Amen Corner: A Sam Skarda Mystery #1

Amen Corner: A Sam Skarda Mystery #1

The body of the Masters rules committee chairman is found floating in the pond in front of the 12th green on the morning that Sam Skarda arrives at Augusta National ...

About The Author

Rick Shefchik

Rick Shefchik was born in Duluth, Minn., in 1952 (in the same hospital as Bob Dylan, 11 years later.) He ...

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Saturday, April 5

The thick-necked, small-mouthed guard named Dewey opened the door to Lee Doggett’s prison cell at 8:01 a.m.

“Big day for you, Doggett,” Dewey said. “Eight years, huh?

C’mon, grab your stuff. Warden wants to say so long.”

“You’re late,” Doggett said, glowering at the apathetic state employee who’d just stolen another minute of his freedom. Doggett was tempted to sink his fingers into the soft, stubbly flesh of Dewey’s neck and snap his spinal cord like a celery stalk, then haul the guard’s gelatinous bulk to the back of the cell and smash his face to pulp on the rim of the steel toilet. He could do it, easily; he’d worked out in the prison weight room from the day he arrived at Reidsville, with the sole purpose of turning himself into an executioner. But he wouldn’t waste his talents on Dewey, even though the lazy pig had forced him to spend 60 extra seconds in the 6-by-12-foot box that had been his home for the past 2,848 terrifying, humiliating, rage-filled days and nights.

“Aw, so what?” Dewey said. “Like you got plans or somethin’?”

The same plans I’ve had from the day they sent me to this urinal eight years ago, Doggett was tempted to scream at him. I’m going to Augusta to kill my father.

# # #

There was no one to meet Doggett when he walked out the main entrance of the Georgia State Penitentiary at Reidsville. His mother was dead, his wife and kid long gone—off to Florida, last he’d heard. He put the nylon gym bag he’d arrived with eight years ago over his shoulder, refusing to turn around and look at the bleached-white walls, barred windows, and cyclone fences of the prison he was leaving behind. It didn’t matter where he’d been. All that mattered was where he was going.

The Masters would begin in less than a week. His father was always in Augusta for the Masters.

The April sun had already pushed the temperature into the sixties. Sweat began trickling down the small of his back as   he walked the quarter-mile to the state highway that led into Reidsville. The sun felt warm and strange on his face—there was something different about the way the sun shone and the wind blew when you were outside the confines of the prison yard. It felt good, but it felt loose and wild, too—like no one could tell nature what to do. That’s the way he felt, too.

Traffic was light, maybe three or four cars per minute. No one would be crazy enough to pick up a hitchhiker that close to a state prison, but Doggett hung out his thumb anyway as he walked along, thinking about his route: North into Reidsville, northeast on U.S. 280 to Claxton, then north on U.S. 25 through Statesboro to Augusta. He’d memorized the route from maps in the prison library, since he’d never been to Reidsville before the judge had sentenced him there for printing and selling counterfeit Masters badges and possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell. His idiot public defender had assured him that trafficking in bogus passes to a sporting event normally got you three-to-five, at most. The dumb son of a bitch apparently didn’t realize that normal rules don’t apply to Augusta National.

Someone at the club put pressure on the Richmond County police and the district attorney. The D.A. pressed for the maximum and the judge threw the book at him: 15 years, no parole. A year later, the Georgia Sentence Review Panel agreed that Doggett’s sentence was extreme and cut it to eight, with credit for time served while waiting for his trial.

The drug charge was the part they couldn’t ignore, but it was pure bullshit; the cops planted the cocaine in his house. And he knew why: His father wanted to see Doggett in prison—with luck, to die there. He was a big man at Augusta National, and the cops would be glad to do him a favor.

They’d wish they hadn’t.

In addition to the weight room, Doggett killed a lot of time in the prison library. You could learn a lot just thumbing through the magazines and newspapers. You could learn, for instance, that there was a women’s group raising hell about Augusta National still not having a woman member. There were going to be protests again this year; the media and the TV networks were going to make a big deal about it. The chairman of Augusta National, some corporate button-down named David Porter, kept telling the world that the club would admit a woman when the time was right, not when they were told to do it. But now some of the members were talking to the press, saying the time might be right.

