and I would have remembered that name.”
“Thanks very much for your time. Goodbye.” I could not understand why Freddie would tell me a tall tale like that. But he knew about my seminary record. I was curious, but I didn’t know what else to do to solve the mystery.
I was entering the apartment building a week later when I ran into my neighbor, Rose Marie, coming down the interior stairway.
“Hi, there. Long time no see,” as I passed her on the stairs.
I turned around.
“Did he get hold of you?”
“The priest who inquired about you?”
I came down a few steps and sat down. “What? A priest?” My mind began to whirl.
“Yes, I met him on my way out the other day. He asked if I knew you. I told him I did but that I didn’t know if you were home or not. He was very nice and seemed anxious to speak with you. I suggested he try again in the evening. He said he would, and that was it.”
“Did he mention his name?” I held my breath.
“He did, but I can’t remember. Sorry, in one ear and out the other. Do you know who I’m talking about?” Her tone was apologetic for not remembering his name.
“I have an idea who it is, but I’m not sure. If you should see him again, tell him you advised me of your meeting.”
“I will. Gotta go. Nice seeing you. Bye.”
“Bye, Rose Marie.” I continued up the stairs to my apartment. As I closed the front door and leaned against it, I wondered what in the world was going on. If it was Freddie, how did he know where I lived? I didn’t tell him, and I’m not listed in the phone book. And most important, what did he want?
The rumble of a passing cable car woke me from my thoughts. I turned on several lights as the afternoon slipped into twilight. Bailey and Charlie woke from their naps and came wiggling to greet me. I would have to take them for a puppy walk before too long.
As I threw the mail on the kitchen table, I noticed a piece of yellow lined paper among the envelopes and junk mail. I could see beautiful cursive handwriting peeking through the partially open fold. It was from Freddie. He wanted me to contact him as soon as possible. But there was no phone number or address. Now, how the hell was I supposed to do that? The mystery only deepened.
I could not get that note out of my head. Why would he leave a note and not let me know how to reach him. The Bistro was the only time… hey, wait a minute. The Bistro. But that was silly. It couldn’t be the place he intended to meet me, again. But when? I had no intention of having dinner there every night until he… Christmas Day. Could it possibly be… no, that was crazy. Maybe not. The hostess did say they were never busy on holidays. I laughed to myself. No, I won’t do it. But I had no plans for the day and certainly did not want to accept any invitations. I’ll make a reservation for dinner on Christmas day at the Bistro. If he’s there, fine. If not, I’ll enjoy a great Italian dinner.
Seven days later I walked out of my apartment building and down Powell Street. Christmas, the birthday of the Christ child, and I was on my way to meet a mysterious priest, or maybe not.
I greeted the hostess as I entered. She smiled in recognition. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lombard, I’m so glad to see you again.”
“Thank you, I’m always happy to be here.”
“He just arrived. I can seat you now.” She turned and walked toward the dining room.
She turned. “Father Monahan. You were going to have dinner with him, weren’t you?”
“Yes, of course. Good old Father Monahan. Lead on.” My heart began to race. As we entered the dining room I saw him seated at the same table we had shared before. I tripped over a chair and almost fell flat on my face.
“Mr. Lombard, are you all right?” The poor woman wasn’t sure I was anywhere close to being all right.
“No, no – I’m fine. Wasn’t watching where I was going. Sorry.”
Freddie heard the commotion, got up and walked over to us. “Cris, Merry Christmas. I’m so glad to see you again. Mario brought some delicious Italian bread to the table, fresh from the oven. Better get your share before I eat all of it.”
“Good old Mario. Yes, I love Italian bread – fresh from the oven,” I smiled at the hostess, whose facial expression told me she thought I was nuts.
“Have a pleasant meal.” She smiled and turned away.
“Thank you. We will,” I whispered at Freddie, “What’s her name?”
“Merry Christmas, Clarisse.” She turned and smiled. When she was a safe distance away I turned to Freddie, “Would you mind telling me what the hell is going on?”
“I enjoyed our last meeting and thought it would be nice to continue our conversation.” Freddie’s smile told me he was having a good time – at my expense.
