Tag Archives: Weston County Sheriff’s Detective

All Tore Up—I

by Helene Baron-Murdock 


A group of amateur mycologists in the pristine timberlands of R. K. Turas State Park found a freshly severed big toe at the base of a pine where amanita muscaria were growing. At first the blood red end was indistinguishable from the bright red of the mushroom’s cap. Then blood dripping from nearby ferns only added to their initial horror.

Donavan was a little late but he’d already heard the initial report. Now he was watching Derrick Voss, the new Captain of Detectives, go through the power point on the  screen in semi darkened Conference Room Two. The entire squad was in attendance for the briefing, excepting Rick Nelson who had taken time off while his wife had their first child. The grizzly aspect of the murder had caught everyone’s attention.

Amanita toeVoss was pointing to the photos of numbered placards each designating a body part strewn across the forest floor. “They found the head” he said referencing another slide, “floating down the Acre River near Sharon’s Crossing on some kind of rude raft made of branches.” He paused to give Donovan a nod and then said, “Glad you could make it, Detective.”

Donovan hadn’t liked Voss when he first met him, an outside promotion hire from a department down south. And now he liked him even less. He spotted the subtle twist of Lieutenant Mike Jackson’s lips in a grimace, the dive of the lines of his forehead into a frown. The Loot was ten times the cop that Voss was and should have been the automatic choice for promotion after Krazy Ed Kryzinski retired. Because Jackson was a black man that wasn’t going to happen. Voss was the new breed of cop, white and ambitious, giving truth to that old saying, meet the new breed, same as the old breed. Or something like that. “HR took longer than expected, Cap, lots of paper work to read through and sign.”

“Try not to make a habit of it,” Voss admonished and turned back to the PowerPoint. “These three women are our primary persons of interest.”

Donovan glanced at the head shots, a trio of pretty hard to look at gals, and then at his squad mates seated around the table looking at him with expressions of questioning disbelief and surprise. Had he finally done it? Burdon gave him a subtle power fist and Townsend flashed a thumbs up. He had filed his retirement papers.

Back at his desk, Donovan cleared the file he’d been looking through, an old case that had caught his interest dating from back before he’d made detective. He’d been a Deputy then, patrolling the rural country around Hades Acre Lake in the northern part of Weston County, when he caught the report of the ten-fifty four over the unit’s radio. And he was one of the first officers on scene. He wasn’t going to forget the flayed condition of the body in this lifetime. Something about the current case was giving him pause. And his phone rang. It was Veronica, the Sheriff’s secretary.

“I hear that congratulations are in order.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to talk to Nelson. It’s his wife’s having the baby.”

“I’m going to miss your smart mouth.”

“That’s more like it.”

“The Sheriff would like to see you in his office.”



Donovan avoided elevators. You never knew who you were going to meet on an elevator and he always felt so exposed when the doors parted at the destination. He took the stairs four flights up to the top floor passing through the administration wing of Justice Hall where he was familiar with many of the employees, mostly women, and who greeted him with more congratulatory best wishes. He muttered his thanks and appreciations and waved back in greeting. Veronica was on the phone when he got to the Sheriff’s outer office but she smiled and mimed him to go right in.

He hadn’t been expecting champagne or even cake so he wasn’t disappointed, but he was surprised to see Voss seated in one of the two chairs in front of Phil’s large ornate frieze-like desk.

Phil greeted him without getting up from behind the desk but Donovan noticed the crutches leaning against the cabinet behind and figured that the gout must be acting up again.

“Have a seat, have a seat,” Phil insisted. “You know Captain Voss, of course. I was just telling Derrick that it was a tough break to be less than a week on the job and get hit with this horrendous crime, murder, repulsive dismemberment. It’s a tough job and it isn’t made any easier with the pressure from the DA’s office. And the media. To get a handle on this outrage in a hurry. And I assured him that he had a crack squad of experienced detectives already on the case, especially you, Jim, you’re one of the old timers, you know the lay of the land, and you’ve established impeccable sources.” Phil paused a breath. “Are you familiar with the three women who are being held as witnesses? Are we getting anywhere with them?”

Donovan shook his head. “I saw the mugs, runaways maybe. My guess, by the location, living rough on the Bare Ranch.” He referenced the notebook he’d slipped from his jacket pocket. “Melanie, Dora, and Laurel, no last names because last names are patriarchal, so I hear.” He recalled his reading of the booking photos, the insolent stare of the leader, the vacant stare of the next smartest, and the clueless stare of the last. Dumb, dumber, and, dumbest, the three ingredients for mayhem. “You won’t guess who they’ve been talking to.”

mugs1The sheriff winced like his gout was acting up. “May Naddy?”

Voss leaned toward the desk’s edge after glancing a scowl at Donovan. “I’ve got Jackson on the interview panel with a couple of the other senior men, Sheriff. Detectives Donovan and Nelson are chasing down identification on the victim. I’m sure they’ll piece it all together.”

Phil roared, “Piece it together! That’s a good one, Voss!” He thumped his desk and wheezed out another laugh. Donovan figured that maybe the gout medication was making the boss loopy, not his usual high and mighty aloofness, or maybe he’d self-prescribed a three martini lunch. And he watched Voss’s face go blank and then register a flicker of recognition as he realized what exactly the “good one” was.

“Nelson’s on family leave. His wife just had a baby.”

Voss glared at Donovan, obviously displeased at being corrected. “I thought I had ordered all critical staff back on duty. Why does Nelson think he’s excluded from that order?

The Sheriff nodded sagely. “His job was done nine months ago, why didn’t he take the time off then?”

Donovan ignored the remark, more annoying than inappropriate and confirming his hunch that the boss had had one too many olives with his martinis. “It doesn’t take two of us to get the ID on the vic. I can have the techs work up a composite sketch from the remains of the head and get the picture distributed through the usual channels by the end of the day.”

“I would expect no less, Detective, but you have missed the point. When I make an assignment of personnel to staff a vital function in an investigation, I expect them to report for duty no matter the circumstances.” Voss had turned to him, grim faced, and rose, “But you’re retiring soon, is that correct? I hope we can have this cleared up before then and you can retire on a high note.” Nodding to the Sheriff, he said “I have to get back for a meeting with the Medical Examiner. I hope you’ll consider my suggestions for streamlining the unit.”

After Voss had left, Phil Collins cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows. “So you went and did it. Finally going to pull the plug. I’m kinda of jealous. What are your plans for, you know, after?”

“I’m not going to be dead, Phil. Contrary to what people believe, there is life after retirement. I’ll finally have the time to work on fixing things around the house, remodel, dig up that slab covering most of my backyard. Travel, maybe, go east, Baltimore, look in on Marion.”

Phil wagged his chin leaning back in his chair, eyes narrowing. “Marion, that the colored gal you were dating, from the hospital?”

Any regrets about retiring from a job that had been his life for over 30 years evaporated in the heat of his slow boil. “Yeah, the ER nurse.”

Phil leaned forward. “We go back a ways, Jim. We were rookie deputies together. You were a module or two ahead of me in the Academy, I remember. We may have had our run-ins over time, but I knew I could always count on you doing the job. I think sometime that temper of yours can get in the way, cloud your judgement. I also think you picked a good time to go out. Voss is more of a manager than a cop, and I don’t doubt that you and he would bump heads over proper or improper procedure. If you get my drift.

“Anyway, just to say I’m going to hate to lose your years of experience and knowhow on a case.” The Sheriff paused to look down as if he were holding a hand of cards. “So I’m going to put this on the table for you to consider.” He looked up. “Retired annuitant.”

“Doing what? Paperwork?”

“Yeah, pretty much. Cold cases, sorting, filing, creating a data base.”

Donovan shook his head. “I don’t know anything about data bases. Besides I thought Krazy Ed was going to do that. Wasn’t that why he retired? It would give him time to solve the case of the century or last century, his obsession with the Lopes clan.”

Tim shook his head. “The problem with Krazy Ed is that he’s crazy. Or to put it more politely, demented.”

“That’s not more politely. You mean dementia?”

“Keep that under your hat, but it was a medical retirement.”

“I don’t know. It sound boring, a lot like my current job which if it weren’t for the occasional axe murder would be unbearable.”

Collins chuckled his acknowledgement of the dig from the dark side. “You don’t have to commit to anything just yet. I can get a grant from the State through the Justice Department for Data Enhancement, meaning put together a coherent archive of cold cases with links to a nationwide network. I need an experienced officer who knows how to read a file and I can hire an assistant to do the data entry. We’re a small county. We don’t have a big cold case backlog. You can do it in your spare time. What have you got to lose?”

“Spare time.”

Mary Fisher, the crime scene tech, wore her own version of scrubs, a cross between a nurse and a lab tech, utilitarian blue pants and jersey under a long white lab coat. She was pointing at the image on the screen. “I took photographs of the head from various angles and then fed them into this reconstruction program that puts it together in a 3D image. He was missing an ear, lower lip, part of the nose, the whole left side of his cheek, and the hair from that side of his head.”

“Pretty gruesome.”

