CHAPTER 12

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2001 09:31

We decided that our next move was going to be to pay the late Rudy Cueva’s girlfriend, Linda Moynihan, a return visit. Driving separate cars because we were probably going to have to be in different places throughout the day, we got to Linda’s apartment in Battenberg at 09:30. No luck.

I called Terri on my cell pone.

“This is Houseman. You know where Linda’s at?”

“She’s at her place.”

“That’s where I am,” I said. “No response on the phone, no answer at the door.”

“Holy shit! She was sleeping when I left, but…look, over on the wall across from her door, there’s a fire extinguisher. There’s a key to her place wired to the bracket, behind the thing. I’ll be right there…go ahead and go in. She might have ODed or something…”

“On what? “But I was talking to dead air.

Hester and I held a very brief discussion. This was fairly shaky ground, since Terri couldn’t give us permission to enter Linda’s apartment. She had, however, provided grounds for some concern as to Linda’s well-being. That, and we had our own grounds for concern, as her boyfriend had just been murdered. Who knew?

About fifteen seconds after Terri hung up, we were in Linda’s apartment.

We searched thoroughly and quickly, with Hester taking the bathroom and bedroom while I did the rest of the place. Nobody home.

“Her closet’s got some big gaps in it,” said Hester form the bedroom. “I think she might have packed.”

I checked the kitchen and living room for notes of any sort, telling somebody she had gone. Nothing.

I heard somebody running up the steps and down the hall, and before I could get through the living room, Terri came flying through the open door. “Is she… is she…” she gasped.

“She’s left,” I said. “No OD or anything. Just gone.”

Terri was in sweat pants and a hooded sweatshirt, no socks, and old tennis shoes. She’d hurried all right. She was panting and bending over to put her hands on her knees. “My damned”-she took a deep breath-”old car”-and another one-”wouldn’t start.” She took two more deep breaths and straightened up. “I hate that car,” she said. She gasped again. “How cold is it?”

“About twenty, I think.”

She nodded. “Original battery.” Another deep breath. “So? What’s up?”

Hester emerged from the bedroom. “Hi, Terri. Where do you think she went?”

“Boy, God, Hester, it beats me. You think”-and she took one last really big breath-”you think maybe they took her?”

“Who’s they?”

“I don’t know. Whoever killed Rudy.” She began looking about the place. “I don’t know.”

“If they did,” said Hester, “it looks like they let her pack. You have any idea where she might go?”

“Boy. Well, not right offhand. Maybe her mother’s house? Shit, I don’t know.”

That sounded pretty good to me, except that Linda’s mother lived right here in Battenberg. It didn’t seem to me that she’d have to pack to go four blocks.

We let Terri make the call to Linda’s mom. Zip. She had absolutely no idea where Linda might have gone. She was just getting ready to come over herself, to see how she could help, in fact.

Terri hung the phone up, having had the presence of mind not to mention us, and said, “So, then, her car’s gone, too?”

“What’s it look like?” I could also call Dispatch, and have them run all vehicles registered to her, but Terri would be much faster.

“Old wreck of a red Datsun pickup,” said Terri. “It’s always parked out back.”

Hester said, “I looked out the back windows while I was in the bedroom,” she said. “There’s no vehicle at all parked back there.”

Well, then.

A teddy bear caught my eye, sitting upright on the couch. “She left her teddy bear,” I said. “I wonder…” and reached for it.

“Don’t,” snapped Terri, grabbing the bear. “She wouldn’t have him with her.” She paused. “It was a loaner. He’s mine.”

“Oh. Well, that’s good, then.” I looked around. No sign of any sort of disturbance, none at all. “It sure as hell looks voluntary,” I said. “You gotta think, Terri, there’s gotta be a place she’d go.”

“I’m trying.”

“Think about this first,” said Hester. “Why did she go? Think if she’s gone because she just can’t handle it, or if she’s gone because she’s running from somebody.”

“Hell,” said Terri, “I don’t know. I mean, you know I always thought Rudy was into dope pretty deep. I can’t prove that, but the dude sure acted that way…”

“What way’s that?” I asked.

