Tag Archives: Violent Crimes Unit

The White Room—II

by Helene Baron-Murdock

mt oly1Donovan followed Delphi Road up the lee side of Mount Oly. The narrow paved road wound around the base of the coastal peak still shrouded in fog. Vistas of dry yellow grass and oak woodlands, dotted in the near distance by grazing animals, stretched on either side broken occasionally by a trailer home set back under a cluster of trees or a barn and some farm machinery. Driveways were indicated by rural mailboxes and posts marked with large red reflector buttons. Some areas included sheds, corrals, and chutes indicating working ranches. Then a manicured hedge, stone or stucco wall and large wrought iron gates spoke of money that could afford to live that far out and not worry about the commute.

Baxter had remarked when he’d pulled up to the fire station, “They got you driving an unmarked patrol ride now?”

He could have offered the explanation that his assigned vehicle was in the shop for routine maintenance. “It’s a nostalgia ride,” he’d answered instead. And that it was. It certainly rode heavier than his sedan and just tapping the accelerator said that there was more under the hood, much more. It had taken a few miles on his return to the coast to get used to the dashboard mounted shotgun in his field of vision again. And the heads-up display mapping the road ahead along with speedometer and a variety of indicators that he didn’t want to bother deciphering, made him feel like he was in the cockpit of a fighter jet, or what he imagined that would be like. The radio was a new high end digital voice activated model that did just about everything except talk for you. At least the rig was still equipped with a push bar on the front end, a pit bull bar to tactical drivers, that hadn’t changed. It was a familiar space, nonetheless, one he had not been in for many years, more high tec than he remembered, but the sense of consoleidentity as law enforcement, of purpose at its most elemental was still there. Gadget porn was not his thing yet there was also something to be said for its effects.

Curious, he’d checked his console mounted computer for the County GIS topo before leaving the fire station. There in big red letters was the warning, Restricted Area, hashed over with wide red bars obscuring the topographical features along with the small print Federal Code citation. He’d switched to satellite image and encountered a blur no matter how far down he zoomed in. It didn’t make any sense, and that bothered him.

Baxter had laid out an old site map of Camp Minnoknosso across his desk. “This is what it used to look like before the feds took over.”

Donovan followed as the fire chief’s finger conducted the tour. “These squares here represent the tent platforms scattered along the main trail kinda like in a maze. Back then, the site had a functioning fire lookout staffed by the gals here at the high point in a structure they called the Mini-Tower. It’s the highest point on this part of the coast. Unobstructed view all the way to the east side of the county. Of course, no telling what it looks like now.”

“When did all this happen? Was it in the news? I don’t recall it being disseminated in operational bulletins.”

“Oh, probably ten or so years ago. There were protests by the local tree huggers when the land was handed over to the feds.”

Donovan remembered vaguely. He’d been in Narcotics at the time and his focus had been mainly on gangs and drugs. “No one’s been up there since? Folks around here must be curious about what they’re doing up there.”

Baxter shook his head. “There’s some who’ve tried. Met with dogs and armed patrols on ATVs. Scared the bejesus out of most of them. They’ve got a helipad up there and occasionally there’ll be heavy duty whirlybird traffic flying in and out. Road up’s been blocked and according to some when you get up close all of a sudden your GPS and digital gadgets stop working or go glitchy like there’s a big electronic shadow over the whole area. Once you get past the second cattle guard up on Delphi you’re playing by their rules. Some folks report being harassed or being run off the road by security vehicles.” Baxter didn’t hide his disgust. “It’s like someone took a dump on your living room rug and won’t let you get near it.”

Donovan had just bumped over the first cattle guard as the road began winding up through a switchback toward the summit. The landscape had changed from rolling yellow hills to a mix of a tangled foliage, pine, and fir into whose upper reaches the coastal fog lapped. He encountered the first yellow and black road sign, Not A Through Road and Turnout Ahead. He passed the turnout and a few hundred yards later rumbled over the second cattle guard. There followed a red and white sign with a more forceful message Do Not Enter Restricted Area Ahead Authorized Personnel Only. The road had stopped climbing and around the next curve he encountered the barricade with the same red and white sign and an even more dire warning Lethal Force Authorized. The road at that point was too narrow to make a three point turn and he had to back up to a break in the thick roadside understory.

restrict1Once he nosed the front end into the gap, he saw that it was the beginning of an obscured fire road. He steered around the rutted unpaved path several hundred yards in to a clearing and a cyclone fence topped with razor wire. Along with an identical red and white sign threatening lethal force and the specific Federal Codes that allowed the authority was another official sign.

He stepped out of the sedan, following with his eye the fence as it disappeared into the woods on either side of the gate, and walked up to the sign. Large letters stated Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency followed below by an even larger set of initials, IDA, the acronym revealed by the third line as Institute for Dynamic Application.

“There’s a name that says a whole lot of nothing,” he muttered to himself. Requisite fine print followed, restating the prohibition on trespass and the likelihood of death by armed guards.

Before getting back into his rig and returning to Delphi Road, he took a picture of the sign and the fence with his smart phone, and peered through the diamond links at the road continuing further on into an overarching tunnel of trees.

He didn’t noticed at first, occupied with mulling over the implications of the restricted zone, on auto pilot as if he were in his own sedan. The heads up display was showing just a row of meaningless blank squares, the GPS was flashing like it was trying to establish a link to a signal, and the readout on the radio console scanned furiously from one end of the band to the other.

He’d had the training on the new Voicue radios. “Manual” he spoke. The readout scanning stopped and showed a set of red zeros. “Channel 3,” and the frequency flashed on the display once and then read Channel 3. Nothing but static from the speakers. So much for high tech. At least the mirrors were still working.

Donovan glanced in the rearview again. Now the hint of vehicle he’d noticed earlier as a vague shadow rounding a bend in the road behind was gaining steadily and soon was close enough to make out the blocky front end of a government issue Suburban. Then it was in tailgate range.

He maintained his speed anticipating the road ahead while considering his options and any evasive action he might need to take. He gripped the wheel. With a high powered roar, the dark hulk overtook him and passed close enough to cause his ride to shudder and almost leave the pavement. Then the tinted window Suburban was in front and no longer accelerating as the road made a gentle curve in its decent into the switchbacks before the straightaway to the valley floor.

Another glance in the rearview and his suspicions were confirmed. There was another Suburban drawing up behind. Whoever they were, they weren’t playing around.

“10-BOY-9, what’s your 10-20” It was a long shot. The SUV behind was closing fast. He was about to try the coast deputy again when riding a garbled static wave came the transmission, weak, distant, “. . .oy-ni. . .elphi. . .oad. . . .” Whatever he’d said,  it sounded like Greek to him.

Donovan started down the switchback in among stands of eucalyptus, thick foliage on the upside and the downside of the narrowing road. The vehicle in front was slowing, brake lights flashing. He was in a pocket, and it was making him sweat. The adrenaline had kicked in. “BOY 9 confirm you are on Delphi Road.”

“Victor 5, affirm,” the radio crackled.

As the vehicle ahead started into the outside turn, he closed on it. “Code 30. I’ve got two 11-54’s, one on my tail and one hindering forward progress. Code 3 to my location. Evasive tactics in progress.”

bullbarHe took a breath. How long ago had he taken that advanced tactical driving course? Something you don’t get much practice doing once you become a detective. He closed on the bumper, aiming the bull bar for the right rear. Current speed dropping to 30 MPH, he had to hit it just right. Activating the lights and siren as a distraction, he wheeled a sharp turn. The bull bar made contact with the outer edge of the Suburban’s bumper. He accelerated, pushing the large SUV off center to deprive the rear wheels of traction. The Suburban went into a skid, swerved to regain control but only ended up facing the way it had come, what Tac drivers euphemistically called a “committed lane change,” both side wheels dangling over the steep drop.

There was enough of a gap on the inside heading into the next turn. Low branches and  shrubs scraped the driver’s side, snapping the sideview mirror. Donovan pulled a hard right as he approached the bend, engaged the emergency brake long enough to fishtail, cant on two wheels, and come down facing an unobstructed road. Punching the accelerator he skidded around the last switchback at top speed. Out in the clear he had a good view of the road snaking its way up the gentle curve of the coastal hill and the flashing lights of the patrol unit speeding in his direction. A quick glance in the rearview and it appeared that his pursuers had given up the chase.

He pulled over to the side of the road adjacent a sagging rusty barbed wire fence holding back a large field of tall dry grass. And waited for the patrol unit to arrive. He was shaking, breathing hard, the adrenaline sending his heart rate through the roof. His eyes were watering and he had to step out of the vehicle. He held the door open and used it do steady himself.

Royce pulled his unit to a stop and shut down the flashing lights. He stepped out and jogged over to Donovan. “You alright? What’s going on?”

“I had a couple of dreadnaughts on my tail, they tried to get me in the pocket.” He took a breath. “And they weren’t at all friendly about it.”

Royce was nodding, a look of concern in his eyes. “You gonna be alright?”

Donovan laughed. “Yeah, yeah. Just as soon as my asshole unpuckers.” He laughed again, looking back the way he’d come. “I’m good.”

“I thought you knew about the top of Mt Oly being off limits. That’s why when I heard you going 10-8 to the old Girl Scout camp I thought I’d head up to warn you off. But I was all the way down at Argo State Beach coordinating with the new Park Ranger down there.”

“How long’s the restriction been in effect?”

