Authors: John Gilstrap
Tags: #Action & Adventure, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction - Espionage, #American Mystery & Suspense Fiction, #Fiction, #Suspense Fiction, #Adventure fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Crime & Thriller, #General, #Thriller
Now it was time to sit. Jonathan helped himself to the offered chair. "Who would do something like that?"
"That's why we called for you."
"For Christ's sake, Detective, you couldn't possibly think I had something to do with that."
Weatherby let his guard drop an inch. "As I mentioned outside, I sort of have to, but in my gut, no, I don't believe you did. Can you account for your whereabouts last night?"
"I was downing beers with a buddy. A priest, in fact. Father Dominic D'Angelo, pastor of the St. Katherine's parish in Fisherman's Cove." Responding to the cop's confusion, he added, "It's a community down in the NortheActually, she didn't call
, she called my office and spoke with one of my managers. At the time of the call, he hadn't been missing for more than twenty-four hours, and, frankly, I didn't much care if he was missing or not. I told Venice, the manager, to do a quick credit card trace to see what she could turn up."
Jonathan shrugged. "I don't know. I woke up to the call to come here, so we haven't discussed any of it this morning." Jonathan was in the business of parsing information, and he determined that this much was easily traceable and therefore safe to relay. If he was less than forthcoming, Weatherby would know it within hours if not minutes. The rest of it--his ride home with Ellen--was nobody's business.
"Does Mr. Rothman have any enemies that you know of?"
Jonathan scowled. "You know what he does for a living."
"I know he's a writer."
"But you don't know what he writes?"
Weatherby shook his head. "I'm pretty much a sports page guy."
"Well, you won't find Tibor Rothman articles there. He's a syndicated columnist. A muckraker. A career killer. He'd call himself an 'investigative reporter,' but that's just code for legitimized gossipmonger. He says whatever he wants, then hides behind the First Amendment when he gets the details wrong. If you could line up every person with a reason to harm Tibor, I imagine it would take you three weeks to get through the interviews."
"Is he political?"
"Aren't they all? They wake up every morning and proclaim themselves to be the smartest guys in the room. If you disagree, you get hammered in their column."
Weatherby's eyes narrowed, and Jonathan caught the subtext.
"Oh, relax, Detective. I freely admit to motive and means. And probably opportunity, too, if you stretch far enough. What I don't have is the desire. If you want me to speak frankly to you, then you need to suspend your suspicion for a while. Otherwise, I'll call for a lawyer, and give you nothing. Which will it be?"
Weatherby took his time answering. "You can speak freely," he said.
Jonathan studied the man's face. Weatherby could be lying through his ass, and none of it would matter. The cops were going to check out everything he said anyway. As long as he stayed as near the truth as he could afford, he'd be okay. And the more cooperative he was, the sooner he'd get the hell out of here and on to the hospital to be with Ellen. "Thank you," he said.
"Let me ask you one other thing, Mr. Grave. Is it at all likely that the person who ransacked the house was in fact looking for
The question shocked him. "I don't see how."
Weatherby recrossed his legs. "Well, you're in the window-peeping business, right? Private detective? Isn't that what 'security' really means in Security Solutions?"
That was a gratuitous shot. "My clients include insurance companies and Fortune 500 firms who need to gather intelligence data for one reason or another. I've never thought of it as window-peeping. Do you think of yourself as a child-shooter?" His own gratuitous jab recalled a recent incident in which an off-duty county cop shot an that it was all going to hell, and that he was going to prison, he transferred most of his holdin't want to know.
"Broken bones in her fingers and toes. Broken tibias in both legs. Bruised liver and kidneys. Broken ribs. There's really quite a lot wrong, sir."
"Any head trauma?"
Malstrom broke eye contact as he nodded. "Yes, sir. One really solid strike to the head."
"Jesus Christ," Jonathan breathed, and then he shot a quick apologetic glance to Dom. "This is inconceivable to me."
Malstrom said nothing. What was there to say?
"So, what's next?"
The doctor launched a soliloquy about treatment strategies and possible surgeries. He talked about Ellen being "in the woods" for a long time, by way of explaining that it could easily be weeks before she would be "out of the woods." Throughout the speech, Jonathan's head was in a different place entirely. What the hell had Tibor Rothman done to bring this kind of evil into his home?
Finding Tibor was the key to everything. Suddenly h
e wanted the doctor to be done so that Jonathan could call Venice and discover what she'd found in her search. As if on cue, Jonathan's cell phone rang. It was Venice. Malstrom seemed offended that Jonathan took the call.
"Hey, Digger, how is she?"
"Bad," he said. "We're just now finding out the extent of it."
"Well, as soon as you can get out of there, I need you in the office."
"What's going on?" He didn't like the panicky edge to her voice.
"Not on the phone."
"Can't you at least tell me what it's about?"
Venice made that growling sound. She told him what she'd learned. Not all of it, just enough to whet his appetite.
Jonathan clapped the phone closed and stood. "Doctor, I have to go."
Malstrom looked as if he'd been slapped. "Excuse me?"
Dom stood with Digger, but he looked confused. "Yeah, excuse me?"
