©2012 The Media Desk
"You know I'm retired, right? I don't do this anymore," I closed the folder and looked at my former partner and the Captain.
"I know you don't, but this one is different," Detective Grayson said.
"They're all different." I answered her.
The Captain shook his head, "this one is really different."
"Some other drug gang is doing in the competition," I gestured to the folder, "good riddance."
"No, sir, there's more to it than that," he picked up the folder and leafed through the first few pages I'd looked at, most of which had been in the paper. "Look at this," he said and handed me a printout. "This is still confidential."
I looked, and read, and sagged in my chair. "OK, I'll do it. Where do we start?" I asked Grayson.
Not only was somebody doing in criminals of all stripes, they were doing so in really new and creative ways, and leaving the bodies in humiliating and often hilarious poses. For the last three months or so, a newly deceased criminal would be found every so often, and of late, the commissioner was coming under some heat from civil libertarians.
The reports in the folder included details that had been kept out of the media for the most part. It had been leaked that the late scumbag named Orville S. had been found naked and tied up in a portable outhouse. But what hadn't been published was that he had been found with women's underwear on his head and his manhood removed and stuffed in a mason jar full of chicken noodle soup in the john's urinal. The Coroner said that Orville had been alive when he had been emasculated, but he didn't live long after that because the killer had given him a massive dose of heroine laced with a few other things before he could bleed to death after the cutting was done. The reason they knew that he died afterward was that his 'organ' didn't have the drug or poison in it when they tested it. The murderer had evidently wanted Orville to 'enjoy the event' to the fullest.
Orville's criminal record included everything from gift card fraud to armed robbery and drug trafficking, and most recently he had diversified into stealing auto parts from dealership lots and selling them for scrap. A charge he was still waiting for trial on when he checked out.
The most recently deceased individual was a fine young lady who alternated writing bad checks with prostitution and the occasional dalliance with a rather nasty local street gang where she acted as everything from lookout to get away car driver. The last time she'd been released from prison she went right back to her old way of life with a new twist. Now not only was she engaging in prostitution, but pulling a gun on her customers and making off with everything they had of value, including their credit cards and car. The latter of which she turned over to the gang to do with as they thought best.
At least she did until one morning a week or so ago when 'Miss Aimee' found herself spread out suggestively on top of a mausoleum behind an old church, wearing a Native American headdress and little else, covered in splattered paint with the words 'bully bully' written on her back in marker. There was the note in the file that there was no paint on the mausoleum or the ground around it, so she had been painted elsewhere and then delivered there and killed.
The young lady had not engaged in any regular sex that the medical examiner could tell, but she had been strangled after she had been painted because the paint on her neck had been ground into her skin by the cloth used to choke her to death.
I read another of the six reports that caught my eye only because many years ago I had arrested the now deceased individual for his bad habit of robbing convenience markets. Lately he had tried breaking into businesses and stealing things he could sell, but forgot to get a decent set of gloves at the same time he shoplifted his ski mask. He had been missing from the work release center he was serving his sentence at. Well, he wasn't missing any more.
Howard had been both dumb and unlucky for years, and now he was dead.
He had been found wearing, if that is the word, a plastic doghouse over his upper body, hanging upside down by his feet from a train trestle, with his fingernails painted red, white, and blue, and plastic vampire fangs in his mouth. The cause of death was listed as alcohol poisoning.
No, he didn't drink himself to death. Somebody gave him an IV of rubbing alcohol. The medical examiner was reasonably sure that Howard had passed on before he'd been strung up.
The case summary included the information that while most of the victims had been found nude, or nearly so, no attempt had been made to conceal their identity, and indeed, in five of the cases, their IDs had been found with the body or nearby. In the one where it hadn't, it was verified that the individual didn't have any known official identification that they routinely had on their person.
I looked at Detective Grayson and the Captain as I closed the file and told them I was in.
"That's yours," the Captain said. "What's your gut instinct?"
"More than one killer, probably a small group, no more than four or five though."
"Why do you say that?" He asked me.
"It would have taken at least two or three to hang Howard up, and to get the one on top of the tomb. But too many more than that would have trouble keeping the secret."