Everybody was pissed off. Perfect cover.

You could learn a lot from the guys you met in prison, too. Like Bernard Pettibone. The guy was a certifiable lunatic, but he knew more about bombs than an Al Qaeda terrorist. Mailbox bombs, letter bombs, car bombs, fertilizer bombs, shoe bombs, pipe bombs—if something or someone needed blowing up, Pettibone knew how to do it, with the cheapest materials.

“Ain’t no trick to makin’ things explode,” Pettibone told Doggett one night in the mess hall. “It’s basic chemistry.”

Pettibone was doing thirty to life for maiming a county judge with a mailbox bomb. The judge had ordered Pettibone to clean up the junk around his farmhouse, and Pettibone had taken exception to the infringement on his property rights. The judge lost his left arm up to the elbow, and the left side of his face. Pettibone would have gotten away with it if he hadn’t decided to leave another one for the county sheriff. It went off on the front seat of Pettibone’s car while he was parked in front of the sheriff’s house. Pettibone was luckier than the judge; he lost only two fingers on his right hand, a chunk of his thigh, and all the hair on the right side of his head. With his wispy blond hair hanging lank on the other side of his pale, scarred skull, he looked like a baseball with the stuffing coming out.

“See, explosions is just a increase in volume from oxidation, causin’ a violent release of hot gas,” Pettibone told him. “You just need your fuel, your accelerant, your container, and a spark. The spark gets the oxidation goin’, and when the container can’t hold the pressure no more, you got your explosion. Get me?”

Doggett understood chemistry—he’d understood all that school shit, but he knew he was never going to college, so why work at it?

Pettibone seemed to think further explanation was necessary. “Here’s your fuel.”

He scooped up a spoonful of mashed potatoes from his plate.

“Here’s your container.”

He spooned the potatoes into the empty apple juice carton. “Here’s your accelerant.”

He poured a few drops of water from a plastic cup onto a piece of napkin and placed it in the carton, on top of the potatoes.

“Then alls you need is a fuse—” he twisted up a paper napkin and stuffed it into the carton— “and a spark.”

He pretended to light the napkin, and stared it for several seconds with a kind of intensity that suggested he was watching a real fuse burn down. Doggett had seen it all in prison, but this guy still gave him the creeps. Then Pettibone brought his fist down hard on top of the carton, splitting the sides and sending mashed potatoes spurting onto them and all the nearby inmates.

“Godammit, Pettibone, you fuckin’ psycho!” one of the spattered prisoners yelled, diving across the table at him while Pettibone bayed with delight like a hound dog. The guards rushed to the table and hauled Pettibone off to solitary.

The lesson had not been lost on Doggett. If a total nutjob like Pettibone could make a bomb, he could, too.

# # #

He walked through Reidsville, a typical Georgia town with a few gas stations, feed stores and restaurants, and began hitch-hiking again north of town. He was halfway to Bellville when a farmer in a powder blue Chevy pickup eased over onto the dirt shoulder and pushed the passenger side door open.

“Gettin’ too hot to walk,” the farmer said. “Hop in.” “Thanks,” Doggett said.

“Where y’all headed?” the farmer asked.

He had a weather-beaten face and wore a greasy green seed cap with a plastic adjustable strap in back, a denim work shirt, newer Levis with the cuffs rolled up, and a pair of battered brown work boots. He looked briefly at Doggett, but didn’t seem to give much thought to why a man wearing a denim shirt, jeans, and carrying a gym bag would be hitch-hiking on this road. Doggett slid into the front seat and the farmer pulled back onto the highway. George Jones was on the radio, wailing about getting drunk; Christ, Doggett thought, isn’t that guy dead yet?

“Augusta,” Doggett answered.

“Ain’t goin’ that far,” the farmer said. “Just headin’ back to my place north of Claxton. I had to run down to Reidsville for some fertilizer.”

He gestured over his shoulder to the bed of his pickup, where Doggett saw dozens of 25-pound sacks of fertilizer stacked to the back window.

“What are you growing?” “Corn, mostly.”

“Planting kind of late, aren’t you?”

“Crop’s already in. I’m just stocking up for next year. Sale at the co-op this week. You farm?”

