CHAPTER 13

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2001 10:40

While I tried for Hector and Ben, Hester was on the phone to her headquarters in Des Moines, checking for assistance. There was just too much to do for us to be able to get it done in a timely fashion.

Hector wasn’t answering his phone. He virtually slept with the thing next to his ear. There was only one place where he’d turn it off. While Hester was still contacting her boss, I said, “I’ll be over at the library.”

I walked the two blocks. Normally I would have driven, for the sole purpose of having the cop car immediately available if I needed it. You learn to appreciate wasted time when somebody calls for help. This time, though, I thought it might be better if I were to keep it out of sight. My car was unmarked, but in a rural area, an unmarked cop car becomes very well known very quickly, and I was pretty sure just about anybody who I didn’t want to recognize it would do so immediately. Hector, being the nervous sort, might appreciate that.

The big electronic thermometer outside the savings and loan read twenty-two degrees. It would get worse in the next thirty days, so I tried to enjoy the twenty-two degrees as I walked toward the new library. I met two rabbis walking toward me. Both were dressed in black hats and ankle-length black coats. Quite a contrast to the blue jeans and brightly colored down vests I was accustomed to encountering.

“Hi,” I said as we passed.

I got looks of complete incomprehension. They were probably New York born and raised, and strangers just didn’t say hi out of the blue. I chuckled to myself as I walked. Sooner or later, they’d be greeting me back. Well, if they stayed long enough. Like Ben had told me, “You can take the rabbi out of New York, but it’s very hard to take the New York out of the rabbi.”

I walked another fifty feet toward the library, toward the building the rabbis had left. Meier’s Deli. It hit me as soon as I saw the sign. I stood outside, and called the sheriff’s department on my cell phone.

“Nation County Sheriff,” said Sally.

“Hi. It’s Houseman. Can you do me a favor?”

“What a unique request,” she said.

“Just a fast one. We have any more reports of sick or dead people? Anybody been in the ER, or the clinic, or anything?”

“Beats me,” she said.

“That’s the favor. Call Henry. The unlisted cell phone number he gave us. Ask him. It’s really important.”

“On TV once,” she said, and I could hear the keyboard clicking in the background as she called up Henry’s listing in the Dispatch database, “they had something called the ‘blue men’ or something, and they were trying to get a common location, or… let me put you on hold…”

That was what made her such a good dispatcher. She could think. Sometimes faster than the rest of us.

A few seconds later, I was back on the line. “Houseman, you still there?”

“Yep. Whatcha got?”

“No cases. Zip. Nothing at all.”

“Excellent. Thanks, kid.”

“It was a story I read in high school,” she said. “‘The Eleven Blue Men.’”

“Okay.”

I went into the deli and spoke to Abe Meier, the owner.

“Abe, where do you get your meat?”

“Our meat? You want to know where we get our meat?”

“The beef is what I need to know about,” I said. “Where does that come from?”

“The plant.”

“The plant here in town?”

“Of course here in town. There is a problem?”

“I dunno, Abe. How often do you buy beef from them?”

He thought for a few seconds. “We go through one, one and a half quarters each week. If we’re having a good week. Not so good, maybe one. We sell fresh; we don’t freeze.”

“You buy any since last Monday, maybe?

“We buy each Wednesday. You’re asking me this for a reason?”

“Give me one more answer, and then I’ll tell you,” I said. “What kind of truck do they use to deliver it? One of the eighteen-wheelers, or one of the smaller trucks?”

“We get it ourselves. In my wife’s truck,” he said.

“Your wife’s truck?” I’d seen his wife driving around on occasion. “I thought she drove a four-wheel-drive Subaru?”

“For the taxes,” he said, “it’s a truck.”

As I entered the library, I almost turned and left. There was a class of about thirty fourth-graders and a teacher sort of invading the place. They were all over, and Martha Taylor, my former classmate and current librarian, was helping round them up. She saw me, glanced over toward the computers, looked back, and gave a little wave. That triggered the memory that she’d been one of our high school cheerleaders, and that we’d called her “Boom Boom.” Boom Boom the librarian. I couldn’t suppress a grin.

I recognized the back of Hector’s head at the second computer, and that’s just about all that could have persuaded me to stay.

I waded over to the computers through the noisy herd of runny noses and tennis shoes, and tapped Hector on the shoulder.