"I have to get to my office. An emergency situation has arisen and I have to attend to it."
"Now?" Dom asked, stunned at the rudeness.
"Right this second." He offered his hand to the doctor. "Doctor Malstrom, I'm sorry for being so abrupt, but I really have no choice. Thank you for taking care of Ellen. I owe you." He nodded to Dom. "You, too, Dom. I'll talk to you soon."
But Dom hurried after him. "Digger," he hissed at a stage whisper, "where the hell are you going?" It was a struggle keeping up with Jonathan's rapid pace.
"I told you."
"You said there was an emergency. Since when do you have emergencies in the office?"
Jonathan still didn't slow. "Since Venice found Tibor. He's dead."
Security Solutions occupied the entire third floor of the old firehouse. At first glance, the inside of the place looked like any other modern office, with its rabbit warren of cubicles where the seventeen investigators in Jonathan's employ--"associates," according to their business cards--toiled for eight to ten hours a day, supported by their assistants, who, to Jonathan's eye, were the hardest working grou
At first, neither of them moved. Then, with a resigned nod from Scarface, they both produced pistols from under their sport coats and laid them on the table. Scarface made a show of using only two fingers.
"Now step away," Stephenson said. They did, their hands back up in the air.
The picture moved again as Tibor approached the table and stepped back. The frame didn't show any weapons at all now--not on the table, and not anywhere else. If Tibor had them in his hands, then he was holding them out of the frame.
"Don't move," Stephenson repeated. "We're going to leave now, and if I even see your shadow, I'm going to kill you. Do you understand?"
"We understand," said Scarface.
Jonathan scowled. The banter was all wrong. Scarface--the muscle--was being way too accommodating. "Oh, Christ," Jonathan said aloud. "They've got backup pieces."
The picture whipped as Tibor turned his head. They got their first peek at Stephenson Hughes, who held a revolver at arm's length in a two-handed grip that made Jonathan think that he'd had firearms training. The picture continued to move. They watched a door open, and the light got really bad. They were outside now, in the middle of the night, and the camera saw nothing.
"I'll see if I can't fiddle with the image later," Venice said without prompting.
"Let's get out of here," Tibor said, his voice heavy with fear.
The speakers on Venice's monitor projected the sound of movement and heavy breathing as the screen continued to reveal nothing but differing shades of darkness. Then they heard a door open, and the screen was overwhelmed with more light than the automatic iris could handle, only to go black again when the door closed. The engine started.
"This is where it gets ugly," Jonathan predicted. The others didn't seem to understand, and he didn't bother to explain.
Another blast of light as the passenger side door opened. In the frame of the video, they could just see Stephenson Hughes's hand as he pulled himself in by leveraging against the dashboard. "Go, go, go!" Stephenson yelled.
The engine roared, and then things started breaking inside the cockpit of the car. The crashes and flashes were accompanied by the distinctive staccato pops of gunfire.
"They're shooting at us!"
"Fuck! Close the--"
The screen went blank, and the speakers fell silent. There was nothing.
"What did you do?" Jonathan snapped at Venice.
"I didn't do anything," she snapped back, matching his tone.
"Where did the movie go?"
"That's it," she said. "That's the end of the file."
"Just like that? Just poof?"
"Looks like. That's everything on the chip."
Dom turned to Jonathan. "You think he got shot?"
Jonathan punted to Venice. "Any gunshot wounds on the corpse in Ohio?"
She shook her head. "Well, only one, but it was the kill shot at short range. They still had to torture him first."
The thought gave Jonathan a chill. "He probably didn't turer," Jonathan replied. "Maybe he knew this Hughes guy."
"Or maybe he was covering the story," Venice offered.
"Any or all of the above."
"Clearly, he wanted a record of it all," Dom said.
Jonathan agreed. "But why?"
"To write a story," Venice said again. "It makes sense to me that he wedged himself into whatever was happening so that he could write a story. Don't reporters always record their meetings?"
Jonathan shrugged. He had no idea what reporters did.
Venice said, "The way to find out for sure is to call his editor at the
. Under the circumstances, they could sift through his notes and such and come up with what happened."
Jonathan shook his head. "Let the cops do that. We've got our own evidence to work on."
Venice's eyes widened. "So you're not sharing this with the police either?"
"Of course not. If Tibor had wanted them involved, he would have sent the chip to them. I can't disrespect his final wishes like that."
Dom winced. "The man is dead, Dig. Don't desecrate that."
Jonathan conceded. "I apologize. But we're still not sharing with the police." A new thought stirred in his head. "How did the chip come to us, Ven?"
She shrugged. "In an envelope."
"Just like a regular letter?"
"Yep. In fact, there was a letter with it. It was just another salvo in y'all's lawsuit."
"Do you still have it?"
Venice pulled the envelope out a larger evidence envelope and handed it over.
Jonathan saw that his address was laser-printed on the front. "How about that? Running for his life, he took time to type an envelope."
Dom scowled. "I don't think so."
"Neither do I."
"He must have had it filled out already," Venice said. "Why would he do that?"
"Maybe he was expecting things to go wrong," Dom offered.
