CHAPTER 14

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2001 15:30

By the time everybody got sorted out and squared away, we ended up sitting down with Bligh in my office at 3:30 in the afternoon. He brought Dr. McWhirter along with him.

“So, you two were the lucky ones,” Bligh said.

“Yep. You have our preliminary reports yet?”

“Attached to the main case file already. Good reports. What else can you tell us about this Gonzales?”

I figured what the hell. “Gonzales was the best friend of a man who was murdered, execution-style, the day before we found him, Gonzales, in his room. Dead guy’s name was Rudy Cueva. Both claimed to be either U.S. or Mexican citizens, but as far as we know, Cueva, the guy who was shot, was from Colombia, and we think Gonzales was, too. Both seem to be illegals.”

Bligh and McWhirter just stared.

“Both were employed at the meat-processing plant. Both are suspected of some sort of narcotics involvement, past or present, but we can’t confirm that. We have reason to think both of these men were murdered, but we’re having one hell of a time getting any hard evidence for Gonzales.”

Bligh cleared his throat. “You’re saying that ricin was deliberately…applied… to Gonzales?”

“It begins to look that way,” said Hester. “The only problem is, that’s not the way drug-related killings go down. Not poison, at least not delayed action. They’re usually really violent: knives or guns, like this Cueva murder. Instant gratification.”

Bligh leaned forward in his chair. “Let me get this: Cueva was killed on…?”

“Tuesday,” I said.

“And your investigation led you to Gonzales.”

“Only as a witness, and one before the fact. Gonzales wasn’t an eyewitness, as far as we know. He was Cueva’s best friend.”

“Right. And who sent you to Gonzales? Who thought it was a murder?”

“Nobody,” said Hester. “The county needed a response to an unattended death. Carl and I were together working Cueva’s murder. We were all that was available,” she said. “The Battenberg officer called us for assistance in a simple unattended death, and that’s what we thought it was at first.”

There was a scratching sound at the door. I thought it was somebody playing a joke, and said, “Not now. We’re busy.”

It persisted. I got up and opened the door. Big Ears, who had been standing on his hind legs to scratch, tumbled through the door, spotted Hester, and galloped over to her outstretched hand.

“That’s Big Ears,” I said, smiling. “Named after Gonzales. It was his dog, and now there’s nobody but Hester who wants him.”

I got a questioning look from Bligh.

“Uh, okay, Gonzales was called Orejas, that means ‘big ears,’ or so we’re told. The dog was under his bed.”

Dr. McWhirter spoke up. “The dog was in the room with the dead man?”

“Yep. Been checked by the vet. He’s just fine.”

“So,” said Bligh, getting us all back on track. “You think Cueva and Gonzales were murdered.”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “I’m afraid it sure looks like it.”

“Because of some drug involvement?”

“It’s the only thing that even begins to fit,” said Hester, lifting Big Ears up to her lap. “It fits the pattern, except for method in the case of Gonzales.”

“You aren’t absolutely certain as to motive, then?”

“Nope,” I said. “Not yet, anyway. Cueva’s live-in girlfriend might be a big help with that, but she split on us early today. We’ve got an ATL out on her, but apparently nobody’s seen her yet.”

“She’s illegal, too?” asked Bligh.

“No,” said Hester. “She’s local, born and bred.”

Bligh shook his head. “You two really stepped into one, didn’t you?”

“Houseman’s cases are always like this,” said Hester. “He never has a simple one.”

“I try,” I said, “to make it interesting for everybody. So far, I’ve succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.”

Bligh got out a notepad. “So, you two have any information as to how the ricin was, uh, applied, to Mr. Gonzales?”

I looked at Dr. McWhirter. “I was thinking the Doc here might know that.”

Dr. McWhirter cleared his throat. “I helped with the autopsy, and the subsequent testing,” he said. “We had a wide variety of symptoms, from gastrointestinal chaos to virtual drowning from pulmonary edema. That perplexed us. It appeared to us that we had a case involving both aspiration and ingestion.”

“Really? “said Hester. “Both?”

“Yes. And in highly concentrated doses in both methods. Highly. In my opinion, he was as good as dead after the exposure. No amount of care would have come close to saving him.” He paused again. “We were wondering just where he could have been to acquire that heavy dosage.”

“His last day of work was Monday,” said Hester. “We know that. He worked the late shift. We found him on Wednesday, about 18:00 or so. He’d been dead, what, Carl? You thought about twelve hours?”

“From the rigor, yeah. About that.”

“Makes the time of death about six A.M. Wednesday,” said Hester. “Infection at thirty-six hours puts it at six P.M. on Monday. End of his shift at the plant, or thereabouts.”