“I gathered that from the cryptic note you left in my mailbox. How did you know where I live?” I was on the verge of glaring at him.
Very nonchalantly, “It was on your University record.”
“You were never at the University. I called and checked,” I thought I had him cornered.
“I wasn’t?” Freddie smiled and took another bite of the Italian bread roll, which smelled so good I had to try some myself.
As I chewed my first bite of this gorgeous bread, I looked him in the eyes. “And you’re not Father Frederick Monahan either.”
“I’m not?” He kept chewing, smiling and returning a much more loving look than I was giving him.
“No, you’re not. Father Monahan died on the Titanic in 1912, one hundred and three years ago. So who the hell are you? And what do you want with me?”
For a few seconds, Freddie continued to munch his bread roll. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out a gold cross embedded with green stones and laid it in front of me. The sparkle of those gems told me they were emeralds. I had seen that very cross in the article I found on the Internet when I Googled his name.
“Oh, jeez, you are Father Monahan,” I looked at him for a moment, “What do you want with me?” My heart began to race as I realized I was sitting across a dinner table from a dead man, who was eating an Italian bread roll, and smiling at me.
Before he could speak, I decided it was my turn and he was about to cart me off to heaven or wherever people go when they die. He read my mind.
“No, Cris, I’m not here to take you to heaven.” He smiled. “Disappointed?”
I had to laugh at myself. I put my bread roll down and sat back in my chair. “Then what are you here for?” I began to gasp; my breathing was heavy and fast.
“Relax, it’s not all that serious.” He was being nonchalant again.
“Maybe not from your viewpoint. Try standing in my socks for a few minutes.”
“I sought you out with the intent of convincing you, no, of persuading you to return to your seminary studies.”
“What the hell for?” I was pissed at being deceived.
“I wasn’t trying to deceive you. The world needs more people like you who can bring about miracles.”
“Miracles? I’m not a miracle worker, and stop reading my mind. That really pisses me off.”
“Ok, I’ll stop, but you’re so easy.”
I think he was trying to be nice. Good luck with that. “Yeah? Well, we’ll see how easy it is to get me to do what you ask. Good night, Father.” I got up and walked a few steps, turned and yelled, “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” and left the restaurant, Italian breadstick still in my hand.
With a great sense of defiant satisfaction, I marched up the hill to my apartment building and felt like a complete jerk when I opened my apartment door. Here was a disincarnate soul who had gone through a lot of trouble to contact me, and I practically told him to go fuck himself.
Bailey and Charlie met me in the hallway, tails wagging, muzzles nudging my hands for petting. The only sanity in my life.
The first thing I saw when I walked into the kitchen was the post-it note on the refrigerator which I did not put there. The handwriting was all too familiar. Jesus, he comes and goes like he owns the place. You’ll never go hungry, except in your heart. I pulled it off, crushed it in my hand, gritted my teeth and reluctantly concluded – he was right.
I took the pups for a long walk, had a bite to eat since I didn’t eat any food at the Bistro except for that blasted bread roll, and settled down in front of the television for some mind-numbing distraction. Golden Earrings was already playing when I clicked the movie channel. Marlene Dietrich was at the top of her talent in that film; what a beauty.
About twenty minutes into the film, an annoying static began buzzing on the screen. I found it impossible to watch the film and flipped channels only to find the buzzing was still there. I was about to turn the tube off when I stopped and listened. There was something about the buzzing sound that was familiar, and then it dawned on me – it was Morse code. Someone was sending Morse code. I had studied it years earlier and had become proficient at listening, but not so good at sending it.
The message was short and kept repeating. I got a pencil and paper and began to jot down what I remembered. It came back so quickly that within minutes I had it written down and verified. The only problem, it didn’t make any sense.
h e l f e n s i e m i r g e f a n g e n e r w o h n u n g 4 2 3
It was probably nothing – some amateur practicing. It was late, I was tired and the pups were staring at me – they were ready for bed. I turned the television off and got ready to retire. With Charlie and Bailey tucked on either side, I fell asleep almost immediately.
