by Helene Baron-Murdock
Donovan knew he had to face the music sooner or later. Later found him sitting across from Sheriff Tim Collins, a big man behind a big desk—they had served as deputies together, but ladder climbing and a regular diet of ass kissing had added a puffiness to the Sheriff’s face and midriff making him look overinflated. He leaned back in his large red leather office chair looking through half closed eyes before pointing a finger and raising an inquisitive eyebrow. “That’s your story?”
“It’s a murder investigation, Tim, plain and simple, body, gunshot wound, a potential crime scene I’ve been denied access. . . .”
“You’re not going to get anywhere with that. Even if I wanted to help you, my hands are tied. These people have a lot of clout. I have budgetary concerns to look after and I can’t risk someone stepping on the supplementary funding pipeline, too many jobs at stake. If this was strictly a law enforcement matter, you’d have your search warrant, but it’s not, it’s political. Technically, it’s an accidental death. Let’s leave it at that.”
“Someone’s shitting on your turf, Tim.”
“I’m not saying I’m happy about it. I’m up for reelection in eighteen months. I can’t piss the wrong people off. Besides I had nothing to do with it. It was signed off by the Board of Supes and the State before I became Sheriff. Until now I’ve had no cause to complain. Put together a case file on it. Maybe after I’m reelected I’ll have another look.” He gave that shit eating grin he was famous for. “You could even be retired by then.”
“I don’t know how that rumor got started.”
“Well, now that the hiring freeze is over I can now hire a chief of detectives instead of handling the job myself.
“I don’t think I want the responsibility.”
“Like you had a snowball’s chance.” Collins chuckled. “And maybe promote a couple of deserving young officers into your slot. I can hire two for what I’m paying you.”
Donovan canted his head rolling his eyes, as if he cared. “It was never enough.”
“It works for me, movement in the ranks is always good for the department. It’s trickledown theory, you’ve heard of trickledown theory, haven’t you?”
“I have. I learned it from a plumber.”
“Yeah, ‘Shit flows downhill.’” Donovan rose from his chair, the ass chewing obviously over. “I’ve got a couple of angles to look at before I file this one away. Just to make sure the paperwork’s in order and we can cover our asses if something goes sideways in the future.”
Collins made a face. “It won’t, but go ahead, as long as it doesn’t impinge on any other ongoing investigations. And once I hire the new COD, it’ll be his call.”
Donovan was on the road back to the coast and Sparta Creek Trailer Park the first thing next morning. There was a gap between the approximate time of death and the time the body was discovered that might never be completely filled in. He’d stared at the timeline spreadsheet, checking off each item, time of his dispatch, travel time to Acropolis Cove. The vehicle accident, a junker versus an SUV had slowed traffic on Corinth Bay Road. He recalled the demolished older model sedan on the shoulder of the highway and the near pristine Suburban, tinted windows, on the flatbed of the tow truck thinking it odd and that the junker should have had priority if the intent was to clear the roadway. He’d accessed the accident on the Highway Patrol incident log and noted the case number. Logging in to the incident file with his interagency LEO password, he read the at-scene officer’s notes. 11-80, major injuries, driver of a pre-millennium Mercury GM transported to Santa Lena General. Vehicle info: registered owner William Bailey Yates, current address Site 11A, Sparta Creek Trailer Park. That the vehicle information on the Suburban was simply Federal Government Fleet gave him pause. He recognized the name of the reporting officer, Zara Valdez, and left a message on her voicemail to call him back.
It was another grim gray day at the coast in the shade of a huge fog bank. And windy, flags and pennants rippling furiously like they wanted to break free and fly away. The awning on the battered trailer at site 11A was shuddering from the gusts and sand was swirling around the aluminum steps leading to the door. A head peeked out the narrow doorway to register his presence and then closed. Either the wind or those within made the trailer shake slightly from side to side.
After Donovan 10-97’d his 10-20, and as dispatched acknowledged, he answered the incoming call on his phone. “Officer Valdez, thanks for returning my call.”
“What’s up, Donovan, run into some more highway trouble?” She was a perky little number he remembered. It had been a Charity Slow Pitch Softball Tournament, street cops versus highway cops. He‘d gone from home plate ump to UFC referee in a matter of seconds. The street cop catcher was talking trash to the batters, but whatever he’d said to her, she erupted and almost took the guy’s head off. He’d stepped in, cautioned the catcher, and assessed her one strike. The pitcher, a tall gal who worked in city dispatch and a former amateur player, couldn’t stop from laughing. Once she caught her breath she threw a fast ball and Valdez hit a line drive right at her head. Later he’d learned that the catcher had made disparaging remarks about what he thought her sexual preferences were. “The V stands for Volcano,” she’d told him.