“Vehicle accidents are worse. So I’ve heard.” Mary was plumpish, dark hair almost always in a braid pinned in a bun at the back of her head, quiet brown eyes, diffident in the way of her people, and with a quiet way of speaking. “So far, it’s just bits and pieces. Chunks, like someone or something torn up a loaf of bread and dipped in tomato sauce. We haven’t recovered the torso. Nor the hands. We can’t identifying him by fingerprints until we find his fingers.”

“You’re sure it’s a him.”

Mary colored a little, her lips clamped together. She was used to Donovan’s banter. “Unless he’s a bearded lady.” She indicated the composite on the screen and the obvious beard swathing the jaw of the otherwise wild haired gaunt visage depicting what could only generously be described as a vacant eyed mad man. “And one of the bits we found would confirm his gender.”

Donovan nodded and smiled. He’d had his fun. He’d known Mary since she was hired a dozen years ago when he was just finishing up his stint in narcotics and moving on to Violent Crimes, or Robbery Homicide, as it was known back then. And she’d been Mary King in those days, newly engaged to Jay Fisher. After he’d got to know her a little better, he’d inquired idly as to why she hadn’t hyphenated her name so she could be Mary King-Fisher. He thought he was being cute. Her answer had shut him up. “That is not his clan. He is an otter.”

“Were you part of the recovery team?”

She nodded, “Yeah, I photographed most of the physical evidence and then came back here to prep the lab. Why?”

“You familiar with the area?”

“It is a good place for mushrooms. Of all kinds. My uncle would load us up in his truck and we would range through the forest hillside. This was before the State made it a park. But then, better that than condos. He taught us little songs that we would sing when we picked the mushrooms. They included a description and a thank you to be sung when we lifted one out of the ground. We were only allowed to pick the edible ones. The older boys picked the stronger ones and sold them at the High School.”


One raised eyebrow answered the question. She handed him the printed sketch of the 3D model and said, “I hear you put in your paper. Sorry to see you go.”

He tugged at the sheet and she released the sketch. “I thought that was privileged information.”

“My cousin works in HR.”

Donovan stepped into Mike Jackson’s office with a handful of sketches to be distributed by the shift commander to the patrol units. He’d started a facial recognition search at his desk and was waiting for results. The Lieutenant had the same mug shots of the three women he’d seen earlier at the briefing up on his monitor. He shook his head and looked up at Donovan. “What would make them do such a thing? How could they do such a thing? They’re just women. Tear him to pieces like that.”

“They admit it? Maybe they had help.”

“Bloodied clothes would be the indication. And they’re not making much sense. Like they’re from another dimension or reality.”

“Think it could be ritual?”

“I don’t want to rule it out, but Voss isn’t interested in that angle. He wants straight out drug induced murder and mayhem. Reads better in the press, and besides ritual always leaves too much unanswered.” Jackson indicated the papers in Donovan’s hand. “Something you want to see me about, Jim?”

fagen“I’ve got a facial recognition match in progress, thought you might want to take a look at the sketch that’s going out to the field.”

“Now there’s a face you don’t want to be staring back at you in the mirror.”

“Yeah, sociopath poster boy of the year.”

“How old you think he could be?”

“Anywhere from late forties to early sixties.”

“Right about our ages. I hope I look better than that when I go.”

“Yeah, he looks like he’s been rode hard and put away wet.”

Jackson laughed his appreciation. “Claymore?”

“Yeah, he was my sergeant years ago. I don’t know where he gets them.”

“I’d like to say, ‘last of the cowboys,’ but that isn’t so. There are newer and younger ones coming up every day.” He leaned forward, amused as Mike Jackson would ever get. “You had the rep of being something of a cowboy yourself, at least when you were in drug interdiction.”

“You have to be a cowboy if you’re going to play in that game, and you don’t have a choice. When it goes down, it goes down hard. Armed interdiction is high risk, you got to be like them but more so.”

“If that’s your logic, do you have to think like a murderer to work in homicide?”

“Most homicides are no brainers, husband, wife, ex, ex-lover, son, daughter, relative, neighbor, gang. You walk up on it, look around and you know right away which one of those Einsteins did it or knows who did it. You learn to read the scene, the people. If there are no witnesses, someone will know why, and maybe who. Unless they’re stone psychopaths, they have tells, twitches. Or come right out and confess before you ask the first question. Other times you have to negotiate. The paper work is the same, and it’s up to the DA to make the case with what I give him.”

“Well, things won’t be the same around here without you, Jim. Hell of a note to retire on, though. I hope we can wrap it up before you head out the door.”

“Unless it turns into a Krysinski case then it will never end.”

“Oh jeez, the Lopes. I’m glad I don’t have to listen to that horseshit anymore. He wasted a lot of manhours, his own, and some of the squad’s, on the Lopes Loop.”

“Collins offered me the annuitant job on cold cases. More paperwork, but I’d have an assistant to do the computer stuff.”

“That was Krysinski’s deal, wasn’t it.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I’ll take it. I don’t want to get tied down. There’s a waiting period before I can go back to drawing a county check. Hopefully I can find something that doesn’t have anything to do with asking questions of corpses.”

“I got another five before I even consider it. Be nice to go out with a promotion, but. . . .

“Yeah, I know. . .the new guy? I’m not sticking around to find out. And another thing that’s bugged me. When Krysinski retired, why didn’t Collins promote you to acting COD until the hiring freeze was lifted instead of taking it on himself? And then to promote from outside the department? What kind of message does that send?”

“You don’t have to ask. You know. And it’s the same old question. When I passed the detectives exam and placed in the first rank on the list I knew that I would never promote within the Santa Lena PD. The Chief told me right to my black face. I took the first offer that came along and that was with the Weston County Sheriff’s Office. I heard the word was out that I got the job because of the color of my skin. The Sheriff’s Office had been slammed by the grand jury for being noncompliant with County diversity guidelines. And they grabbed the first chocolate chip they could get their hands on. So maybe they were right. I did get the job because of the color of my skin. Not that it’s changed anything. And Santa Lena PD has yet to hire and retain a person of color in their sworn ranks.”

“Like you say.”

“I did my job, and I got good at it, and people that mattered said I had good leadership qualities. I think that my annual Fourth of July barbeques, where they got hammered and did stupid shit and knew that I knew they had, might have had something to do with it, too. Still when I got promoted to Lieutenant, the word going around was that I got the job because of the color of my skin. Now if I’d been made Captain of Detectives, the same thing would have been said.

“And since you weren’t.”

“Now therein lies the salt to rub in the wound, to paraphrase Willy. The irony is that you could say that I didn’t get the job, and I did interview for the position, you could say that it was because of the color of my skin.”


“Your pocket is buzzing.”

Donovan retrieved his black clad device and glanced at the screen. “Ok, got an ID on the vic. He’s got paper, and. . .that’s interesting.”


“He’s a poet.”

“Dead poet now, and as my old English Lit prof used say, the only good poet is a dead poet.”

Next Time: Picking Up The Pieces

The White Room—4

by Helene Baron-Murdock

The storefront’s narrow glass doorway was papered over with flyers and announcements. Two large plate glass windows, one painted with a depiction of the globe and the initials EAF, and the other featuring a representation of the scales of justice circumscribed by a large peace symbol and the words Justice Means Peace had greeted him as he’d exited his sedan. Like EAF, JMP, or JuMP as they liked to style themselves, had come up in various briefings on local leftist radical groups prone to civil disobedience so he knew exactly whose den he had stepping into.

EAFAmong the array of framed protest placards and posters urging respect for Mother Earth or face the dire consequences, the one that caught Donovan’s eye proclaimed “Braless & Lawless” superimposed over an artfully distressed representation of three women giving the power salute. Another wall was painted sky blue bisected by the darker arc of an image of Earth seen from space against which stood a set of bookshelves lined with somber spines and a sign above it that read Earth Consciousness Library crudely carved into a wide weathered plank. A patchwork of worn and frayed Indian rugs covered a slab floor around which were deployed a variety of mismatched secondhand couches and armchairs and centered on a redwood burl table piled with slick conservationist magazines.

The young woman with the green and purple dyed hair at a small desk off to one corner of the large storefront space looked up from her laptop and smiled. Then her cop radar kicked in and she frowned. “Can I help you?” The tone wasn’t friendly.

“Hi, Jim Donovan with the Sheriff’s Office.” He held out his identification and the young woman peered at it like it was repulsive. “Are you in charge here?”

Her blue eyes behind stylish retro frames shifted left then right and back again as she considered how she would answer the question. “Uh, no, no, uh. . . .” Her voice sounded fearful, panicked. She licked her lips and glanced at the passageway leading to the back of the building. “Can. . .can I ask what this is about?”

“I’m inquiring about one of your members, Dwight Carey?”

She seemed relieved. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with that name.”

“I am.” A woman in her late forties, dark graying hair cut short below the ears, stood at the entrance to the rear space calmly studying him. She held out her hand. “Ionna Gunn, I’m the director of Earth Action Fellowship.” She smiled and then motioned him to follow her. “Why don’t we talk in my office.” And then to the young woman, “It’s alright, Regina.”