Royce shrugged. “I don’t know. It was that way when I took up this post. That’s what it says in the procedure manual for the coast district. The feds want hands off, no peeks, no peeps, their personnel handles everything up there. It’s their own private country. They get to do what they want and how they want was the way it was explained to me by the coast deputy I replaced.”

“Baxter says there’ve been complaints of threats, intimidation by their security?”

“Yeah, I’ve taken complaints, sent them on for review. Next thing I know the complaint’s been dropped. Word comes back to me to warn potential hikers in that vicinity to steer clear. The ranchers round here know the drill so I don’t hear from them too often.”

Donovan’s head shook in disbelief. “No, this is bullshit. I’ll be looking into this.”

Royce smiled in return. “You mustn’t be planning to retire any time soon. You’re gonna run into an avalanche of paperwork that’ll keep you in the courts till you’re pushing a walker and dragging an oxygen cannister.”

“You’re probably right, but what the hey, if I’m on my way out, why not stir a little shit, light a fire under some bureaucrat’s ass.”

Royce’s radio squawked. “10BOY9, status of VICTOR5?” He keyed his epaulet mic, “Code 4.”

“Request VICTOR5 10-21 SAMOCEAN1,” dispatch returned. “10-4.” Royce answered and then to Donovan, “Sounds like the Sheriff wants a word with you.”

“Won’t be the first time,” Donovan said as he looked up from his device. “Finally got an ID on the flyer, and not coincidentally, a frequent flyer.” He held up his device so Royce could see the booking photo. “Dwight Carey.”

“That’s Ike! Or ‘Ikey’ as he’s known at the Sparta Creek Trailer Park.”

“You know him?”

“I’ve had interactions with him, 5150, disorderly conduct mostly. He gets a little manic when he’s off his meds. Not violent. just what you might say, too happy.”

“That scares people.”


“I’d like to go to Sparta Creek Trailer Park and ask around about Ike Carey. Interested in being my tour guide?”

“Follow me.”  Royce started toward his unit. “Aren’t going to call the boss?”

“Why bother, he’s only going to chew me out,” Donovan said, getting back behind the wheel, “and after what I did to his brand new tactical rig, can’t say I’d blame him, but I’m not interested in getting my ass chewed over the phone. If it’s going to happen, I’d rather it be in person, and later in the day. Otherwise, I’ve got work to do.”

trailer-parkThe gravel road into Sparta Creek trailer park ran along a wide dribble of questionable water between sand dunes and beach grass, and was accessed from the paved road that wound up to the parking lot of the overlook popular with hang gliders. A few bright colored sails had drifted down onto the wide beachfront as he turned off the coast highway and followed Royce down the narrow track into the nest of antique trailers, really tiny homes, rusty camper shells, and lean-to’s, most supplemented with one or more blue tarps. He didn’t want to guess how many vehicle violations were parked in front of the dilapidated aluminum dwellings. A profusion of surf boards, either atop of dune buggy type vehicles or leaning against old board fences, spoke of the occupants’ preoccupations.

Royce said he wanted to check up on the victim of the domestic from the previous day. Being a long time resident, she would likely know Ike Carey. Her name was Heron. “Like the bird,” he’d added.

The woman who stepped out from under the awning of the trailer had a young face struggling to stay that way framed by a tangle of gray and blond deadlocks. A bruise burnished one cheek and above the other, a pale blue eye contained by purple lids engorged with blood. Skinny tan arms clustered with tattoos jutted out from an oversized  mauve down vest and across her chest, pale thin lips turned downward, licked by a nervous tongue.

“I wondered where he’d got off to.” She dropped her head and shook her mane, “So sorry to hear. I just thought he’d gone off with Dad.” She paused to give Royce a meaningful look. “Besides I had other things to deal with.” And addressing the deputy “They gonna let Billy go? I ain’t gonna press charges. He was just mad cause I loaned his car without asking.”

“Dad is his father, his next of kin?” Donovan wrote in the battered notepad he carried in his jacket pocket.

“Uh, no, don’t think so, just an old guy everybody calls Dad, kinda looks like that poster of Einstein, you known, big floppy moustache with the tongue sticking out? He stays mostly up in the parking lot with the hang glider schleppers. And so does Ikey. Kinda funny, they are almost like father and son, the way I’ve seen them argue and get on.”


“The guys the hang gliders hire to carry their gear up to the highest point above the overlook.” She pointed up toward the top of the cliff, scrawny wrist bespangled with bracelets. “We call them schleppers, kind like Sherpas, because they have to cart the sail outfits up a skinny dirt trail to the higher point and help with the setup. Course they can’t go to the highest point because of the dogs and barbed wire.”

Of course. The other residents knew about as much as Heron did about Ike Carey, or even less. They all agreed that Dad did not live in the trailer park but showed up every once in a while to watch the hang gliders. He didn’t have wheels according to one resident because he had asked to borrow his Datsun station wagon. “Said he’d give me a hundred bucks, he just had to get to Santa Lena for a doctor’s appointment. I wanted his driver’s license for collateral. That stopped him. But the next day, he shows up with this out of State drivers id. So I said what the heck, a hundred bucks is a hundred bucks.”

“Remember what the name on the id was?”

“Well, it wasn’t Dad, that’s for sure. Daniel something. Something weird like Ailess or Ailuz, I don’t know.”

Donovan sat at his desk where the real work got done unlike how it was portrayed on TV cop shows. Detective work was essentially paperwork, scanning the details, sorting the facts, gathering the evidence. He had a friend who was a program analyst for Social Services and she had put together a timeline spreadsheet template for him. All he had to do was fill in the cells with approximate times and dates, add a few notations, and look for any patterns that might emerge.

Working backward, 12 to 36 hours prior to the discovery, calculating the dates which placed the TOD within a two to three day period. He had interviewed a few idling schleppers in the overlook parking lot. No one had seen Dwight Carey for at least two days prior to his drowning. When informed of the young man’s death, one of the schleppers had mentioned something about going into a “white room.”

hangglidingHe consulted his notebook. A “white room” was the interior of a cloud and a very dangerous place to be as it was disorienting to the hang glider. Entering the white room was also a term used to signified someone who had died while hang gliding.

Had Ikey gone into the white room and had that led to his demise? Not unless someone else had also been in the white room and gut shot him. The bullet had entered the abdomen above the hip. Whoever shot him would have been positioned lower or below the subject assuming that he was in the air and attached to a pair of homemade wings. He examined the stick figures drawn and numbered in his notebook. Number one was the victim, number two, the assailant. Obviously #1 was in the air. Where was #2 standing when he or she fired the shot? He had a hunch.

Quizzing the schleppers and the gliders waiting for what they called “magic air,” Donovan had learned that there were three spots to launch from: the overlook by the parking lot where mostly beginners were “chucked off the hill” by their instructors, and the next highest point on the bluff overlooking the beach some three to four hundred feet further up where the “sky gods” might “glass off” and no “launch potatoes” were allowed. The third level was for the advanced “airborne,” as they were sometimes called, high enough that sky gods or goddesses might catch a “bullet thermal” and “speck out,” but it was no longer accessible because it was in the restricted zone. That had been the most frequent gripe in all the interviews, that the government was spoiling their fun.

The phone on his desk warbled. He stared at it, distracted. He had a good idea who it might be and let it go to voicemail.

Looking over Carey’s arrest record, he came across an old booking entry, almost a dozen years prior. His first, in fact. Resisting arrest at a demonstration by the local environmental group, EAF, Earth Action Front. He’d required hospitalization and had been released on probation. There’d been a lawsuit, dismissed. All subsequent arrests had been for disorderly conduct, nothing criminal.

Donovan paused his finger on the keyboard and then with a few deft pokes called up the EAF file. It was password protected. He paged back through his notebook. He wondered if they had changed the password since the last time he’d accessed a secure file. They hadn’t.

The EAF dossier was mostly routine. Court orders for communication monitoring, CI interviews, a few audio files indicating listening devices. He was surprised at the extent of the coverage. EAF (the D is silent, as the cops liked to say), once a fairly radical militant group, had not made the news cycle in quite some time, now mostly affiliated with more mainstream enviros, limiting their activities to leafletting and demonstrations. He scanned the membership list. No surprise, there was Dwight Carey’s name.

Dad had come up in the interviews about Ikey with a few of the schleppers. No one knew where he lived. Not at the trailer park, that had been confirmed. He’d show up out of nowhere. Some suspected he was camping up the hill near the old waterfall. He always dressed in the same ratty blue coveralls. Ikey followed him around like a lost puppy. Nor had Dad been spotted in the last few days. One of the schleppers had mentioned that he thought that Dad might have been going somewhere. The last time he’d seen him was the same morning that Ike’s body had been found. He looked different, too, shaved off his moustache, slicked his hair back, might have even cut it, wearing a sports jacket and slacks.

Donovan stared at the notebook where he had written Daniel “Dad” Ailess followed by a question mark. What was his connection to Ike Carey’s death, if any?

Next Time: What Is EAF, Who Is IDA?

Valentine’s Day—2

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.”

FBI Heli 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.”

            “I’m Vegan.”

            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 mustangof 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.”

            “With guns.”

            “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.”

            “No comment.”

            “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.