Dawn was breaking when I opened my eyes. Thoughts of the previous evening and that Morse code message assumed priority. I got up, pulled my hand-written notes out and laid them on the kitchen table for further inspection after the coffee was made. I heard Rose Marie on her back porch and hollered down for her to come up for coffee.
“Merry Christmas, Cris. I’m so ready for coffee.” She sat down at the kitchen table. I had just pressed the start button on the coffee maker when she looked up at me with an amazed stare.
“These letters,” she pointed to my notes.
“What about them?”
“Do you know what they say?”
“No, I’m at a loss. I heard Morse code being broadcast on my television last night. I know Morse code, so I wrote out what I heard but it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Oh, yes it does. These letters are saying: HELP ME PRISONER APARTMENT 423. It’s in German.”
I fell onto a kitchen chair. “I had no idea. You know German?”
“Yes, my folks don’t speak English very well so we converse in German. But what does this mean?”
“I don’t know. It sounds like a call for help. There’s no Apartment 423 in this building. The Fairmont is across the street, and the building on the corner is The University Club. It has to be the building on the other side of this one.”
“I think we should call the police – right now.”
“Okay, let’s do it. They’ll probably think we’re nuts.”
Within minutes of making the call, the doorbell rang. I let two police officers in and explained what I had heard. They were skeptical, but the message was clear enough. They said they would check with the next door building manager to see if there was an Apartment 423.
After they left, Rose Marie and I decided to get dressed. We met in the building foyer and were about to go outside when we saw police cars rushing by and screeching to a stop. As we came out onto the sidewalk we could see the last of a swat team entering the building next door. Within a minute we heard gunshots, then all was quiet.
The swat team began coming out, leading a woman in handcuffs. She was placed in a squad car and driven away.
Finally, stretcher bearers came out carrying a figure covered in a blanket. We heard a muffled cry, “Wer hat mich gehört?” over and over. One of the officer’s we spoke with earlier waved to Rose Marie to come forward. I followed her.
“What’s he saying?”
“He wants to know who heard his words.” Rose Marie looked at me. “I think he means you,” She moved to the man on the stretcher and took his hand. She pointed to me and said, “Der Mann hat sie gehört.”
The old man looked at me and began to cry. “Danke, Danke, Danke, es is ein Wunder.” He smiled and sank back onto the stretcher and was carried away.
The officer approached Rose Marie, “Miss, would you mind coming along with us? We need to find out everything this man knows.”
Rose Marie looked at me, then answered the officer, “Well, sure. Anything I can do to help.”
I took Rose Marie’s arm. “What did the old man say to me?”
“He said, ‘Thank you, it’s a miracle.’”
I didn’t see Rose Marie until the next morning when she came bounding up the back stairs to my kitchen door. “Come on in. Coffee is almost ready. Tell me everything.”
“His name is Uwe Schönermann, and he’s okay. I stayed with him in the hospital while the staff checked him out. He was in that closet for almost two days without food or water so he was dehydrated. Once he had something to eat, he never stopped talking.”
“Wait a minute, the closet. Fill me in on the closet.” I placed two coffee cups on the table.
“Greta, his wife of 43 years passed away about a year ago. He was so distraught and lonely, he told me he turned to Craig’s list in hopes of finding a companion. Can you believe that? I didn’t tell him how stupid that was. Well, he found a companion all right, and it could have cost him his life. She said her name was Hilda Geffert. Uwe invited her to come live with him. Soon after arriving, she pulled a gun and locked him in the closet. Later, he heard several male voices but could not understand what they were saying.
“He found an old hair dryer packed away in the closet that belonged to his wife, and got the idea that turning it on and off might cause static somewhere. It was so noisy he was afraid they might hear it and take it away. He wrapped it in some clothing to keep the noise down. He told me the intruders were so busy talking, they never noticed.
“He was in the German army during World War II. That’s where he learned Morse code. Rather than use the switch on the dryer, he was able to cut and strip the wire of the hair dryer cable so he would have more control over the code he was sending.
“He wasn’t aware someone recognized what he was doing until he heard the gunfire. He thought he was dead when the closet door opened, but wept instead when he saw a policeman standing over him.