His eyes narrowed, then he nodded at Grayson, "You taught her well, she said just about the same thing."
"So how do we find the vigilante killers?" She asked me.
"We go get dirty and talk to some of the victim's associates."
She didn't smile, "I've already been down to Harper's." She answered mentioning a gang bar that at least one of the victims had been known to frequent.
"And they didn't talk to you right?"
"I'll show you how to get somebody to talk."
"You'll need this," the Captain handed me a badge holder and card.
"I'm not Sherlock," I said looking at the city police ID with Consulting Detective as my title. "But I do like the badge."
"To solve this one, you might have to become him."
"Then I'll get a pipe and a deer stalker cap."
"Whatever it takes."
I gestured to my desktop computer, "According to the newspaper forum most people think they're doing the job the courts and the police haven't been doing."
The Captain sat back and frowned, "I know. But, and you know as well, that's not the point."
"If the people on the forum don't like the justice system they should vote for different politicians," Detective Grayson said.
"Those may be the next ones we find floating in a kayak at the lake," the Captain muttered.
"I saw that mentioned but I didn't read it."
"Check it out, we've got time."
Victim three was a Mister Bill whose claim to fame was dealing in stolen jewelry, cell phones, and anything else that he could transport easily to and from various cities on the East Coast where they could be laundered and sold for a profit. He was known to funnel things from as far away as Kansas City to Boston and then back through Atlanta to Chicago. He had a regular list of mules that would board buses and trains, or even drive for that matter, and contacts on either end. At one time various intelligence agencies believed he kept as many as three dozen pawn shops as well as other brokers and 'informal markets' in merchandise.
The last time he was arrested he had a carload of stolen sporting goods and gold chains that had been reported missing from a loading dock in Nashville. They were evidently on their way to his warehouse where they'd be chilled, then separated into manageable lots, and sent to their new retailers.
However, somebody must not have liked Bill's business style and he ended up looking like he had been crucified in his underwear with his outstretched arms taped to a paddle, floating in the lake. Except he was missing most of his internal organs, which were never located. The only decoration found with him was a plastic garland of spring flowers wrapped around both him and the boat that was at least thirty feet long. The boat had been anchored over a hundred yards from shore sometime during the night. The former merchant had died from having his sinuses, trachea, and the bronchial tubes that were still in his body full of sawdust, something that usually doesn't happen in a boat on a pond.
"That garland around the boat, it was one piece, right?" I asked as I reread the description of the crime scene that had to be towed to the dock by the game warden's boat once they pulled up the concrete block anchor.
"Yes, I believe so." Detective Grayson answered.
"Where do you get something like that?"
"I don't know."
"Let's find out."
"I'll leave you two to your work. Keep me informed," that captain said.
"She will," I nodded toward Grayson, "I don't work for you no more."
The Captain shook his head and got up to leave.
I stood up and nodded to her, "you can drive."
"We came in his car," she said indicating the Captain.
"Then you can drive my car."
What I thought was a rather unusual and specialized item that might help us break the case turned out to be specialized, but not all that unique. And as we went, that idea became an unwelcome theme to the investigation.
During our research into the garland I learned that you could buy it by a hundred foot roll, in almost any flower arrangement that you wanted. There were garlands of tropical flowers and Easter lilies if you had the desire for them. The only thing remarkable about the one that had been wrapped around the boat was that it was made in China.
"Those are the cheaper ones. We like the ones made in Korea," the flower man said.
"Who sells the Chinese ones?" Grayson asked him.
"Everybody. You can get it coiled up in a box down at the wholesale club. I've seen ones like it at the farmers market, they sell it by the yard to use as a runner down the middle of tables at weddings and stuff. It's a throw away item."
Back at the station in the conference room Grayson showed me the diagram she'd begun outlining the various victims and where and when they were found. Now she added another list and a different color set of lines to the white board- things that were found with them.
I sat and looked at it, made a few suggestions, and re-read the case notes and coroner's report.
"Now what do we do?" I asked her.
She looked at me, "so I'm really in charge?"
"I'm just a consultant, but if I have an idea to help further the investigation I won't hesitate to share it."
