by Helene Baron-Murdock
Donovan found the time in the radio log where Sheriff Collins had contacted him and noted it. That was when they shut the investigation down or were shut down by the Feds.
“Go to channel 12!” Collins wanted to talk to him on his cell phone, but the reception was minimal this far out on the lands. “Channel 12” was code for channel 6, the scrambled channel, meant to confuse the scanner heads who hung on every word transmitted over various law enforcement frequencies. Of course any self-respecting scanner head had a descrambler and going to channel 12 would only fake them out for so long. “Shut it down! I want you to put everything back where you found it, every hair, every shell casing, every fingerprint, all of it, every bit of forensic evidence. I don’t want a trace that would show we’d ever been there.” At his protest, Collins replied, “Just do as I said. The Feds will be out there shortly, hand it over to them and leave. I’ll explain when you get back to the office.”
He heard it first, and the black chattering shape grew larger coming in from the southwest. The chopper swept low over the farmhouse and then back toward the access road where he’d been waiting by his sedan. There was a wide spot in the stubble field beyond the gnarly giant live oak near the entrance to the front yard. A tornado of fine beige dust and sand engulfed the chopper as it set down. The rear passenger door opened once the dust settled and two figures stepped out.
He could tell by the bouncing confident stride that the taller one was a woman. The man was wide shouldered built close to the ground and moved like a perfectly oiled killing machine.
Not your likely Fed duo.
She held out her hand and introduced herself. “Special Agent Sharon Eckes. You must be Donovan.”
He shook her hand, a firm grip, not a perfunctory formality. She was dressed for the field, dark work slacks and the standard issue FBI windbreaker, black lanyard with badge ID, and a standard issue ballcap gathering her sandy blonde hair. Her partner was a little more fastidious in a brown leather jacket over a cranberry polo shirt that detailed a well-defined six-pack. His slacks were knife edge creased and a few shades lighter than his brown desert boots. On closer appraisal, he was an older man by the leathery bulldog jowls of his sun darkened features. The close cropped pate said ex-military, a squared off hand grenade with an aggressive hard stare.
“This is Wayne Tanner, DOD consultant with DHS. We’ll be taking over the investigation from here on out. Thanks for securing the scene for us.”
Tanner deigned to speak, and at almost an octave higher than he’d expected. “Is this all exactly how you found it?” He motioned toward the farmhouse.
Donovan nodded, taking an instant dislike to the man. “Yep, exactly as it was found by the first officers on scene. So except for their footprints in the sand, it’s a pristine crime scene.” He said the last with a hint of a smile.
“We heard you had a crime scene van out here. And animal control?”
Of course they would have monitored the local LE radio traffic. “Standard Operating Procedure on multi-casualty incidents. Out here, we thought we might need a tracking dog, and the Animal Control vet is also the head of Search and Rescue Team. They were canceled before they could deploy.”
“What agencies and personnel were at the scene? I’ll need names, ranks, of anyone who was here.”
Donovan shrugged. Now he was certain that he detested the short stack of muscle and spleen. “County Sheriff’s dispatch can probably fill you in on who the responding officers were. You’ll have to contact HQ at High Point on what Florist Service personnel were out here.” He’d used a common nickname for the men in the green trucks out on the lands, known also as “greenies”, but it failed to get a reaction. He didn’t mention that by the time the forensics van had packed up he saw Grandma Spider hightail it on her ATV over the rise in back of the ranch house.
On his way out to the main road just passed the fork in the rutted dirt track he met up with a black Mercedes mini motor home with a couple of bewildered techs in FBI ballcaps. He’d pulled off as far as possible to one side without getting wedged in the drainage ditch to let them pass.
The driver’s side window floated down. “We on the right track to the scene?”
“Right you are. Keep following the ruts and bear left when you come to the fork.” How he loved the Feds. The driver didn’t even give a thank you. And if they followed directions they would soon find themselves down pasture where the road played out amidst nothing but cattle.
With the time he’d vacated the scene and turned the incident over to the Feds so noted, and with a few, very few, comments appended, the report was done. The Sherriff could embellish his timeline however he wanted to frame the narrative he would spin to the Board of Supervisors and exculpate himself. Except that wasn’t the end of the story.