“So, it happened at the plant, then? Could it be an accidental exposure? An informant claims it was ‘something they did to him.’ But the informant wasn’t a witness,” I said. “Could we be talking accidental here, after all?”

“I’d expect a broader contamination, if that were the case,” said Dr. McWhirter. “We only have one victim here. That’s a pretty narrow exposure.”

We decided that Hester would accompany Dr. McWhirter to the Gonzales apartment, along with two techs, to recover any dirty laundry he might have had and to test the shower and washbasins. Everything would be tested for contaminants.

Bligh and I were to go to the packing plant and get the ball rolling. Two health and safety inspectors came along.

Bligh suggested that the county attorney, Carson Hilgenberg, go with Hester and her team so we had a legal presence at both locations. Hester rolled her eyes, but accepted it.

Bligh and Hilgenberg did a fast application for a search warrant, and I went with them to a local magistrate’s office, where I signed as affiant. At that point, even though we’d lost most of a day, we were finally getting back on track.

Bligh and I got to the plant at 16:21, according to my watch. I’d called ahead for Ben, and he’d agreed to wait for us. I hadn’t told him much, but I’d made it clear that this was very, very important.

We were ushered immediately to Ben’s office. When the door opened, I saw a very familiar face with Ben.

“Hey, George!”

“Carl.” He didn’t look at all happy.

“Who’s that?” asked Bligh.

“That’s Special Agent George Pollard, FBI,” I said to Bligh. “We know each other from way back. How ya doin? “I said, sticking my hand out to George.

“Wonderful,” said George, flatly. “Just wonderful.”

“This is Mr. Bligh,” I said, unable to remember his first name. “Iowa AG’s office.”

“Call me Mort,” said Bligh.

“Glad to meet you,” said George.

“And this,” I said to Bligh, “is Mr. Chaim B. Hurwitz.”

“Call me Ben.” When he spoke, I looked at him more closely. Ben looked terrible. My first thought was that he was sick.

“So, what brings the FBI to Nation County?” asked Bligh.

Now, that was a truly good question. FBI anywhere in Iowa these days was a rare event all by itself. It was another example of the effect of 9/11 on everybody. On September 10, 2001, there were tweny-six FBI agents working in Iowa. By September 15, about twenty-four of them had been assigned to terrorism investigations. You didn’t even expect to see one at a bank robbery anymore. To spend one on a meatpacking plant was most unusual. What was more unusual was that I knew for a fact that George had been assigned to counterterrorism.

“I’m afraid it’s an aspect of what brings you two here,” said George, reaching behind us and closing the door. He stepped back toward Ben’s desk and picked up a file. “I assume you’re here about the ricin?”

“We are,” I said. “You, too, huh?”

“Yes.”

“What’s up?” I found it kind of difficult to believe that the Bureau was concerned with the death of one illegal immigrant.

“We were notified by CDC in Atlanta that there had been a case of ricin ingestion in Nation County,” said George. “Maybe you two should sit down,” he said to Bligh and me.

We two did.

“Like I just finished telling Ben here, CDC found themselves working two separate but contemporaneous cases involving ricin poisoning,” said George. “Yours, and an outbreak in New York City.”

“New York?” I was surprised, to say the least.

“This is terrible,” said Ben. “Terrible.”

“We have four dead people in New York,” said George. “All from ricin. We have fifty-seven who are ill, with at least one more who is not expected to survive.” He checked his file. “The lab people say that they think many of the ill are psychosomatic reactions, because several are good friends of deceased, but didn’t eat the same things. Not all of them, though. It takes time for this stuff to finish its job. They started getting sick enough to need medical attention on the fifteenth. Three cases. Eight more on the sixteenth, twenty-two on the seventeenth, twenty-nine on the eighteenth. One of the first three died on the seventeenth. He was a deli employee, by the way. Three of the cases from the sixteenth were also fatal. They’re all older people, so far.”

“Holy shit.”

“It gets worse,” said George. “All the victims except two are Jews. We have a vector of three specific delis in the city. Everybody who was infected either worked at those delis or ate meat purchased there. Everybody.”

“Oh, crap,” I said. I saw what was coming.

“During Hanukkah,” said Ben softly. “They got sick eating our meat during Hanukkah.”

George nodded. “Right. As luck would have it, those three delis get most of their beef products from this plant.” He looked at Bligh and me. “What we have here is very possibly a hate crime. Regardless of the motive, we suspect an act of terrorism. Domestic or otherwise.”

George shut his file. “Carl, could we meet at the local PD, or your office, when you’re done here?”