“You know. They didn’t have much money, but he always came up with what he needed to get things. The stereo. Clothes. He’d take off and come back a couple of days later, always had money for that.” She gestured at the new TV. “That thing. Paid cash at my cousin’s store for that. Didn’t even have to go to Wal-Mart. Yet they couldn’t afford a decent car. I heard him tell her that.” Terri leaned against the kitchen counter. “He was always going to meet somebody, but wouldn’t say who. For ‘business.’ That was all. I mean, I wasn’t spying, but I saw him once, when he told Linda he had ‘business,’ and he was just driving around with some of his Mexican buds. You know.”

“How long ago?” asked Hester.

“Four, maybe five, six weeks. At the Pronto Market. It was cold. I don’t remember exactly when. It was after Halloween, though, because the candy was on sale.” She shook her head. “Best guess is five weeks. Three, or for sure two, other guys in the car with him. Rudy was in the front, passenger side. I waved.”

“He wave back?”

“No way. He pretended not to see me. That’s how I knew whatever it was, it was no good. What he was doing.”

Hardly an indictment. However, “You remember the car?”

“What car? “Terri was busy reading through the notes on the refrigerator.

“The one he was with his ‘Mexican buds’ in. When you saw him.”

“Oh…yeah, sure. It was a kind of ugly tan, one of those Jap cars. Nissan, maybe? Honda? I can never tell.”

Bingo. “You might describe it as maybe cream-colored? “I asked. “Or as we say around here, calf-shit yellow?”

She giggled. “I’d say calf-shit yellow fit it pretty well, tell you the truth.”

That little exchange earned Terri fifteen minutes of our undivided attention.

Most of Terri’s information was pretty vague. We went back over the photos we had, and she’d say “maybe” or “could have been” regarding everybody we thought might have been in the car with him. With one exception, and that was Jose Gonzales, aka Orejas. Great. The only two people in the car she could positively identify were dead. I said as much.

“Sorry.”

“But the more you think about it, you’re pretty sure there were four people in the car, total?”

“I think so, Carl. I know Orejas was in the backseat, and he was scoonched way over. There had to be at least one more back there, maybe even two.”

“Why you suppose Gonzales was there? Is he a dealer, too? I mean, was-”

“Not much of one,” interrupted Terri. “I think it was…well, Orejas wasn’t Rudy’s ‘muscle’ or anything like that…more like his portable witness, I think. I mean, like, you want to kill me, you’re going to have to kill both-Oh, my God.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. “It’s a possibility,” I said. “Nothing more. But we have to consider that.”

“Linda figured it,” said Terri. “She’s running. Now I know that. Shit. She’s afraid.”

While Hester and Terri talked, I phoned in to the office to get an “all vehicles registered to” on Linda. There was just one, a red ‘74 Datsun pickup, Iowa license BHB 466. I told Sally to do an “attempt to locate,” but just for our area, and not on the radio.

“You want an ATL, like, Teletype, surrounding counties? “she asked.

“Yeah. Use her DL information. Give the twenty-eight info, too.” The 28 was the vehicle registration information. It was really 10-28, but we usually left the 10 off on the phone. “Tell our own people over the phone, or when they come in to the office. The teletype should say something about no radio traffic.”

“So, what do you want me to give for a reason?”

“Say something like ‘Wanted for questioning regarding a homicide investigation in Nation County.’ That ought to do it.”

“It sure as hell should,” she said. “Stop and hold, or what?”

“If she’s moving, do not stop, just advise location and direction of travel. We want to know where she’s headed. Otherwise, like if she’s at a motel or something, just have them notify us and keep her under surveillance until we contact them. We don’t want her to get away, but I really don’t want to scare her to death or piss her off by having her stopped.”

“I’ll try to rephrase that,” said Sally. “What about out-of-state notification?”

“Just give it to Conception County by phone, attention Investigations. Harry’ll take care of the rest.”

Sally had already brought the correct form up on her screen and was filling in the blanks as we talked. “Armed, dangerous, suicide risk?”

“No, no, no.”

“No clothing description, I suppose?”

“No.”

“Warrant issued? Extradite?”