“Hi there,” I said.

He just about jumped out of his skin. “Holy shit, man, doan do that!” he said, startled. “I coulda had a heart attack, man.”

“Sorry. It’s probably all the noise in here. Got a minute?”

“Ah, not right now I don’t…”

“Sure you do. Let’s go to our table.”

I let him lead. I couldn’t see anybody else in the place who might be making him so nervous, but I only looked as we traversed the place toward the table. There could have been somebody else in there I didn’t see.

“Have a seat,” I said.

He pulled out a chair and turned it about forty-five degrees from the table before he sat in it. Easer to bolt that way, and easier to make it look like he didn’t want to talk to me if somebody was to observe us. I really liked Hector.

As I sat, I said, “Okay. Now I know much more than I did when we talked the last time, and so do you. Let’s compare notes.”

“I don’t know much more,” he said.

“Sure you do. You know Orejas is dead. Or Jose Gonzales, or whoever he wanted people to think he was.”

“Sure. That’s common knowledge, man. Orejas, he got sick.”

“He sure as hell did,” I said. “But I think he got sick and died because somebody made him sick.”

Silence.

“I think you know who did that, and why.”

“I doan know why you would think that,” he said, but a smile was trying to break out on his face. “I just work here.”

That was one of my old lines. “I don’t buy that any more than you did,” I said. “Let’s talk about where Rudy got his money.”

“The plant.” The grin was trying harder.

“Yeah, right. For three bucks an hour. Thirty-nine hours a week. That’s a hundred and…seventeen bucks a week. Tell me more.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’m cooked.” The grin came out, and he looked around. “Okay, this is gonna be fast.”

“Right.”

“You think because he’s Colombian, he’s connected, he sells dope, and he gets rich, doan you?”

“It had occurred to me,” I said.

“He used to be, man. Dope-connected, okay? But no more.” His smile disappeared. “He still is connected. He is still Colombian, see? But not dope, okay? Not dope. No more dope.”

“Okay? “That didn’t leave much.

“If I say more they will kill me, too.”

“Well, neither of us wants that,” I said, kind of surprised at the sudden intensity.

“I doan want it much more than you,” he said.

“Sure. So, Orejas was killed by the same people as Rudy, then?” I was just fishing, but sometimes that produces pretty good results.

“You know he was.”

Well, I pretty much did now. “Why?”

Hector was about to crap, I swear, but he hung in there. “They used him, and Rudy did not like it. They lied and they used him.”

“Who?”

“Hey, you got to earn that big money sometime,” he said, and the smile tried to come back. It didn’t make it.

“The calf-shit yellow car, the thin-faced man, and two or three others.” I said it flat, matter-of-fact, because I wanted him to think I was really confident that they were the ones. Well, hell, they were the only ones I had.

“You should eat well this week,” he said.

“Why? Why did they do him?”

“Rudy?” He glanced around again. “He got pissed. About Orejas. It surprised him.”

“Wait a second. Orejas died after Rudy was killed,” I said.

“He was not pissed because Orejas was dead,” said Hector, sounding like a very patient teacher. “Because Orejas, he was still alive at that time. It was something else. Somethin’ they did to him. But it was before Orejas was dead, I can tell you that, because I heard about it last Saturday. That’s all I know, man,” he said. “I gotta go. Too many people could come in here.”

Looking back, I know he wasn’t just making an excuse, but at the time it struck me as kind of lame.

He simply stood, zipped his jacket, said, “I will listen for you,” and walked out the door. With a room full of fourth-graders, there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it. I sure as hell didn’t want to go running out the door after him. Way too much attention.

But I had more than I’d started with. Not too bad for ten minutes’ work. I stood more slowly than Rudy had, pushed our chairs back under the table, and waved at Boom Boom.

Now, if I could just find Linda…

I was just getting back to the PD when Hester came out, looked around, saw me, and waved for me to hurry. I got all hopeful that she’d gotten some key bit of information. No such luck.

“We’ve got to get back to the office; the Public Health people are here and we need to go to the briefing.”

“How soon?”

“Noon. Let’s go.”

I looked at my watch. Eleven thirty-four. Damn. “Any word on Linda?”

“It’s only been an hour or so, Houseman. Patience. You find Hector?”

“Yeah,” I said, and told her what I’d learned.