“You bet.” I looked at Bligh. “Why don’t you get your information from Ben here, and George and I’ll go over to the PD. Call over there when you’re done; I’ll come get you.” I was really anxious to hear more from George, and I was sure he didn’t want to talk in front of Bligh and Ben.

George and I were in the Battenberg PD within five minutes. The chief wasn’t there, but the city clerk let us in just as she closed up.

“Jesus, George. What’s up?”

“We’re considering this a terrorism case, Carl.”

“Okay. Sure. Domestic, though, I assume?”

“Not necessarily.”

“You’re kidding?”

He wasn’t. As it turned out, several known terrorist groups, including Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network, were known to have recruited the services of non-Muslim terrorists to do some of their dirty work. The “recruits” were readily available through the terrorists’ established drug connections, and came equipped with at least some expertise in the required areas.

“Most important,” said George, “these individuals aren’t tagged as extremist Muslim terrorists. Some Thais, some Laotians, some Colombians, Mexicans, and…you know, Carl. Anywhere there’s a foreign importer of illegal drugs, they have a connection. France, Afghanistan, they use those connections to recruit. Lots easier to conceal their activities that way. And,” he added, “they’re always overseen by the faithful. Well, ‘the fanatical’ would be more accurate. The radical, fundamentalist Muslims are always in control.”

“Recruiting unemployed muscle from the cartels…”

“Yep. That’s one source.”

“And that’s what we have here?”

“With your Mr. Jose Gonzales, I think it’s possible, if not downright likely,” said George. “What makes you think he’s from Colombia?”

I told him what we’d discovered and included the fact that the main information had come from a confidential informant. I did not name Hector.

“We did establish, based on the tip, that the address for Cueva in L.A. was false,” I said. I went on to explain the duplicate Social Security numbers. “It sure would explain some stuff…they’re recruited, but for money, I suppose?”

“Mostly,” he said. “At least they would be, if I’m right about the connection.”

“So, like, ‘hired’ might be a better term, though? Not to split hairs or anything…”

“Hired,” said George, “is a good term. We prefer ‘recruited,’ though, because if we collar some of them, we don’t want to piss around with the defense demanding a paper trail for their ‘hired’ services.” He produced the first honest smile I’d seen from him that day. “I’d hate to have to produce a W-2 for one of ‘em. It’s a practical thing.”

“Gotcha.”

“I called my office a couple of hours ago,” he said, “right after Ben told me about this Gonzales man. Our experts assure us that there’s virtually no chance that the ricin was contacted accidentally. That say there’s no chance it’s used in meat processing. No way, not even if they used castor oil to lube the machinery. Ricin’s a by-product, and nobody anywhere near here refines castor beans.” He gave me a worried look. “Ricin was one of the major weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein was trying to produce in quantity. Lots of the research was done there, and we destroyed a bunch of the stuff right after the Gulf War. That’s another reason we think it’s not a home-grown problem.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. Iraq produced a lot of it. But, hell, they weren’t the only ones. Anyway, last I heard, CDC was sending two people up anyway, and they may send more now. Look, I better set you up for our briefing.”

“You gotta be kidding,” I said. “You’re gonna have a briefing? Christ, George, we just got out of a state briefing.” George was a friend. Maybe. “Could you get me out of this one? I’m losing valuable time on my homicide case here.”

“Not out of this one,” he said. “You’ll be doing part of it.” He looked at his watch. “The plane carrying the CDC people has already landed. Cedar Rapids. They should be driving up now. The FBI joint intelligence team has members on their way from D.C., and they should be getting to Cedar Rapids within a few hours now. Can you be ready to give them a summary of what you have in, say, four hours or so?”

Shit. “Ah…let me call Hester. She’ll have to be there, too.”

“Hester is DCI’s agent on the homicide? Excellent!” George and Hester had worked together before, too.

“Yeah. It’s just been old home week around here.” I stood. “Look, I’ve got an informant I’m looking for, and a missing female who was the live-in with Cueva, who split on us.”

“Are these already set to be interviewed, or are you just planning to talk to them at some time?”

I thought that was a strange sort of question. “Oh, planning, I guess. Actually, we have an ATL out on the woman, probably APIA. No response yet, as far as I know.”

“Why don’t we go to your office? Just a suggestion, but don’t you think you should expand the APIA?”

APIA stood for All Points, Iowa. That meant that every police teletype in Iowa got the relevant Attempt To Locate data.

“Upper Midwest?”

“Let’s go national,” he said. “From you, though, not from us. Just for now. It’s a security thing. How long has she been gone?”

“Not more than twelve hours.”