Donovan knew enough to avoid swinging by the office to report in just yet, given the state of mind the Sheriff would be in, best to let the man have a chance to count to ten a few million times. At Santa Lena General, he was informed by the nurse at emergency receiving that the Apes social worker had left a number for him to call. The old gal, who might have pushed her husband down the stairs on Valentine’s Day, a love story yet to be told, appeared to be sleeping in her wheelchair in the holding room, a sure sign of guilt according to the experts. Let sleeping dogs lie, he thought to himself.
Patients might gripe about hospital food, but the cafeteria always had a great entrée. He’d learned that as a young deputy. The servings were ample and the coffee always hot. And it was cheap. He’d skipped breakfast and hadn’t even had a chance for his mid-morning power ring, cop talk for “doughnut”. The rigatoni was tempting, and he pointed to it when the server questioned with her dark eyes. The phone to his ear rang twice before it was answered. “Shirley Holmes,” a husky professional voice spoke.
“Detective Jim Donovan here, I’m at the hospital.” He slid the tray with the heaping plate of rigatoni toward the register, pausing to lift a large paper coffee cup from the stack.
“She’s as much as admitted that she pushed her husband down the stairs.”
He grunted an acknowledgement as he fished a twenty from his billfold and handed it to the woman behind the register. “I’m in the cafeteria. If you meet me here I’ll buy you lunch, and we can talk about it. Unless you recorded what she said, it’s really your word against hers. And they’ve got a terrific rigatoni on the menu today.”
As always when he encountered that assertion he wanted to ask, “Is that a planet in this solar system?” But he didn’t.
“And I’m slammed with clients, plus my boss wants a prelim report on the quote unquote accident. I could maybe make some time around three-ish?”
“Ok, here’s what we’re going to do. I’ll set you up with Detective Nelson. He’ll give you a call seeing as how his last case just mysteriously vanished and arrange a meet up to take your statement and the Valentine Day killer’s.”
“What’s his name again?”
“Does he have a first name or is it just ‘detective’?”
“Uh,” Donovan paused at the coffee carafe and gave it a few hearty pumps, “You know, I’m not quite sure. Robert? Richard? I’m guessing. He’s Nelly to everyone in the squad room.”
“I’ll remember that.”
Donovan parked the sedan on the concrete apron taking up most of his backyard. There was an unwritten rule in law enforcement that a work vehicle should never be parked at the curb of one’s domicile, official language designating place of residence. Too easy and too tempting to break in and or vandalize. The previous owner had poured the slab that covered ninety percent of the small backyard crowded with a detached garage probably built in the early fifties. It was a sturdy two hundred plus square feet that housed his personal vehicle, a Mustang convertible boy toy, a midlife crisis gift to himself. Maybe the original owner didn’t like mowing the lawn although the piebald patch of turf in the front yard had been well maintained when he bought the place almost twelve years ago. He was the one responsible for its current shabby overgrown neglect. So what was he hiding under the slab? Bodies? Something that had occurred to him more than once. Cop thinking, he called it.
The neighbor’s cat came loping into the yard from a hole in the fence and rubbed against his pant leg as he unlocked the door to the covered porch that housed the washer dryer. The cat raced ahead as the door opened and stood next to the bowl by the washer and gave an imploring mew. Donovan reached into the box of kitten treats on the shelf with the laundry detergent and dribbled a handful into the bowl. It had been more than a few years, he’d lost track, since he’d announced “Honey, I’m home,” to give the bride a chance to stash her stash and straighten herself up, tuck a stray lock behind an ear, pretend she’d fallen asleep while reading the same book she’d been reading for the last couple of months. It was a familiar cop story. So was the divorce.
The house was cold, and he set the thermostat up a notch as he headed for the front door and the few items of mail scattered on the rubber welcome mat under the mail slot. He stooped to pick them up and the way he grunted they were apparently heavier than they looked. Nothing, nothing, nothing, bill, and more nothing. He set the bill on the table in the entrance way with the other bills and tossed the rest into the circular file that had once been an umbrella stand.
The day caught up with him as he climbed the stairs to the bedroom, a weariness that had been building over his last shift and the one before that. He was old, no “getting” about it, and retirement, once playfully lobbed around the squad room when the job got too demented or absurd and the endless hoop filled bureaucracy just making it worse, was a serious consideration, especially after the reprimand.