“This just gets stranger and stranger,” she said. “Before he died, huh?”

“That’s what he said, and that he heard about it last Saturday already.”

“Couldn’t you get him to say more? “She had her car door open. “He’s got to know more.”

“I was surrounded by munchkins,” I said across the top of my car as I opened my own door. “Tell you about that later.”

We hit the office at about five to noon. The parking lot was jammed with vehicles, including all our officers, on duty or off. Three unmarked cop-type cars, four smaller cars with the white decals of the State of Iowa on the side, the County Health nurses’ Bronco, Doc Zimmer’s car, and three or four I didn’t recognize.

Hester and I had to drive around the back and park in the prisoner-unloading area.

“Jesus,” I said as we got out of our cars. “It looks like a football game or something.”

“It’s getting worse,” she said, pointing to the street below the jail hill. “Look who’s here.”

Judy Mercer, her cameraman, and their white and blue KNUG four-wheel-drive were backing down from the main jail parking lot.

“Well, this time she’s not our problem,” I said. But we hustled into the jail anyway, just to be sure we weren’t caught on camera again.

Once inside, we were crammed into the kitchen with all the drivers of those cars we’d seen, plus the county attorney, two people from the state attorney general’s office, and three DCI agents. I recognized the oldest of them: Art Meyerman, an ex-Nation County deputy, and a royal pain in the butt. I waved at him across the room. He barely acknowledged me. Crap. Art was an obstructionist martinet by temperament and choice. What the hell was he doing here?

“I see they sent Art,” said Hester.

“Yeah. Whoopee.” I glanced around the kitchen. “Why him?”

“Beats me,” she said. “Last I knew he’d been transferred out of Intel. Don’t know where he went, but I thought he’d been pretty much moved out of useful.”

I could buy that.

Lamar gave a general introduction that lasted about fifteen seconds. More or less, a “listen up and take notes” word to the wise. He then turned it over to an assistant attorney general, whose name eluded me when the compressor for the kitchen refrigerator kicked in. He apparently concentrated on health and safety issues. He was brief, and only told us how important it was for everybody to cooperate.

Next, we got Iowa’s Deputy Director of Emergency Preparedness, who outlined the pecking order for conducting the investigation. She also gave us a good five minutes on keeping our mouths shut, and measures in place for preventing panic. Good stuff. She had handouts, which I also like.

Next, the Iowa Department of Health people briefed everybody on ricin, its effects, and its methods of transmission. I had one moment during that part of the briefing, when the speaker asked if anybody knew what a mechanical vector was. Hester and I were the only two cops who raised our hands. That scored points for us, even if I’d only known for five or six hours.

From that point on, it was emphasized about every five minutes that what we were dealing with was not “catching.” One of the Health folks, a Dr. McWhirter from Iowa City, also briefed us on prophylactic measures.

“Basically,” he said, “all you have to do is wear a decent filter mask, like this one.” He held up something that looked like a simple dust mask for working in a shop. “This is a very fine filter system; you can’t pick them up in a hardware store, but you can buy them at your local pharmacy. And,” he said, “remember to wash your hands. That’s it. That’s all it takes.” He paused. “Oh, also,” he added, “if you come across some contaminated food, just don’t eat it.”

It sounded like an afterthought, but I thought that was a pretty key point. So, apparently, did Lamar.

“You hear that, Carl? No lunch!”

There were a couple of laughs. There would have been more, but lots of the people in the room had no idea who I was.

After that little tension-breaker, I felt a bit silly, but I raised my hand, getting a dark look from Art. He was the sort who thought any question was a matter of showboating. That went a long way toward explaining why he never seemed to get completely with a program.

“Yes?”

“Would cooking decontaminate food?”

“Protein is pretty tough stuff,” McWhirter said. “Might. I wouldn’t want to rely on that, though. Iffy at best.”

“So we get this stuff,” asked Lamar. “Then what? You haven’t said anything about an antidote.”

“That’s right,” said Dr. McWhirter. “There is no antidote.”

That sank in for a second.

“The treatment is supportive. That means we do what we can for the symptoms and let things take their course.” Dr. McWhirter looked out on the unhappy faces. “I wouldn’t be too concerned; the LD50 levels are really high for this substance.”

“What’s LD50?” asked Lamar.

“LD50 is shorthand for what would constitute a lethal dosage for fifty percent of the exposed population.”