“His name, Schönermann, means beautiful man, and indeed he is. Look what he gave me,” Rose Marie held out her hand, displaying a gold ring embedded with three emeralds. “It belonged to his wife. He had it on a chain around his neck for remembrance, and for good luck. Good luck, indeed. I should give it to you. If it weren’t for you, who knows what would have happened to him.”
“No, no, you keep it. It’s beautiful.” When I saw the emeralds I thought of Freddie. “Sounds like you have a new best friend.” I had never seen her so animated and loving when she spoke of this man.
“I’m thinking of returning it to him. Who knows, maybe his wife was instrumental in saving him,” Rose Marie caressed the ring on her finger.
I chuckled to myself – no, I think it was Freddie. “Good idea. I’m sure he’ll appreciate having it.”
“I left him when he began to nod his head, so he could get some sleep. The two police officers took me aside and wanted to know what I had found out, which wasn’t very much. But they found out a great deal while searching the apartment. Plans to blow up the Castro Theatre.” Her eyes widened as she laid that bit of information on me.
“What?” I was shocked at the news.
“They were planning on placing a bomb in the theater during the New Year’s celebration and videotaping the reaction outside the theater after it exploded. The woman is a naturalized U.S. citizen. She evidently obtained fake passports for the three men. The police are investigating who they really are and where they came from.
“You know, I was thinking …” Rose Marie became pensive. “The fact that they didn’t kill Uwe kind of indicates they didn’t care if he lived or died. They probably weren’t planning on being in his apartment for very long – kind of a staging area.”
“You mentioned they were going to videotape from outside the theater. That’s not the usual MO for jihadists. They like to blow themselves up and become martyrs.”
“You know, you’re right,” Rose Marie looked surprised. “I hadn’t thought of that. I wonder if the police are taking that into consideration. They could certainly do a lot with the videotape to promote their cause. Think I’ll give our two police officers a call and ask them about that.”
Rose Marie looked at me, “That’s all I know. Oh, yeah, there is something else,” she smiled devilishly. “Uwe kissed me before I left, and told me to pass it on to you. So here,” She planted a kiss on my cheek. “With love from Uwe,” she laughed with the enjoyment of the moment. As she sat down at the kitchen table, she picked up a sheet of paper I had been working on. “What’s this?”
“It’s an article I’m writing for The Herald Examiner. I’m going to finish it with the information you gave me.”
“You’re a reporter now,” Rose Marie smiled at me. “Maybe you’ll become the next Sam Spade of San Francisco, and I can be the Mary Astor character – what was her name?”
“O’Shaughnessy, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, but she killed Sam’s partner, so you’ll have to be his secretary, Effie.”
“Well, you certainly have a better memory than I do, especially for names.”
“In one ear and out the other is the way I think you put it.” We laughed at the memory. “I have to confess – I saw the movie a few days ago. That’s the only reason I remembered their names. No, Sam Spade was a tough guy. That, I am not. And you can forget the reporter bit. This article I’m writing is a fluke,” At least I thought it was. I grinned and thought of Freddie, wondering if this event was what he meant about the need for miracles. Well, it was never gonna happen again.
“A fluke?” Rose Marie looked up at me. “I don’t think so. I don’t think so for one moment.”
The coffee was ready so I poured some into each of the cups, placed a plate of rolls on the table, and sat down.
“These look awfully inviting. What are they?” she sipped her coffee.
“They’re called Pagnotti. It’s an Italian pastry ball with honey. I picked them up yesterday at Stella’s Pastry Shop on Columbus.”
“Oh, Yum,” Rose Marie reached out and placed one on her plate. “Oh, here. I almost forgot,” she handed me a slip of paper with two names and telephone numbers. “These are the officers you spoke with. They told me to give this to you. You should call them if you think of anything else.”
“I can think of a whole lot of things I want to know. I’ll give them a call,” I placed my hand on Rose Marie’s and smiled. “Thank you, my friend.”