Jonathan didn't think they had it. "Let me see the letter that was with it." Venice handed it to him. She was right; it was just another letter like all the others in the ongoing lawsuit, clarifying one of the finer points of discovery. These things were supposed to go through the lawyers, but Tibor was always on the lookout for ways to keep his fees low.
"You know what?" Jonathan thought aloud. "Ellen told me on the ride home that Tibor had been on his way to the post office when he got sidetracked onto his mystery trip. I think he didn't intend to mail this chip to me at all. I think he wanted to get rid of it, didn't have any time, and just happened to have this letter in his pocket, probably already stamped. If he'd lived, maybe he would have tried to get it back unopened or something."
Venice's eyes got big. "That's it. The killers knew there was a tape--'Steve' told them as much. If the killers couldn't find it when they found him, and if Tibor didn't give it up to them, they might have assumed he'd maen without the lie."
"Thank you, Deputy," Venice said. "That's good to--"
The click of the dead line clipped her last words. She killed the speakerphone and glared at Jonathan. "You didn't have to be such a jerk," she said.
It took twenty minutes for the e-mail to arrive from Deputy Semen, no doubt a bit of petulance from a pissed-off cop. Jonathan was surprised that the guy hadn't fought back a little harder. He was, after all, the one who had the information they wanted, and any impropriety they laid on his doorstep would implicate them, too. Had the positions been reversed, Jonathan would have recognized the bluff.
The photos of the body came as attachments to an e-mail, a total of five of them. Venice hung close to Jonathan's shoulder as he clicked on the first image, but as soon as it materialized, she looked away and busied herself with straightening a stack of papers on her desk. Even Jonathan had trouble looking at it for more than a few seconds.
Jonathan had seen far more horrifying sights than this on battlefields, and while he'd never gotten used to it, dismemberment was oddly natural to the environment of warfare. The same images, though, in the context of home soil, triggered revulsion and anger. When soldiers killed soldiers, the underlying nobility of the conflict dulled the edges of the horror. That such defilement could be an end unto itself, as it clearly was in these awful photographs from Kentucky, left him feeling empty and sick.
Jonathan thought about poor Thomas Hughes, and the additional emotional damage that his father's fate would heap upon him. He didn't like feeling such empathy for a case that was supposed to have been locked away in his cerebral filing cabinet by now. It made viewing Stephenson Hughes's vivisected corpse even more difficult.
It wasn't clear from the photographs whether they had been taken before or after the corpse was moved from where it was found. Two crushed Budweiser cans were clearly visible, plus a sprinkling of broken glass, the shape and the colors of the shards suggesting yet more retired beer containers. Beneath the body, bottles and cans and twisted tufts of grass grew like leafy cancers from a flat gray bed of gravel. It was one hell of a way to treat a human being.
Deputy Semen's description of the corpse didn't touch the reality of what the photographs showed. It was true enough that the hands had been removed, but so had the elbows and a good portion of the upper arms. Dried blood in wild spray patterns decorated the naked chest, which showed the lack of muscle tone that was typical of forty-something desk dwellers. The head was likewise missing, severed by a hacking cut just below the jawline. If Jonathan's estimates were correct, the larynx had been left behind. Stephenson Hughes had been transformed into a slab of pale flesh that gleamed like a beached fish.
"Jesus, Digger, do you have to put those on
computer? I feel like I need to wash it now."
"They tortured him, too," Jonathan said.
Venice reapproached the screen cautiously, as if afraid that the power of the images might hurt her. "How do you know?"
He pointed with a crooked forefinger--testament to the limitations of field-splinting broken bones in the middle of a Latin American firefight. "Look at all the blood spray here around the amputations," he explainedwsed through the rest of the photos. Each of the five displayed a different angle on the horror, and with each click of the mouse, the grisliness of it grew.
As Venice acclimated to the gore, she leaned in closer to the screen. "What's that?" she asked, pointing.
Jonathan had been wondering the same thing. A patch of flesh, roughly the shape of a triangle and the size of a hand, had been excised from the victim's chest above the left nipple. The wound was an ugly purple thing with none of the telltale signs that it had been inflicted during life. In fact, had the wound been viewed out of context, it might have looked like an example of modern art--the kind that Jonathan never understood, but seemed to be all the rage among the MOMA set. Swarming flies capped it all off with a disturbingly surreal quality.
"Are we looking at a serial killer?" Venice asked. "A collector?"
"Don't think so. This looks like the work of a professional to me. Collectors take body parts as trophies. Professionals take them to prevent identification."
Venice didn't press for more details, probably because she didn't want to know the source of Digger's knowledge.
He continued, "I think that missing skin used to be a tattoo. The killer didn't want the tat pointing the way to the corpse's identity."
"Did Stephenson Hughes have a tattoo?"
Jonathan shook his head. "I don't know. Apparently." Looking at these photographs, at the brutal violence that they represented, he couldn't help but think of the unspeakable agony that Ellen must have suffered as these animals came at her and bludgeoned her for information that she never knew. He heard her screams in his head.
He said, "Rattle Boxers' cage and bring him back to work. We've got stuff to do."