“No,” Doggett said. “I used to work on the grounds crew at a golf course.”

“Uhm,” the farmer said, unimpressed.

Doggett took a good look at the farmer. He wasn’t particularly big, but he was wiry, the kind who had ropes for muscles from working with farm supplies and equipment every day of the year. His kids would be grown now, most likely gone. There would be a wife, though.

“You want some help with those bags?” Doggett asked. “Naw,” the farmer said.

“Least I can do for the ride,” Doggett said. “You ain’t gotta be someplace?”

“Not today.”

“Wife’s in Atlanta this weekend,” the farmer said after a while. “I guess I wouldn’t mind a hand.”

# # #

By the time they got to the farm, an 80-acre spread on the northwest side of Claxton with a neat white clapboard farmhouse and a pole barn, Doggett found out that Don Robey’s kids had moved away right after high school, passing up farming for the lights of Atlanta. His wife Marge was visiting them, and wasn’t due back home until Wednesday night.

By the time he’d carried the first sack of fertilizer into the pole barn, Doggett had spotted the axe.

He stayed in the barn and waited until Robey had a sack of fertilizer over his shoulder, about to drop it on the pile with the others. Doggett came up behind him and swung the blunt part of the axe like a baseball bat, catching the farmer flush on the back of the head with a crunching thud and sending him sprawling onto the fertilizer bags. He was prepared to start hacking at Robey, but he didn’t need to. The first blow had killed him.

He waited until just after the sun set and buried Robey and the axe a good 75 yards out in the cornfield, making the grave look exactly like the furrows around it.

He returned to the farmhouse and wandered through, looking for anything that might prove useful. He found a pair of work gloves, a loaded Smith & Wesson revolver, a box of bullets and a good, sharp hunting knife in the basement; upstairs, in an unused bedroom with a dusty Dominique Wilkins poster on the wall, he found $6,700 in a cigar box in a desk drawer.

He fried up some hamburger in the kitchen, drank a couple of beers, and watched TV until nearly midnight, then drove Robey’s pickup into Statesboro. He found an unlighted football practice field on the campus of Georgia Southern University and parked on the street next to the small wood and metal grandstand. He filled an old metal watering can he’d found in Robey’s pole barn with fertilizer from the bag he’d left in the truck bed. He doused one of Robey’s pit-stained undershirts with gasoline and put it in the watering can, on top of the fertilizer. Then he rolled up a full sheet of newspaper into a cylinder, unscrewed the broad, perforated metal cap on the watering can’s spout and stuffed the newspaper into the spout until it touched the gas-soaked shirt.

Doggett took one more look around. No one in sight. Okay, Pettibone—let’s see if you knew what the fuck you were talking about. He walked under the grandstand and placed the can beneath the fourth row of the six-tiered structure. He lit the newspaper with a kitchen match and ran to the idling truck. He was a block down the street when the can blew up with a boom that could have been heard on the other side of the campus—maybe the other side of town. He could see sheared-off wooden planks and twisted chunks of metal railing strewn around the smoky field as lights began turning on in the nearby dorms.

Pettibone, you sick, beautiful bastard.

Doggett drove north on U.S. 25 through downtown States- boro, grinning and smacking the steering wheel with his open palms. He hadn’t been this elated since—when? Not in the last eight years, that was for sure.

It was 80 miles to Augusta.

See you soon—Dad…

Chapter One

Sunday, April 6

Sam Skarda sat on the front porch of his South Minneapolis bungalow and waited for his cab to arrive. It was a cool morning in early April, but the sunshine felt warm on his face through the budding branches of the towering elm trees that lined the street. A pair of robins hopped across the mottled lawn.

Next to him on the porch was his golf bag, zipped into a travel cover, and his suitcase, packed with everything he thought he’d need, even in the unlikely event that he made the cut in the Masters: seven golf shirts, three of them new; five pairs of pressed cotton pants in assorted shades of khaki; two pairs of shorts and two t-shirts for lounging between rounds; a summer-weight suit, an oxford shirt, and a striped tie; enough socks and underwear for a week; three new golf gloves; a golf hat bearing the U.S. Publinx logo; two pairs of golf shoes—one that was almost new—and a polished pair of loafers; a rain jacket; a cotton sweater; his favorite pair of blue jeans; his overnight shaving kit; a 200-count bottle of ibuprofen; his shoulder holster and his .40 millimeter Glock handgun.