I contacted the two police officers and got additional information I used in completing the article I submitted to The Herald Examiner. Max, the Chief Editor called me after he received it and said I did a good job of reporting. Here’s how the text read in the morning issue of The Herald Examiner – on the front page no less which surprised me.
A contingent of local law enforcement officers converged on the building at 840 Powell Street yesterday morning to thwart a group of jihadists who planned to carry out a terrorist attack at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.
A visibly-shaken San Francisco Mayor, Emily Trask, addressed the press at the scene, describing the destruction that would have occurred had the device been detonated. “To put it simply, San Francisco would never have been the same,” she said, her voice quivering with emotion. “It’s literally unthinkable, unimaginable, and thank God, it didn’t happen!”
San Francisco Police Chief Otto Karstens, continued the press conference, detailing the miraculous series of events that led to the apprehension of the jihadists, and the discovery and disabling of the bomb.
Reading from a prepared statement, he said: “On December 26, the San Francisco police received a call from a citizen who lives in the Powell Street area, reporting that he observed static on his television set the night before which he understood to be Morse code. He copied it down but was unable to make sense of the message until the following morning when a neighbor identified the message as a distress call written in German. According to the message, they assumed it came from someone living at 840 Powell in Apartment 423. They called the police.
Chief Karstens said, “The investigating officers contacted the building manager and were told there was an apartment 423, occupied by Uwe Schönermann, who had been a resident for a number of years. Assuming the Morse code message was authentic, the officers contacted me. I assumed command of the security force and sent ten San Francisco SWAT team members to Apartment 423. When the officers knocked on the door, they were met by a short burst of automatic weapon fire. They countered the attack, smashing through the door, confronting two suspects. They heard gunshots from another room and found two other suspects who had committed suicide.
“One suspect, later identified as Robert Geffert, known to the FBI as Muhammad A. Shamoon, a known al Qaeda operative, tried to detonate the bomb when officers entered the apartment but failed to do so. He grabbed his gun, yelled ‘Allahu akbar’ and shot himself in the mouth.”
The one remaining suspect was identified as Hilda A. Geffert, alias Aatifa Hadad, a known ISIS sympathizer who was on the FBI’s terrorist watch list.
“Upon searching the apartment, officers found a terrified Uwe Schönermann, locked in a closet. After two days of confinement, he found a hair dryer which he used to send Morse code he had learned in Germany during WW II.
“After Schönermann was removed by paramedics, the bomb squad used an electromagnetic pulse device to destroy the electronic and electrical circuits in the bomb, thereby disabling it. Had this failed, an evacuation order for the San Francisco Bay Area would have been issued, the bomb would have been moved out to sea, beyond the coast, for detonation, an extremely risky procedure.”
When asked why the disruption of the plot was deemed miraculous, Chief Karstens said: “Listen to the sequence of events. A known terrorist hijacks an apartment belonging to a German who knows Morse code. He’s locked in a closet and sends a distress code in German using an old hair dryer. On Christmas day eve, an observant neighbor identifies the static on his TV as Morse code, copies it down, though it makes no sense to him. The following morning he shows the message to his neighbor, who identifies the message as a distress call in German, they notify the police. We show up, capture the suspects, and by God’s grace, prevent one of them from detonating the bomb. If that’s not a Christmas miracle, I don’t know what is.”
Police Chief Karstens ended the press conference by saying that the FBI and Homeland Security would use all the data from the event to track down the bomb makers and transporters, thus eliminating another terrorist threat.
My cell phone rang about two weeks after the article was published.
“Hi, Cris.” It was a familiar voice.
“Rose Marie, hi. Everything OK?” Her voice sounded stressed.
“I need your help.”
“Yes, of course. Where are you?”
“I’m at the City Hall Café on Van Ness. Can you meet me here? It’s important.”
“I’m on my way.” Fifteen minutes later I got out of the taxi at the Memorial Court, across the street from City Hall. I saw Rose Marie waiting near the entrance as I dashed across four lanes of traffic. She grabbed my hand and led me into the building. “Rose Marie, what’s going on? You’re beginning to scare me.”
She said nothing as she led me down a flight of stairs.
“Where are we going?”