Ionna Gunn’s office was a small cramped space lined with bookshelves and file cabinets. She removed a pile of papers and file folders from a sturdy chair with a dented seat cushion and cast around for a place to put them before deciding to stack them in front of one of the file cabinets. “Please, have a seat.”

She wasn’t what Donovan expected even though he had viewed her booking photos. She looked older, maybe more mature, less defiant. And her complexion was not as dark as in the photos. Dark eyes above high cheekbones considered him after he’d introduced himself again. On the wall behind her desk was a collage of photos featuring Ioanna and associates at protests, at speakers podiums, with bullhorns, and with garden implements in what appeared to be urban community gardens beneath a banner that read Earth Action Fellowship.

“Ike Carey,” she spoke shaking her head, “I read about his accident in the paper just yesterday. So sad.”

“What can you tell me about him? When was the last time you talked to him?”

“I don’t know, years? Maybe about five, maybe more. He was one of our original group when we started Earth Action Front. Always very enthusiastic. Then the beating at the hands of the Santa Lena PD put him in the hospital. He was the youngest of our group with the passion of youth.” She paused as if remembering. “He wasn’t the same after that. He’d always been happy go lucky, up for anything, a trickster of sorts. But after that time something rattled loose and. . . ,” she looked down at her hands, “Well, he never recovered that playful impish quality that we always loved about him.” She sighed then fixed him with a penetrating gaze. “You’re being here would lead me to believe that it might not have been an accident.”

Donovan read her short stature, broad shoulders, knit mauve vest over a gray t-shirt, and a man’s gold wristwatch that spoke of a certain assertiveness. Square northern features softened by equatorial curves, not noticeably made up, suggestive of a lack of pretention and her readiness to engage intelligently marked her as truthful so far.

“Purely routine. At this point just paperwork. I didn’t have a current address for him on file and I’d like to get an idea his movements before he ended up where he did.”

“The article in the paper seemed to imply a hang gliding accident. Isn’t that the case?”

“That’s what we believe. There seemed to be some kind of homemade glider involved.”

“Homemade glider? And at Acropolis Cove? That sounds dangerous.”

“The launch point was probably closer to Sparta Creek Overlook.”

She leaned her chin on a forefinger, considering. “That’s quite a distance.”

“You’re familiar with the area?”

“I had a boyfriend in high school who was a surfer.” She smiled at the memory. “According to him the waves at Sparta Creek Beach were gnarly.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Is there anyone you can steer me to that might have had contact with him recently, maybe friends in the radical conservationist network?”

This time it was a chuckle, genuine in its incredulity that the question had been asked. “No, Detective Donovan, there is no radical conservationist network that I’m aware of. We’re Earth Action Fellowship now, no longer a Front. Letter writing, phone banking, community gardens, neighborhood beautification, and legitimate political action and education are what the Fellowship is all about. And no, there is no one I can refer you to.” The smile had left her face.

“Just thought I’d ask.” Donovan removed a business card from his identification case and wrote on the back of the card. “Here’s my card in case you remember something. That’s another number you can reach me at.”

Ionna accepted the card and glanced at it frowning. It wasn’t a phone number, just the letters U and R followed by a circle with what looked like multiple legs and a plus sign.

Donovan stood up at her questioning look angling his head toward a corner of the ceiling of the small office. “Thanks for your cooperation.” He checked his wrist. “That time of day already. Know a good place around here where I can grab a cup of coffee and maybe a bite to eat?”

“You might want to try Sole Sister Diner down at the end of the block.” She nodded knowingly. “I can guarantee the coffee.”

Donovan remembered when the place had been a paint store and even before that an auto parts store. Now converted into a hip diner, part of the gentrification of the old industrial west side of Santa Lena where they’d paved over the railroad right of way and featured art galleries, antique stores, and trendy boutiques. He’d picked a booth off to the side of the narrow service area by the door to the kitchen. The counter stools were crowded and the spindly two person tables always made him feel naked, unprotected. He sat facing the front of the building looking out the wide window to the street.

dinerThe waitress had a large gold stud through the top of one nostril. The way she was made up he could assume that she was on call to perform under the big top. She smiled and it was nice. “Coffee?” and handed him a printed menu with the Sole Sister logo across the top when he nodded yes.

He checked his phone messages, missed call from Helen in HR, otherwise routine random bullshit. He had to ask himself why was he even concerning himself with this investigation when it was going nowhere. Fingerprints having turned up nothing, his request for DNA analysis of the sweatband on the ball cap he was told was going to be slow tracked to the contract lab considering not enough of the boxes had been checked on the request form. The hair sample stuck to the inside of the crown of the cap came back as non-human. The tech had guessed when he’d called for clarification, “Yeah, goat, or an animal like that.”

The ballcap, he’d also learned, was a one of a kind, a gift to James Lidlaye from his friends, fellow hang gliders, who had given it to him after he had fractured his back on a particularly hard landing. The logo depicting wings signified the hang glider fraternity and the lower case i was a pun on his last name. He’d got that from Lorrain, Uncle Jimmie’s sister when on a hunch the hang glider connection became evident, and he’d claimed the hat as evidence. And evidence of what, a stolen hat, but also of a missing or misplaced person. He pictured a helicopter lifting off the helipad at Santa Lena General and not realizing their mistake, not that anyone would ever learn of it. Besides, Uncle Jimmie was an office nerd, no contact with a goat or animals of that type was likely.

The lab had also referred him to someone he remembered as a lecturer from his academy days, Duncan Betalle, professor of Forensic Archaeology at Weston County Community College aka Wheesies, or Dubya 300 to the hip crowd. He didn’t seem all that imposing twenty plus years later, his beard showing only streaks and patches of the original red color, but still hanging on, semi-retired, at the pleasure of the administration. He’d weighed the medallion in his hand, opened the evidence bag and stuck his nose in the opening, slipped the medallion onto a blank piece of paper on his desk and examined it with the magnifying app on his phone. He’d snapped a photo and sent it to an artifact recognition app as he explained, staring at the rapidly shifting shapes on the screen.

“There, I knew I’d seen it before.” He’d held up the phone for Donovan to see. “Pre-Hellenic, early Bronze age, unearthed, it says here, in the ruins of a temple to Penelope in Ithaca. Apotropaic uses, to bring good luck and ward off the evil eye, probably a replica.” He brought his nose close to the medallion and tapped it a few times with a metal letter opener. “You won’t miss a few atoms. My nose tells me I would like to examine this closer. If it is a copy, it’s a very old copy, a depiction of the Greek god, Pan.”

Evil eye. That’s what  Heron has claimed Dad Ailess had told her about the medallion, it would ward off the evil eye. His coffee appeared before him and he hadn’t even looked the menu over.

“Can’t make up your mind?” Ionna Gunn slid onto the red vinyl bench across from him. She held him with her dark eyes, hands crossed on the Formica tabletop. She had brought her own cup. Faint wisps of steam passed up in front of her face and suddenly she was as beautiful as a photograph. “What I’m wondering is why?”

“Maybe I had questions to ask that I didn’t want overheard.”

“You don’t want your people to know what you’re asking me.” He eyes narrowed. “Is this some kind of harassment?”

“First, they are not my people, not the Sheriff’s Office, directly at least. Our intelligence operation is one guy who doesn’t shower which may be the reason he’s the only guy. He just makes sure to grease the skids for the guys who get the electronic surveillance court orders. In exchange they share any pertinent intelligence which is almost never.”

She had cocked an eyebrow. “And just who are ‘they’?”

Donovan took another sip after blowing across the scalding brew to cool it some. “I have a friend who knows how to do these things and I got her to trace the chain of authority on the court order. When you trace it high enough that you don’t want to know anymore, you say ‘it’s in the clouds’”

“It’s in the clouds.”

“And that makes me curious as to why someone that high up has their eye on you and how that fits in to my murder investigation.”

“Murder is it now?”

“Just a technical term. Ike Carey was a dead man one way or the other. I’d like to hear what you know about him and I have an idea that it’s more than you wanted to spill in your office.”

“It should come as no surprise that I’m not surprised that my phone is tapped. In more radical times,” and her body language said they were behind her, “we always operated under the assumption that we were being watched, that we had to be discreet about what we were saying. . . .”

“Did you talk in code?”

Ionna laughed as if remembering something. “We did for a while but people kept forgetting what the codes were so it just got to be that we didn’t say anything of any consequence over the telephone. Now that everything is digital I guess the same precautions and etiquette would apply, maybe even more so.” She held up her smart phone and showed him the blank screen indicating that it had been turned off. “Snitches I can understand, but a listening device seems a little much. What are they going to hear, my berating of inept, corrupt politicians, intimate conversations with friends, my indigestion?”

“I’m baffled as well. What does it have to do with Dwight Carey? And EAF. As far as I can make out you have yet to sprout into a national security threat. But I did come across something in your file. The protest that Ike was injured at was over the acquisition of property on Mount Oly by a government contractor. EAF and a number of other conservationist groups were opposed to it, demonstrated against it. I didn’t understand the reasoning, an obscure chunk of property out in the middle of nowhere?”

He eyes were focused with deep reflection as she stared at the cup in front of her. “You could possibly be right, and Ike may be the connection, but not in the way you think.”