“Word gets around fast.”
“That’s why we have radios. What can I do you for?”
“That TC outside of Dardanelle two morning’s ago? An 11-80 involving a Suburban. . . .”
“Yeah, yeah, I remember. What about it?”
“The Suburban belongs to. . . .”
“It was Fed fleet. The driver badged me, Deputy US Marshal.”
“You used to get those in cereal boxes but since the world went granola. . .got a description?”
“Of the fed? Yeah, universal soldier, definitely military type, by the haircut at least, high and tight. Impressive, imposing, and full of himself. Name was Brick or Dick something. Tiller? Tillis?”
“How about the other driver, the transport?”
“A mess, older guy, lotsa blood, fire and rescue had to use the can opener to extricate.”
“What was it? A 102 or a 103?”
“I don’t think it was a 2. A 3, maybe, but on the other vehicle’s part.”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say some tactical driving was involved, at an unsafe speed, and the driver looked like someone who might have had the training. The Merc flipped a couple of times according to witnesses.”
“No take on the vehicle assignment?”
“I wanted to take a picture of the registration but he wouldn’t let me. Some weird agency I never heard of.”
“What about the transport, description?”
“Like I said, old guy. Despite the blood, my impression was leathery, like he’d been out in the sun a lot, like forever. No ID on him, wrote him a citation for driving without a license, not the vehicle’s registered owner from the DMV database photo, wrong age, too. He was out the entire time. Even in the hospital, they couldn’t ID him to see if he had insurance. But from the car he was driving, I’d say he didn’t.”
“What happened to the vehicle?”
“County impound yard, why?”
“I’m looking at the registered owner right now. He might want to know.”
“Oh yeah? I hope he has insurance because it’s totaled.”
An angry face surrounded by a shaggy bush of salt bleached hair stared at Donovan through the windshield of the sedan. When he stepped out, the mop retreated toward the trailer atop a wiry frame, feral in posture, mean-eyed as a cornered rabbit. “What you want?” a near soprano voice demanded. “I ain’t done nothing!” And then as a last recourse, “She ain’ta gonna press charges,” pointing at the woman named Heron cowering in the doorway of the trailer looking more harried than the last time he’d seen her.
If Donovan’s glare had been a thumb, it would have crushed the man like the insect he was. He addressed the woman in the doorway. “Ms. Heron, I have a few more questions concerning Dwight Carey.”
“She already told what she knows!” The boyfriend puffed himself like a bantam rooster and moved to block Donovan’s path to the trailer.
“I’m not here to talk to you. Get in my way and I’ll arrest you for obstruction of a murder inquiry.”
At the word “murder” the tenor of the man’s aggressiveness changed and his mouth opened and closed like a gasping goldfish undoubtedly mimicking his sphincter. He stood frozen with his arms stiff at his side, fists clenched.
“Ms. Heron, I would like to speak to you in private if I may.” He beckoned to her to step down out of the trailer. A few of the neighboring residents were drifting over to satisfy their curiosity.
Heron, her head down, eyes on the ground, came to stand next to him. “When I asked you about Dwight Carey yesterday, someone named ‘Dad’ came up. Do you remember?”
She nodded and cast a glance over her shoulder at her boyfriend.
“What else can you tell me about Dad?”
She shook her head, “Nothing I ain’t already said.”
“He’s a dirty old man and I’ll kick his ass when I get my hands on him!”
Donovan gave the boyfriend the practiced hard cop stare. “I’m not going to tell you again. Stay out of this.”
“He stole my ride!”
Donovan nodded and addressed Heron. “Did you loan Billy’s car to Dad and that’s why he beat on you?”
Heron whimpered and nodded her head.
“Did he tell you why he needed to borrow the car?”
“Said he had a doctor’s appointment in Santa Lena first thing in the morning but he’d bring it right back before Billy even knew it was gone. I ain’t lying, but he never did.”
Billy had got some of his nerve back and had edged closer, anger contorting his face. “This stupid bitch traded that old bastard my Merc for a stupid medal. Said it was worth a lot of money when it’s just a cheap piece of crap. Ain’t worth nothing and now I ain’t got wheels neither.”
“You have this item he gave you?” Donovan pointed a finger at Billy. “You stay where you are. If you wanted to file a stolen vehicle complaint, I’ll have the deputy come by and take the report.”