I could smell good food cooking as we entered the dining area. Rose Marie paused, scanning the room.
I heard a bass voice call out, “Agent Schmidt.”
I looked around but wasn’t able to connect the voice with a body. Rose Marie moved to the right, pulling me behind her. “Agent Schmidt? You’re agent Schmidt?”
She said nothing. I pulled back slightly, “Rose Marie?”
“I work for the FBI.”
“You what?” I stopped dead in my tracks and almost knocked her over as she continued forward. I could not have been more surprised. Astonished was more like it.
“I’ll explain in a minute. Come on.” She continued to walk with me in tow.
Two men got up from a table as we approached. “This is Cris Lombard. Cris, this is Jeff Harrington, and Glenn Morton,” I shook their hands with a half-hearted smile and a less-than-sincere, “Hi.”
“Please, sit down, Cris,”
“I’m guessing you fellas are also working for the FBI/” I glared at Rose Marie.
“Yes, we are. Thank you for joining us on such short notice.”
Rose Marie tried to smile, unsuccessfully.
“Rose Marie tells me you need my help. I can’t imagine helping the FBI.”
Jeff took the conversation. “Internet chatter confirms that the gang involved in the Castro Theater event is not pleased that it was foiled. They’re out for revenge.”
“What has that got to do with me?” I had a premonition I was not going to like his answer.
Jeff continued, “We’d like you to write another article for the Herald, identifying yourself as the person who received the Morse code and reported it to the police.”
“Wait a minute! You want me to do what?” I had trouble wrapping my brain around what he had just said.
“We want you to draw them out?”
I was speechless for a few seconds and stared at all three of them. “What you’re saying is – you want me to be a sitting duck,” I got up from the table. “What are you, nuts? And don’t give me any of your crap that you’ll protect me. I’ve seen how inept the FBI can be,” I turned and walked toward the staircase. I heard Rose Marie’s voice trail off as I distanced myself from them.
“I told you he wouldn’t do it.”
I mumbled, ‘You’re god damned right I won’t do it,’ as I ran up the stairs to the building entrance. By the time I got to the sidewalk I was bristling. And Rose Marie of all people, trying to suck me into something like that.
I walked back to my apartment in an attempt to work off the anger boiling inside of me. As I came to the corner of the Fairmont Hotel at Powell and California, I saw two well-dressed men standing in front of my apartment building. Their dark complexions and well-kept beards raised a big red flag in my head. One of them was standing on the last step of the apartment stoop before the sidewalk. There was something peculiar about the way they were standing there.
I crossed the street and continued down California to the alley behind The University Club. The back stairs of my apartment building were at the end of the alley. I ran up the stairs. Charlie and Bailey met me at the kitchen door. I went to the front room and looked out the window. The two men were gone.
Charlie’s low-level growl told me someone was coming up the back stairs. I’d left the back door open. I closed the sliding doors between the two front rooms and went to the hallway closet, retrieved my 22 from the top shelf, and waited.
Then I heard the stair treads creaking as someone came up the interior stairway. Charlie began wagging his tail furiously before I heard a soft knock on my front door. I waited until I heard Rose Marie’s voice, opened the door, let her in, and put a finger to my lips as I quietly closed the door. She saw the 22 in my hand, pulled her weapon from her shoulder bag, and looked at me for an explanation.
I pointed toward the kitchen. Rose Marie whispered, “I’ll take care of this,” and moved into the front room. I grabbed her arm and pulled her back and whispered, “No, you won’t. Wait.”
As I was restraining her, we heard a knock on the doorjamb of the kitchen door. “Hello,”
“That’s Jeff. I sent him round back to clear the area.”
“Clear the area? Did you see them?” My heart was pounding, my mouth was dry, and my hands were ice cold.
“See who?” Rose Marie’s expression scared me even more.
“I saw two men standing out front when I got back. They didn’t look like Mormon missionaries so I came round to the back entrance.”
“Did they look middle eastern?”
“Yes, they looked middle eastern. Goddammit, Rose Marie – what’s going on?”
