Authors: Greg Dinallo
* * * * * *
On an autopsy table in Forensic Center, the Harris County coroner’s offices on Old Spanish Trail near the Astrodome, a man’s hand, the skin bleached to an opalescent gray, stuck out from beneath a shroud. The highly reflective surfaces intensified the light, which placed an eerie, surrealistic emphasis on details.
The time was 11:22
Doctor Tom Almquist, M.E., observed as a Houston Police Department fingerprint specialist took the hand and rolled each of the swollen fingers first across an inked pad, then across a preprinted record card.
When finished, he studied the prints, and nodded to Almquist, pleased. “Better than I expected. A couple of them are real clean. Floaters can be a bitch.”
The officer packed his equipment and left, taking the prints with him.
Almquist, a rotund black man with a bushy moustache and patient eyes, thought for a moment, then pulled the green shroud from the table and set it aside. A lower left arm, severed just below the elbow, was all that lay on the cold stainless top. Almquist hovered above the limb, studying the ragged stump.
Shredded tissue, ligaments, tendons, muscle, and blood vessels mushroomed around the crudely snapped radius and ulna bones of the forearm.
Almquist tore the wrapper from a disposable scalpel and leaned to the
table. He placed the laser-honed blade on the inside of the forearm and pulled it the entire length, continuing down the wrist, palm, and center of the middle finger to the tip, splaying the tissue. Then, carefully excising the flexor carpi and the extending sheath of muscles beneath, he revealed the radial artery, and went about removing it and the branching digital vessels of the hand and finger—a lengthy, tedious process.
Almquist spent the afternoon completing the procedure and running laboratory tests on the tissue sections and blood samples he’d prepared for analysis.
One result had surprised and baffled him. He ran the test again with the same result, which prompted him to call Houston Chief of Police Hedley Coughlan.
Now, Coughlan, a well-groomed man in a knife-creased suit, was rapping a knuckle on the glass partition to get Almquist’s attention.
Almquist pulled the green shroud over his work and, peeling off his surgical gloves, entered an anteroom joining Coughlan, Andrew Churcher, and Ed McKendrick.
While Coughlan made the introductions, Andrew fought a fast-rising nausea brought on by the odor of cold flesh, chemical disinfectant, and death that had followed Almquist into the room—an odor that Andrew Churcher would never forget.
Coughlan noticed, and wrapped an arm around the young man’s shoulders. “You all right, son?” he asked compassionately.
Andrew nodded and swallowed hard.
“I’m real sorry about this,” Coughlan continued in a paternal tone. “Your father and I—well, you know how close we were, Drew. What-ever I can do.”
“Thanks,” Andrew said, regaining his composure. “Do we know what happened, Hed?” he asked.
Coughlan lifted a shoulder in a half shrug.
“We do and we don’t,” he replied. “At first, we figured his chopper went into the drink, but now—”
“Wait a minute,” McKendrick interrupted. He was glad Andrew had asked the question; he didn’t want to appear overly concerned with
Churcher had died, but it was important he know. “You have Mr. Churcher’s corpse out there, but don’t know what happened to him?”
Almquist and Coughlan exchanged uneasy looks.
Coughlan sucked it up. “We have a—
of him,” he said. “A small piece. Part of an arm.”
When he called Andrew earlier, Coughlan said there had been a development,
but avoided the details. These weren’t the kind he covered on the phone.
McKendrick winced at Coughlan’s answer.
Andrew felt bile rising in the back of his throat.
Coughlan pressed on, to get past the moment. “Way it lays out,” he began in as professional a tone as he could muster, “yesterday afternoon, on a beach in Louisiana, some kids spotted an arm floating in the surf and notified authorities. The Louisiana State Police fished out that severed limb. There was a watch still in place on the wrist. Turned out to be a Rolex.”
Coughlan produced a plastic evidence bag, opened it, and removed the watch.
“As you may know,” he resumed, “Rolex watches are collector’s items. Each has a registration number with the name of the owner on file. The LSP contacted the Rolex corporation, and were informed"—Coughlan paused, and grasped an evidence tag affixed to the watch—“that number 28900371 was registered to one Theodor Scoville Churcher of Houston, Texas. That’s when they called us.”