Dwight Carey, known from the very first as Ike or Ikey, was the son of an old family friend, the nephew of one of the original founders of EAF. His father, who had disappeared around the time of Ike’s birth, was a legend among a small group of avant-garde intellectuals and artists, an older man, easily twenty years older than Ike’s mother, respected for the breadth of knowledge and creativity, his impish sense of humor and cleverness. Ike had been raised in a radical environment of talk should be accompanied by action. To show that they meant business as a community focused action group, EAF saw an opportunity to secure the long shuttered girl’s camp on Mount Oly and return it to its original purpose as a summer retreat, but for underprivileged and disadvantaged girls.

Ionna herself had attended Camp Minnoknosso, or as she called it, Camp Me-No-Know-So, as a young girl and into her late teens.. She became the driving force behind the project to obtain the property, writing grants to philanthropic foundations and conservationist trusts, consulting with a local contractor who was part of their group to assess the property and estimate the extent of repairs needed to bring the old property back into shape to house thirty six girls in three six week sessions across the breadth of the summer months. They had heard through back channels that their prospects of obtaining at least some of the funding were very good. The group rallied around the project, everyone on a positive high. Then the phone call ahead of the official letter of rejection and its oddly apologetic tone. The news was demoralizing. There was much recrimination within the group, power politics demanded that she resign.

“Yet years later, I am still here. To make matters worse we learned that the property had been transferred to a holding company, a shell corporation that no one had any information about, IQ Dynamics. They didn’t waste any time, they had heavy equipment razing the place in a matter of weeks. And the property was heavily guarded so without a satellite photo or a camera drone, which didn’t exist back then, there was no way of knowing what they were doing. We tried court orders, injunctions, all of which were denied. Years later I uncovered evidence that it was funded through proprietary companies working through the highest level of the Defense Department.”

“What was Ike’s father’s name? Did you ever meet him?”

The smiley faced rainbow waitress appeared ready to take his order.

“I recommend the sausage, eggs, and yam fries,” Ionna said pointing at the menu.

“Yam fries?” Donovan raised an eyebrow. “That may be too earthy for me.” He ordered two eggs over easy, bacon and English muffin

“I never met the father though I’d heard a lot about him from the old guard, some kind of natural genius, jack of all trades, and apparently a champion surfer.”

“No name?”


“Peter Carey?”

“No, not Carey, that’s the mother, Inanna’s name. Ike took her family name. I think his last name began with an N. . .Newton? Something like that. Everyone referred to him as ‘the goat’ though?”


“Yeah, like ‘Greatest Of All Times’?” Ionna leaned her back against the back of the booth. “Does this have anything to do with the father?”

Donovan shook his head. “Maybe, but I don’t know why. There was someone named Dad that Ike hung around with at the trailer park and the overlook. Could that his father?”

“Oh, the crazy old guy?”

“You know him?

“Know of him. I have friends who were part of the movement and who still surf out there and live in the trailer park. In my last years at Camp Me-no-know-so, I and a few of the older girls would sneak out at night to hook up with some surfers we met at the beach or the trailer camp. Some of those guys never left.”

“The trail from the camp to the trailer park, is that the one the hang gliders use to get to their highest launch point?”

“No, that one’s too steep and dangerous, especially in the dark. There’s another trail, a secret trail that only few of us knew about. Further down by the old waterfall. You would never find it if you didn’t know where to look.”

Donovan nodded as something clicked into place. In the interviews someone had mentioned the old waterfall in association the man they called Dad.

“Anyway, Ike’s name comes up once in a while, mainly his antics and acting out. It’s like time stopped for him. He was still locked into the old Front ways. He could get very. . .vehement at times. I’d heard was that he was hanging out with this crazy old homeless guy who lived in the woods up the creek, someone they all called ‘Dad’ and that Ike actually believed that he was his father.”

Donovan looked up surprised as the waitress placed the plate in front of him. “That was fast.”

The waitress grinned, “The cook’s a psychic, she had you pegged as a bacon and eggs man.” She laid the guest check at the edge of the table and smiled at Ionna.

He cut into an egg and watched the yolk spill out. “How many people know about this secret trail out of the camp?”

“At first it was only a few of us older girls, but someone blabbed, and soon everyone knew about it including the Camp Director and they had the passageway blocked.”

“Passageway, you mean like a tunnel?”

“More of like a long trough that had been eroded by the waterfall into the hillside, and then when they diverted water into the swimming pond for the camp, that part of the channel dried up and was overgrown with brush and brambles. They filled the trough with rubble and large boulders and it was no longer passable.”

“I don’t imagine a mere pile of rocks would keep some girls from the lure of a good party.” He looked up to catch the gleam in her eye and pull of cheek into a smirk.

“A lot of the rubble was washed down the sluice after a couple of years of heavy winter storms. The big rocks stayed in place and created vents and spaces that the adventurous might find challenging but not daunting.” Ionna laid a hand on the table next to her cup and engaged his eyes. “So I’ve been told.”

Donovan stared at the bacon on his plate and wondered how he could get it all in his mouth without appearing like a ravenous wolf. He also wondered about the trail by the old waterfall. How had perimeter security missed that. Just plain sloppy? Or sloppy on purpose? “Do you know if the camp property is still accessible up through the secret trail?”

Ionna leveled him with a long look, gauging his trustworthiness before she spoke. “About nine, maybe ten years ago, when the construction of the facility was going on up on Mounty Oly I snuck in to take a look at what they were doing. Since we couldn’t get any answers from the county planning department of what exactly was going on up there, a few of us decided to find out for ourselves. We crawled up the ravine to the site of the construction, Ike was among the group. It wasn’t completed yet, but it looked like row upon row of container vessels and a large landing area for helicopters.”

Donovan solved the problem by making a bacon sandwich with the English muffin.. “Would you be willing to show me the access to the secret trail?”

He eyes narrowed. “Are you asking me to break any laws? Like trespassing?”

He shook his head and swallowed another bite. “You won’t be breaking any laws. I just want to determine if access to the Mount Oly compound can be made through this trail you’re talking about. I have a hunch that it’s been used or in use since the last time you went up there, possibly by Ike Carey.”

She nodded her head thoughtfully. “Yes, that seems likely. Ike was particularly affected when we lost the bid for the property. He’d wanted to sabotage the construction while it was underway. He wasn’t the only one,” she added with a smile. “But I have to warn you, it’s a maze, and some spots might be a tight fit for someone your size.”

Donovan looked down at where some of the egg yolk had dribbled down onto the napkin tucked under his chin and then back up at Ionna. He didn’t want to admit he was wearing his Kevlar. “It’s just the jacket, it makes me look bulky.”

“If you say so.”

Next Time in The White Room: On Top Of Mount Oly

The White Room—3

by Helene Baron-Murdock

Donovan knew he had to face the music sooner or later. Later found him sitting across from Sheriff Tim Collins, a big man behind a big desk—they had served as deputies together, but ladder climbing and a regular diet of ass kissing had added a puffiness to the Sheriff’s face and midriff making him look overinflated. He leaned back in his large red leather office chair looking through half closed eyes before pointing a finger and raising an inquisitive eyebrow. “That’s your story?”

sheriff  “It’s a murder investigation, Tim, plain and simple, body, gunshot wound, a potential crime scene I’ve been denied access. . . .”

“You’re not going to get anywhere with that. Even if I wanted to help you, my hands are tied. These people have a lot of clout. I have budgetary concerns to look after and I can’t risk someone stepping on the supplementary funding pipeline, too many jobs at stake. If this was strictly a law enforcement matter, you’d have your search warrant, but it’s not, it’s political. Technically, it’s an accidental death. Let’s leave it at that.”

“Someone’s shitting on your turf, Tim.”

“I’m not saying I’m happy about it. I’m up for reelection in eighteen months. I can’t piss the wrong people off. Besides I had nothing to do with it. It was signed off by the Board of Supes and the State before I became Sheriff. Until now I’ve had no cause to complain. Put together a case file on it. Maybe after I’m reelected I’ll have another look.” He gave that shit eating grin he was famous for. “You could even be retired by then.”

“I don’t know how that rumor got started.”

“Well, now that the hiring freeze is over I can now hire a chief of detectives instead of handling the job myself.

“I don’t think I want the responsibility.”

“Like you had a snowball’s chance.” Collins chuckled. “And maybe promote a couple of deserving young officers into your slot. I can hire two for what I’m paying you.”

Donovan canted his head rolling his eyes, as if he cared. “It was never enough.”

“It works for me, movement in the ranks is always good for the department. It’s trickledown theory, you’ve heard of trickledown theory, haven’t you?”

“I have. I learned it from a plumber.”

“A plumber?”

“Yeah, ‘Shit flows downhill.’” Donovan rose from his chair, the ass chewing obviously over. “I’ve got a couple of angles to look at before I file this one away. Just to make sure the paperwork’s in order and we can cover our asses if something goes sideways in the future.”