Valentine’s Day—1

by Helene Baron-Murdock

It was something Mary Fisher, the crime scene tech, had said. “Old Gus has got more barks than a three headed dog.”  She was right. The mastiff, part Rhodesian ridgeback by the looks, had a head the size of a backhoe shovel and bit off its yaps as regular and precise as a stamping mill. That had been five months ago. The case now belonged to the Feds, at their insistence, and was no longer the County Sheriff’s problem. Except that it was.

Jim Donovan, detective with the Weston County Sheriff’s Violent Crimes Unit, watched from the break room window as a rare June rain wet the parking lot and those scrambling to and from their cars who still couldn’t believe that it rained at this time of year. He was avoiding the paperwork that awaited him at his desk. The report was due by eight the following morning for a news conference to be held shortly thereafter.

Weston County Sheriff Tim Collins would be meeting the press to explain to the public, and the County Board of Supervisors, why there had not been any progress in the multiple execution style murders at a remote farmhouse up on the tribal lands. And that he was not part of the cover-up. The fact that his Department been shut out of the case by the FBI had been really hard to swallow. And now the blowback over the cover-up was threatening to call into question his carefully erected reputation as a straight shooter. The “lands”, as the Sage Valley Rancheria was called, sat in his jurisdiction. However, it was also a section in the northeast of the county administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and that meant that his authority was trumped by Washington. Sheriff Collins was a politician as well and he knew when to shift the blame. He hated the FBI and so was not the least averse to showing them in a bad light. Lawyers with guns, he called them.

Donovan sat in his chair and set the coffee cup on the stained notepad as the phone rang. “Donovan.”  He stared at the ceiling. The big boss. “Yeah, Tim, I’m working on it now. I have your notes right here.”  He lifted the coffee cup as if he were unveiling them. “I fit everything onto the timeline. Right up to when we were pulled off the investigation.”

He’d asked it before and he knew the answer, but he asked again anyway, reflexively, as a dig or complaint about the constraint on doing their job, however broadly that was defined. “I thought we signed a Joint Powers Agreement that gave us jurisdiction over the lands within the county. What good is it if the State or Feds can muscle us out of the way any time they want?”

Anything to get Tim going. But apparently not today. The Sheriff was focused and went over in detail once again the points he wanted emphasized.

“Jesus, Tim, think this is my first rodeo? What are you going to do when I retire?”  Donovan listened and scoffed. “Good luck with that.”  And “Are we done? I have to put the final touches to this report.”  He stared at the screen and the document page that was titled Timeline for MCI on Feb 14th Sage Valley Weston County and the blank space below it. “You’ll have it by the start of work tomorrow. Have I ever failed you?”  He took exception to the reply. “That was different.”

Hanging up, he focused on the blank screen, the pulsing cursor, again. He knew what he had to do. Fill in the blanks. Easy enough. He had his pocket notebook. Most of the younger guys used their smart phones or digital recorders. He was old school, admittedly, but writing something down was that extra step that would help trigger a chain of associations.

Shooting, possibly drug related, way out on the lands, at the far eastern end of Weston County, multiple victims, the way it was called in. The big man had wanted him out there for an overview, and to help the new guy, Nelson, who would be the lead investigator. Seemed like more and more the Department was using him to train the rookies. The brass liked to use the word ‘mentor.’  Well, he could have just as easily been driving a desk after the ‘incident’, so he had to consider himself lucky to be out in the field even if it was just hand-holding and nose-wiping.

valentinewall           He remembered the day well, Valentine’s Day. He was on a domestic violence call on the west side of Santa Lena, in an unincorporated neighborhood on High Creek Rd. A rundown two story Queen Anne knockoff in need of some TLC fronted the High Creek address. Just inside the door a shaggy white haired unshaven older gent lay in a heap at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Accident, at first glance, yet the man was naked below the waist, his pants and briefs wrapped around his ankles. That appeared to have been the cause of his fall. At the top of the stairs sat a woman in a wheelchair, close in age to the dead man. With her was a social worker from Adult Protective Services or Apes, as they were sometimes called, a young woman in her thirties with shiny caramel colored hair and a bright green overcoat. She had a pretty face, but it was marred by a frown and severe expression. She was the one who had found the body and called it in. First responders had arrived about the same time as the deputy. They’d both agreed, a coroner’s case. Something the Ape said to the deputy had made him request a detective from Violent Crimes.

The social worker, her id badge hanging from a blue lanyard around her neck displaying a none too flattering photo and her name, Shirley Holmes, explained that there had been previous incidents of domestic violence at this address. When Donovan suggested that maybe the woman had fought back this time, he was informed that the old woman, Ida Karanov, had been the instigator of the previous incidents.

He was just about to begin with some preliminary questions of the woman when Tim called to have him head out to the MCI on the lands. At the suggestion of the social worker, he arranged to have the woman taken to General and placed in one of the holding rooms at the hospital where she could be cared for by the medical staff if need be. She wasn’t going anywhere in that wheelchair.

On the forty minute drive to the Rancheria he’d had a chance to mull over the potential crime scene. Older guy, Jay Karanov, the woman’s husband, falls down a flight of stairs, about fifteen feet, breaks his neck. He has his trousers and briefs wrapped around his ankles. Well, it was Valentine’s Day, after all, maybe he got a little frisky and the old woman didn’t appreciate it. So she pushes him away. He loses his balance and takes the tumble. But why at the head of the stairs? Head at the head, he thought but dismissed it as cynical, the result of his experience over the years with the finer specimens of humanity.

mustard fields2Weston County in February was awash in yellow mustard and acacia blooms. A political compromise in the early 20th Century had created Weston County as a trapezoidal wedge between the conservatives of the Anderson County timberlands to the north, and the well to-do liberals in the agri-burbs of Tolay County to the south. Weston was a sampler of both of those ideologies and equally representative in its topography. To the West, Weston was bound by the rugged coast and the wide blue yonder of the Pacific. Consisting mostly of sparsely inhabited timberland vacation destinations and upscale enclaves notched into and around sheer granite oceanside cliffs, it stretched north to the county line as a continuation of the coastal range. The south and east of the county were taken up by arable lands, home to vineyards, orchards, and truck farms encroached on, steadily and year after year, by housing developments and the attendant paving.

Almost equidistant from the wave tumbled coast and the rolling grass and oak foothills at the Harbin County line to the east sat Santa Lena, the largest population center and the county seat. The heavily traveled north-south State four lane thoroughfare bisected the town and the main east-west artery, known as the Santa Lena Highway, cut across the northeast corner at the city limits.

At one point dispatch had requested his 10-20 and his ETA to the shooting scene. He informed the dispatcher that he’d just cleared the outskirts and was heading east on the Santa Lena Highway, figuring to arrive in about half an hour. He imagined Tim Collins listening to his answer in his office over the monitor speaker because it was his question that had prompted the radio traffic. Sometime later he’d heard the Crime Scene van check in as having arrived at the site. 

—The arrival had been acknowledged by dispatch, and he noted it on the timeline.—

The tributary road off the highway was designated by a government number and had been freshly graded down to granite hard pack. He followed it until he came upon a pale green Forest Service pickup and the Ranger in the driver’s seat who pointed him through the cattle gate and the deeply rutted dirt road beyond. His Crown Vic was just not built for that kind of terrain and he banged his head not a few times as the vehicle jolted, bounced, and balked at the rough going. Things got a little better as he approached a large two story white farmhouse and outbuildings set in among a grove of ancient valley oaks. There were a handful of patrol units and Forest Service pick-ups gathered at the entrance to the fenced-in property. He parked off to the side of the road and checked in with dispatch. Overhead the leaden slab of clouds that stretched without end to the west threatened to mist as a fine drizzle.

—The dispatch log put him there at 10 AM.—

He walked into the yard noting the battered blue Explorer and rust red lightweight pick-up astride a set of extra-large wheels parked in front of the farmhouse. Nelson strode out to meet him, explaining “We’re still waiting on the medical examiner.”  The Crime Scene van was parked off to one side and the tech had deployed the field lab from the side compartment. A large dog penned in near the outbuildings punctuated the air with its aggressive barks.

“All dead?”

“Yeah, five of them, male, non-white. We can go in as soon as the tech gives us the nod. I did a prelim walk through. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“Bloody  mess?”

“No, that’s not it. All head shots. They never knew what hit them.”

“No witnesses?”

forensic unitNelson indicated the Crime Scene van and the elderly woman seated on the passenger’s side with the door open. “Mrs. Elma Snyder. Lives in the granny unit out back. Didn’t hear a thing. She found the bodies.”  And as an afterthought, “The tech, Fisher, knows her.”

Almost on cue, Mary Fisher, in her blue crime scene coveralls, strode up and handed them each a pair of baby blue rubber gloves and booties to match. “We can go in and do the video walk through any time you’re ready.” She nodded acknowledging Donovan and smiled self-effacingly that was the way of her people.

“You know the old woman? Who is she?”

“That’s Grandmother Snyder though everyone calls her Grandmother Spider. She’s related to just about all the families here on the lands. My great aunt’s cousin. She comes with the place. We can talk to her once you’re done inside. I don’t think she knows anything, you know, about where Penny might have got off to.”

“Penny, who is Penny?”

Penny Dessy was Oliver Dessy’s wife, and she was missing. The ranch was her home, and her husband’s, when Chief Warrant Officer Oliver Dessy wasn’t off with the Army somewhere in the world. Afghanistan, Iraq, The Horn of Africa, he’d been to them all. He was regarded a hero to the people of the lands, his decorations and tales of his exploits, though ostensibly classified, were known to all and relished with the pride of kinship. Penny, his wife was not among the carnage inside the house. That Penny Dessy was missing made her a person of interest.