Heron reached down the front of her blouse and pulled up a round flat object attached to a thin leather cord. “It’s bronze, he said,” she spoke quietly, reverentially, “said it was ancient, magic, s’posta ward off evil spirits.” She looked at Billy. “Guess he was just making all that up cause he wanted me to let him borrow Billy’s ride. He’s a real slick talker when he wants to be, really smart, used a lot of big words. Talk anybody outta anything. I seen it. Said if he didn’t come back I could sell it to a collector for enough to buy a new car and a trailer. . . .”
“It’s a piece of junk!”
She handed it to Donavan who asked, “Did the thong come with it?”
“No I added that, There’s a little hole for it at the top.”
He held it by the length of rawhide and examined it closely. It was the size of a cast belt buckle although solid and crude in its depiction of a face, what looked like a tongue protruding below a bushy mustache, the eyes round with terror or menace. The weight of it belied its size, encrusted in hues of coal black to greenish blues, there was nonetheless something intriguingly authentic about it.
Donovan set the medallion on the hood of his sedan and took pictures of the bronze medallion with his phone. He retrieved a plastic evidence bag from the driver’s door pocket.
“That’s mine!” Billy challenged and started toward him. “You can’t take that!” The nosey neighbors were joined by additional onlookers, curious, grim faced, but not their first police action.
“What did I say about staying put? This is evidence in a criminal inquiry. It’ll be returned to you as soon as it’s declassified. Step back or I’ll take you down and take you in!”
Someone in the crowd asked loudly, “Can you keep him longer this time?” A titter of laughter and grunts of approval rippled through the crowd of onlookers, some with smart phones recording the proceedings. A woman at the front of the neighborhood watch group held up her phone to get a better angle and yelled “Don’t let them take your property, Billy! You got your rights! They’ll be coming for your guns next!”
On cue Billy launched himself at Heron, punching, slapping and kicking, screaming “See what you did! This all your fault!” Heron cowered, screeching in surprise and pain.
Donovan moved quickly, grabbing Billy’s arm before the next blow landed and twisting it up behind his back in one swift practiced motion, knocking the man’s feet out from under him. Face down, Billy struggled to get up but Donovan, with a knee on his spine, snapped the cuffs on one wrist and final caught hold of the wildly flailing loose arm to bracelet it to the other. The wind, in a furious gust, whipped them both.
“Put your knee on his neck!” the woman filming with her phone yelled as if she were the director of an action movie.
Donovan stood up slowly, his breathing heavy. Two days running his adrenaline had kicked in and he could feel the cool itch of sweat breaking along his brow and under his eyes. He bent down again catching the glint of the medallion he had dropped in the wind shifting sand. For a moment he had the impression that it was mocking him as he hooked his finger through the leather strand and dropped the sturdy amulet into the evidence bag.
A couple of concerned neighbor women were comforting Heron, helping her over to the wood bench outside the trailer. One of them glared at Donovan as he approached. “You need to keep him in jail,” she said indicating Billy thrashing on the ground demanding his rights and the return of his property, “he’s always beating on her.”
“Do I need to call for a medic to take a look at you?”
Heron, sniffling between sobs, shook her head. “No, I’m ok,” she spoke feebly, “Are you gonna arrest him?”
Donovan pursed his lips. “He didn’t give me much choice. I witnessed an assault. I’m going to arrest him and leave it up to the DA to charge him. If he’s got a record for this kind of behavior it’s likely he’ll be doing some time. It’s the law and I have to enforce it.” He held up the evidence bag. “I’ll have you sign a receipt for the medallion. It’s interesting enough that I want to have the lab take a look at it. When we’re done with it, I’ll get it back to you. Promise.”
Heron looked up at him with tear reddened eyes and nodded. “Ok,” she said weakly.
Why connecting one dot made him feel like a bloodhound hot on a trail he couldn’t say although it did energized him. He could draw a line from Ike Cary to Dad Ailess by association and by the odd coincidence that Carey was wearing a blue jumpsuit two sizes too small for him, a blue jumpsuit that was described as Dad’s usual attire. Now he had a link between Dad and the vehicle accident the morning Carey’s body was discovered. His next stop was Santa Lena General to learn what had become of the driver of the totaled Mercury. Once he reported his 10-15, the coast deputy arrived to take custody of Billy and await transport to the county jail.
The security guard at the ER recognized Donovan and nodded as he held the door open for him. He paused at the receiving counter for one of the nurses in blue scrubs to notice him. A young nurse, severe dark framed glasses, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, walked up to the counter.
