Smoldering flames and a streetlight leaning at an acute angle and flashing on and off like a badly programmed strobe, and firemen’s work lights illuminating the street bright as day. Frank Sutherlin’s head spun. In spite of the glare, he sensed only darkness. Nauseated and short of breath, he felt his knees start to buckle. Darkness comes. In the middle of it, the future looks blank. The temptation to quit is huge. Frank read that somewhere. He couldn’t remember who wrote it…Piper…somebody Piper. It seemed eerily strange, remembering that line just now, but also appropriate. He was a tempted to cut and run, to get as far away from this place as possible. He took a deep breath, steadied, and forced himself to focus on the awful truth: that the otherwise unrecognizable, charred body behind the wheel in what was left of the twisted and scorched Buick must be all that remained of Ike Schwartz. The car’s trunk had sprung open from the blast. He studied what was left of its familiar contents and the blistered and twisted just-readable license plate dangling from the bumper. Ike had used his own car again. He was funny that way. Frank pivoted on his heel, his gaze took in everything—the glass shards from broken store windows, twisted bits and pieces of automobile, and still-smoking chunks of what might have been upholstery or…he didn’t want to think or what…scattered over a quarter of an acre of downtown Picketsville, Virginia.
It had to have been one helluva bomb.
The Volunteer Fire Department had arrived almost as quickly as he had and made sure that fire did not spread. Some of its members, still booted and helmeted, stood by keeping watch on the smoldering wreckage while the rest were busy rolling up hoses and storing equipment. A low haze, part steam, part smoke from burning upholstery and gasoline, drifted over the area. Those who spoke did so in hushed voices. EMTs, seeing that their medical skills would not be needed and having been assured that the vehicle had cooled sufficiently, donned gloves and began the grisly task of removing the body and placing it in a body bag and thence onto a gurney to be taken to the morgue for autopsy. What they expected the medical examiner to find was anyone’s guess.
Frank’s head swam: Ike Schwartz dead. He had a hard time getting his mind around that. Sure, Ike had enemies. What cop doesn’t? And Ike had served time in the Agency; there could be some bad stuff left over from that, but this was Picketsville, Virginia. What were the chances? He took one last look at the scene, turned and went back to his cruiser to think, to plan.
Who would tell Ruth? Frank assumed that, as second in line and now acting sheriff, it fell to him to make the call to Ike’s wife. Once he’d done that, he’d call everyone in—all shifts, part-timers and retired. They would mount a taskforce the likes of which had never been seen anywhere. Vacations off, leaves canceled. He wanted everybody on this for as long as it took. He’d ask Karl Hedrick to call in some favors from the FBI, that is, if he had any left to call in. And Sam, he’d ask Sam to jump on the Internet. If there was anything lurking out there in cyberspace, she’d surer than hell would find it. Whoever had done this was about to find out they’d made the worse mistake of their life.
# # #
The phone’s insistent ringing woke Ruth. At night, she made a point of disconnecting the answering machine on the assumption that any call made after midnight would likely be an emergency and need her attention.
“Okay, okay, in a minute.” She fumbled for the phone and picked up at the same time as her mother. “Hello,” they said in unison.
“Hang up, Mother, I’ve got it.” “How do you know it’s not for me?”
“What are the chances? I’ll holler if it is, now go back to bed.” Ruth waited for the click that indicated the line was clear. “Hello, who’s this?”
She listened. Her expression changed from sleepy annoyance to concern, to fear. “You’re sure? Oh, God, you can’t be… Tonight? Where? Yes, I understand. I will. What? When? Three days from now. I don’t know. People will be all over the place. How will I…? Where? Will you be able to do that? He will? You’re sure? How do I reach you? Okay, yes, yes. I still don’t understand. Okay, I will, I promise.”
She hung up.
“Who was that?” her mother shouted from her third floor studio.
“Nothing, wrong number. Okay, since you’re up, you take the next one, Mother. I’m wide awake for a while and I’m headed downstairs for something to drink.”
