Barge Right In
by Riette Gallienne
Copyright (c) 2009, Riette Gallienne, All Rights Reserved.
I’m not a criminal lawyer. I do family law, and after twenty years I’ve built a reputation as the person to call in a divorce case when there’s a chance they’ll work things out. I’m a tough litigator, but sometimes I can settle the issues that push people apart instead of settling the estate they built by pulling together.
In any kind of law, every case comes down to patterns. We follow precedents. When something’s out of line with precedent, we notice. That’s how I first saw the pattern…
I shook my head, brought my mind back to the present. “OK,” Chairman Goldman was saying. “Next item is the request to modify the repair work at Scoma’s Restaurant to prevent damage from wave action in high winds.”
A slightly pudgy balding man with short gray hair and a light blue sweater walked up to the podium. “Peter Holt, project architect,” he stated for the record, though they’d all seen him standing in this same spot many times.
“We’re withdrawing this item,” he told the group. “The engineer reviewed it and said I was practicing architectural overkill. We’ll go for final inspections next week.”
“Any comments from staff?”
Fuller shook his head. “Staff sees no issues here.”
“All right. Scoma’s item withdrawn by applicant. Next… Mrs. Gaffigan, would you like us to continue the garage and driveway item until the documents get filed?”
The tall man who’d apologized to her for the delay stood and came to the microphone. “David Dunbar from Welldun Construction, Mr. Chairman. It was my fault we missed that last set of drawings. We’d like to continue the matter until the next meeting.”
Alma Gaffigan muttered a single obscene syllable loudly enough for everyone to hear it, but the Chairman pretended not to notice.
It took all my self control not to laugh. Instead I reached down and rubbed my sore ankle.
“Very well,” Goldman said. “Gaffigan garage is continued to the next meeting.”
Bob Gonzalez walked into the room and sat down beside me.
“That was fast,” I whispered. I noticed that two uniformed officers were now leaning against the wall by the double doors.
“Only three blocks away.” Bob looked down and rubbed his stomach. “I should’ve walked. I need the exercise.”
“Did I have it right?”
He gave me the look over his glasses. “Riette, am I going to have to listen to this story for the next twenty years? With Jake snorting at me every time you tell it?”
I thought about it. “Yes, I believe you are.”
* * *
I wish I could tell you that I’d sprained my ankle slipping on a wet spot volunteering at the Marine Mammal Center outside town. That would have made the pain worthwhile, a red badge of butt-busting for a good cause.
But that’s not how it happened. I sprained my ankle while walking my dog the night before the meeting.
For three days I’d looked across the Bay from my redwood deck each evening. Finally my patience had been rewarded: a small tugboat rounded the point, moving slowly, heading north. Even in the fading twilight I could see that it towed the barge that had been moored next to Scoma’s Restaurant.
It was breezy and getting cold, so I changed into my black jeans and my double-breasted pea coat, along with the warm black cap that Amy knitted for me when she was 12. I pulled on my leather boots with the thick ribbed soles. If only I’d had those boots in the car when I’d had to park down the hill and hike back up to City Hall. My $80 trainers would still have their perfectly smooth, wavy treads…
Never mind. Too late now.
As I secured her leash, Cassie wagged her whole rear end with delight. This is hard for a yellow lab that big and broad-shouldered to do, but typical for Cassie when we prepare to take our walks. Tonight my excitement almost matched her boundless energy, with the added bonus that the climb up and down the steep hills of Sausalito would allow me to talk myself out of going up to the gym the next day.
I’d driven to the spot, gone past it a couple of blocks and then gotten out of the car and looked around. But in daylight I didn’t dare make it obvious that I was snooping.
With the barge in motion I had to know for sure, had to see for myself. A woman out walking her dog in the hills of Sausalito, flashlight in hand, was a routine sight.
Routine or not, all the black I was wearing for this walk was no coincidence.