Donovan walked up the steps carefully appraising what he saw, impressed by the order and cleanliness of the front porch with its well-watered potted plants, white-painted wicker chairs and bright cushions, the worn boards of the deck swept clean of yard sand or tree debris, it could have given a pin lessons in neatness. Someone had devoted a lot of time to presenting a welcoming, thoughtful approach.

Mary Fisher had related the backstory on Penny Dessy, an outsider brought home from Oliver Dessy’s tour as a combat field instructor at West Point. She was the adopted daughter of Brigadier General Otto Likhaus, a native woman from the lands of upstate New York. Her ways were different, and her forthrightness struck some of the Sage Valley residents as snooty and rude. She was a tall woman as well, and slender. Her looks attracted many of the men’s eyes and desires which further alienated the close families on the lands. They had one son, Markus, who ran a telemarketing company based in Tolay County.

glenoaksThe sitting room immediately inside the front door was just as immaculate and well cared for as the verandah. Had it not been for the bodies. The tech had placed yellow A-frame number placards by each of the corpses. Donovan stood in the middle of the room and observed the position of each of the dead men. Number one and two, caught sitting, right between the eyes, mouths still open in surprise. Number three, not quite a center shot and may have been standing by the way he had fallen over the arm of the chair. Four looked like he had a defensive wound on his right hand, but the bullet tore right through it and entered just below the right eye. Number five caught a slug just below the laryngeal prominence and then another at the hairline. The efficiency of the killing was chilling.

—Appeared to be the work of a professional he noted on the timeline—.

The on-scene deputies had searched the grounds but there was no sign of Penny.             “The only place we haven’t looked is in the shed.” Nelson pointed to the weathered outbuilding inside the enclosure guarded by the dog. “We can’t get past the dog.”  He shrugged. “Might have to shoot it.”

Mary Fisher overheard them and shook her head. “No need to do that. Old Gus has got more barks than a three headed dog, but there’s no call to kill him for being who he is and what he does. Besides, I put in a call to Woody over at Animal Control. He’s on his way. And I’ve got ID’s on the victims if you’re interested.”

She led them down to the field lab where she had placed the wallets and various photo identifications laid out to be photographed. Donovan looked over her shoulder as she pointed to each. “Number one and two, Jacob Wiley and Jason Wiley, same Harbin County addresses, probably related, brothers.”

“You know them, don’t you,” he interjected.

With a slight movement of her chin down she caught a breath. “Yes, I have heard of them. Wild, into bad things, associated with white men. They were distant cousins of the Dessy’s, too”

He understood what she was saying. “What about number three?”

“Aaron Wiley, an older cousin of these two, played high school football with Oliver Dessy. Drugs, gambling, extortion. Number four, Thomas Bull.”  She pointed to the driver license photo of a man whose head filled the square of photo. “A mean drunk. He’s my husband’s third cousin and we’ve seen his antics at family gatherings. My husband calls him a ‘wannabe badass’.”

Donavan picked up the photo id of number five. “I know this guy, Eric Badger, we had him for a gang related murder, but the witness conveniently disappeared.”

—Animal Control arrived at the scene and checked in. He noted the time on the timeline.—

toolshedWoodrow Ames, also known as Woody, was an animal behavior vet who deprecatingly called himself a glorified dog-catcher. A green County issue mesh ballcap held down the explosion of curly red hair that topped his skinny frame. And anyone one who knew Woody would agree with the assessment that he was fastidious about his uniform attire. A neat freak as the not-so polite would say. His new assistant, a young woman, retrieved the wire lasso at the end of a length of pole and he directed her to walk parallel to the fence in plain view of the large mastiff, attracting its attention. In the meantime, he retrieved a long dark case, the kind a pool shark might carry his professional cue in and extracted two long hollow tubes that he fit together to form an even longer tube. One end was fitted with a round rubber mouthpiece. He propped the blowgun on the open window of the driver’s side door of his truck, inserted the dart in the opening of the tube, and positioned himself to aim. His assistant, glancing back over her shoulder once, moved closer to the fence and the dog on the other side that had by then worked itself into a froth of rage.

The dog gave a little yelp and then tried to bite its own neck before its back legs buckled followed by its head and front paws, it’s heaving ribs slowly breathing shallower.

As soon as Woody gave the nod that it was safe to go in, they entered the shed to learn that it also served as a workshop of some kind though the saws and various other tools hung on the backboard over the bench appeared not to have been used in a while. Dust and cobwebs had taken over the corners and surfaces.

Shining his flashlight in a corner of the shed taken up by rusted farm equipment, Donovan noticed where the ground had been displaced, a mound of dirt next to an olive green wooden military footlocker. He scanned the faded black stenciling of the name O. Dessy US Army on the dust free surface. He lifted the lid. Empty, but he recognized the faint scent of gun oil.

“Somebody’s been in here, working at this bench, recently,” Nelson proclaimed as if he’d just had a Goldilocks moment. A deputy stepped into the shed. “Sheriff’s on the radio for you, Donovan.”

In Part Two: “Put Every Fingerprint Back!”

Notification Of Kin

by Helene Baron-Murdock

He let drop the keys to the sedan into the left pocket of his slacks and walked toward the flashing lights staying to the inside of the flare pattern.

“Hey, Donovan! They got you doing accident investigations now?”

He glanced in the direction of the taunt and waved a hand at Tom Baxter, the fire chief for this stretch of coast highway.  It was a perfunctory wave meaning either ‘hey, howyadoing’ or ‘don’t bother me.’  Baxter was standing by the rescue rig with a few of his volunteers framed against the wide horizon now just a creamy orange line above a placid metallic gray expanse of ocean.

Kyle Bradly, the Park Ranger, intercepted him as he approached the wreck.  “Why’s the Sheriff’s Office even getting involved in this?”

Everything west of the highway was Bradly’s jurisdiction.  What was left of the vehicle had landed on the beach just off the pavement.  The accident itself was in the Highway Patrol’s bailiwick but it was one of those incidents that everyone was going to have a hand in.

Donovan shrugged.  “It’s a CYA operation.  Considering the identity of the road burger, everyone who’s politically connected is going to want to be in on it, if for no other reason than to cover their asses.”  He stopped a short distance from the carnage, a crumpled upended vintage sports car.  “That an old Porsche?”

Bradly nodded.  “Yep, 550 Spyder, James Dean death machine.”

The Highway Patrol officer looked up from her clipboard with a severe frown.  She was young, intense, and concentrated on going by the numbers on the first fatality of her probation.

“Excuse me, you’re. . . ?”  If nothing else, Donovan looked official without trying and she was giving him the benefit of the doubt.

“Jim Donovan, Sheriff’s Office.  I’m here to help you in any way I can.”  When most people heard that line, they usually checked their backs for knives.

“It’s a traffic fatality.  I don’t need any help.”  Her dark eyes snapped resolve.

At least she was standing her ground.  It was going to be a turf tug of war.  How to look good while making the other agencies look bad.  “Being who this is makes it more than just a traffic fatality.”  Donovan dropped to his haunches and took in the length of bloodied partially clothed corpse.

“Dragged himself clean nekid,” Bradly opined.

Donovan blinked and frowned, standing up.  It was one of the worst he’d seen.  At least it was an adult.  And male.   “Tell me that’s not what I think it is.”

The Ranger and patrolman looked at where he was pointing.

“Rumor had it he was a stud, hung like a stallion.”

“I’d hate to see that thing angry.”

They both turned to look at the patrolman.  She rolled her eyes.

“This is my incident.  My accident scene.   The only reason Bradly is any way involved is because the vehicle landed in his sand box.  I don’t remember calling for a County detective.”

“Your shift commander hasn’t contacted you?   There’s to be a thorough investigation by all jurisdictional agencies involved.  T.C. Hughes has a lot of political clout and that’s his kid there with the python between his thighs.”

The patrolman’s ears reddened ever so slightly.  “I haven’t heard anything from my shift commander.”

Donovan smiled thin.  “Be that as it may, notification of kin is done by the coroner who delegates that unpleasant task to the Sheriff’s Office.”  He indicated the young deputy directing traffic.  “Ordinarily that poor bastard would be delivering the bad news.  But you’ve got a high profile casualty here and I pulled the short straw.  That ok with you?”

She nodded looking over Donovan’s shoulder and drawing her lips into an angry line.

The black and white sedan came to a stop behind them and killed the headlights.  The shift sergeant had just arrived.  He would be taking charge of the accident scene.


The patrolman used her hand to describe the path of the vehicle once it got airborne, indicating the bluff and rise of the highway to the south as it first turned east and then made a sharp switch back to the west before dropping in a graceful asphalt parabola to where they were standing and where the front end of the Porsche had come to a stop.

“One of the witnesses said they heard a loud noise like a pop or a thud.  Then they saw the vehicle go airborne right after the first turn.  The victim was ejected, with the vehicle dragging him across the pavement to where the forward momentum was arrested by the berm at the top of the pathway down to the beach.”

“What was it, a pop or a thud?”  The shift sergeant, a large square headed older man, was not happy to be caught up in the political quagmire.  “It can’t be both.”

The patrolman studied her notebook certain she was being harassed because she was a rookie and a woman.  “One witness stated that it sounded like a pop.  Another thought it sounded like a loud thud.  They all said that it happened so quickly they could barely comprehend what was going on until it was all over.”