“Hi, Jim Donovan with the Sheriff’s Office. I’m inquiring about the victim of a TC brought in here two days ago, mid-morning?”
“I’m sorry, do you have a warrant for that information?” She looked around and called for the attention of another nurse with her back to them. “Maria?”
Maria turned and then smiled. “Jim Donovan. I have not seen you in a while. I thought maybe you have retired.” She was a sprightly slightly rotund Hispanic woman with streaks of gray in her otherwise jet black hair.
“I don’t know how that rumor got started.”
“If you ask me, I think Tim Collins start it in hope he get rid of his bad boy detective.”
“You might be on to something.”
“Jim, this is Tess, she is new here.”
Donovan gave an affable smile and claimed to be pleased to meet her.
“Have you heard from Marion recently? How she is liking Baltimore?”
Donovan scratched his chin. “Not in a while, but last time I talked to her she was liking it just fine.”
“Tell her ‘hi’ from the SaLeGen gang next time.” She addressed Tess. “Marion was one of the top ICU nurses here and a frequent companion of the Sheriff detective and we adopt him as ‘our guy’.” She beamed a big smile, warm and affectionate. “So what bring you down to the ER, Jim?”
“He wanted information on a TC admit. Doesn’t he need a warrant for that?”
Maria looked taken aback. “Why he need that? He need a court order to get private medical information, sure, but information on a patient status is entirely appropriate, especially if it is in the course of an investigation.” She turned to Jim, “I assume it is, yes?”
“Absolutely. I merely need to determine the victim of the traffic collision. . . .”
Tess looked confused. “But the others showed me a warrant and said. . . .”
“Others?” Donovan and Marie asked in near unison.
“The others came shortly after this man, the one who was in the vehicle accident two days ago, we had him as a John Doe, admitted him for assessment. They said they had a warrant for him but the on-call emdee said he was too fragile to move and they’d have to wait till he regained consciousness. Then later, I was off shift but I learned from Miguel, the late shift nurse, that they brought in their own doctor, a woman, and he said he didn’t think she was an emdee, but she had a lawyer with her, and they were going to transport him to another facility, and even the director of operations had to be called because the old guy had never recovered consciousness and the on-call refused because he was already tied to in-hospital life support. . . .” She paused as if out of breath.
“So that what that was all about,” Maria nodded sagely. “I am looking over the shift note and here is this whole kerfuffle about the transport. They want to send their own helicopter to medivac. So we get him ready to move. But wherever it was come from, there was a weather delay, so he have to wait.
“A cluster kerfuffle, you might say,” Donovan interjected.
Maria chuckled, “Jim, you always make laugh.” Tess gave a tentative smile and added, “But they got it all resolved this morning. The helicopter medevacked him to another hospital I’m assuming.”
“Ugh!” Donovan shook his head. “Was there any identification made on the patient, his name? Anything?”
“There was a name on the warrant. I saw it when they showed it to me.” Tess made the helpless gesture. “But I don’t remember it. Sorry.”
“Could it have been Daniel Ailess or Alaz?”
“Mmm, I don’t think so. It was the full name, you know, first, middle, last.”
“I should have acted on my hunch yesterday,” he groaned.
“Wait,” Maria said, “there must be a copy of the warrant if the hospital authorize the release.” She held up a finger. “The director of operations! I will call his office,” she smiled picking up the hospital phone.
Donovan addressed Tess, “Can you give me a description of the patient, anything you can remember about him that might have struck you as odd?”
“No, not really, just that he seemed really old, you know, his skin was dark but the intern checked Caucasian on the admittance form.”
“Just that there was a lot of blood on his clothes. From the accident, you know.”
“What were his injuries?”
Tess shrugged. “I don’t know. I wasn’t part of the triage team. But I remember Marcus, one of the nurses on the team, saying he didn’t know where the blood came from.”
“It didn’t come from the injuries?”
“I didn’t ask him what he meant. We had a busy patch right around then. The on-call had him transferred to ICU almost immediately so it must have been pretty serious. I don’t think he regained consciousness, at least not under our care.”
Maria hung up the receiver shaking her head. “He is in a meeting and cannot be disturb.” She stared at the phone set. “The problem with hiring the children of the board of directors as receptionists is that they do not know anything and they do not care that they do not know anything.” Her eyes narrowed. “Tess, who was the on-call that day?”
“Oh, Merry Dan? That is disappointing.”