George and I rounded up Bligh from the plant and went to the Gonzales apartment, where we linked up with Hester, Carson Hilgenberg, and Dr. McWhirter. When George walked in, it was one of the very rare times I’ve ever seen Hester floored.

“George? What on earth…?”

Carson Hilgenberg stepped forward. He didn’t know George, but he’d apparently decided he was important. He introduced himself.

“Glad to meet you,” said George. “I’m Special Agent Pollard, FBI.”

“Really?” asked Hilgenberg.

“Really,” said George.

While George filled in Hester, Hilgenberg, and Dr. McWhirter about why he was there, I called the office on a land line and had a chat with Sally.

“Hi. Hey, we gotta go national on the ATL for Linda Moynihan.”

“Uh, sure…okay…but I’ll need more information. That’s a formal request, so we need a wanted/missing person’s report…just a sec…” and I heard her mutter to herself, “page 939…” She was looking at the NCIC manual. “Uh, can I do her as a missing person? For that she has to be mentally disabled, or abducted, or…”

“No, no. Just wanted.”

“Has a warrant been issued for her? I really need a warrant for that.”

NCIC, the National Crime Information Center, is the overseeing authority for all police teletype messages, and they have pretty stringent rules. “Not yet. Can we just say one will be, ah, obtained in the future?”

“Yeah…” Sally sounded reluctant. “WWBI, Warrant Will Be Issued. But I better have a warrant number within twenty-four hours, or I’m in trouble. With a bond attached. And it better include a ‘Will Extradite’ or you ain’t gonna get much of an effort out of anybody. But you gotta get a warrant…”

“Okay. Do that. WWBI. Call her a material witness in a homicide case.”

“Right. That was the easy part.”

“Hey, is the media around up there or anything?”

“Around? Well” and I could hear her voice fade slightly as she stood and walked to the window “out here in the parking lot I count three TV Broncos. Is that enough?”

Even the press, apparently, had a problem with keeping secrets. I’d thought that only Judy Mercer from KNUG would be there.

“Thanks,” I said. “We’ll be back in a while. Get ready for some company.”

“What?”

“Better break out the thirty-cup coffeepot. You’re going to have guests. That’s all I can say.” I looked over at George, who was listening to my end of the conversation. “Sally,” I said, indicating the phone.

George came over and said, “Let me talk to her.” I handed him the phone.

“Hi, Sally! It’s George of the Bureau.” He knew his nickname, apparently. “Yes! Pretty soon, you bet. Hey, this really has got to be kept pretty quiet for right now, okay? You have any trouble with getting any of the messages you want out, or accepted, or anything, call this number…” and he pulled out a business card and read a series of numbers to her. “Tell her it’s on my authority, S.A. Pollard, and give the word ‘buoyant.’ Yes… b-u-o-y-a-n-t. Got that? Okay, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing you!”

That done, Hester drew our attention to the unmarked spray can that I remembered seeing the first time we were in the apartment.

“We think there’s a good chance that this could be the delivery system for the ricin,” she said. “We haven’t touched it yet…but we have to wrap it securely and forward it to the FBI labs in D.C. It looks just like an ordinary spray can. But if you look at it really closely,” she said, pointing with her pen, “you’ll see that it’s not a can that’s had the label torn off. No glue marks, no residual paper patches, nothing. But, it does have a commercial serial number on the bottom.”

“So, where’d it come from? “I thought that was a good question.

“Not sure,” she said. “I do know, though, that major paint stores will make up spray cans to special order. You buy the paint; they put it in the can and pressurize it for you. That’s a possibility.”

“I didn’t know they did that,” I said. “Cool.”

“There’s also a box of synthetic vinyl exam gloves inside a shoe box in the closet over there,” said Hester. “It’s opened, but I don’t know if any are gone.”

The things you miss if you only think it’s an unattended death. “No smoking guns?” I couldn’t resist.

“Well, not exactly,” she said. “However, there’s also a pair of dust masks, labeled N-95 PARTICULATE RESPIRATORS, in the same shoe box. They’re just for dust, though. Tell them what you said, Doc,” she said to Dr. McWhirter.

“I don’t think that kind of mask would be particularly effective against the ricin spray,” he said. “I’d wear something with much finer filtration if I was going to be around that. And it isn’t really adjustable enough to make a good seal.”

“It’s labeled in English,” said Hester. “We’ve had absolutely no indication that Gonzales, or whoever he really is, had any English at all.” She shrugged. “Or that he’d understand the finer points of filtration, anyway. A mask is a mask.”

“Right.”