Sam wasn’t an active-duty cop anymore, but he still had a permit to carry. After ten years on the force, he felt naked without his gun. He couldn’t imagine why he’d need it at Augusta National, but packing it was a long-ingrained habit.

He took his invitation out of his jacket pocket and read it again:

The Board of Governors of the Augusta National Golf Club cordially invites you to participate in the Masters Tournament to be held at Augusta, Georgia, the 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th of April. David Porter, Chairman. RSVP

He’d earned the invitation by winning the previous summer’s

U.S. Public Links tournament, open to any low-handicap amateur with no private course affiliation. If it had been held anywhere else but at Rush Creek Golf Club, 20 minutes from his house, he never would have entered. But when he made it into the match play rounds and started beating the college hot-shots, it occurred to him that he had as good a chance as anyone to win the tournament.

He’d been shot in the left knee while on duty as a Minneapolis police detective two years ago. The surgery had been complicated; he’d needed almost a year to rehab. His orthopedic surgeon ordered him to walk as much as possible. To Sam, that meant golf. He practiced and played every day until he could no longer stand, then got up the next morning, swallowed a handful of Advils, and did it all over again.

By the time the Publinx came to town, he was walking well and playing even better—much better than his days on the varsity at Dartmouth, when he’d actually harbored some thoughts about turning professional. But that had been a decade ago, before he chose law enforcement over the living-out-of-the-trunk-of-your-car lifestyle of an aspiring tour pro.

One guy on his college golf team had chosen to chase the dream, and made it happen. Shane Rockingham had been all-Ivy. He was also a case of squandered potential who would rather get drunk than go to bed the night before a big tournament, and a campus playboy who went through girlfriends the way he went through range balls. Sam had lost touch with him during Rockingham’s years of scuffling on the Asian, Hooters, and Nationwide tours, but he was in all the papers and magazines now, a muscle-bound basher with good looks, a swollen bank account, and two divorces, with a third on the way.

Thanks to the pairings committee at Augusta National, Sam was going to reunite with Rockingham soon. They were scheduled to play their first two rounds together at the Masters.

He put the invitation back in his jacket pocket and pulled out the two badges he was carrying with him to Augusta: the laminated Masters participant badge that had been mailed to him several weeks earlier; and the silver Minneapolis Police Department badge that he rarely carried with him anymore.

The Masters badge had his picture on the front: short, sandy-blond hair, still kept at police trim; pale blue eyes that an old girlfriend had once described as the color of a lake on a cloudy day; a slight crook in the bridge of his nose from running into a fence in a high school baseball game; and a clean-shaven face that showed the hint of a golfer’s tan, with the cheeks, nose, and chin darker than the forehead.

The silver-plated police badge was heavier. An eagle spread its wings above the engraved words Minneapolis Police; his badge number was engraved below the seal of the city. He was still entitled to carry it, but he didn’t know if he wanted to anymore. He’d discovered during his layoff that there was more to life than putting assholes in jail.

Sam had spent much of the previous year filling his 60-gig iPod with thousands of songs from his CD collection. He put each track into a playlist from the month and year the song was released, going all the way back to the ’50s. He preferred older music—pure escapism into long-gone eras that seemed more innocent than they probably were—and he hated to listen to songs out of season. “Hot Fun in the Summertime” sounded as ridiculous to him in January as “The Christmas Song” did in July.

He put in his earbuds and dialed up the playlist for April, 1969, the month and year that George Archer won the Masters. The first song was “Will You Be Staying After Sunday” by the Peppermint Rainbow. Sam’s goal this week was just to stay until Sunday.

A coffee-colored sedan accelerated up his block, too fast  for the neighborhood; Sam was about to get up and yell at the driver to slow down when the car pulled to the curb in front of his house. It was an unmarked squad car, and Sam knew the driver: deputy chief Doug Stensrud, head of the investigations bureau.

“I’m glad I caught you before you left, Sam,” Stensrud said as he got out of the car.