“Nope.”

“Will we provide transportation?”

“Yes, we sure will.”

“Good to go, sir!” she snapped out with enthusiasm. Sally had a cousin in the Marines.

I said, “You need anything else?”

“We’re getting short on bacon dog treats. Forgot to tell you when you were here.”

“I’ll tell Hester,” I said. “I’ll call in later.”

Hester and I left Terri with instructions to call us immediately if she heard from Linda. She said she would.

“And you might want to get out of here,” I said. “If somebody is after Linda, you don’t want to be mistaken for her.”

We all left together, locking the apartment and replacing the key behind the fire extinguisher.

When we both got to the parking lot of Battenberg PD, Hester shut her car down and got into my car and we had a little chat.

Firstly, for somebody to kill two people over a dope deal, it had to be some pretty serious dope. Serious as to dollar value, not necessarily quality. Given either methamphetamine or ecstasy, we were talking a pretty large quantity.

“No way that much could be sold locally,” I said. “Just not enough of a market.”

“Could be a local thing, though,” said Hester. “I mean, a message to lots of small dealers. Screwing with the franchise sort of thing.”

“Yeah. We talked about that before.”

“Yes.”

It was quiet for a few seconds.

“Or, major amounts in transit,” she said.

“Transit… Okay. If this is a major waypoint on the Mexican Pipeline, for example, they could have quite a bit of stuff. For that to happen-”

“-it would have to come in in quantity, for transshipment by another means,” finished Hester.

“So we’re both thinking the packing plant?”

“In via auto, out via meat truck,” she said.

“Jose Gonzales humped meat into the trucks. What better way to ship crystal or X.” That was certainly true. FDA rules mandated that a truck loaded with “swinging meat”-such as quarters or halves of beef-be sealed when it left the packing plant, and the seal not broken until the destination was reached. Any cop who wanted to search that truck, and consequently broke the seal, could be held personally responsible for the entire shipment. Several hundred thousand dollars worth of meat, all rejected at its destination because of a broken seal, and the cop would have to pay. Or, if he was lucky, his department would. Either way, it was just too expensive to risk unless you were absolutely certain the dope was there. Ergo, it was seldom done.

“Those trucks go all over the country?” asked Hester.

“I don’t think so. I think they go to New York and Chicago, to major kosher delis there.”

“All of it?”

“Ah…no. No, only the front half of the animal is kosher. The rest could go anywhere, I suppose.”

“You think the management is involved?” asked Hester.

“I’d bet my life they were not,” I said. “Not those guys. They’re fanatics about cleanliness and reputation. No way.”

“They’d cooperate with us, then?”

“I can’t say for sure. They’d have to be convinced it was happening,” I said.

“Ah.”

We sat there in the car for a few moments, the only sound being the rush of air from the defroster.

Finally, I said, “I assume we’re in agreement that we have two murders?”

“I think it would be safest to proceed that way.”

“Best bet for a motive is dope?”

“So far.”

I chuckled. “Okay, what’s bothering you?”

“They’d have killed both of them the same time, same way,” she said. “Poisoning just doesn’t do it. It’s not their style.” She scooted around in the seat so she could come closer to facing me. “I’ve only had one toxic death in a dope murder, and that was years ago. They caught some dude ripping them, and they forced him to eat coke.”

“Yeah?”

“Every other time, it was shooting, stabbing, or beating to death. Pain, humiliation, and in-your-face stuff. Something all the other little dirt-bags can identify with.” She shook her head slowly. “Poisoning is too much like a Goddamned health issue, and too sneaky. Some petty-assed dope dealer is just too stupid to get a message from poisoning. Especially something like this ricin substance. No. No, it just doesn’t fit.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Okay?”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“Okay? Okay? All this great analysis and all I get is ‘okay’?”

“You’re eloquent. What can I say?” She was, of course, absolutely right.

“Well, anyway, I was going to talk with Ben about his. Maybe Hector instead?”

“Sounds like a winner,” she said.

“But we do agree that they’re related, right? The cases.”

“Certainly. We just don’t know how, and there’s no physical or testimonial evidence indicating they are.” She smiled. “Other than that little obstacle, sure, I think they’re related.”