“I figure the can isn’t leaking,” said Hester, noticing that I was edging back toward the door, “because Big Ears didn’t get sick.”

“Sure,” I said, backing up and leaning up against the doorframe. “Good point.”

“So,” said Hester, “lacking any other information, I’d say that our man here used this spray can to spray the meat that went to New York. Most likely when he carried it into the trucks. I’d say that he used the mask and gloves to protect himself, and somehow either failed to do it right, or soon enough, and the mask was inadequate anyway. Maybe contaminated himself when he took the gloves off. He used a mask that provided some protection, but not enough. Maybe it slipped. Maybe it wasn’t tight.”

“Inept,” I said. “Nontrained, then. Just told to use it but not how?”

“You just earned a place on the speaker’s stand,” said George to Hester.

“What?”

He told her about the next meeting.

“Swell,” said Hester. “Just swell. Not that I’m not glad to do it,” she said, “but we really need to get moving on the homicide.”

“I know, and I’m sorry,” said George. “We’ll free you up as soon as possible. Really.”

“Just one of those little adjustments,” I said.

“But we do have an hour or so, I suspect,” said George. “Why don’t we make some appointments to talk to the fellow workers…you know, the ones who worked with Gonzales and this…?”

“Cueva,” I said. Hester and I exchanged looks. “You wanna tell him?”

“Tell me what?” asked George, falling neatly into the setup.

“Well,” I said, “we’ve got a bit of a problem interviewing the coworkers. The majority of them are not here…well… legally.”

That really got his attention.

“It appears that they all left the area the night after Cueva was shot,” I said. “A couple hundred of ‘em, at least. They had to shut down the plant, so many were gone.”

“Well, damn,” said George.

“That’s what we said,” said Hester.

“We’re looking.” I explained about Wisconsin, and Harry’s search over there. “No luck yet.”

“They could have run to a major metro area,” said George. “Gone forever, in a practical sense, if they did that.”

“We’re hoping,” said Hester, “that they drift back when the heat’s off. Next day or two.”

“I hope you’re right,” said George. “We’re all going to need to talk with those people.”

“We have a couple of names,” I said helpfully. “Maybe you guys could help us find them? They could lead to all sorts of good things…”

During this exchange, both Attorney Bligh and Dr. McWhirter started to get a little fidgety.

“Ah, we’re sort of out of our purview here,” said Bligh. “Our concern is the toxic substance and its effects. Ah, if you think this is a criminal matter…”

“You’re in this for the duration,” said George. “We might be wrong. Unlikely though that is. But we need your work to establish a basis in fact for our case, sort of the antithesis, so to speak. Or the thesis, and we do the antithesis. Whatever. We need you to prove that an accident either did or did not occur. This is going to be a really multijurisdictional effort, in all respects.”

Neither Bligh nor McWhirter looked particularly pleased at that.

When we all got back to the sheriff’s department, Hester and I ducked in the back door to avoid the media people who were sitting in the main parking lot with their engines running. I really thought that somebody should have at least had the courtesy to ask them in to the booking room, where there were a couple of seats and it was warmer, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything because the first person I met was Lamar, who greeted me with, “Where’d all those damned reporters come from?”

“Beats me,” I said. “George Pollard is right behind us, and he wants to talk to you. When he does, you’ll know why Hester and I have to get our reports up to date in the next couple of hours. We gotta get busy,” I said, passing him and heading down the hall.

“You got us in trouble again? “he called after us.

“You betcha!” I called over my shoulder.

About an hour later, when Hester and I were about done typing and sorting things out, Lamar came into my office. He even knocked before he opened the door. That was rare.

“You think this is really this big?”

“You spoke to George, right?” I asked, looking up from my stack of case photos.

“I sure did. What do you think about this? Is he right?”

“I think so,” I said. “It sure takes care of some very loose ends.”

“How about you, Hester? “he asked.

“There’s a good chance they’re on to something,” she said. “The connection to the delis in New York just about clinches it.”

“Damn,” said Lamar, and sat down in on my desk. He picked up a few photos, but wasn’t really looking at them. “As soon as the media got wind of the CDC people showing up here,” he said, “they started pissin’ and moanin’ about ‘access.’ God, I hate it when they do that.”

“Wait until after the briefing,” said Hester. “I think the feds will have a spokesperson assigned. They’ll handle that.”

“I hope so,” said Lamar. “I’m always afraid I’m gonna say somethin’ and accidentally give somethin’ away. It’s worse ‘n court.”

“This is so far out of our hands,” I said, “I think we can just concentrate on making sure we know who killed Cueva.”