Collins made a face. “It won’t, but go ahead, as long as it doesn’t impinge on any other ongoing investigations. And once I hire the new COD, it’ll be his call.”

foggy coast

Donovan was on the road back to the coast and Sparta Creek Trailer Park the first thing next morning. There was a gap between the approximate time of death and the time the body was discovered that might never be completely filled in. He’d stared at the timeline spreadsheet, checking off each item, time of his dispatch, travel time to Acropolis Cove. The vehicle accident, a junker versus an SUV had slowed traffic on Corinth Bay Road. He recalled the demolished older model sedan on the shoulder of the highway and the near pristine Suburban, tinted windows, on the flatbed of the tow truck thinking it odd and that the junker should have had priority if the intent was to clear the roadway. He’d accessed the accident on the Highway Patrol incident log and noted the case number. Logging in to the incident file with his interagency LEO password, he read the at-scene officer’s notes. 11-80, major injuries, driver of a pre-millennium Mercury GM transported to Santa Lena General. Vehicle info: registered owner William Bailey Yates, current address Site 11A, Sparta Creek Trailer Park. That the vehicle information on the Suburban was simply Federal Government Fleet gave him pause. He recognized the name of the reporting officer, Zara Valdez, and left a message on her voicemail to call him back.

It was another grim gray day at the coast in the shade of a huge fog bank. And windy, flags and pennants rippling furiously like they wanted to break free and fly away. The awning on the battered trailer at site 11A was shuddering from the gusts and sand was swirling around the aluminum steps leading to the door. A head peeked out the narrow doorway to register his presence and then closed. Either the wind or those within made the trailer shake slightly from side to side.

After Donovan 10-97’d his 10-20, and as dispatched acknowledged, he answered the incoming call on his phone. “Officer Valdez, thanks for returning my call.”

“What’s up, Donovan, run into some more highway trouble?” She was a perky little number he remembered. It had been a Charity Slow Pitch Softball Tournament, street cops versus highway cops. He‘d gone from home plate ump to UFC referee in a matter of seconds. The street cop catcher was talking trash to the batters, but whatever he’d said to her, she erupted and almost took the guy’s head off. He’d stepped in, cautioned the catcher, and assessed her one strike. The pitcher, a tall gal who worked in city dispatch and a former amateur player, couldn’t stop from laughing. Once she caught her breath she threw a fast ball and Valdez hit a line drive right at her head. Later he’d learned that the catcher had made disparaging remarks about what he thought her sexual preferences were. “The V stands for Volcano,” she’d told him.

“Word gets around fast.”

“That’s why we have radios. What can I do you for?”

“That TC outside of Dardanelle two morning’s ago? An 11-80 involving a Suburban. . . .”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember. What about it?”

“The Suburban belongs to. . . .”

“It was Fed fleet. The driver badged me, Deputy US Marshal.”

“You used to get those in cereal boxes but since the world went granola. . .got a description?”

“Of the fed? Yeah, universal soldier, definitely military type, by the haircut at least, high and tight. Impressive, imposing, and full of himself. Name was Brick or Dick something. Tiller? Tillis?”

“How about the other driver, the transport?”

“A mess, older guy, lotsa blood, fire and rescue had to use the can opener to extricate.”

“What was it? A 102 or a 103?”

“I don’t think it was a 2. A 3, maybe, but on the other vehicle’s part.”

“Oh yeah?”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say some tactical driving was involved, at an unsafe speed, and the driver looked like someone who might have had the training. The Merc flipped a couple of times according to witnesses.”

“No take on the vehicle assignment?”

“I wanted to take a picture of the registration but he wouldn’t let me. Some weird agency I never heard of.”

“What about the transport, description?”

“Like I said, old guy. Despite the blood, my impression was leathery, like he’d been out in the sun a lot, like forever. No ID on him, wrote him a citation for driving without a license, not the vehicle’s registered owner from the DMV database photo, wrong age, too. He was out the entire time. Even in the hospital, they couldn’t ID him to see if he had insurance. But from the car he was driving, I’d say he didn’t.”

“What happened to the vehicle?”

“County impound yard, why?”

“I’m looking at the registered owner right now. He might want to know.”

“Oh yeah? I hope he has insurance because it’s totaled.”

An angry face surrounded by a shaggy bush of salt bleached hair stared at Donovan through the windshield of the sedan. When he stepped out, the mop retreated toward the trailer atop a wiry frame, feral in posture, mean-eyed as a cornered rabbit. “What you want?” a near soprano voice demanded. “I ain’t done nothing!” And then as a last recourse, “She ain’ta gonna press charges,” pointing at the woman named Heron cowering in the doorway of the trailer looking more harried than the last time he’d seen her.

If Donovan’s glare had been a thumb, it would have crushed the man like the insect he was. He addressed the woman in the doorway. “Ms. Heron, I have a few more questions concerning Dwight Carey.”

“She already told what she knows!” The boyfriend puffed himself like a bantam rooster and moved to block Donovan’s path to the trailer.

“I’m not here to talk to you. Get in my way and I’ll arrest you for obstruction of a murder inquiry.”

At the word “murder” the tenor of the man’s aggressiveness changed and his mouth opened and closed like a gasping goldfish undoubtedly mimicking his sphincter. He stood frozen with his arms stiff at his side, fists clenched.

“Ms. Heron, I would like to speak to you in private if I may.” He beckoned to her to step down out of the trailer. A few of the neighboring residents were drifting over to satisfy their curiosity.

Heron, her head down, eyes on the ground, came to stand next to him. “When I asked you about Dwight Carey yesterday, someone named ‘Dad’ came up. Do you remember?”

She nodded and cast a glance over her shoulder at her boyfriend.

“What else can you tell me about Dad?”

She shook her head, “Nothing I ain’t already said.”

“He’s a dirty old man and I’ll kick his ass when I get my hands on him!”

Donovan gave the boyfriend the practiced hard cop stare. “I’m not going to tell you again. Stay out of this.”

“He stole my ride!”

Donovan nodded and addressed Heron. “Did you loan Billy’s car to Dad and that’s why he beat on you?”

Heron whimpered and nodded her head.

“Did he tell you why he needed to borrow the car?”

“Said he had a doctor’s appointment in Santa Lena first thing in the morning but he’d bring it right back before Billy even knew it was gone. I ain’t lying, but he never did.”

Billy had got some of his nerve back and had edged closer, anger contorting his face. “This stupid bitch traded that old bastard my Merc for a stupid medal. Said it was worth a lot of money when it’s just a cheap piece of crap. Ain’t worth nothing and now I ain’t got wheels neither.”

“You have this item he gave you?” Donovan pointed a finger at Billy. “You stay where you are. If you wanted to file a stolen vehicle complaint, I’ll have the deputy come by and take the report.”

Heron reached down the front of her blouse and pulled up a round flat object attached to a thin leather cord. “It’s bronze, he said,” she spoke quietly, reverentially, “said it was ancient, magic, s’posta ward off evil spirits.” She looked at Billy. “Guess he was just making all that up cause he wanted me to let him borrow Billy’s ride. He’s a real slick talker when he wants to be, really smart, used a lot of big words. Talk anybody outta anything. I seen it. Said if he didn’t come back I could sell it to a collector for enough to buy a new car and a trailer. . . .”

“It’s a piece of junk!”

She handed it to Donavan who asked, “Did the thong come with it?”

“No I added that, There’s a little hole for it at the top.”

pan2He held it by the length of rawhide and examined it closely. It was the size of a cast belt buckle although solid and crude in its depiction of a face, what looked like a tongue protruding below a bushy mustache, the eyes round with terror or menace. The weight of it belied its size, encrusted in hues of coal black to greenish blues, there was nonetheless something intriguingly authentic about it.

Donovan set the medallion on the hood of his sedan and took pictures of the bronze medallion with his phone. He retrieved a plastic evidence bag from the driver’s door pocket.

“That’s mine!” Billy challenged and started toward him. “You can’t take that!” The nosey neighbors were joined by additional onlookers, curious, grim faced, but not their first police action.

“What did I say about staying put? This is evidence in a criminal inquiry. It’ll be returned to you as soon as it’s declassified. Step back or I’ll take you down and take you in!”

Someone in the crowd asked loudly, “Can you keep him longer this time?” A titter of laughter and grunts of approval rippled through the crowd of onlookers, some with smart phones recording the proceedings. A woman at the front of the neighborhood watch group held up her phone to get a better angle and yelled “Don’t let them take your property, Billy! You got your rights! They’ll be coming for your guns next!”

On cue Billy launched himself at Heron, punching, slapping and kicking, screaming “See what you did! This all your fault!” Heron cowered, screeching in surprise and pain.

Donovan moved quickly, grabbing Billy’s arm before the next blow landed and twisting it up behind his back in one swift practiced motion, knocking the man’s feet out from under him. Face down, Billy struggled to get up but Donovan, with a knee on his spine, snapped the cuffs on one wrist and final caught hold of the wildly flailing loose arm to bracelet it to the other. The wind, in a furious gust, whipped them both.

“Put your knee on his neck!” the woman filming with her phone yelled as if she were the director of an action movie.

Donovan stood up slowly, his breathing heavy. Two days running his adrenaline had kicked in and he could feel the cool itch of sweat breaking along his brow and under his eyes. He bent down again catching the glint of the medallion he had dropped in the wind shifting sand. For a moment he had the impression that it was mocking him as he hooked his finger through the leather strand and dropped the sturdy amulet into the evidence bag.