“So, we just need the key, right? I mean, we’ve got lots of bits and pieces. I get the impression we’re only missing one little bit of information, one little piece of evidence…”

Hester chuckled. “Well, you just keep thinking that, Houseman.”

“I’m starting to hate this case. But I think we got it if we just get that one piece we’re missing.”

“It’ll have to do,” she said. “If it keeps you at it, that’s what we need.”

“Good enough for government work,” I said, shutting off the car and opening my door. “Let’s see if we can find Hector.”

16: 28

There was a clattering, roaring sound outside that grew, then diminished.

“What’s that?” Sally was peering through the cracks, straining to see.

“Sounds like a helicopter,” I said. “Could be a police chopper from Cedar Rapids.”

We heard it coming again. I hustled over to the door on the east side and cautiously peered out through the large, vertical crack. I just caught a glimpse of the helicopter as it went over, going from north to south. It was painted in the familiar red, white, and blue scheme I’d seen on TV so many times.

“It’s the Goddamned KNUG ‘Eye in the Sky’ chopper. The news media.”

If that thing flying over didn’t stir the pot, nothing would.

My cell phone rang. It was the leader of the TAC team, who sounded assured, but not overconfident. That was good.

“We’re getting in touch with that chopper, gonna get him out of here, but we want to check out his footage first. He’s live, okay? He’s givin’ us a great view of the farm. He don’t know it, but he is. As long as we’re waitin’ here,” he said, “let’s get back to who you got cornered up there.” He was maintaining contact, probably to make sure we didn’t do anything stupid before he could gain control of the situation. That was okay with me.

“I’m not sure who’s got who cornered here,” I answered. “We’re more like a cork in a bottle, I think. You haven’t been briefed by any feds, then?”

“I haven’t talked to any here,” he said. I heard him holler, away from the phone, “Anybody know of any feds around here? Check, will ya?” Then, more directly into the phone, and intended for me: “No. No brief by any feds, either.”

Where to start and what to say. “Look,” I said, “this is a federal sort of thing, and we have one FBI agent up here with us. He’s on the second floor, kind of a lookout. He’ll be down here soon as it gets dark. We’ve got three of us in the basement area. Limestone on three sides, hillside on the side facing west.”

“Okay.”

“Me and two female officers. One is a DCI agent, and she’s been hit by a fragment.”

“That wouldn’t be Hester Gorse?”

“Yeah, it would.”

“Sonofabitch,” he said. “Tell her this is Marty, and we’ll make sure we get her out.”

“Okay, Marty. Mind if the rest of us come, too?”

“Sorry about that. You’re all invited.” He paused. “Feds still aren’t here. What we got up there, anyway?”

“What you’re gonna be dealing with is some people who have AK-47s. Some explosives, too. Okay?”

“Yeah?”

“They don’t seem too…well…too capable. Don’t get that wrong; they’ll kill you if you screw up. But they don’t seem all that aggressive to me. You know?”

“Okay…”

“Some of these guys, they got guts. Just not all that sharp. Be careful.”

“Got it.”

“We’re getting a little concerned about it being dark real soon. I think they might try to get away. Watch the perimeter.”

“We must have fifty cops out this way. Most of ‘em are surrounding the area.”

“Good.”

“I gotta talk to my supervisor,” he said. “Lieutenant Granger. He ought to be here shortly. But what I’d like to do is get you guys out of there, and put my people in your place as the cork.”

“Sounds good to me.” Boy, did it.

“Okay, I’ll get back to you real quick, soon as the lieutenant gets here and I have a chance to talk to him. But be careful yourself,” he said. “Instead of making a break for it, they might go for you in the dark.”

This had occurred to me. “Right. Sounds like you got a good plan going there,” I said. “Go for it.”

“We just have to be real heads-up until they get up to us,” I said to Hester and Sally. “We don’t want a fuck-up at this stage.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Sally.

“The TAC team leader’s a guy named Marty,” I said to Hester. “He says hello and that he’ll get us out.”

“Marty’s all right,” she said. She sounded encouraged.