“Easy for you to say,” he said. “I been on the phone with Abe Goldstein.” He glanced at Hester. “He’s the guy who owns the plant. The media have been calling him at his office, and at home, all day. He claims he’s the victim of anti-Semitism. Hell, he’s right. But I don’t know what to tell the poor bastard. He says he’s about to be ruined, that he and his family have spent their whole lives making good on his father’s reputation for top products. Now he says the ‘authorities’ say his food kills his friends and relatives in New York. What the hell can I do?”

“It’s not his fault,” said Hester. “Not that that’ll mean a damned thing.”

“He wants to know if we can help him make sure it won’t happen again.”

“We’ll do our very best,” she said. “You could tell him that the plant being shut down right now is the best thing that could have happened to him. With the health people going over everything, we can make sure he’s off to a clean start when production starts again.”

“Maybe,” said Lamar. “Oh, and while I’m at it, I had to send an officer back to court with another application for a search warrant.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Mr. County Attorney Hilgenberg walked off the premises after the first search and left his file folder in the apartment. He didn’t discover it was missing until after he got back here.”

One of the things about search warrants is, you have the right to be there as long as it takes you to do the search. But you can’t go back ten minutes later, not without another, separate search warrant.

“That man,” said Hester, “is going to drive me crazy. I hope nobody got into the apartment and read his file.”

“He doesn’t think so,” said Lamar. “But, like I say, the media gets things that way.”

Hester and I got on with what we were doing. One thing you have to be constantly aware of when writing a good police report is that you need to differentiate between what you know and what you suspect. Cueva’s origin was a good example.

“We know he’s not from L.A., and that he used forged a Social Security number and birth certificate,” said Hester. “We have anything confirmed that he is actually from Colombia?”

I leafed through my notes. “Nope. Well, Hector said Cueva was Colombian. Nothing confirmed, though.”

“Okay…”

We both assumed Hector was probably right, and I felt that he’d given us good information. But we hadn’t been able to confirm it.

Another thing you have to be able to do is be absolutely certain you don’t leave anything out. Bad leads, for example, have to stay in the report, and you handle them until you’re satisfied that they’re bad. You always say what criteria you used to discount information. Otherwise, the defense gets hold of it and tries to make it sound as if you ignored the real evidence just to focus on their client. This can lead to some pretty interesting conversations between investigators.

“Okay, we believe anything she’s told us?” I asked, meaning Linda Moynihan.

“Sure,” said Hester. “Just the indirect, though. Emotional state.” I knew she was referring to Linda’s reaction at the autopsy, and later.

“So…really grief stricken…maybe even surprised?” I was referring to Rudy Cueva’s death in general. Hester picked that up right away.

We both thought about that for a moment. “Not surprised,” said Hester. “Not necessarily. Maybe just really unhappy.”

“So the reaction could have been…well, probably was more like ‘Holy shit! They said they were gonna do it, and they did.’ You think?”

“That’s fair,” said Hester, going through her own notes and looking for something else. “Might even be a case of’I told you so, Rudy.’ Maybe that…”

“Gotta find her,” I said, and went back to the keyboard. “Really quick.”

“That goes in your part of the report,” she said. “I’m still on the scene.”

“Okay. Be sure to tell me when you figure out who the white guy is standing there when Cueva gets shot.” I was only half kidding, because we really needed to figure out who in the hell that man was.

“Sure. When you tell me who Rudy really was.”

“And then the ricin…”

“Oh, no. The ricin’s yours. All yours. I’ll go the connections route, summary, thing.” She was already typing on her laptop again.

“Good enough.”

George stuck his head in once, bringing us coffee that Sally had made. “She says this is her best stuff,” he said.

I was impressed. Sally had a small bag of specially ground coffee she’d picked up in Dubuque. Nobody had gotten to do anything but smell it brewing, except Sally herself.

“I, uh, made a couple of calls, based on what you told me. ATF’s going to helicopter an agent up from Des Moines.”

“ATF?” said Hester.

“The shell casings,” said George. “We think there may be another connection. We’re having all of them dusted, by the way. Thumbprints…”

When you load a magazine with shells, you tend to press down pretty firmly on the shell casings as they go in, especially the last few. It was a possibility.

“The DCI lab hadn’t gotten to that?” I was kind of surprised.

“Probably not,” said Hester. “The legislature had us get rid of overtime for the lab personnel for this year. I’d think the technicians would be concentrating on the homicide evidence from the scene itself.”

“We picked the casings up from your lab. They’re being flown back to our labs in Washington.” said George. Then he added defensively, “Well, we had a plane going that way anyway.”

“Some got resources, some don’t,” I said, trying to lighten things up a tad. “We could have offered our facilities, but the high school chemistry lab closes at three forty-five.”