A couple of concerned neighbor women were comforting Heron, helping her over to the wood bench outside the trailer. One of them glared at Donovan as he approached. “You need to keep him in jail,” she said indicating Billy thrashing on the ground demanding his rights and the return of his property, “he’s always beating on her.”

“Do I need to call for a medic to take a look at you?”

Heron, sniffling between sobs, shook her head. “No, I’m ok,” she spoke feebly, “Are you gonna arrest him?”

Donovan pursed his lips. “He didn’t give me much choice. I witnessed an assault. I’m going to arrest him and leave it up to the DA to charge him. If he’s got a record for this kind of behavior it’s likely he’ll be doing some time. It’s the law and I have to enforce it.” He held up the evidence bag. “I’ll have you sign a receipt for the medallion. It’s interesting enough that I want to have the lab take a look at it. When we’re done with it, I’ll get it back to you. Promise.”

Heron looked up at him with tear reddened eyes and nodded. “Ok,” she said weakly.

emergencyWhy connecting one dot made him feel like a bloodhound hot on a trail he couldn’t say although it did energized him. He could draw a line from Ike Carey to Dad Ailess by association and by the odd coincidence that Carey was wearing a blue jumpsuit two sizes too small for him, a blue jumpsuit that was described as Dad’s usual attire. Now he had a link between Dad and the vehicle accident the morning Carey’s body was discovered. His next stop was Santa Lena General to learn what had become of the driver of the totaled Mercury. Once he reported his 10-15, the coast deputy arrived to take custody of Billy and await transport to the county jail.

The security guard at the ER recognized Donovan and nodded as he held the door open for him. He paused at the receiving counter for one of the nurses in blue scrubs to notice him. A young nurse, severe dark framed glasses, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, walked up to the counter.

“Hi, Jim Donovan with the Sheriff’s Office. I’m inquiring about the victim of a TC brought in here two days ago, mid-morning?”

“I’m sorry, do you have a warrant for that information?” She looked around and called for the attention of another nurse with her back to them. “Maria?”

Maria turned and then smiled. “Jim Donovan. I have not seen you in a while. I thought maybe you have retired.” She was a sprightly slightly rotund Hispanic woman with streaks of gray in her otherwise jet black hair.

“I don’t know how that rumor got started.”

“If you ask me, I think Tim Collins start it in hope he get rid of his bad boy detective.”

“You might be on to something.”

“Jim, this is Tess, she is new here.”

Donovan gave an affable smile and claimed to be pleased to meet her.

“Have you heard from Marion recently? How she is liking Baltimore?”

Donovan scratched his chin. “Not in a while, but last time I talked to her she was liking it just fine.”

“Tell her ‘hi’ from the SaLeGen gang next time.” She addressed Tess. “Marion was one of the top ICU nurses here and a frequent companion of the Sheriff detective and we adopt him as ‘our guy’.” She beamed a big smile, warm and affectionate. “So what bring you down to the ER, Jim?”

“He wanted information on a TC admit. Doesn’t he need a warrant for that?”

Maria looked taken aback. “Why he need that? He need a court order to get private medical information, sure, but information on a patient status is entirely appropriate, especially if it is in the course of an investigation.” She turned to Jim, “I assume it is, yes?”

“Absolutely. I merely need to determine the victim of the traffic collision. . . .”

Tess looked confused. “But the others showed me a warrant and said. . . .”

“Others?” Donovan and Marie asked in near unison.

“The others came shortly after this man, the one who was in the vehicle accident two days ago, we had him as a John Doe, admitted him for assessment. They said they had a warrant for him but the on-call emdee said he was too fragile to move and they’d have to wait till he regained consciousness. Then later, I was off shift but I learned from Miguel, the late shift nurse, that they brought in their own doctor, a woman, and he said he didn’t think she was an emdee, but she had a lawyer with her, and they were going to transport him to another facility, and even the director of operations had to be called because the old guy had never recovered consciousness and the on-call refused because he was already tied to in-hospital life support. . . .”  She paused as if out of breath.

“So that what that was all about,” Maria nodded sagely. “I am looking over the shift note and here is this whole kerfuffle about the transport. They want to send their own helicopter to medivac. So we get him ready to move. But wherever it was come from, there was a weather delay, so he have to wait.

“A cluster kerfuffle, you might say,” Donovan interjected.

Maria chuckled, “Jim, you always make me laugh.” Tess gave a tentative smile and added, “But they got it all resolved this morning. The helicopter medevacked him to another hospital I’m assuming.”

“Ugh!” Donovan shook his head. “Was there any identification made on the patient, his name? Anything?”

“There was a name on the warrant. I saw it when they showed it to me.” Tess made the helpless gesture. “But I don’t remember it. Sorry.”

“Could it have been Daniel Ailess or Alaz?”

“Mmm, I don’t think so. It was the full name, you know, first, middle, last.”

“I should have acted on my hunch yesterday,” he groaned.

“Wait,” Maria said, “there must be a copy of the warrant if the hospital authorize the  release.” She held up a finger. “The director of operations! I will call his office,” she smiled picking up the hospital phone.

Donovan addressed Tess, “Can you give me a description of the patient, anything you can remember about him that might have struck you as odd?”

“No, not really, just that he seemed really old, you know, his skin was dark but the intern checked Caucasian on the admittance form.”

“Anything else?”

“Just that there was a lot of blood on his clothes. From the accident, you know.”

“What were his injuries?”

Tess shrugged. “I don’t know. I wasn’t part of the triage team. But I remember Marcus, one of the nurses on the team, saying he didn’t know where the blood came from.”

“It didn’t come from the injuries?”

“I didn’t ask him what he meant. We had a busy patch right around then. The on-call had him transferred to ICU almost immediately so it must have been pretty serious. I don’t think he regained consciousness, at least not under our care.”

Maria hung up the receiver shaking her head. “He is in a meeting and cannot be disturb.” She stared at the phone set. “The problem with hiring the children of the board of directors as receptionists is that they do not know anything and they do not care that they do not know anything.” Her eyes narrowed. “Tess, who was the on-call that day?”


“Oh, Merry Dan? That is disappointing.”

“No, wait, it was Fatima! Meridan was working another incident. Like I said we were slammed that day.”

Maria nodded. “Fatima Fattah. Now Doctor Fattah I know we can trust. She is not on call today. But!” with a spark in her eye, “I can review her patient log. If I know her, she count the buttons on his shirt.”

Donovan and Tess exchanged a hopeful glance as Maria manipulated the mouse, and a few keystrokes later nodded her head and said “Ok, here we go.” Her eyes scanned the screen and she frowned. “I have not seen that one in forever, a BOP billing code.”

“BOP? Bureau of Prisons?” He nodded his head. “Ok, that gives me something to chew on. Anything else?”

“Here, his name is Philip Andrew Nichols.”

“No joy there, and I’m almost back to square one.”

“This is odd.” Maria pointed to the screen. “Dr. Fattah could find no injuries that would account for the blood on the clothing.”

“The clothing? Any chance that they would still be around?”

Maria shook her head, “No, they were his effects, they probably were pack up with him when they transport.”

“Can I  get a look at his room in the ICU? Maybe something of his was left behind.” He shrugged. “I know it’s a reach.”

Maria put the phone to her ear. “You will have to mask and gown, but I will ask Debbie.” She smiled. “You remember Debbie, don’t you?”

Donovan remembered Debbie and Debbie hadn’t forgotten Donovan. Debbie had had a huge crush on him and had made a move on him at a Christmas party, one that Marion hadn’t been able to attend because she was working that evening. That had been some years back when he was still working Narcotics. Nothing had ever come of it mainly because Debbie had been very drunk. He’d driven her home, helped her find the keys to her front door, end of story. Except for the ones wagging tongues were tempted to tell.

Martina PapponettiDebbie talked a lot when she was nervous and that made Donovan nervous. “The room was scrubbed soon after they transported, I doubt you’ll find anything. There’s already a new patient in there. And even if I did, I could get in serious trouble if anyone found out I’d let you in. Privacy rights, you know. I don’t know what Maria was thinking.” They were standing by the double doors that led into the ICU. She had her mask pulled down under her chin, a large sterile cap covering a pile of blonde hair, and a full blue gown and matching booties.

“How about blood or tissue samples?” He felt stupid. He knew the answer as soon as he asked the question.

She answered anyway, “You’d have to have permission of his custodian or a court order, or both.”

Donovan looked around, a security guard was hurrying to the nurses station. “You’re right, of course.” He sighed, “Grasping at straws.”

Debbie had a nice smile even if it had a little edge of smug superiority to it. She tucked a stray strand of blonde hair under her cap and asked, “Have you heard from Marion since she moved back to Baltimore?”

He was about to give his boiler plate answer when an angry voice erupted at the nurses station. Another security guard was hurrying down the corridor crowded with idle machines, gurneys, nurses, orderlies, and patients hobbling along grasping their mobile IV poles or in wheelchairs. The loud voice belonged to an older woman. “I can’t believe this! How can you lose a man who can’t walk?”