"Thank you," she looked at the diagram. "It's getting late, why don't we knock off for today and think about it, then start fresh in the morning."
But the next day didn't offer a lot of new insight.
The toxicology and full examination report came in on the last victim, 'Miss Aimee'. There was nothing unusual in her system, she had been fully awake and alert when she had been slowly strangled. What's even worse was that all that was found under her fingernails and in the folds of her clothes were bits of her lunch and the hair from her roommate's cat. She had either not fought back or had allowed her killer or killers to take her life for reasons we wouldn't know until we caught them.
But then there was a small note in the final wrap up of the report that gave me pause.
"Decedent's labia exhibited second degree burns," I read to myself. Then there was a few more sentences where the medical examiner offered a possible explanation of the cause of the burns. "Electrocution." I whispered the word.
The explanation triggered the memory of an investigation into an injury case several years ago where one of those injured had filed charges of negligence and even malfeasance by the organizer of the 'marital expansion weekend'. One aspect of which was forcing women to have orgasms by using electricity on various sensitive areas.
In the end, the court decided that the injuries were accidental and covered under the signed release the participants had read before they attended the event.
"I need to see some old case records," I said, "I've got a hunch."
"Good, let's go. I'll bring the coffee."
The records had been converted from paper to microfilm and then to an archived computer file. Which meant we had to take the scenic route to find the case records, but they were still there. Including an affidavit from the lady's gynecologist that stated that without the proper artificial lubricant being used in, as it put it, 'prodigious amounts almost constantly applied' that electrical stimulation of the female sexual anatomy could result in burns.
But the court testimony also included the key line that at the time the burns were suffered, the participants were using the devices which did the stimulation during a 'free time' and it was through their own neglect that they failed to use enough lube.
"OK, it's a start, let's see where this Doctor Vinegarten is now," Detective Grayson said.
It was a lot easier to find out that the good doctor has passed on to his eternal reward some time ago than it was to locate the old case file in the first place.
"What happened to the electrical machine?" I asked.
"All it says is that the office equipment was auctioned."
"Does it list an auction house?"
It was a tenuous link, but it was a link. The auction record showed that the purchaser of the 'electrical stimulator' from that case was one Mr. and Mrs. Campbell.
Mr. Campbell was now documented to be in California, but Mrs. Campbell still lived where they had when they bought the machine.
"Where is it now?" I asked her.
"Why?" She asked us.
"There may be a problem with the unit," I said as a reasonable explanation.
"Oh, well. My son took it, he said it'd be a big hit at the dorm parties."
"Where's he go to school?"
"Florida. I've got his number. Did Baxter Supply call you?"
"Who's Baxter Supply?"
"They have all the attachments and things for the machine, you know, to use it."
"No, they didn't call us, but we'll most certainly call them."
In the mean time we traced everything we could from the other murders. Including the owner of the row boat that Bill had taken his final cruise on.
The boat lead was a dead end. It had been reported stolen from a county park's storage yard two days before it was found with Bill. The video cameras at the storage yard were all but useless and spent most of their time taking pictures of the glare from street lights or fog with amazingly dirty lenses.
Other leads were similarly useless. According to police reports, there were five missing doghouses in the immediate vicinity, two of which matched the basic description of the one found with my old 'client'. However, without readable fingerprints or other identifying marks, there was no way to know which one it was, or if it had come from elsewhere, or even been purchased at any number of stores for the occasion. As for the needles and other equipment needed to inject somebody with enough isopropyl alcohol to kill them, as well as the training to successfully do so, the list was even longer.
As for the 'armpit of the underworld' bars and hangouts the only thing we learned was that a lot of crooks were getting nervous and some had taken extended vacations out of town to go do what they do in a nice safe place like Detroit or even Camden, New Jersey.
The only working lead we had left was through Baxter Supply.
I was hoping they had a list of local customers and we could look at them to see if any would have any reason or opportunity to use their machine on the late Miss Aimee.
We went out to their retail store and looked around. They had all sorts of medical devices, new and refurbished, and many were for sale for home use. And a surprising number had attachments to essentially make them a 'shocking sex toy' as the hand written sign above one display put it.