He tossed his jacket on the bed, placed the hip holster and firearm in the top drawer of the dresser, whipped off the tie, unbuttoned his shirt, dropped his trousers, slipped off his sock, and stepped out of his briefs. The tile floor in the bathroom was cool against his wearied dogs. He didn’t hesitate stepping into the shower and turning it on full blast. First there was the shriveling cold water pelting his bare back and then slowly as the warm water worked its way up the plumbing a warm soothing wash before the scald of hot that made him jump back and adjust the mix. By then he was wet and the tension, the dust from the lands, the weary knotted road muscles were just washed away.
He replayed his conversation with the boss as the stinging spray washed across his face. Actually it was less of a conversation, more like a reluctant audience to Tim’s rant against the Feds. “Can you believe it, they want to cover this up, like it never happened!” Homeland Security had declared the murder scene a classified black site because the killings were obviously a terrorist act. Everyone present at the scene was advised that any disclosure of classified information regarding the terrorist incident would result in hefty fines and or prison time. “Bullshit!” Tim shouted in frustration, and there was no arguing with that.
Drying himself off he turned on the TV and sat on the edge of the bed to catch the early news. He could have predicted it. A throng of reporters swarmed Sheriff Tim Collins in his gold starred uniform finery as he was leaving Headquarters. The questions were of the “is there any truth” variety and specifically referenced the multiple shooting out on the lands. So much for secrecy. He felt like saying “Houston, we have a problem” but he didn’t talk to the TV. That was his ex-wife’s routine.
He dressed checking the time and messages on his phone. Royanne from the coroner’s office wished him a Happy Valentine’s Day, and Judy from the DA’s office sent him a picture of candy hearts that said things like “You Rock”, “Got Luv?”, and “Hanky Panky”.
He urged the cat out the back door with a light nudge of the toe of a dress loafer. Latching it shut he strode across the yard in the encroaching twilight in a pair of stone washed jeans, a pale blue collared shirt under a sturdy beige canvas windbreaker. He backed the Mustang out of the garage and let it idle a while to warm up the interior, the winter evenings still a little brisk in February. He tuned out the radio news and slipped a favorite Etta James CD into the dashboard slot. Once on the street, he steered east toward Old Town Santa Lena.
Only two hotels in Santa Lena guaranteed government rates. One was a dive with a big heated pool. The other was almost a dive with a big heated pool and a cocktail lounge. He parked in the lot, no valet service, and walked up the steps into the lobby. He’d been to the Santa Lena Hilton a number of times, probably as many times as the establishment had changed hands so it might not have been part of the Hilton chain anymore, but that’s what everyone called it. The entrance to the lounge was to the left of the reception desk. He stood in the doorway letting his eyes adjust to the dusky light.
She was sitting by herself at the end of the bar poking at the ice in her tall cocktail with a slender crimson straw. She sensed his approach and turned as he asked, “Buy you a drink?” Special Agent Eckes gave him a weary smile. “Sunshine Superman. I was wondering if you’d show up.”
No one had called him Sunshine Superman since his rookie patrol days so that made him feel young as well as in love.
“Chief Warrant Officer Dessy was on an operation in Northern Afghanistan and got caught in an ambush. He is presumed missing in action.”
Donovan made a mental note to renew his health club membership. He stared at the ceiling, one of the myriad shades of gray in the darkened hotel room. His heart rate was dropping back to normal and he was no longer breathing as heavily. All in all, he felt like a wrung out dishrag. She wasn’t a big woman, but she was fit, a runner. That would account for the stamina. She’d held him tight and forced her tongue down his throat. One thing led to another.
He heard water running through the half open bathroom door. He thought back to their preliminary banter in the lounge over drinks. She’d said, “I know you think we’re just a bunch of overeducated desk bound dummies.”
“What is it with cops? Can’t they accept anyone outside their exclusive blue fraternity to be an armed sworn officer?”
“Too many guns as it is. It’s a safety issue.”
And then they got into a back and forth about the classification of the murder scene. He called it a cover-up.
“You mean a broom and rug operation?”
“You’ll never hear me admitting that.”
“And your partner, the DOD DHS universal soldier. . . .”
“He’s not my partner.”
“Who is he then?”
“I’d tell you but I’d. . . .”
“Yeah I know, ‘have to shoot me’. I think I know the backstory, and if I figured it out, you can bet some investigative snoop will tumble to it.”
“Ok, I’m going to tell you what I think the scenario is and you’re going to blink your big beautiful eyes, one blink is yes, and two is no.”