The nurse, embarrassed and flustered, was losing her patience over the presumed lost patient. “Please, calm down! I’m certain it’s just a mistake. He’s here in the hospital, I’m sure of it.”

The loud woman was accompanied by a younger woman, likely her daughter, and a young girl not much older than five who was tugging insistently at the young woman’s jacket. The young woman tried to shush the girl but looked up in the direction the girl pointed as she announced in the clear voice of a precocious pre-adolescent, “That man has a hat just like Uncle Jimmy’s.” That caused the loud woman to whirl around. “Someone’s wearing my brother’s hat?” Then she screamed pointing at a now empty wheelchair in the cluster that had gathered to view the ruckus. All heads turned, including Donovan’s, to catch a leg disappearing behind the corner of the corridor. The security guards looked at each other perplexed. They had no idea what had just happened. They’d been called to quell a commotion. They weren’t at all certain they were supposed to chase someone down the hospital corridor even as the woman screamed “He stole my brother’s hat!”

Donovan was around the corner in a couple of strides. A gurney with attendant IV pole was waiting to be loaded on the elevator at the far end of the hallway flanked by two orderlies in pale green scrubs. Other than that, the people in the hallway looked like they belonged there, their demeanor professional, some flashing him questioning looks. Then he saw it on the floor between a soiled linen hamper and a medical waste disposal crate, the uncle’s hat. He bent down and with the pen from his pocket lifted the ballcap to take a closer look. There was an unusual logo on the front of the hat, a lower case i framed by a pair of wings.

Next Time, in Part 4 of The White Room: The Lab In The Labyrinth

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?

The White Room—I

 by Helene Baron-Murdock


Abalone divers found the body floating in the surf tangled up in bull kelp. The call landed on Detective Jim Donovan’s desk. He called down to the Weston County Sheriff’s dispatch and talked to the shift supervisor. “Do you have a deputy at scene? I can’t feature driving all the way out to the coast if it’s just a 10-55.”

“Let me check the log. . .appears like it came in as a 10-54 from one caller at Acropolis Cove. Someone else called it in as a 10-32. With all the divers out there, that sounded about right. Then the local volunteer fire and rescue got on scene and when they pulled the body out of the water they thought it might be a 10-71, but definitely a 10-55.”

“Ok, dead body, possible drowning, and a definite coroner’s case, but a shooting? Whose jurisdiction is that out there?”

“That’d be Mount Oly Volunteer Fire Department.”


“The same. He’s even saying that it might be a 187.”

“ Murder? Figures, he’s such a drama queen. Where’s the coast deputy? Is he on days off?”

“No, he’s handling a 415 domestic right now at the Sparta Creek Beach trailer park. It got pretty dicey for a bit. They’ve got the abuser in custody but he’ll be tied up for a while.”

“Alright, I’m on my way.”

“Look on the bright side, you’ve been freed from paper work in a stuffy office and you get to enjoy a nice pleasant drive out to Weston County’s gorgeous coast.”

Donovan grunted, not all that convinced. “I’ll 10-97 when I get there. Advise the coast deputy I’m on my way and have him meet up with me when he clears the domestic.”

Donovan headed south out of Santa Lena on the main four lane. He exited the freeway at Corinth Bay Road and drove west. He could tell by the mass of gray clouds on the horizon that the coast was fog bound, so much for enjoying the gorgeous scenery. It would take him forty minutes to reach the coast highway and another quarter of an hour to Acropolis Cove.

Traffic slowed as he approached Dardanelle, the little upscale arts community astride the Corinth road. The tiny burg with its one way streets tended to be a bottleneck but as he got closer to town he saw a fire and rescue unit and Highway Patrol directing cars around a demolished piebald  junker, windshield trashed, twisted like a candy wrapper. The meat wagon was just revving up to head for the hospital and let out an ear splitting howl as its siren screamed down the road back toward Santa Lena. A yellow tow truck was parked at the shoulder with a disgruntled but not too severely damaged tinted window black Suburban on the flatbed. Once clear of the wreck and west of Dardanelle he followed a caravan of cars all in a hurry to get to the coast and the fishing village of Corinth Bay, the coast highway, and points North and South.

Traffic thinned out the further north  he travelled as the highway got windier, steeper, and narrower, cornering around sheer cliffs and then whipping down gullies into hairpin turns and then back up again only to repeat the same course in the next few miles. By the time he reached Acropolis Cove with its distinctive escarpment of eroded columns resembling those of an ancient Greek temple, his arms were cramped  and his neck was stiff. The parking lot was crammed full of RVs and pickups with camper shells.

Donovan notified dispatch he was at scene and parked behind the red Fire & Rescue rig and the bright yellow ambulance. A stiff breeze hit him with a frigid seaborne slap as he exited the sedan and he regretted not bringing a heavier windbreaker. He could tell from Baxter’s expectant expression that he was not a happy camper. `

“You took your damn time!” Baxter accused. He was a short man with a ruff of curly gray hair escaping out from under his fire department ballcap. He had the dark and weathered complexion of a man who lived his life outdoors. Donovan seemed to remember that he was a cattleman or a sheep rancher when he wasn’t being the volunteer chief.

“Someone should have been out here sooner but apparently the coast deputy was delayed on a domestic.”

Baxter nodded in resignation that that was all he could expect in the way of apology for taking up his time. “Yeah, heard that on the radio this morning. Sparta Creek is a cesspool of surfers, druggies, and the homeless. The county needs to clean out that rats nest. It’s a blight on our coastal community.”

Donovan had heard the spiel before. “That our customer?” he asked looking down the embankment to the beach to where a blue tarp bulged over an elongated shape. The wide stretch of sand was dotted with men and women in their black wetsuits and snorkel gear, some emerging from the surf with mesh bags and pry bars. The oppressive overcast like a lead plug gripped everything in its gray light accompanied by the tang of cold ocean air and rotting seaweed. Panoramas of sheer red cliffs, driftwood littered dingy beige sand, spray dashed craggy monoliths, roiling surf, wave after choppy wave all the way out to the swelling shimmering steel gray horizon seemed somehow dreary and unsettling.

Baxter led the way and pulled back the tarp. Donovan made a mental picture of the prone figure before crouching down for a closer look, taking note of the clothing, complexion, hair, and any signs of injury or unusual markings such as tattoos: pale blue coveralls, one tattered sneakers, white, brown, and contusions around the forehead and jaw. He guessed male by the body type. Appeared to be wearing a harness of some sort, straps from the shoulder crossing the back to a belt cinched at the waist.

“Looks like one of them hang glider types. They like to jump the cliffs a little further up Sparta Creek ways,” Baxter offered. “They use that long stretch of Sparta Creek Beach to land.

“No helmet.”

“Yeah, saw that. Banged his head on the rocks a bit, I’d say.”

“The wounds look clean. Could have been washed in the surf.”

Donovan straightened and gazed out at the field of guano covered monoliths splashed in stolid indifference by breakers. A stiff icy breeze pushed against him and he resolved to get back in his sedan as soon as possible. “Where’d they find him?”

Baxter pointed to a pair of almost identical smaller crags closer to the shoreline at the foot of a precipice topped thick with conifers. “Wedged between those two, tangled in the kelp. The divers like that spot beyond the furthest twins where it drops off deep to an underwater cliff jammed packed with sea slugs. They call that spot the New York City of single-footed critters there’s so damn many!”

“You go out there and pull him in?”

Baxter looked at him like he was crazy. “We had the divers run a line out to the body and pulled it to shore.” Then, “What? They were already wet!” And as if to change the subject, he pointed at the left side of the body. “What d’you make of this?”

Donovan had noticed the ragged hole in the jumpsuit just above the waist and below the harness belt. It was surrounded by a large area of discoloration. “Could be blood. Or grease.”

“I think it’s a bullet wound.”

“You looked.”

Baxter didn’t deny it.

“You didn’t happen to find his wallet or identification while you were looking, did you?”

“Nope, not that I could see, and he’s completely nekkid under that jumpsuit.”

Donovan noticed two men descending the path to the beach with a gurney. “Coroner’s van is here, you can release the ambulance and your boys. Thanks for the help.” Then he saw a deputy peering  down from the edge of the parking lot. He recognized him as a kid name of Royce. “Did you get details on the guys who found the body?” he asked Baxter.

“Yeah, a couple of guys from the valley. They’re in their trailer. I told them you probably want to talk to them.”

campgroundDonovan headed back to the parking lot after he’d watched the coroner’s assistants turn the body over and load him onto the gurney. Facing up, the corpse did nothing more than confirm that he was a white male. Royce met him at the top of the path.

“Sorry about the delay, Donovan, but I had a live one. Some dirtbag using his woman for a punching bag. Again.”

Donovan nodded sympathetically. “All in a day’s work. I get paid the same sitting on my ass in the office or freezing my ass off in the fog. Baxter here has the info on the guys who found the body. They’re in a trailer here somewhere in this parking lot.” He pointed with his chin. “Probably those two guys in wet suits over there looking like they have more than a casual interest in what’s going on. Get the story from them and file the interview so I can add it to my report.”

“No foul play like I been hearing on the scanner?”