About two minutes later, my cell phone rang again. I answered, surprised that Lieutenant Granger had gotten to the perimeter so quickly.

“Hello!”

“Deputy Houseman? Is that you?”

It took me a second. “Hector? Is this Hector?”

“Yeah, you betcha,” he said, brightly, in his best Norske accent.

“Hector, I’m kinda busy right now…”

“I know, man. I just heard about the cops trapped in the barn out there. It’s all over TV. I thought I might have some information for you to tell them…”

“To tell the cops in the barn, Hector?”

“That’s right. About some people. The ones I think might be up there with them.”

“I’m one of the cops in the barn,” I said. “I’m really busy.”

“Holy shit,” he said. “You are in the barn?”

“Yeah.”

“Right now?”

“Hector…”

“Look, you gotta be really busy,” he said, speaking very fast, “so I’ll make this really quick. There are four people I have never seen before, they been asking questions around town today, about Linda, man, and Cheeto, and all of them. They wanted ‘specially to know where the farm was, man. They ask lots of people. They ask me while I am in the Pronto getting cigarettes.”

“They cops?” I asked.

He laughed. “No fuckin’ way, man. They ain’t exactly TV personalities, either.”

“You don’t know who they are?”

“No, but they look to me like they were in a hurry. You know? No hanging out. Right to the questions.”

“Hey…what kind of car, you know?”

“Sure. I am your best informant. You know I know. It is a green Dodge van, pretty new, with Nebraska license plates. I don’t have the numbers; I gotta admit I missed the numbers.”

“Plenty good enough,” I said. I thought Hector was on to something. If so, we now had the identity of the people who were shooting at us. Just to firm that up, I asked him what time he’d seen them.

“One o’clock or so,” he said.

That pretty well fit in with what had happened. I figured they must have gotten to the farm just before we did. I thought I had what they call a “high probability” of being right on this one. “Excellent,” I said. “Very good. Tell you what: give it about three minutes, okay? Then call nine-one-one and give the information to the dispatcher, okay? I can’t get the information to everybody from here. Okay?”

“Sure, man. Three minutes. Tener cuidado, Mr. Houseman. You be careful. I see the barn on the TV, and it looks pretty fuckin’ lonesome up there where you are.”

“We’ll be careful,” I said. “Just make that call.” I broke the connection. “That was Hector,” I said to Hester and Sally. “Just a sec…” and I called the office private line and gave the information that Hector was going to call 911.

Then I called One on the walkie-talkie and asked him to check the chopper broadcast for a green van parked somewhere on the farm, outside my view.

“I don’t know for sure,” I said, “but it looks like it might be the vehicle that brought these guys.”

“Ten-four, Three.”

“Call the office on a phone, One, and they can give you the background.” I was still not convinced the men in the shed didn’t have a scanner.

“Will do.” I heard his breathing change. “I’m goin’ over to the TV truck right now. They got everything on tape.”

“Ten-four. How we comin’ with the TAC team?”

“The lieutenant is here…just got here.”

“Ten-four.”

About five minutes later, Marty, the TAC team leader, called me on my cell phone. He was pissed off.

First, there was a question about watching the tapes. The technician in the TV truck said that, as far as he knew, anything that went out over the air could be shared with the “authorities.” He just wasn’t sure how much of the chopper footage had actually been broadcast by the station.

“You gotta be kidding.”

“Negative. We got a call in to the station manager. He’s gonna call.”

“Right. Okay. Well, that’s great.”

“That’s not so bad. I was watchin’ most of it as it came in, before it got ‘official,’ and I didn’t see a van. But,” Marty asked, “you ready for this?”

“What?”

“Things are kinda stalled on this end.”

The lieutenant, apparently, had decided that, since this-was a federal matter, his TAC team would act in support, but not take any overt action until the federal agents in charge were at the scene and could assess things for themselves.

“Policy,” said Marty. “I can’t change it.”

“Right.” Crap. I really didn’t need this.

“What I can do, though, is deploy my people on both sides of the lane. We can give you supporting fire toward the silo and in the main yard right up to the edge of the barn.”