We set out up the steep hill from my place above Caledonia, climbing halfway up the ridge to reach the wooded curve where Filbert joins Santa Rosa and the latter winds back down again towards downtown Sausalito. Then it would be another turn and uphill for two long, meandering blocks to reach our goal. Cassie took the steep road effortlessly, as if it were level ground.
I didn’t, and we’ll leave it at that.
I remember thinking that I was glad she’s big for a lab and looks ferocious. Most people think Cassie’s a male until they start examining the equipment. Who knows, if someone came after me she might actually bite them.
Miller Lane sits mid-way up the ridge they call “The Hill”, the rocky outcropping that separates the two original valleys that held all of Sausalito before World War II and the boom years. It’s one of the best addresses in town, because its position on the hillside gives some houses views that stretch from San Francisco to Angel Island to Mt. Tam. It’s also the location of Alma Gaffigan’s garage.
I wanted to approach the place walking downhill, so if we had to run the law of gravity would be on our side. After a final series of turns – and dodging an SUV careening around blind corners — we approached the dark garage. Like her house, it’s a 1920’s wood frame building with individuality and charm. Exactly the kind of old shingle-sided home I hear slated for demolition at meetings of the Sausalito Planning Commission.
Putting on my most nonchalant air, I calmly walked down the middle of the street, Cassie matching my pace, walking just behind me. I left the flashlight off and relied upon the occasional streetlights.
The driveway was empty. Only a front porch light burned at the house.
The homes and trees on Miller Lane block the views from the street, reserving the stunning vistas for the residents. I swore silently. Just walking by, you couldn’t tell what Alma could or couldn’t see from her garage.
I stopped, retraced my steps back up the hill and finally found a patch of light between the tree trunks. Success! The big waterfront restaurants glowed brightly down below us, the diners’ views unmarred by the now-departed barge.
Still uphill from the garage, I crossed to the other side of the street, where it was easier to spot an opening. Yes! The familiar lights of Caledonia Street and the yacht harbors, the dark patch of Dunphy Park.
I didn’t want to think about what might happen if I looked at the garage. Now I knew for sure that I was right. Right about the crime. Right about the criminals.
I think it was a raccoon that Cassie saw that moment, just as we passed Alma Gaffigan’s garage. Or it may have been a cat or even a possum. Whatever it was, she growled and lunged across the road, cutting in front of me. As the leash pulled sharply to the left my nonchalant I’m-not-looking gait made me miss a step.
My leg went one direction, my body turned another, my foot twisting sideways on the steep slope. My left ankle rolled under and I heard a loud, distinct Pop! I went down in a heap in the middle of the road and cried out in pain, my lost flashlight rolling to a stop at the base of a fieldstone wall.
Cassie instantly abandoned the chase and came back to see what was wrong, nuzzling my face and armpit as if to lift me up.
She had the right idea, because just a few feet behind me was Alma’s dark garage. If someone really were in there and suspected I was watching…
I shook my injured foot, realizing I was panicked and that I had to slow down and breathe. The ankle would bend, but the foot felt numb and the pain above it was searing and intense. I kept my eyes straight ahead.
Cassie nuzzled my armpit again and made grunting sounds, and this time I tried to get back up. After a couple of failed attempts I managed to regain my feet and lean against the old stone wall. In stages I put weight back on the injured ankle, keeping my eyes away from the garage as I recovered the flashlight. Shooting pains fired up my leg and I limped so badly that I almost fell on every step, but slowly, carefully, I made it around the corner and out of sight of the garage.
It took me fifteen minutes to hobble the two blocks down the steep hill to the level street next to the church. I’d called North Bay Taxi on my cell and the cab pulled up just as we arrived. The driver was an older man with wiry gray hair whom I didn’t recognize, but he hurried to my side and gently helped me to the car, asking me what happened. Cassie jumped in the back seat next to me and laid down.
She watched me carefully with those big, worried dog eyes all the way home.
* * *
Click here to continue to Segment 3 of Barge Right In. (Total story length is about 12 paperback book pages.)