Andrew stared at the precisely machined luxury timepiece Coughlan held. It was his father distilled to his essence, he thought.
“We had the limb and watch airfreighted in this morning,” Coughlan resumed. “Checked fingerprints first thing, just to be certain. A match beyond any doubt,” he added emphatically. “Then, Tom began his work-up. That’s when the flags started popping.”
“We’re looking at a number of confusing discoveries here,” Almquist said, taking over. “The dismemberment for one. It could’ve happened in a crash. That’s what we thought after talking to the LSP. But this isn’t the pathology we usually see. Impact dismemberment most often occurs at joints, not between them as in this case. Shark attack’s a possibility. Boat propeller’s a third. We think he might have been alive when it happened because very little blood remained in the limb. In a corpse, it would’ve been congealed, and not spilled from veins and arteries so readily. Nevertheless, the pressure of the watchband around the wrist trapped enough blood in the vessels of the hand for me to run some tests.”
Almquist paused, and turned to a table behind him to get something.
Andrew was feeling detached, almost as if he was standing outside himself watching through the glass of the anteroom. He had heard Almquist’s and Coughlan’s words, and had formed appropriately bizarre images in his mind. But the full force of their meaning had yet to register.
Almquist turned back to the three men with a printout he’d slipped from a file on the table.
“This is a computer-generated profile of blood gases,” he resumed. “This line here represents nitrogen—an unusually high percentage of nitrogen. And that’s what really puzzles me. The only way this happens is via—”
“Rapid underwater ascent from great depth,” McKendrick interjected. “I dive,” he added in explanation.
Almquist nodded. “Right. Commonly called ‘the bends.’ This percentage isn’t necessarily fatal, but there’s no other explanation for its presence. I treated a number of cases in the Navy during the war—mostly frogmen in trouble who came up too fast.”
“Doesn’t make sense,” McKendrick said.
“I agree,” Almquist replied. “I’m just telling you what I found.”
“We were hoping one of
might shed some light on it,” Chief Coughlan said. “Any idea what your father was doing out there that might have put him a couple of hundred feet beneath the surface?”
Andrew thought, shrugged, and shook his head in bafflement.
“Ed?” Coughlan prodded, turning to McKendrick.
“Beats me, Chief,” McKendrick replied.
“Not too many ways of getting down there,” Coughlan said, thinking out loud.
“What about the chopper?” Andrew inquired. “Maybe it crashed and sank, trapping my father inside. By the time he got out, he was a couple of hundred feet down.”
“We thought about that,” Coughlan replied, nodding. “It’s a possibility, but the chopper would’ve busted up pretty good on impact, and if not, flotation gear would’ve kept her afloat.” He paused thoughtfully, then resumed, “Which leaves deep-sea gear—scuba, submarine, and cement booties, so to speak.”
“What’re you getting at, Hed?” Andrew asked. “You’re confusing me.”
“Sorry, son, not my intention,” Coughlan replied. “Just exploring ideas. I mean, anything out of the ordinary happen lately? Anything of an unusual nature come to your attention. Anything? Anything at all?”
“I come up with a big zero on that one Chief,” McKendrick shrugged. “Nothing.”
Coughlan swung a look to Andrew, “Drew?”
“He didn’t go riding that morning,” he replied. “Usually does.”
Coughlan nodded, turned, and paced thoughtfully.
Almquist returned the printout to the file.
Andrew took advantage of their preoccupation to catch McKendrick’s eye, and mouthed—Boulton?
McKendrick’s eyes widened as if he’d been goosed with a cattle prod, and the vein in his neck was popping. He checked his outrage and shook no sharply.
Andrew shrugged, chastised.
Coughlan turned back to Andrew, took his hand, and placed the Rolex in his palm.
“Hang onto it, son,” he said.
Andrew stared at the watch forlornly. Then he raised his eyes apprehensively to the glass partition and the shroud-covered limb beyond. It all hit him at once: the odor, the place, the circumstances, the knowledge his father was dead, that under the shroud lay a piece of him—a piece of him! His father’s arm torn from his body!
He felt as if he’d been kicked in the groin. The indescribable hollowness spread excruciatingly through his bowels up into his abdomen. He swallowed hard, turned to a sink nearby, and vomited.