Ruth slipped on a terrycloth robe with the logo of a Las Vegas hotel on the pocket—she called it her honeymoon souvenir— and descended to the first floor. She poured herself a brandy snifter full of red wine and downed half in a single draught. She needed fortification. She also needed a few minutes to prepare before her mother rushed downstairs and broke the bad news and all hell broke loose.
The phone rang again fifteen minutes later. She hugged herself closer in her robe. God in Heaven, what was going on?
# # #
Several miles away the County medical examiner received a similar call. He grumbled at first and then listened carefully. A frown squeezed his eyebrows so closely together it seemed his face was reduced one third its size. He shook his head, barked “No” several times, listened some more and reluctantly agreed to do as the caller requested. He didn’t like it, but he would do it. It meant lying, a lot of lying, and he did not fancy himself a good liar. His ex-wife might have disagreed, but that was another story. More importantly, lying could lead to an accusation of perjury later and that could threaten his job and cost him his medical license. He hung up and started to dress. The next call he knew would come at any second and then he’d need to move. The phone rang. He answered, was predictably shocked, and hung up. He had things to do. There would be DNA to process, naturally, and dental records. There could be no mistake about who had ended up on the slab. Then there would be the reporters, the State Police, the FBI probably, and God-only-knew who else would poke in their nose. Bombs tended to attract far more attention that simple shootings, or stabbings, or deaths by the old reliable, blunt force. Worse, he’d made it clear there might be a need to stall the release of the body for days, possibly longer.
That would be the difficult part.
He started to slip his necktie under his shirt collar and then tossed it aside. What need had he for a tie at two in the morning? Later, maybe, when the crowds arrived to ask their questions, he’d dress up, but not now. Once in his county car, he headed straight to the highway. He ignored the speed limit all the way to the morgue. He wanted—no, he needed—to be the first one there. The problem with owing someone a favor is that they inevitably wanted to collect. People expected miracles from him. They probably watched too much television.
# # #
Felix Chambers had watched the car pull out of the parking lot. It had turned east, not west. The guy wasn’t going home after all. He’d rigged the bomb to detonate when the odometer initiated a countdown and he’d calculated the miles with some care. This had not been a spur-of-the-moment job. Computer-monitored automobiles made his job so much easier now, no more guessing times or road conditions. Just hack into the car’s “brain” and you could do damned near anything. All he had to do is measure the distance from a fixed point—for this job a convenience store a few miles away where the mark usually stopped for coffee—the point where he wanted the thing to blow. He’d intended for it to go off on the Calland University campus, with luck near the guy’s house—at least blow out some windows. The man said he wanted to send a message. Some message. Well, it wasn’t his fault that the cop didn’t go straight home. Probably had to go somewhere else or maybe he had a little something going on the side and needed a dip first. Small-town cops were like that, right? So, okay, it didn’t bust out some windows on the college. So what?
He called it in, skipped the part about where the thing went off, and waited. The man seemed pleased and said he’d move the money in the morning. No soap there. The deal was, pay on delivery. Move the money now. Then some bullshit about banks, but in the end he’d done it. He tapped off and checked his offshore account, saw the transfer completed. He lit a Cuban cigar and exhaled. Life was good. He ditched the burn phone, and headed to Dulles. He’d be on the next flight to Aruba one hundred thou richer and no one would ever put him in the frame.
Nobody shared the road when he pulled onto I-81 and headed north. He shook his head and smiled. Some guys really go to all kinds of trouble to get even. This last guy took the cake. One hundred K to snuff a small-town cop with a car bomb? Like, that was way over the top, like swatting a mosquito with a hand grenade or something. Hell, to do the job like that, he coulda got himself a hit man off the street for a short stack of Benjamins—or one, maybe even two, Clevelands, seeing as how it was a cop. Cops went down in the line of duty all the time. Nobody would have even noticed. Dead is dead, right? He flicked the ash from his cigar and smiled.