“Oh.”

“Any more questions? Okay then, let’s get on here…”

The Health briefing continued, with them handing out the same sheet of questions we’d gotten from Henry that morning. They then went over each question, explaining why it was being asked, why it was important, and how that answer would be used to further the investigation. It seemed to take forever.

When that segment was over, the assistant attorney general got back up and outlined the approach to the groups of people to be questioned.

“Since we are starting off with the supposition that Gonzales was exposed at his place of work,” he said, “we’ll begin with his coworkers.”

My hand shot up.

“Yes? “He seemed irritated.

“Most of them are unavailable at this time,” I said.

“Pardon?”

“Most of them are Hispanics who worked with Gonzales at the plant. Most of them are here illegally. There was a murder Tuesday up here, and it involved a member of the Hispanic community. The illegals all went missing. They’re afraid we’re going to find them and deport them.” I paused. “We’re looking for them right now, but so far, no luck.”

“Just how many people are we talking here?”

“As many as a couple hundred,” I said. “They had to close the plant on Wednesday, and it’s not back up in operation yet.”

I had to give him a lot of credit. He didn’t miss a beat. “So, we talk to the plant management first. I assume they’re not illegal aliens, too?”

“Absolutely not,” I said.

“Excellent. We’ll assign a team to interview them, along with health and safety inspectors to go over the plant, and you can let us know when you find the missing people.”

“Okay,” I said.

Just when I thought we were done, our own county attorney got to put his two cents’ worth in. His “Hi, I’m Carson Hilgenberg, and I guess I’m supposed to say something here” was vintage Carson. What followed didn’t exactly enhance his position.

“I think this is, uh, a really worthwhile endeavor. I want you to know my office is open for you, and I’ll be there to help you understand these heavy legal complications as they come up.”

Honest. He even made little quote mark gestures with his fingers when he said “legal complications.”

He paused, and then said, “I’ll be happy to answer any questions regarding this case, if you have any.”

I was about to raise my hand and ask him for a definition of protein, but Hester beat me to it with a real question.

“What authority do we have to act here?”

“Pardon?”

“If somebody asks us under what authority we are questioning workers and inspecting premises, what do we tell them? “she asked, just as though she didn’t know.

Carson Hilgenberg simply looked toward the assistant attorney general and said, “Maybe you’d like to take this one?” He had assumed the role of emcee without blinking an eye.

The deputy AG never missed a beat. He pulled the appropriate citation from his open briefcase and read it to us. “According to Chapter 135.35 of the Code of Iowa, ‘All peace officers of the state when called upon by the department shall enforce its rules and execute the lawful orders of the department within their respective jurisdictions.’ You have officially been ‘called upon.’ Any other questions?”

I love those “toss it to the nearest cop” sections of the Code. They were put there by legislators who didn’t want to fund any enforcement arm for Health, but who just couldn’t leave them with no muscle at all. So they assigned cops to them upon request. The problem is, having virtually no prior training or experience, if we were requested, we had to spend time in long meetings just to get up to speed.

“What do we charge somebody with for noncompliance?” Lamar. Good boy.

“Ah, just a sec…the next one…here. Cite them under 135.36. Interference with authorized agents of the Department of Health.” The AGA looked at his audience. “That’s you.”

“Talk about potential!” said Deputy Mike Connors, one of our longtime guys. “Spread your cheeks and freeze!”

“Knock it off. How much penalty does that section have?” Lamar, again.

“Simple misdemeanor. A hundred and fifty-five dollars, with court costs,” said the assistant AG. He spread his hands at the groans. “I know. But let’s just make a procedure now. You bring ‘em here; you don’t cite into court. Haul ‘em in. Fill out a complaint and affidavit. No automatic ten percent bond. You call a magistrate. That way, it gets ‘em out of the hair of the other members of the investigative team. For a while. How’s that? If you can’t beat ‘em, annoy ‘em,” he said.

That went over well. I leaned over to Hester. “I like this guy,” I said. “Who is he?”

“Morton Bligh. Really. And everybody calls him Captain already, so don’t start.”

“Which of you are the ones who first saw the body of Mr. Gonzales?” asked Bligh.

Hester and I held up our hands.

“I’ll need to talk to you two in a few minutes, so stick around, okay?”

Hell, why not. We’d shot most of the day by now already.

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