“No, wait, it was Fatima! Meridan was working another incident. Like I said we were slammed that day.”
Maria nodded. “Fatima Fattah. Now Doctor Fattah I know we can trust. She is not on call today. But!” with a spark in her eye, “I can review her patient log. If I know her, she count the buttons on his shirt.”
Donovan and Tess exchanged a hopeful glance as Maria manipulated the mouse, and a few keystrokes later nodded her head and said “Ok, here we go.” Her eyes scanned the screen and she frowned. “I have not seen that one in forever, a BOP billing code.”
“BOP? Bureau of Prisons?” He nodded his head. “Ok, that gives me something to chew on. Anything else?”
“Here, his name is Philip Andrew Nichols.”
“No joy there, and I’m almost back to square one.”
“This is odd.” Maria pointed to the screen. “Dr. Fattah could find no injuries that would account for the blood on the clothing.”
“The clothing? Any chance that they would still be around?”
Maria shook her head, “No, they were his effects, they probably were pack up with him when they transport.”
“Can I get a look at his room in the ICU? Maybe something of his was left behind.” He shrugged. “I know it’s a reach.”
Maria put the phone to her ear. “You will have to mask and gown, but I will ask Debbie.” She smiled. “You remember Debbie, don’t you?”
Donovan remembered Debbie and Debbie hadn’t forgotten Donovan. Debbie had had a huge crush on him and had made a move on him at a Christmas party, one that Marion hadn’t been able to attend because she was working that evening. That had been some years back when he was still working Narcotics. Nothing had ever come of it mainly because Debbie had been very drunk. He’d driven her home, helped her find the keys to her front door, end of story. Except for the ones wagging tongues were tempted to tell.
Debbie talked a lot when she was nervous and that made Donovan nervous. “The room was scrubbed soon after they transported, I doubt you’ll find anything. There’s already a new patient in there. And even if I did, I could get in serious trouble if anyone found out I’d let you in. Privacy rights, you know. I don’t know what Maria was thinking.” They were standing by the double doors that led into the ICU. She had her mask pulled down under her chin, a large sterile cap covering a pile of blonde hair, and a full blue gown and matching booties.
“How about blood or tissue samples?” He felt stupid. He knew the answer as soon as he asked the question.
She answered anyway, “You’d have to have permission of his custodian or a court order, or both.”
Donovan looked around, a security guard was hurrying to the nurses station. “You’re right, of course.” He sighed, “Grasping at straws.”
Debbie had a nice smile even if it had a little edge of smug superiority to it. She tucked a stray strand of blonde hair under her cap and asked, “Have you heard from Marion since she moved back to Baltimore?”
He was about to give his boiler plate answer when an angry voice erupted at the nurses station. Another security guard was hurrying down the corridor crowded with idle machines, gurneys, nurses, orderlies, and patients hobbling along grasping their mobile IV poles or in wheelchairs. The loud voice belonged to an older woman. “I can’t believe this! How can you lose a man who can’t walk?”
The nurse, embarrassed and flustered, was losing her patience over the presumed lost patient. “Please, calm down! I’m certain it’s just a mistake. He’s here in the hospital, I’m sure of it.”
The loud woman was accompanied by a younger woman, likely her daughter, and a young girl not much older than five who was tugging insistently at the young woman’s jacket. The young woman tried to shush the girl but looked up in the direction the girl pointed as she announced in the clear voice of a precocious pre-adolescent, “That man has a hat just like Uncle Jimmy’s.” That caused the loud woman to whirl around. “Someone’s wearing my brother’s hat?” Then she screamed pointing at a now empty wheelchair in the cluster that had gathered to view the ruckus. All heads turned, including Donovan’s, to catch a leg disappearing behind the corner of the corridor. The security guards looked at each other perplexed. They had no idea what had just happened. They’d been called to quell a commotion. They weren’t at all certain they were supposed to chase someone down the hospital corridor even as the woman screamed “He stole my brother’s hat!”
Donovan was around the corner in a couple of strides. A gurney with attendant IV pole was waiting to be loaded on the elevator at the far end of the hallway flanked by two orderlies in pale green scrubs. Other than that, the people in the hallway looked like they belonged there, their demeanor professional, some flashing him questioning looks. Then he saw it on the floor between a soiled linen hamper and a medical waste disposal crate, the uncle’s hat. He bent down and with the pen from his pocket lifted the ballcap to take a closer look. There was an unusual logo on the front of the hat, a lower case i framed by a pair of wings.