“Who am I, Paula Revere? But alright, try me.”
“Major Jowls is a military gunslinger bounty hunter cleanup man and he had a very specific target. Someone he’s been tracking for quite some time.”
“What’s the code again? Sorry, that third cocktail went to my head. One yes, two no?”
“Was that a yes?”
“No, I think my contact lens is slipping.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. The person he is hunting, to likely kill, with the help of the FBI I might add, is the mysterious and legendary Oliver Dessy, US Army.”
“Chief Warrant Officer Dessy was on an operation in Northern Afghanistan and got caught in an ambush. He is presumed missing in action.”
He knew that. Mary Fisher had brought him up to speed on the Dessys as they were packing up to leave. The Army had notified Penny Dessy that her husband was missing in action almost two years previous. That’s when the protectors showed up, men distantly related to the family to provide security for the widow of their hero out in the middle of nowhere all by herself. She’d said it with a hint of ridicule in her voice and he’d wondered how Mrs. Dessy had held off those thugs. The answer was Grandmother Spider, the men were afraid of her power, something she was well known for among all the families. As long as they behaved themselves, they had nothing to fear. And Penny Dessy, always a gracious woman, kept to herself, and her blanket loom, away from the men who were taking advantage of her hospitality by claiming kinship to her late husband. He wasn’t going to attribute the efficiency of the killing to either Penelope Dessy or Grandmother Spider. The men had obviously been caught by surprise. No warning. If it had been a stranger or strangers, old Gus would have raised the alarm. And he hadn’t. Poor old Gus. According to the FBI, old Gus had come out of his stupor just as the bounty hunter was rooting around in the shed. He’d managed maul the man’s thigh before Tanner shot him defending himself.
The FBI stood at the foot of the bed wearing the complimentary white bathrobe but open in front and leaving nothing to the imagination. She smiled at his smile. “A penny for your thoughts.”
“I was just thinking about old Gus.”
“You’re such a romantic. And you never said anything about a dog.”
“It slipped my mind. I think I was distracted.”
“If it makes you feel any better, Tanner needed a hundred stitches.” She crawled toward him across the rumpled sheets and put her chin on his chest so she could look into his eyes. “Were you thinking about anything else?”
“As a matter of fact,” he said snagging the lanyard with her government identification hanging from the back of the chair next to the bed, “I was just looking at your ID here. . . .”
“I hate that picture,” she said turning her head to look at it.
“Did you know that if you used just your first initial with your name it would say ‘sex’?”
Special Agent Sharon Eckes’ elbows dug into his chest as she got squarely in his face. “Did you know that if I had a dollar for every time some horndog told me that, I could pay off my student loan and still buy a condo on Miami Beach?”
Donovan stared at the blinking cursor at the bottom of the page. He saved the document, attached it to the email addressed to Sheriff Tim Collins and was about to hit send when he looked up to see Nelly standing in front of his desk with a big friendly grin on his face.
“How’s it going, old man?”
“I could complain but why be predictable. How’s the love life on planet of the Apes?”
“You know she calls you ‘Cupid’ now.”
“That’s gonna be a hard one to live down. I might have to retire.”
Donovan hit send and watched the document disappear from his screen. Nothing in it said anything about his hunch as to who the killer might be. He’d done a little off the books research on his own. A few months before Dessy was reported missing in action, a drone strike in Northern Afghanistan had targeted and killed a wedding party of non-combatants. It was in an area that Chief Dessy was operating, training a local militia fighting the Taliban. Then there was the report of a top ISS official being assassinated in Karachi. Not long afterward at a clandestine CIA airfield in Pakistan numerous explosions had destroyed or disabled the drone fleet housed there. An attaché to the US Embassy was gunned down in the streets of Lahore. More recently a top Special Operations Command Colonel was found strangled in his home in North Carolina. And around the holidays, the CEO of a government contractor providing mercenaries in Afghanistan was found with his throat cut in a Denver hotel room. Although it was just a guess, the sequence of actions reeked of payback. He’d received a cryptic text from sexy Sharon a week or so past that said, “Picked up the trail in Ithaca.” He assumed upstate New York as he wasn’t aware of any other place with that name. He also assumed that Chief Warrant Officer Oliver Dessy was armed, extremely dangerous, out for revenge, and so far had managed to elude the government gunslinger.