He was a broad-shouldered man with a dark moustache and thick, black hair that was turning white from the center  of his forehead outward. He’d been Sam’s partner for a couple of years after Sam was promoted to detective. Then Stensrud made deputy chief, and became his boss. There was still a bond between them, but the relentless paperwork and pressure from the chief, the city council, and the mayor had taken a toll on Stensrud’s sociability.

“What’s up, Doug?”

“I just wanted to wish you good luck at the Masters,” Stensrud said, laboring up the concrete steps to the porch. He’d put on about thirty pounds since he and Sam had been partners.

“You could have sent flowers and balloons like everybody else.”

Stensrud eased himself into the Adirondack chair next to Sam’s and wiped his damp forehead with the sleeve of his sport coat.

“Weather’s finally warming up,” he said. Sam knew what was on Stensrud’s mind. “Might as well spill it, Doug.”

“Sam, it’s been almost two years since you got shot and took medical leave. Don’t you think that’s long enough?”

“No,” Sam said. “I still have things I want to do.” “Like what?”

“Climb Mount Everest.”

“You’ve had time,” Stensrud said, looking at him out of the corner of his eye, without turning his shoulders. He returned his gaze to the sidewalk, where a mother pushed a stroller over the cracks in the concrete. “Look, we need you back. We’ve got eight unsolved homicides since the first of the year, and you know the gang killings are about to start piling up. Now, it’s great that you’re getting a chance to play in the Masters. We’re all thrilled beyond words. But I gotta tell you, your odds of making it on the pro tour are between zero and dick.”

Sam laughed. Nobody knew better than he did that this was not only his first major championship, but his last.

“I’m not turning pro, Doug.”

“Then it’s time for you to get serious about your job. I’d like you to come back to work after Augusta.”

A passenger jet rumbled overhead, low to the South Minneapolis rooftops in its landing pattern. Sam waited till the noise abated. He wasn’t sure if Stensrud was asking or ordering. Technically, his leave of absence was good for one year. The department could extend it if he asked, but they didn’t have to.

“What if I don’t?” he finally asked.

Stensrud now shifted around in his wooden chair to stare at Sam.

“We want you, but we need a body,” Stensrud said. “You’re one of the best detectives I’ve ever worked with, but you’re useless to me if you’re not working. I’ve got cases to clear. If you don’t come in after next week, I’ll hire somebody else. I’ve got a stack of resumes to choose from. Some of them look pretty good.”

Sam was surprised to feel a brief pang of concern. It was like seeing another guy dating the woman you broke up with.

“I’m not ready,” Sam said.

“Sam, I know it sucks to get shot. I’ve become a fucking blimp since I took that one in the hip ten years ago. But I went back to the streets. I had to—I’m a cop. And cops get shot sometimes.” Sam had gone through all of that with the department psychologist that Stensrud had insisted he see. He’d told the doctor that he wasn’t worried about getting shot again—although he also wanted to ask the condescending prick if he’d ever taken a bullet. He just didn’t feel the same way about the job that he did when he first made detective. He was tired of chasing scumbags, tired of working for civil servant wages, and tired of taking shit from the good people of Minneapolis for doing the work they wanted done but were too lazy, scared, or morally superior to do themselves.

The months away from the job had been the most stress-free time he’d had since college. He wanted more of it. In fact, Sam wanted to tell Stensrud he would turn in his badge and his gun as soon as he got back from Augusta. But he couldn’t do it. He’d gone through his savings and needed to start cashing paychecks again. Maybe it would have to be cop paychecks.

“I told you I’d make a decision after the Masters, Doug.” “I need your answer a week from Monday,” Stensrud said. “I can’t hold your job open any longer. I need a cop, whether it’s you or somebody else. In or out, Sam—it’s time to make a decision.”

A maroon airport taxi pulled up next to Stensrud’s squad car and sounded its horn.

“There’s my limo,” Sam said, getting up from his chair. “Need a hand?” Stensrud asked.

“Think you can handle a golf bag?”

They walked down to the street as the cabbie opened the trunk for the bags.

“You’d make a good caddie,” Sam said to the deputy chief, who easily slung the bag off his shoulder and into the trunk.

“I’m a cop,” Stensrud said. “So are you. Call me as soon as you get back.”

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