The sergeant sneered.  “Comprehend?  Did they actually use that word?”  He glanced at Bradly and Donovan and smirked.  “College kids.  Book smart, brain dead.”

Even in the encroaching twilight, the patrolman’s rage, a bright red face containing anger and embarrassment, was more than evident.  “I interviewed a dozen witnesses,” she stated, her voice straining to control her emotions.  “Only three of them actually saw the vehicle flip and crash.  I have their contact information for follow-up if necessary.”

The sergeant had stopped listening to her.  “Yeah, flip and crash, pretty typical out here on the coast highway, wouldn’t you say?”  He addressed Bradly.  “This is a popular spot.  Seems to me there should have been more than just twelve witnesses.”  His smile was sadistic.

“We get a fair share of visitors considering it’s not one of the bigger stretches of sand.”  Bradly pointed out to the water’s edge.  “Locals call it Sculpture Beach because people build things out of driftwood and what have you.  Come the really high tides most of it washes out.  But they keep doing it anyway.  Actually had some pretty well known artists come down and make sculptures recently.”

Donovan pushed himself off the fender of the black and white he had been leaning against and stretched as if he were awakening from a nap.  He glanced at the motley array of driftwood constructions silhouetted against the darkening sky and sea and draped in a fine twilight mist, abstract figures arrested in mid frolic.  “Well, I’ve got work to do,” he said to no one in particular.

“Notification of kin?” the sergeant asked.  “I’ll go with you.”

Not to be left out, Bradly anted up.  “Yeah, I’ll go, too.”

Donovan shook his head.  “I’m delivering bad news, not intimidation.”


T.C. Hughes looked like a Greek god, approximately.   A mat of tight white curls crowned his head, a salt and pepper beard stippling his square jaw and around his liver red mouth.  The blue eyes were clear, untroubled, with no hint of sadness, pain or regret.  “Thank Tim for his discretion.  I appreciate it.”

Donovan nodded.  Tim Collins was the Sheriff, his boss.  A woman was sobbing behind the frosted glass double doors that led out to a balcony.  “Someone has already informed you of your loss, is that correct?”

“Yes, Bobby Temis, a friend of my son’s.  She saw it happen.  She felt it incumbent upon herself to inform us immediately.”

Who talked that way except people who read books and thought of themselves as characters in books.  Donovan flipped open his notebook and scanned the names he had copied from the patrolman’s report.  “Bobby?  A woman?  I don’t have her down here as a witness.”

“Perhaps she didn’t actually witness the accident.  She was there, at the beach, as part of the sculpture event they were having.  My son was on his way to meet her when. . . .”   Hughes didn’t finish, turning his head as if he were hearing the sobbing for the first time.

“How can I contact Bobby?  Temis, was it?”

Hughes smiled vaguely.  “Oh, Bobby. . .Roberta, actually.  She owns the Huntress Gallery in town, on the left after the hairpin curve just past Harbor Road.  She’s an artist.”  He said the word as if it were distasteful.

“Was she your son’s girlfriend. . . ?”  Donovan let the question hang.

It was almost a chuckle.  “No, no, nothing of the sort.  But I don’t see what this has to do with anything, detective.  My son died as a result of a tragic accident.  I appreciate that Tim personally sent one of his top men to make the official notification.  That is, I’m afraid, the end of it.”

“Of course.  Please accept my condolences and convey my sympathies to his mother.”  He was referring to the sobbing unseen female.  And he too could talk like people in books when needed.

Now it was a derisive snort.  “I’ll inform my lawyer and he will inform her lawyer.  His mother and I are not on speaking terms.”  And then following Donovan’s gaze in the direction of the sobbing, “Faye is my son’s stepmother.”

“I see.”

“Again, detective, thank you for your discretion.  Now I must go to my wife.  Please, this way.”  Hughes indicated the massive oak front door with an outstretched arm.

Donovan stared at the notebook, having flipped back a page.  “Two nights ago one of our deputies responded to this address for the report of a domestic disturbance.  Can you tell me what that was about, sir?”

Storm clouds formed above the bushy white eyebrows, the blue eyes flashing electric, angry.  “That has nothing to do with any of this!” Hughes thundered.  “You have a lot of brass bringing that up.  Collins will be hearing from me about your insensitivity and unprofessional behavior!  The door!”

Donovan finished his cigarette before getting back into the sedan.  From the circular drive that led up to the Hughes citadel, a ferrocement monstrosity set in among the gentle folds of the coastal hills, the view was of a dark ragged coast and isolated offshore sentinels against which the sullen sea spent itself as splashes of phosphorescence.  To the north, almost within view, was the accident scene.  He turned back to the mansion.  At night, with its wide sweeping wing-like roof and brightly lit windowed walls, it looked like a cruise ship from another planet.


He opened the folder on his desktop, found the Notification of Kin form, and entered the Coroner’s Case number which linked it to the Coroner’s Report.   The name of the deceased populated the open field.  He tabbed down to the comment field and let the cursor blink while he consulted his notebook.  A lot of the younger guys had smart phones or tiny digital recorders.  He was old school.

The phone rang.  “Donovan,” on the second ring.  “Yeah, Tim, I just now got in.  I was gonna call you. . .he didn’t waste any time. . .yeah, yeah, I know. . unhuh, Parks, Highway Patrol, they all want a piece of the action. . .ok by me. . .whatever, I understand. . .well, you know me, I like to have my t’s dotted and my i’s crossed.”  He laughed with the caller.  “Listen, Tim, I’ll have this wrapped up tomorrow, just a few things I need to follow up on. . .no, no, I know you’re not telling me how to do my job. . .yeah, it just sounds that way. . .yes, I will keep you in the loop. . .don’t I always. . yeah, I know, I’m an asshole, what’s your excuse?  Yes. . Soon as I wrap it up, you’ll be the first. . .ok, bye.”


“Are you interested in art, detective?”  Roberta “Bobby” Temis was lithe and sleek and sophisticated.   Her eyebrows arched up onto her wide brow like the antennae of a big butterfly, the eyes, those of a doe, large wing-like lashes, and the mouth, a double bow between which a pink tongue darted in amusement.

Donovan glanced about the gallery at the large paintings of animals with human faces and the sculptures of humans with animal heads.  “I know what I like.”

“Ah, an expert.”  She smiled.  “I would love to know what you think of my paintings.”

The paintings were rendered realistically, almost photographically.  “Got anything on velvet?”

“Your wit verges on the insolent, how quotidian!”

“I’m not here to talk about art.”  Donovan had unholstered his notebook and flipped to a page.

“Would you like to know my technique?”  She had stopped in front of a painting of a doe with the face of a sad woman.  “I capture my subjects with a camera and project their likeness onto a canvas, in this case superimposing the physiognomy of the hominid over that of the ungulate from which I can then trace their images.”

“Isn’t that cheating?”

“Art is just another word for cheating, detective.”

Donovan shrugged.  He couldn’t argue with that.   “You were friends with Apollo Hughes?”

“Yes, Pol, he hated being called Apollo.  He, Pol, lit us, the world, with his presence.  He was a bright ray, a golden ray of sunlight.”

“You were present when the accident happened?”

“Yes.”  She said it slowly, lingering on the sibilant.   “We were all to meet at the beach to celebrate the high tide and the destructions of our sculptures.”

“Wait a minute, you were celebrating the destruction of your. . . .”  Donovan hesitated.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken that word.  “. . . sculptures?”

“Of course, nothing lasts forever.  Art is a celebration of the life cycle.  As artists, we party at the creation of our work, and we party at its dissolution.”

Donovan shook his head.  He felt like he was in the middle of a vocabulary quiz.  “Did you see it happen, the accident?”

“No, I was focused on the sea.  It is always such a powerful spectacle.  And the breakers were unusually large that day.  The moon, you know, it’s full.”

“Did you hear a noise, like a pop or a thud?”

“Yes, I heard an explosion, a boom.”

“From the direction of the highway?”

“Oh, it may have echoed up the wash and against the hills, but it came from the sea.   It was a boomer.”

“A boomer?”

“Yes, when a large wave breaks close to shore it makes a thunderous noise hitting the sand.  The ancients called it the ‘bull of the sea.’  They meant Poseidon, of course.”  She pointed to the slide show on a flat screen TV mounted on the wall.  “Here are some photos of the recent sculptures we assembled.  And the artists.  And their friends.”  She froze a frame with the remote.  “And this is Pol.”  The photo was of a young, very handsome man with a long dark mane and a captivating demeanor.

“You saw him?  After the accident, I mean.  How could you be sure he was dead?”

She gave a sad smile that said she did not suffer fools gladly.  “The impact alone would have killed him.  But he was dragged behind his Porsche as well.  His hair, his beautiful long hair, caught on something. . . .”  She hesitated, taking in his full measure.   “. . .after that, death can only be merciful .”

“And you felt that you needed to notify his family.”

“I told his father.   He lives close by.  His mother is Anne Tiope, the actress.   I would assume that Terrence, Mr. Hughes, will somehow communicate the news to her.”

Donovan nodded.  He hadn’t made that connection. The mother starred on TV as an Amazon princess.  “I didn’t get the impression that Mr. Hughes was too broke up about his son’s death.”

“Terrence affects a godlike stoicism. . .it protects his inner child.”