* * * * * *
At approximately the same time in Chappell Hill, a maintenance truck with Harris County Gas and Electric markings was bouncing over ruts in the service road that ran outside the northeast wall of the Churcher estate. The truck came through a turn and slowed to a stop next to one of the power poles that marched in an unbroken line to the horizon.
The beam of a flashlight came from within the cab and found a marker on the pole that read, “NE263.”
Valery Gorodin clicked off the flashlight and got out of the truck.
Two fellow GRU operatives followed. Vanik, who had picked up Gorodin in Dallas, carried a metal toolbox.
Gorodin climbed up behind the cab and into the bucket of the cherry picker. He activated the hydraulic controls and swung the bucket off the spine of the truck, lowering it to the ground.
Vanik handed Gorodin the toolbox and climbed into the bucket with him. Both wore black jumpsuits and watch caps. The third—dressed in traditional lineman’s attire, hard hat, and equipment belt—went to another control panel on the truck. He would take over the operation of the bucket should it become necessary.
The stone wall was twelve feet high. Eight inches above the top of it, an electronic surveillance beam projected horizontally between abutments.
Gorodin maneuvered the bucket upward until it was hovering above the wall. Then he skillfully bent the arm of the cherry picker in an
inverted V, maneuvering the bucket toward the ground on the opposite side. The trick was to keep the apex of the triangle—formed by the arms of the articulated boom—centered over the top of the wall. One jerky move, one over-correction and the ungainly apparatus would break the surveillance beam, sending an alarm to security central dispatch and triggering an armed response.
Finally, the bucket settled silently onto hard-packed soil on the estate side of the wall.
Gorodin and Vanik climbed out with their equipment. The museum entrance kiosk was far across the grounds. They moved cautiously in the darkness through a grove of aspen, and hurried toward it.
Gorodin’s stomach butterflied pleasantly as they reached the kiosk. He had the electronic card key that he’d taken from Churcher’s wallet on the Foxtrot. He inserted it into the reader next to the elevator.
The doors rolled open.
The alarm system in the museum deactivated.
Gorodin leaned into the elevator cautiously, looking for signs of surveillance devices. Satisfied the elevator was clean, as he had expected, he entered.
The elevator closed and descended, taking the two Soviet agents into the museum below.
* * * * * *
McKendrick’s Corvette screeched up the ramp in the parking garage beneath Forensic Center.
McKendrick spun the wheel right and glanced sideways to Andrew next to him. “Feel better now?” he asked, in a sharp tone devoid of compassion.
Andrew slumped in the low seat of the Corvette and nodded automatically.
“Good,” McKendrick replied, “because I’m really pissed off.” The vein in his neck was popping again.
“What?” Andrew asked, baffled.
“You almost blew it in there!”
The car came up onto the street.
McKendrick flicked on the headlights, slammed the transmission into second, and turned west into Old Spanish Trail, heading for the South Loop.
“What’re you talking about?” Andrew snapped, pushing into a more upright position.
“Boulton? The package in the museum!” McKendrick taunted angrily. “I knew I should’ve never told you about them!”
“Back off me,” Andrew said. “I didn’t say anything. But I probably should have.” He felt like a child unjustly accused of snitching, and squirmed in the seat.
“No fucking way!” McKendrick exploded. “If your old man wanted
to know he was connected to that package, he would’ve said so! You think he told me, ‘under anonymous cover,’ just for the hell of it? He didn’t even want Boulton to know!”
“Okay, okay, you have a point,” Andrew said defensively. “But something’s not right here, dammit! I felt it the minute he didn’t show up at the stables that morning.”
“Shouldn’t have said that to Coughlan, either,” McKendrick shot back.
“Why not?” Andrew asked, without sounding argumentative.
“Cause I figure you’re right,” McKendrick replied less vociferously. “Something weird’s going on. If you’re smart, you’ll forget it. Your old man’s dead. Nothing’s going to change that.”
“Forget it?” Andrew exclaimed. “You heard Coughlan. You know my father didn’t do any diving. That leaves subs and cement booties, and I don’t like the sound of either!”
“Tough!” McKendrick snapped. “It was his life, he lived it his way. Whatever he was into, he knew it was hardball, that’s for sure.”