“After you left the café I got a call from another agent who told me The Examiner ran an article this morning pointing to you as the person who got the Morse code and reported it to the police.”
“How the hell did that happen?”
“Evidently they called the Police Department and someone there told them the reporter from the Herald was the one who received the Morse code. We came immediately.”
“So, now I am involved in this mess.”
“I’m afraid so, Cris. I am sorry.”
“Now what am I supposed to do?”
Rose Marie turned to Jeff, “Is he in position?” Jeff nodded.
“Is who in position?” I followed them to the front window.
They scanned the upper balcony of the Fairmont Hotel terrace garden across the street. “There he is.”
I followed their gaze, “That’s your partner, Glenn whatshisname.”
“Agent Morton will stay there until we can arrange for round-the-clock surveillance.”
“I think I’m going to be sick,” I ran into the bathroom and wretched my guts out.
When I caught my breath, I went into the kitchen. Rose Marie met me with a glass of water. “Here, Cris, drink this.” I sat down at the kitchen table. Charlie and Bailey were all over me. They had never seen me stressed out like this. Agents Schmidt and Harrington joined me.
“So, now what?” I could not imagine them telling me anything worse.
“Cris, I know you don’t like the idea, but we feel you need to join us.” Rose Marie was being motherly at the moment.
“You mean join the FBI?” My brain was going into overdrive.
“Yes.” Even Jeff was more sympathetic.
“But that’s impossible. Don’t you have to go through all sorts of training?”
“It can be arranged, Cris. It’s the best way to protect you,” Rose Marie placed her hand on my arm.
“Do I really have a choice?” I laid my head in my hands.
“Are you gonna be sick?”
“No, I’m not going to be sick.” I took a couple of deep breaths. My heart sank down into my shoes as I thought about the consequences if I didn’t do as they proposed. Charlie had wedged himself between my legs with Bailey pressed against them from the outside. I sat up, wiped my eyes, and was about to agree to their proposition when Rose Marie shouted, “What the hell was that?”
She and her partner rushed to the front room window. As I followed, I saw something fly by the window. When it came back and stopped in front of the window, the two agents drew their weapons.
“NO! I know who that is.”
They turned to me.
“That’s Daniel. The guy on the flying carpet that saved that girl in the park the other day.”
They turned back to the window and stared.
“Hi, Cris. Are you in there?”
I moved closer to the window, “Hi, Daniel.” I put my hand up and waved.
“Do you have time to talk? I read the newspaper and figured you might be in trouble.”
“You got that right. Meet me on the roof.”
“Ok. Jack, take me to the roof.” The carpet and Daniel rose out of sight.
“Who the hell is Jack?”
“That’s the name of his carpet.”
“Oh, really. Did I miss something here?” Rose Marie was wide-eyed.
“Do you ever read the newspaper?” I turned and walked to the back door. “Come on, Rose Marie. You’re gonna love this.”
“Cris, why didn’t you tell me about this?”
“I’ve only had one phone conversation with him. This is the first time I’ve actually seen him and his carpet. He offered to help me with crime investigations. I told him I was possibly interested, not realizing how timely his appearance would be. That was before YOU! . . . got me sucked into the FBI.”
For the first time since I became involved, there was a glimmer of hope of someone actually helping me resume a normal existence.
Daniel, and Jack were waiting for us as we stepped onto the roof. “Daniel, I’m so glad you came by. This is Rose Marie, also known as Agent Schmidt.”
“Hi, Rose Marie. Glad to make your acquaintance.”
“When you floated in front of the window I could hardly believe my eyes. My partner and I were about to draw our weapons when Cris shouted for us to hold on.
“What is this thing? Where did you get it? How does it work? It’s so amazing.”
“I’ll be happy to tell, but first, Cris, do we have the time?”
“Yes, we do. The current crisis is on hold for the moment. Come on downstairs and I’ll brew some coffee.”
“You better bring Jack with you.”
“Not to worry. Jack will bring himself. Ok, Jack, let’s go.”
Rose Marie and I stood transfixed as the carpet rolled itself up and hovered in place, waiting for us to move. I laughed, “Okay, follow me.”