“But the wife. . . .”

“Faye?”  Bobby gave a dismissive laugh.  “Faye D’Era is a child, a spoiled child.  And not very bright.  I don’t think she realized that her selfishness. . . .”  She pursed her lips and blinked innocence as if to indicate she has said too much already.   She drew his attention to the small wood sculpture of a man’s nude body surmounted by a horse’s head.  “Pol was my model for this piece.”

Donovan threw a sidelong glance at the statuette.  At least she had the proportions right.  He referred back to his notebook.  “Three days ago, the Sheriff’s Office received a report of a disturbance at the Hughes estate.  The deputy reported that there had been a violent argument between Mr. Hughes and his son and that it had comes to blows.   Mr. Hughes was adamant about his son remaining on the premises and demanded that the deputy arrest him.   The deputy also reports that some of the statements made by Mr. Hughes could be construed as veiled threats. The deputy concluded that the situation was mitigated by the departure of Apollo Hughes who had declined to press charges.  Do you know anything about this incident?”

Bobby nodded her head and closed her eyes briefly.  “Yes, yes, it is so tragic but so inevitable.  In the classical sense, if you know what I mean.  The situation there was a powder keg.  There was bound to be bad feelings, particularly after that nasty divorce.  And to take a wife who was younger than his own son was like putting fire to the fuse.  Faye was smitten by Pol.  And who can blame her.  He was incredibly handsome.  What most women who fell for him did not understand was that he had no interested in them.”

“You’re saying he was gay?”

“In men?  No interest at all.  He delighted in life.  He was quite evolved.  The carnal aspects of his nature were subsumed within an esthetic of being.  He cared only about fine things. Art, music, poetry.  His image.”  She smiled slightly, remembering.  “To say he was a little narcissistic would be an understatement.  He was drawn, as are most idle wealthy young men, to extremes. . .fast cars. . . sky diving. . .rock climbing. . .but to liaisons of a sexual nature, he was ambivalent.”

“Not even. . . .” Donovan had the insolent thing going for him.

“No, not at all.” The laugh said she thought him ridiculous.  “Pol and I were the best of friends, running buddies, partners in crime.  We were wild in such similar ways.”

“Too bad,” Donovan mused, “He had the equipment.”

“Crass, but true, detective.  However, he considered himself on a higher chakra than most mortals.”

“Ok, so why was that a problem?”

“Faye threw herself at him.  And she took his indifference as a rejection. The night of the blow up, Faye lied to her husband and accused Pol of trying to seduce her.”

Donovan gave an understanding nod.  He saw where it was heading.  “Father and son get into a fight.  Someone calls the cops.  Threats are made.  A couple of days later, son is killed driving vintage sports car belonging to Mr. T. C. Hughes.”  Donovan made to close his notebook.  “End of story?”

“Yes, detective, end of story.  Or end to this cycle of life and on to another.  Nothing sinister. Terrence owns a dozen sports cars and any one of them were available to Pol.  He never drove the Maserati or the Porsche or any one of them two days in a row. There’s nothing more to it than that.  We die and are reborn.  The energy never goes away.”

Donovan closed his notebook and turned to leave.  “Thanks for your time.  Sorry if I inconvenienced you.”  He stopped at a small shelf near the entrance to the gallery to look at a bronze statue of a nude woman with a stag’s head that would make a nice base for a table lamp.  Inscribed on the pedestal was the artist’s signature, R. Temis.

“Aren’t you curious as to what I told Terrence when I delivered the news of his son’s death?”

Hand on the chrome door plate, he turned to look over his shoulder.

She gave a wicked knowing smile.  “I said, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’  And don’t you for one minute doubt that he didn’t know what I meant.  I could read the guilt in those soulless blue eyes.”

Donovan sat in the sedan watching the seagulls fight the steady ocean breeze.  A fog bank like a big chunk of lead sat on the horizon.  There was a certain kind of beauty to the way the muted light settled on every mundane thing and made it somehow special.  He’d have to make the drive out to the coast on his own time one of these days.  He glanced at the glass and chrome door to the gallery pulling away.  Maybe invest in a little art.


Long Shot—2

by Helena Baron-Murdock

The pulled pork sandwich was as good as it got at the barbeque joint Donovan favored in Old Town. Since the Fed had an expense account, he sprung for lunch. Dabbing a corner of his mouth with a napkin, Donovan continued, “It wasn’t originally my call. This is about two years ago. We had a new guy, Hutter.”   Butler nodded like he knew the name. “And Collins, who was undersheriff then, had me go in and back him up. Considering that it was at the Horsemen’s compound, he thought that it might be a little intimidating to the new guy. I’d dealt with Herko before so I wasn’t going to be put off by his bullshit.”

“What went down?”  The agent had barely touched his ribs.

“They all said it was an accident. I didn’t expect anything less. Hutter was falling for it. A kid, maybe 16 or 17 was dead from a fist to the face. Apparently there was a party and the kid, the son of one of Herko’s lieutenants, was drunk and staggered into Herko just as he was about to take a hit of blow from the blade of his Bowie knife.”

“Oh, oh, I see what’s coming.”

“Right, Herko who is notorious for his foul temper smashes the kid in the face and kills him with one blow.”

“He’s a big guy, makes Hulk Hogan look like a midget wrestler,” Butler added spearing a fry with his fork.

“You couldn’t charge him? That’s a pretty damning story.”

“Well, it was one I heard only after the fact. The story the witnesses were giving was that the kid was drunk and had run into a post in the compound patio. Place they used for dog fights if you ask me. We could have got him on manslaughter maybe, contributing to the delinquency of a minor leading to mortal injury. The DA didn’t think we had enough so they let it slide.”

“Killed the kid with one blow for messing with his blow. Almost poetic.”

“I dunno about that, but I’ve been wanting to nail Herko for something since then. He paid a blood price to the parents of the kid. I hear the mother wasn’t too happy about it. And he promotes the kid’s old man to second in command and then sends him on a buy down south where lo and behold he gets popped with a load of product by the Feds and local gendarmes who got the tip from an anonymous caller and now poppa-san is doing large in a federal institution.”

Butler’s phone rang first. “Yeah, when was that? You sure it’s him?”  He turned to look at Mendez who was bringing his own phone to his ear. “Ok, ok, hang tight. Yes, go with them, get out of there!”  He looked across the table, worried. Donovan was taking the call from dispatch. “On the way to Community? Alright, thanks Carol, I owe you.”

Butler blurted, “Something’s gone down at the compound. They think it’s Herko!”

Mendez nodded. “I’ve got someone inside. She says it looks like an overdose of some kind. It’s Herko.”

Donovan stood, dropping his napkin on his plate. “Meet you in emergency at Community.”


When they wheeled Herko into emergency he was screaming that he was on fire. He struggled against the restraints on the gurney and finally broke free of them. He careened down the hallway in agony, tearing at his clothes, his cut, his shirt, insisting that he was burning up. An EMT tried to tackle him and got a blast in the chops from an elbow that landed him crumpled against a wall. Security and deputies who were attending a stabbing call joined the fray. They tased him but he merely ripped the barbs out of his skin and continued to rage, batting at anyone who came near him. He raised his dusty leonine head and roared at the ceiling, digging his nails into his bare flesh. He fell to his knees and gasped for breath. Then he was silent and dead.

At the same time Bridgette, his longtime old lady, added to the cacophony, hysterically screaming “It’s all my fault! It’s all my fault!” She was being consoled by another biker momma who looked very much on edge, eyes wild, jumping at every sound and motion, spring loaded like a feral cat. Donovan directed a nurse he knew over to help with the grieving girlfriend. A phalanx of club members muscled their way through security to see their leader, face and arms scratched and bleeding, shriveled into a fetal position. They couldn’t help but notice the spent taser wires. Their eyes darted around the room looking for someone to blame. Donovan gave them a choice. “Let’s step outside, boys, and let the hospital staff do their job.”

The snarl lasted only as long as it took Donovan to place the barrel of his weapon to the biker’s tattooed forehead. “You may be in an emergency room, pal, but I’ll make sure you get a hole they can’t do anything about.”  The biker’s resolve melted away so apparently he wasn’t as stupid as he looked. “Don’t go too far, boys, I’m going to want to ask you some questions.”  He heard a chortle, “Yeah, like that’s gonna happen.”  And moments later, the roar of two stroke engines snarling with menace driven away.

Mendez had the skittish momma by the elbow, leading her into the little office behind the reception desk that the shift nurse hurriedly vacated. He motioned Donovan over with a tilt of his head. Butler joined them in the tiny room and closed the door.

“Ok, Angie,” Mendez demanded, “What the hell went down?”

The woman, a nondescript brunette, still rather young but trying to look hard, nodded her head, her hands shaking. “It was totally freaky, man. I was watching TV and I could hear them arguing in the kitchen. He was on her about Mark. About how she should have told him the first time Mark came on to her. Someone else in the club must have seen something go down between them. And told Herko. I mean Mark was a good looking guy and he liked to play. But he should have been smarter than that.”

Donovan held up a printout of the Florida license. “This the man, Mark Nesso?”

The woman pulled her head back in shock. “Yeah, that’s Mark. How. . . ?”  She stopped and looked inquiringly at Mendez.

“They found him in a field almost mile behind the compound, Angie. He’d been shot in the back.”  He addressed Butler and Donovan, “This is Angie Renfro, she’s one of ours.”