“Naw, straight up accident. Some people just have an overactive imagination. He’s got some contusions and probably other injuries related to getting banged against the rocks. We’ll let the ME sort that out.”

“Ok, I’ll get to it.” The deputy turned to Baxter whose face had gone a bright red and then as if he’d forgotten to ask something. “Any truth to the rumor that you’re thinking of retiring?” He said it with a boyish expectant grin.

Donovan made a wry face. His retiring would open up the ranks to promotion for certain ambitious young officers. He remembered when he was one of them. “Still in the thinking stage. Been there for the last couple of years. Could be a couple more years before it stops being a rumor.” He laughed at the transparence of the deputy’s disappointment.

“Retire? You gonna retire?” Baxter acted indignant to cover his irritation at the slight. “You don’t want to retire. Man, that’s the last thing you wanna do!”

Donovan and the deputy turned their attention to Baxter to hear his reasoning.

“I knew this guy, worked for Fish and Feathers, put in thirty years. Up and retired, dead in three months.”

“Now there’s a happy thought.”

He didn’t often dream of the dead although in his line of work he’d come across his fair share of corpses. Every once in a while he was awakened by a vivid dream of a dead body, the images lingering in his consciousness as he transitioned to a wakeful state. Sometimes he was in the uniform of his early days as a deputy, other times in his civvies as a detective, and often the corpse belonged to someone he knew or had known even if they were not currently deceased. And at times he had had conversations with them as if being dead was the only way they could get his attention. Always he had the feeling that he was being guided or escorted in these encounters by an accompanying shadow or shade.

“He had to assume the wound would have been fatal had the subject not drowned. That made him primary on a possible homicide. He hated to admit it, but Baxter was right.

The images were still with him as he drove into the office the morning after his trek to the coast. He was on a beach crowded by large crags on all sides anxious to avoid getting doused by the cold ocean spray. There was a covered body hovering at his feet, a long dark, barely discernable cigar shape. There was also a party in progress, drinking, and drunks raising a ruckus, getting soused, shouting it seemed, and singing. The beach transformed into the interior of a bar, and stretched out on the pool table surrounded by votive candles, the body of someone he knew, someone from long ago. He’d awakened with a start at that moment of recognition. They had been in the same class at the Academy, Lopes, Larry Lopes, aka “Lucky” Lopes.

Lucky had been hired as a patrolman for the better paying Santa Lena City PD upon graduation which was how he got the name “lucky.” They weren’t necessarily good friends but buddy enough to grab a beer or two on occasion. Donovan remembered him as wild, cowboy impulsive.

Lopes had responded to a domestic on the west side near the city limits. Protocol demanded that he stage and wait for backup. It had been a busy night for the PD and all their other units were tied up elsewhere, Dispatch had called for mutual aid from the County Sheriff. Donovan had been the closest County unit and was there in five minutes, but it was five minutes too late. The radio had crackled with alerts of shots fired, and then the dreaded triple 9, officer down. Later it came out that Lopes had advised dispatch he was going in alone, not that that had lifted the weight of residual guilt from his shoulders, and it revisited him from time to time.

Deputy Royce’s report was waiting for him when he signed in. It tallied with what Chief Baxter had said. Hector Royas and Charles Yu, both from the burbs south of the Capitol, had suited up and gone out for their first dive of the day, approximately 0900 hours. A large raft of bull kelp obstructed their passage to their dive spot. In moving it out of the way, they discovered the unidentified victim. Originally believed that it was another diver but on closer examination saw that the subject was not wearing diving gear. They hailed someone on the beach to call 911 and stayed with the body until Fire & Rescue arrived. They assisted the volunteers in bringing the body to the beach and awaited the arrival of law enforcement. Dispatch log shows the first report of possible 10-32 at approximately 0913.

The medical examiner had filed a preliminary report cc’d to him and the shift commander. He always marveled at the obfuscating bureaucratese they were couched in. You had to crack them like a walnut just to get at the meat.

The still unidentified decedent, white male, 5 foot 7 inches, 200 pounds, approximately 30 years of age, died in a manner consistent with drowning. Because he was in the water for an indeterminate amount of time, the TOD was between 12 to 36 hours prior to recovery. Contusions on the head and hands were post mortem. Entry and exit wound to lower right side of torso consistent with gunshot was not.

He had to assume the wound would have been fatal had the subject not drowned. That made him primary on a possible homicide. He hated to admit it, but Baxter was right, it was a 187.

Toxicology report indicated traces of amphetamine, cannabis, and a few other as yet unidentified residues, possibly psychotropic. The harness found on the deceased appeared to be nonmanufactured for its specific purpose. Identity via fingerprinting and facial metrics still pending.

Donovan knew he’d need another cup of coffee if he was going to continue to read the passive voice mind mush. He made his way to the breakroom and immediately realized that he had been elected to make a fresh pot. As he was banging around, tossing out the old grounds and looking for the filters, Nina Vaughn, the Violent Crimes Unit SOA and de facto den mother, looked in smiling and asked, “Anything I can help you with, short timer?”

Nina had one of those husky sassy voices that made you pay attention.

“What do you mean,  short timer?”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“I’m just looking for some coffee filters.”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“What was the subject?”

“Don’t play dumb.”

He smiled at her. “I’m only as smart as my pay grade will allow.”

“That is definitely a short timer attitude.” She smiled back at him in a rather flirtatious den mother way. “Did you get the message that Chief Baxter called early this morning. I left the number on your desk. He said it was important.”

“If it’s from Baxter, it’s self-important. No I didn’t, but then you know the state of my desk.”

“Not only are you a short timer, but you’re short sighted as well. I put the pink sticky note right in the middle of your keyboard.”

“You should’ve put it on the mouse. I avoid the keyboard whenever I can. In fact, I hate the keyboard so much once I’m retired I’m never going to touch another keyboard again.”

“Aha! I was right!”

The phone answered after the second ring. “Mount Oly Volunteer Fire Department, Chief Neil Baxter speaking, how can I help you?”

“Baxter, Donovan, what do you have for me?”

“Hey, detective, yeah, thanks for calling back. I found something, or rather one of my boys found something yesterday when we were out on a call for a cliff rescue. Some damn tourists, like they always do, think they can climb down to the beach but never think about how they’re gonna get back up. And then the tide comes in. . . .”

“Cut to the chase.”

“Well, like I said, the boys were doing a cliff rescue and one of them found your victim’s wing.”

“Wing? I’m not getting what you’re talking about.”

“Well, going on the assumption that he was a hang glider, this would have been his gear.”

“You’re the only one going on that assumption. What makes you so sure it belongs to the deceased?”

“Remember that harness he was wearing? I’ve done a lot of hang glider rescues and I never seen one that looked like that. Theirs are more like cradles. And if I don’t miss my guess, that guy’s harness looked DIY.”


“Right, and this wing we found is definitely homemade. What you wanna have me do with it?”

mountoly sta

Mount Oly volunteers had brought the wing back to the station in Orcala, a coastal community of the retired well to-do with prized coastal vantage just off the main highway consisting of a post office convenience store gas pump, a hotel restaurant, a driftwood souvenir shop, and the volunteer fire station. Numerous dwellings dotted the steep hillside overlooking the Pacific like the nests of sunset worshipers.

“Not like any hang glider sail I’ve ever seen.” Baxter had propped the wing up against a wall in the engine bay. A collection of odd fabric squares resembling a quilt was stretched over most of a lattice made of interlaced bamboo lashed with fine wire. It had suffered some damage in the surf but was still remarkably sturdy for something that appeared so delicate. “And I think it had a twin. If you look at the design, it actually looks like a bird’s wing. And see this little do-hickey here, with the handle? I’ll bet if you pull on this mechanism it makes the wing flap at these hinges.”

“Can you show me where you found it?”

“I can take you there or I can show you on a topo in the office.”

“Whatever’s most convenient.”

Inside the small office with a desk, a radio squawking staticky incomprehensible chatter, and a jumbled assortment of firefighter turnouts and helmets, Baxter pointed to the wall map. “This here is our jurisdiction. We go as far south as Argo State Beach and as far north as the county line.” He placed his finger on a spot on the map. “This is Acropolis Cove where we found the body. And here, less than a mile up is where we found the wing.”

Donovan stared at the map. It meant a whole lot of nothing to him, and even though he had a general knowledge of the county’s topography he once again thanked his lucky stars that he’d never been assigned coast duty. Nothing said out in the middle of nowhere as much as this stretch of coast did.

“This up here is Sparta Creek Beach, right?”

“That’s right, and right there in that bow in the hillside is the Sparta Creek drainage and where the trailer park is nested.”

“So if I was a hang glider, where would I launch from?”

“This highpoint here at the south end of the beach.”

“Why not from up here? The elevation’s considerably higher.”

Baxter grinned. “Right there is an abandoned Girl Scout summer camp, Camp Wannaseeme, as the locals used to call it, cause the gals liked to go skinny-dipping in the dammed up feeder to Sparta Creek and weren’t particularly shy about it. That’s a hush-hush restricted zone of the Area 51 variety now.”

“You pulling my leg?”

In Part Two: Moonshine Maneuvers

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