“Speaking of labs, George,” said Hester, “you wouldn’t happen to have a couple of large hazardous material containment packages, would you? I need two tubes, concentric, the smaller one being able to hold this can, plus a couple of hazmat or biohazard stickers.”

“In my car,” he said, “I’ve got evidence tubes. No biohazard stickers, though.”

“I’ve got some of those,” I said absently. There was a silence. I looked up. “What?”

“What on earth are you doing with those? “asked Hester.

“Oh, Sally snagged a bunch of’em from the hospital. She stuck the things all over my lunch containers and my sauce bottles. She had a couple of rolls left… they’re in that drawer over there.”

“Figures,” said Hester. “I don’t suppose you’d have any address labels for the FBI labs?”

“Check with Dispatch,” I said with a straight face.

George let us get back to our reports.

16:56 IT WAS LAMAR ON THE RADIO AGAIN. Apparently he’d been calling, but in all the commotion we hadn’t heard him.

Sally cranked up the walkie-talkie volume and reassured him that we were still alive and as well as could be expected. However, as she so succinctly put it, “We could sure use some company up here, One.”

“We’re working on it,” said Lamar, and I could really hear the strain in his voice, even ten feet from the walkie-talkie.

“What do we think?” asked George. “We haven’t seen any movement for a while.”

“But we’ve sure seen grenades,” I said. “I think they’re still there, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I was thinking about that,” he said. “Could those have been a blind, to distract us while they slipped over the bluff?”

“Possible,” I said. “Lamar says there are about fifty cops watching the perimeter, though. Maybe more by now.”

I heard Hester’s voice, but I couldn’t make out the words. “What?”

She stood, took a big swig from her water bottle, and then did sort of a gargle thing that ended in, “Ahh!”

The water had hit one of her broken teeth. She shuddered for a few moments, shaking it off, and then said, “No. They won’t be leaving.”

“How so?”

“They’re protecting something,” she said. “By stayin’ here, distracting us some way.” She made as if to take another swig, thought better of it, and said, very deliberately, “Deception.”

“Okay,” I said. “You want to sit back down?”

She shook her head.

“You’re above the wall,” I said, indicating the limestone foundation. She crouched.

“So, you think they will stay at us, not trying exceptionally hard to take us out, but to keep us here? “George didn’t sound fully convinced.

Hester made an exasperated sound in the back of her throat and said, “Not just us!” She made a sweeping gesture. “Us!”

I got it. “They think we were headed up there. They aren’t trying to get out. They’re trying to keep us out.”

“Yes!” she said.

Sally, as usual, put her finger right on it. “Why?”

Damned good question.

We didn’t have any sort of a good answer. We all moved back to positions where we thought we could cover the approaches to the barn fairly well, and made that our priority. The whys could wait.

“Hey, George?”

“Yes?”

“Can I have my walkie-talkie back?”

He tossed it to me. “Sorry about that.”

“No problem.” I checked the frequency setting and keyed the mike.

“One, Three?”

There was a momentary wait, and then, “Three, go ahead!”

“Yeah, One, get Marty on the TAC team to call me on my phone, and you try to listen in, okay?”

My phone rang about two minutes later.

“Houseman,” I said.

“Anything new we should know about?”

“Marty, we been thinking up here, and we tend to believe that they’re keeping us out, rather than us keeping them in.”

After about a two-second pause, Marty said, “No shit?”

“Yeah.”

“Hang on for one.”

If we were right, it meant that the allocation of personnel out there could drastically change. Rather than concentrate on preventing the remaining shooters from leaving, they could concentrate on advancing and go at them more aggressively. I hoped.

“Okay, Carl. Could be. We’ll check it out. Okay. Look, about the van…we got the station manager to let us look at all the footage, and we can’t see any van parked up there.” He paused, and then said, “But that really don’t mean shit, because we think it could be parked in one of the sheds.”

“Oh. Sure.”

“We see two, ah, objects, about fifty feet west of you, along a fence. They might be people, we aren’t sure, but they didn’t move.”

“I believe they’re dead,” I said.

“Say again?”

“If those are the two I shot,” I said, “they’re dead.”

“Way to go!” Marty sounded genuinely pleased.

“That’s the location where they toss grenades,” I told him. “You might want to keep an eye on that area.”

“You bet! Okay. We got two choppers headed up: one from CRPD, and the other is a National Guard bird, an OH-58. Both have FLIR, so we can check the heat from the shed and see if we can maybe find that van.”

“Great.”