Donovan nodded and smiled. “Pleased to meet you Angie. I think you’re going to help me solve a murder.”

Angie fixed him with a dumb stare and scratching her arms turned to Mendez. “You gotta get me into detox, Eric, my skin’s beginning to crawl.”


Donovan was on the carpet. The carpet was in Sheriff Tim Collins’ office. It was a large office, conference table off to one side, designed to make everyone else feel small. Donovan didn’t feel small and he didn’t like the implication that he didn’t know how to do his job.

“I put down a murder in less than eight hours. If that’s not enough, I closed a case that was over two years old. And I got the killer for both. Jerzy Herkovanic.

“The most you could have got on Herko was manslaughter for killing the kid with his fist.”  Tim Collins, a large man who spent too much time behind his desk and the dining table, rested his elbows on the arms of his large chair behind the wide oak desk and put the tips of his fingers together. Donovan knew that face. It was his I’m-gonna- stick-it-to-you-no-matter-what-you-say face. “How can you tie Herko to the shooting?”

“It’s all there in the report, Tim. The slug they dug out of  Nesso was a .223. Stopped right in the center of the heart. The DEA’s undercover confirmed what I suspected. Herko had a trophy room, strictly off limits to anyone not in the inner circle, on the second floor of the compound with a large window overlooking the undeveloped field that abuts to a number of rural dead ends about a mile away, one of them being Willig near where we found Nesso’s body. Herko had a shooting range set up in the room that allowed him to target practice in the vacant lot behind. He had everything in there, competition rifles worth a couple grand easy, tripods, sandbags, scopes, range finders. Looked like he did his own loads, too. Apparently, according to one of my sources, he did a lot of plinking from his perch.

“Right, now it’s coming back to me. Wasn’t he on an Olympic rifle team when he was a kid?”

“The Serbian team. He comes from a family of sharpshooters, there’s generations of them, snipers, all dead shots. I’m putting Herko up there drawing a bead on Nesso’s back.”

“Wait a minute, I used to patrol that neck of the woods. That’s impossible. It’s at least a mile as the crow flies. And what’s his motive? Bad drug deal?”

“What I put together from what I’ve been told, Nesso made a play for Herko’s woman and got caught. Nesso tried to deal his way out of it with some of the hybrid blow everyone was raving about. Herko had another idea. He would take all of Nesso’s stash and give him a running start across the field. If Nesso made it to the pavement of one of the dead end streets he would let him live. Nesso didn’t have much of a choice and he gambled that he could get out of range of the average weapon.”

“Why’d Herko even let him get that far? He almost made it.”

“You’re right. The ME said that had Nesso made it a few more yards he might have lived. The round was starting to tumble. On the other hand, Herko, being the show-off and sadist that he was, probably let Nesso think he was going to reach the pavement when he took that gold medal long shot.”

“OK, I suppose congratulations are in order. You solved two killings in on day. And Herkovanic overdosed and saved the County the added expensive of trying him and sending him away.”

“Herko may have overdosed, but it was deliberate, murder.”

Collins rolled his eyes. “Come on, out with it.”

“We could never make a case on it, but here’s how I figure it went down. The blow that Nesso gave Herko was a tainted batch. The DEA lab confirmed it. They said it was a very sophisticated formula. It produced euphoria in small amounts, but there was a tipping point if you overdid it. It was designed to attack the nerves under the skin and make the user feel like his entire body was on fire. That much stimulus caused the brain to shut down and death was not far behind. Nesso must have known that Herko would have overindulged when he handed over his entire stash.”

“Alright, what’s this Nesso’s motive?”

“Murder for hire.”

“Aw, jeez, Donovan, gimme a break!”

“You’ll remember that Herko killed the kid of one of his lieutenants and had to pay a blood price. And then by coincidence, the kid’s old man who gets promoted to number two is popped on a Fed drug bust and ends up doing large in a Fed pen. But the kid’s mother wasn’t having any of it. She took the payoff and bided her time. She knew that revenge is a dish best served cold. The opportunity came along when Nesso bolted from the cartel and needed cash to get his own operation going. She connected with the chemist and he gave Herko the deadly product. Killer blow for a killing blow. I think that’s called poetic justice.”

“You realize I’m still going to have to reprimand you for pulling your weapon and threatening a citizen. I have to appear before the grand jury today to explain your actions. A citizen’s group filed the complaint.”

“Tim, I was doing my job. That situation could have gone south in a hurry. Cut me some slack! Your job, I don’t have to tell you, is to run interference for your people. Do your job so I can do my job!”

Sheriff Tim Collins gave his detective a blank look. The corners of his mouth turned up slightly. “You’re getting pretty close to retirement age, aren’t you?”





Long Shot—1

by Helena Baron-Murdock

Long Shot—1

The deputy hurried straight for him, face squeezed red.  Donovan stepped aside, letting him rush past, and resumed his slog through the waist high thistle and dry grass of the marshy field.  He didn’t bother to turn at the sound of retching.  A slight breeze ruffled the cold autumn morning and brought with it the putrid odor of rotting flesh.

Claymore, the shift Sergeant, stood with his hands on his hips shaking his head in disgust.  “Damn rookie, now he’s gone and contaminated the crime scene!”  Cropped close gray hair and ruddy face creased by a grin, he was obviously enjoying the young deputy’s discomfort.

“What we got here, Sarge?”

“Dubya-Em, I’d say mid to late forties.  No ID, but we’re waiting for the ME before we roll him.  He’s gassing pretty bad.  Been out here a while.  Bugs’ve made a meal of his eyes and one side of his face.”

Donovan stood by the head of the corpse, involuntarily placing a hand over his nose.  There was a smell that would stay with him all day.  He swallowed hard against the rising gorge.  It was a stink you could taste.

Nothing unusual about the clothing: Levi’s, western boots with riding heels, flannel hunting shirt, a dirty blue under a brown leather vest.  Shoulder length black hair.  One arm, the right, stretched out and pointing in the direction of the road and the fire engine, ambulance, patrol units and the Violent Crimes Crown Vic.  The other hand was tucked under him, out of sight, like a sleeping child.  Probably six foot or just short of.

“Who reported it?”

“Citizen walking his dog.”

Donovan nodded.  What would they do without dog walking citizens?  If it weren’t for them, murders, accidental deaths might never be discovered.  “Check the hip pocket for a wallet?”

“Yeah, nothing there.”

Donovan moved to get a better look at the victim’s back.  He pointed at the stiff blood rimmed gouge below the left shoulder.  “Entry wound?”

“Or an animal.”

Donovan looked up at the officer and smiled.  He didn’t think it likely, but he knew not to argue with Claymore.  Besides, it was just conversation.  The ME would sort it all out.  No sense jumping the gun, as it were.

The sergeant smiled back.  “My guess is, from the size, that it’s a nine.  What do you think?”

It was an open invitation as with any shooting investigation Claymore had a hand in.  Guess the caliber before the ME decided.  A fiver to whomever was right.  “Come on, I already owe you from the last one.”

“Don’t worry, I’m keeping track.”

Donovan stared at the victim’s posterior.  “He didn’t have a wallet on him but the impression of his hip pocket has the shape of a wallet.”  He pointed to the ghost of a square shape, using his pen to flick the belt loop above the pocket.  “It’s been cut.  Probably had it chained, biker style.”

“Robbery.  There’s your motive.”

Donovan had dispatch on the phone.  “Yeah, get me a land line to this address.”

“Is that your 10-20?”

Carol was the dispatch shift supervisor.  She’d been around longer than Donovan could remember.

“While you’re at it, could you give me any recent LE calls to this address or close by.”

He looked out at the dilapidated gray wooden farm house with the shabby peeling white porch balustrade and wide worn stairway leading up from a chain link enclosed bare yard.  The sign on the gate read My Dog Bites.

“How far back and what radius.”  Carol was nothing if not professional, but she liked to tease.  Pushing three hundred pounds, she was a jolly one.   She had a terrific radio voice, too.  Like phone sex, some would say.  The old timers called her CC, short for cattle call.

“I dunno, 14 days, the immediate vicinity.”

“Oh my, have you seen a vicious dog or been attacked by one?”

The dog had almost strangled itself on its tether chain trying to get to him when he approached the gate.  He couldn’t be bothered and had gone back to his sedan to call dispatch.

“Yeah.  What else?”

“Pretty much all animal control calls, citations for vicious dog, deputy responded to a fight between this address and a neighboring one, arrest for disturbing the peace. . .wow, you’re at the center of the vortex!  You gonna need back-up?”

“That it?”

“Hmm. . .about a week ago, report of gunshot in the vicinity.”


“Gunshot, singular.  Looks like we had numerous calls on it.  Deputy found nothing.”

“A single gunshot in this neighborhood?  No wonder they found it unusual.”

“I have that number, ready to copy?”

Donovan rummaged through the door pocket and pulled out a Thomas map guide.  “Can you just patch me through?  I got my hands full.”

“Jim, I didn’t know you felt that way about me,” she said hanging up as the line rang through.

He put his cell on speaker and placed it on the dash.  The phone rang repeatedly, apparently not hooked up to an answering device.  He found the neighborhood on the map page.  Pretty much all unincorporated county bumping up to the city limits to the north, a warren of narrow open ditch dead end country roads.  He’d had a patrol beat in this part of the county as a young deputy.  Farming and grazing land back then.   The urban sprawl had spilled over and now it was cheap housing for the working poor and immigrants.  He also knew about the prevalence of meth labs in abandoned trailers in this part of the county from reading the daily activity reports, though it had been a while since any of that was his business.  Longer than Homicide had been Violent Crimes, as if the name change would make what he did any different.

