Tag Archives: Weston County

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?”

“Meridan.”

“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.”

“Apparently.”

“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.”

“Schleppers?”

“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

coast

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.”

“Baxter?”

“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.”

“Do-it-yourself?”

“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?”

            “Nelson.”

            “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?”

            “Exactly.”

            “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!”