“Right.” I didn’t say anything more for about two breaths. “I guess that’s what we get, then.”

“We can give you covering fire if you can make a break for it,” he said.

“We’ll keep that in mind.”

“Does that yard light up there work, do you know?”

“It did the last time we were here in the dark,” I said. “Two, three days back.”

“Then we’ll take it out. We’ve got night-vision goggles. No problem.”

“Don’t do that! Jesus, we’re gonna have little enough light here anyway. You take that out, we’ll be blind.”

“But then they can see my people as soon as they break cover.”

It was hard not to tell him how little that bothered me. “Just don’t do it, okay? If that light has to go, it’s on our request only, understand?”

This time, he was the one who paused. “Okay. You bet. Look, man, this wasn’t my idea. If I had my way, we’d be up there right now. But they tell me it ain’t an active shooter situation.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I know. They sure as hell were pretty active a little while ago.” I thought I’d try to lighten it up a bit. “Do we have anybody on scene that can promote you to captain?”

“Let me ask around,” he said, after a pause. “I like that.”

“Okay. Gotta go. Call as soon as you have a change of orders, okay?”

“You bet. Be careful up there.”

“Hey!”

“Yeah? “I caught him just before he terminated the call.

“I don’t know if anybody told you or not, but there’s only one uniform here in the barn. Female sheriff’s officer. The rest of us are in street clothes. Just like the bad guys.”

“No, nobody told me that. Thanks.”

“My pleasure,” I said.

“Okay. You be careful up there, now.”

I was getting a little tired of people telling me to be careful.

Not five seconds after I broke the connection, there was a really weird sound that came floating down from the area of the shed. It was a human voice, no doubt about that, and it sounded kind of like…well, a rebel yell with lyrics covers it pretty well. I certainly didn’t understand the words, if that’s what they were, but it sounded as if it were meant to be intimidating.

At that moment, for some strange reason, it occurred to me that I’d very likely killed two men. I thought about that. I didn’t feel any remorse. None at all. I didn’t feel different. I didn’t feel happy, either. It was weird. I’d never killed anybody before, and I’d always thought it would affect me strongly. Whatever the effect it was having, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t stop me from shooting the next guy who lobbed a grenade at me.

There was a loud thud against the barn, and then another. Having learned my lesson with the first grenade, I hunkered down and yelled “Get down!” just as the two explosions went off, not more than a second apart.

I caught a lot more dust this time as the blast wave whipped through the gaps in the boards and cleaned off the top of the foundation stones.

Like I say, I’d learned my lesson. I got my head up as high as I had to in order see out my little peephole, stuck my rifle through the boards, and looked for a target. Nothing. Nothing in sight, no movement, nothing. And it was getting really dark there in the shadow of the hillside.

I fired three shots in the general direction of the shed, just to discourage whoever was thinking about throwing some more at us. Sally, who apparently thought, “If Houseman has a reason to fire, so do I,” blasted one twelve-gauge round from her position a split second after I stopped. Silence.

“How damned many of those things you think they got?” asked Sally.

“I dunno,” I said. “A bunch, I guess. You okay?”

“Yeah.”

I turned to Hester. “How about you?”

She nodded and gave a wave of her hand.

I looked up through the stair opening and toward the hayloft. “Why don’t you give George a try,” I said to Sally. As she began to talk, I squinted out my peephole again.

The light had gone, and if I were going to be able to see anybody, they’d have to be wearing white.

“George is on his way down,” said Sally. “Look sharp!”

I looked as hard as I could, for all the good it did me. About ten seconds after she spoke, there was a loud thump on the floor above us, and then George came clattering down the steps.

Not a shot was fired. In the gloom, that didn’t surprise me.

“Boy, it’s dark down here.” George took a deep breath. “How’s Hester?”

“I’m fine,” she said, from her post near the rear wall.

“Oh, there you are… Boy, I don’t have a clue where those last two bombs came from. I couldn’t see shit up there.”

“It’s no better down here,” I said, “but at least we can act as a unit again.”

“Right. Is there a TAC team up yet?”

“Well, yes and no,” I said. I thought I heard a radio squawk. “Anybody hear that?”

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