He looked up from the page and stared at the ringing phone.  He’d let it ring a couple more minutes before trying his other option.  He was going over his notes of what the crime scene tech had told him, that there were a lot of old beer bottles with shattered tops indicating someone had used the field for target practice when the phone barked, “Whadyawan?”

“Mr. Gorton, County Sheriff.  You discovered the body at the end of Willig this morning?  I would like to get some follow-up information.”

“Yeah, I already told the cops everything I know.”

“Mr. Gorton, secure your dog and come to the front door.”

“Go to hell.”

“Mr. Gorton, you don’t get to choose. I can have animal control take the dog down as a vicious animal or. . . .”  Donovan paused.  “I can shoot it.”

Donovan stood in the middle of the trash strewn living room.  Roger Gorton was a square chunk of beef in a black wife beater with pasty arms that matched his pocked faced shaved head.  His ears looked like they were trying to flee.  The ink on his arms and on the left side of his equally square neck had likely been applied during some of his many idle moments in stir.

“Why did you call it in?” He had his hands on his hips, jacket pushed back, badge and weapon in plain intimidating view.

“I didn’t call it in.  Nosy neighbor called it in.  I found the body.”

“And you told him about it?”

“Naw, he saw the birds. The crows, a ton of them.  Asked what was going on when he seen me coming back out the field.”

“And you told him there was a body.”

“Yeah, told him that’s what was gonna happen to him if he didn’t mind his own business.”  Einstein started to laugh and then realized who he was talking to.

“And you took the wallet.”

The hulk defied gravity for a moment, jumping out of his boots a few inches.   “Whatahellyatawkinabout?”

“You took the wallet off the body.  Hand it over.”

“The hell you say.  Don’t know nothing about any damn wallet.  You’re crazy!”

Donovan swept his arm around to indicate the room they were standing in and the doorway to another room covered in black plastic and taped shut, the damaged filthy beige couch with a puff of stuffing poking out at one shoulder, the long coffee table hastily covered in newspaper from under which various kinds of drug paraphernalia were only partially obscured.  A bong that looked like it could hold a dieffenbachia was propped in one corner.  And the pungent skunky odor of an indoor grow.  “I don’t care about any of this.  I’m with Violent Crimes.  You’re growing high octane weed and probably violating your parole. Not my problem.  Just give me the damn wallet so I can do my job and ID the body”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“All right then I’m gonna have to arrest you and hold you until DEA gets here.”

“DEA!?   Alright, no, ok, here’s the wallet. I don’t want no fed rap!”  Ro-Go, as the large monogrammed tattoo on his forearm identified, lifted up one of the cushions on the couch displacing untold tons of dust, body ash, spilled blow and wayward bud, retrieved the wallet and handed it to Donovan.  “Ok, we’re good, right, what you said, right?”


When Donovan got back from the break room with his coffee, Jerry Butler from Drug Interdiction was sitting at his desk.   A dark skinned man with a macho brushstache in Levi’s , a blue Dodgers warm up jacket , and a Glock on his hip was with him.  He might as well have been wearing a neon sign that said Fed.

“Leave my bobble-head alone.”

“You’re an Oriole’s fan?”

“That’s all they had left at the souvenir shop.”  He wasn’t going to tell them it was a present from Miriam, the emergency room nurse he’d been seeing.  She’d gone back to Baltimore to live with “her people” as she’d told him.  The coast was just too white.  Even the black folk were too white.  She’d sent him the bobble-head to say that she still thought of him.  Not that he was a baseball fan.   Miriam knew he cared only for round ball.

“You know Eric Mendez?  DEA.”

Donovan shook the extended hand and looked directly into the coal black eyes.  “Yeah, I think I’ve arrested him before.”

Butler colored and glanced in alarm at Mendez who was smiling.  “That’s right, when you were with Narcotics!  Yeah, that was a while back.  I don’t do undercover anymore.  I got bumped over to intelligence and liaison.”

“Well, how can I help you girls today?”

“When I got an access denied on his NCIC file,” Donovan said closing the door to the staff conference room behind them, “I figured I’d be getting a visit from someone with the federal government.”

“Mark Nesso was under close surveillance in the hills outside of Yellville, Arkansas until about six months ago.  Then we lost him.  His file is flagged need to know.  Anyone tries to look at it, we get pinged.   Tracked it to the department computer assigned to you.”

“Well, looks like I found him for you.  Mark A. Nesso, dob 10/16/67.  Interesting guy.  Graduate in chemistry from Montana State, PhD in pharmacology from USC.  Scion of a prominent Montana family, horse breeders, it would seem.  Married.  Divorced.  No kids.”

Mendez looked alarmed.  “Wait a minute, how did you know all that?  You don’t have clearance.”

“I looked up his Facebook account.”

“When you say you found him,” Butler interjected, “You mean in custody or. . . .”

“Yeah, deceased.”

The drug cops exchanged looks, one was a troubled frown.

“We’re gonna have to ID the body.  Something’s wrong.”

“Ok, when the ME’s done with him.  I’m expecting a preliminary report.”

“You sure it was Mark Nesso.”

“That’s what his driver’s license said.  Florida, by the way.”

Butler made a dismissive noise.  “Florida, that’s a joke, you can get those in a cereal box.”

“What’s the big deal with this guy?”

Mendez shrugged.  “Well, if he’s dead it don’t matter.  He was a chemist for the Laredo cartel running labs in the Ozarks.  The thing is he wasn’t a lowly cooker.  As you said, this guy has a degree in pharmacology.  He was cooking up crank of unbelievable purity, laboratory grade, and blends.”

“Sounds like you admired him.”

“Big pharma would love to have someone like him.  He was making drugs that had absolutely no side effects.  And that was his rep.  He was like the Armani of drug designers.  A couple of his batches went south on him, though.  And he’s left a trail of damage behind him.  People who used his blends ended up with symptoms that mimicked cerebral palsy or Parkinson’s.  Or dead.  Our lab took a look at some of his product.  They were impressed by how sophisticated it was.  The defective stuff was like just one or two molecules off.”

“That’s all it takes.”

“The cartel was after him.  Some of the damage was done to a few of their top lieutenants.  Might have been some kind of power struggle. . .who knows with those cholos.”

“How did he end up in my neck of the woods?  Think the cartel finally caught up with him?”

Butler nodded, “Possible, but there’s been no rumble about any new players so maybe not.”

“A local hit then.”

“We’re looking into a possibility.”  Butler looked at Mendez and got the nod.  “Apocalypse Inc., the motorcycle club.  They’re deep in the drug trade.  They may have taken an option on the hit for the Laredo boys.”

“By the way the body was found I wouldn’t rule out a professional hit.”  Donovan turned away from the window that looked down on the parking lot.  “But the Horsemen are involved?”  He pointed to the computer station in one corner of the conference room.  “Let me see if I can pull something up.”  He wiggled the mouse and the monitor came to life.  He logged on.

“Your password is bobblehead?”

“Now I’m going to have to kill you.”

“Changing your password is not as messy.”

“But not any easier.”  Donovan pointed at the screen.  “Here I input an address near where I found the body and get a crime stats map using information from dispatched calls and clearances.  Ok, I can specify the calls in this area by type for say the last six months.”  The map populated with a profusion of colored dots.  “The red ones are the unresolved, the yellow are in process, and the green are resolved or sent to the DA.”

“Nice neighborhood,” Mendez chuckled behind his back.

“They figure Nesso was out there almost a week.  I set that parameter, say ten days.”

“That cleared up some of the acne.”

“And I widen my radius.  And then narrow my incident type down to just a couple, say dead at scene and report of gunshots.”

“Looks pretty quiet now.  Sheriff musta come to town.”  Mendez pointed at the screen.  “Those green dots report of gunshots?”

Donovan ran the cursor over the dots to display the text.  “Yeah, pretty much.  Notice how they’re mainly clustered around or near to where the body was found?”

“Yeah, I don’t see how that’s going to tell you much.”

Donovan circled the arrow on the map.  “This is where we found the body, this vacant lot here.  When he fell he was facing this street, here, Willig.  So assuming the shot came from the direction opposite of the way he was facing, that would put it up coming from up in here.”  Donovan circled the arrow on the upper part of the map.

Butler leaned in to look.  “Yeah, Willig.  Thanks for the tip on that address, by the way.  A task force team took it down a couple of hours ago.  You were right, it was a grow operation.  Looks like they may have been dabbling with a junior chemistry set, too.”

“No problem.”  And back to the screen, “Notice that if the shot came from this direction how there are no reports of gun shots at all.”

“Are you suggesting suicide?”

“Not unless you want to add contortionist to his list of accomplishments”.

Butler straightened, exclaiming, “What a minute, I recognize that neighborhood!”

“Right, that’s the Horseman compound right there and home of Jerzy Herkovanic, the president of Apocalypse Inc.  So anybody in that neighborhood knows better than to report gunshots or even a gunshot.

“Why’s that blue dot there?”

Donovan grunted. “That’s an old case.  One of mine.  A reminder that I need to put that one down.”

“Oh yeah?”  Mendez looked surprised.  “What’s that all about?”

Next Time: Part II, The Hit On Herko