“And once they get here, we’re gonna be able to see the whole area like it was daylight, so we can keep you advised of movements. And the feds just got here. A whole bunch, and a chunk of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team is already in Cedar Rapids.”

Things were looking up, and I said as much.

“You got that right,” said Marty. “Okay, now, about them bein’ there to keep you out? Is that right?”

“That’s what we think, yeah.”

“Any idea why?”

“Nope. None. But you might ask the feds.”

Ten minutes later, I was concentrating even harder on trying to see in the dark. My eyes were getting used to the shadow, pretty much, and I thought I could discern individual things like rocks and scrub. But try as I might, I couldn’t see that fence where the two dead men were.

I thought about calling Sue. She wasn’t the sort to watch the news all that much, but I thought it might be a good idea to let her know I was okay. Just in case somebody called her and told her there was something up. On the other hand, if she didn’t know anything was going on, and I called, then she’d start watching for TV spots, and God only knew what kind of speculation she’d be hearing then. Well, now was the best opportunity I’d had to do it, and I thought I shouldn’t waste it.

I dialed home.

“Hello?”

“Hi, there.”

“Carl, oh my God, what’s going on? Oh, I’m so glad you called. Are you all right? We’re watching the news…are the officers in the barn all right?”

It all came out in a rush.

“Well, yeah, I’m fine. Really good, in fact. Who’s the ‘we’ watching TV?”

“Phyllis came over about ten minutes ago, and told me that Nation County was on CNN.”

“Oh, okay.” Phyllis is our next-door neighbor.

“You’re sure you’re all right?”

“Oh, yeah. I’m fine. Really.” Maybe, I thought, she won’t ask about the barn again.

“Who’s in the barn? Lamar?”

“Well, no, actually. Ah, it’s George, and Hester, and Sally, and, well, me.”

“You!!!!”

“Yeah, but I’m fine. Really.”

“My God!”

“Now look, I didn’t call to worry you. I’m really sorry about that. We’re going to be fine.” Now would be about the worst time for one of those damned grenades, I thought. All I needed was a loud bang in the background.

“Can’t you get out?” A reasonable question.

How to put it. “Well, we probably could. But Hester’s been hurt a little, and we think we’re much safer in here. Mostly we’re going to wait for an ambulance…”

“Hester? Oh, Lord.”

“Hey, don’t tell anybody anything about that. Nobody knows that except us folks, okay?”

“Yes.”

“Look, I called to tell you that everything is going to be just fine. Really.”

“Okay.”

“I’m gonna have to go in a sec, but I just wanted you to know.”

“Oh, I’m so glad you called,” she said.

“Me, too. Look, don’t worry. If I thought I was in really serious shit, I wouldn’t call. You know that.”

She didn’t. But she said she did. “Yes.”

“Okay, well…”

“I love you.”

“And I love you, too. I’ll be home as soon as I can.” That, for sure, was absolutely true.

Now, however, I had an additional problem. Prior to talking with Sue, it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that I might not be going home after this one. I pushed that thought to the back of my mind, but the new awareness was now there. Damn.

Sally was back at her lookout. “Can you see anything, Carl?”

“Nope.”

“Me, either,” said George.

After a second of unnatural silence, I glanced back at Hester. She was just taking a good swig from a water bottle. When she finished, she said, “No!”

Well, that had been enlightening. Either there was truly nothing moving, or it was just too damned murky out there to see anything.

“Where’s the Mr. Heater?”

George turned. “I’ll get it, Hester. You’re right, it’s getting cold in here.” He went to his heap of luggage, turned on a pocket light, and hustled the portable heater over to Hester. “I’ll have it lit in just a second,” he said. “How are you getting along?”

As the two of them talked, I kept peering into the gloom. Ah. Over by the left edge of the shed, just where the fence started, and where the two dead men were, I thought I caught movement.

“Left of the shed!” I said.

George was back at the wall in a second. There was a moment, then, “I don’t have it.”

“Where the fence starts. Nothing moving there, but there’s a really dark spot right next to the shed…”

“Yeah…” From the tone of his voice, I could tell George still hadn’t located the object.

“Just wait. If it’s really something, it’ll move again.”

We waited. When you stare at an area in the dark, if there are variations in the shadow, you’re eventually going to see something move. Whether it does or not. I was just beginning to get the feeling that my eyes had been playing tricks, when a figure suddenly stood, right where I’d seen the movement, and a very loud voice called out.

“Fuck you! Fuck every one of you!”

Then he was gone. Just like that.

We in the barn looked at each other. “What the hell,” said Sally, “did he do that for?”

“They’re trying to provoke us,” said George.

I laughed. “Too fuckin’ late.”

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