"Yeah, a couple," the clerk said when we asked if they'd sold any of the machines or accouterments lately. "But if somebody buys something in here and wishes to remain anonymous, we don't make an issue of it. Some of our customers pay cash just to stay off our mailing list."
In short, it was another dead end.
We went back to the conference room, looked at the diagram, re-read the reports, and waited for some sort of break in the case.
The killers had branched out.
Two bodies were found in a small town about half an hour's drive from the city. One was a small time drug dealer and occasional gang-banger. The other was a career thief that had evidently been caught in the act because he was found with some of the loot tied around his waist in a garbage bag. Both turned up within hours of each other in a scrap yard although one had been dead for about a week.
One was found behind the wheel of a car that was being processed to be crushed. As with the others, he was nude and had died with his hands taped to the steering wheel and his legs bound together. I felt the seat belt had been a nice touch, but it ensured that the victim couldn't get out of the car before he died of asphyxiation from the open propane canisters in the back seat. The killers made sure that there was plenty of the gas to kill the victim and even went so far as to tape the side windows of the car so it didn't bleed out too quickly. In the mean time, if there had been a spark, it would have blown a good part of the junkyard sky high. Later we found out that the drug dealer's trademark switchblade had been part of the package, it was found, open, fully inserted into his rectum while he was still alive and before he'd been put in the car. He was also wearing an array of cheap costume jewelry, complete with a sparkly tiara on his head, that is, it had been stapled to his head before he died. Again, there was no evidence that the victim had defended himself during the procedure.
The thief met his end in a fairly horrible way as well. And the pattern repeated itself in other ways in that there was no sign that he had gone down fighting. It was well documented that the thief had been in more than his fair share of brawls in and out of prison and was unlikely to stand still while somebody took his scalp, pulled out all of his teath and cut off his fingers and toes and put him inside an old chest freezer while still alive. He bled to death inside the metal box and then sat there until a police dog alerted on the appliance.
"Hypnotism," I said looking at the corpse of the gang member. "They put them in a deep trance until it was too late. Otherwise the toxicology screen would show something. This guy hadn't even had a beer before we was killed."
"I agree, but how did they do it? I don't think either of them would stand there and let you put him under," she nodded at the scarred and tattooed ex-gang member.
"I don't know," I looked over at the medical examiner. "Is there any sign that any of them were restrained before they were killed?"
"No, not really. No bruising or abrasions of the skin that would lead me to think that. Besides what he did against the duct tape trying to get his hands off the steering wheel before it was too late."
"I see, how about the other one?"
Together we all checked the hands and legs of the thief looking for anything that would indicate that he had been tied up or handcuffed before he had been cut up. There wasn't anything.
"Well, now what?" Garyson asked me as we walked out of the office no closer to an answer than we had been when her and the captain had stopped by my house.
"We become experts on hypnosis and every other way to make a gangster let you kill him that easily."
Just on a hunch I checked the websites of various local hypnotherapists to see if any offered electro-therapy for female frigidity as well as hypnosis to make you stop smoking.
Our white board was collecting dead end leads and fresh victims at about the same rate as a week later another woman was found. Mangled, humiliated before death, and left to be found without too much delay. Her crimes? Everything from shoplifting to insurance fraud spread out over the last twenty years.
"She had an interesting life," I surmised as I read through her record of offenses both petty and serious.
Finally I sat there and stared at it, "There has to be some common ground. How are they finding these people?"
"How is who finding who? The criminals finding the killers or the killers finding them?"
I stared at the lines on the board, "That's an interesting angle, let's look at it. How are the... criminals, finding the people that are killing them. Are they all going to the same bar, pawn shop.... where else did they go? What did they do?"
"I don't know, let's find out."
We pulled every bit of information we could find about all nine of the deceased bad guys.
None of them had anything in common other than they were all 'ex-cons' of one degree or another. They had all been in trouble, but they had all been in different kinds of trouble. The woman who had been shoplifting for two decades hadn't done more than a year in the pokey for her misdeeds while Orville of the first batch of victims had done several years for a couple of felonies. Many had done time at the Hotel Graybar (a term Detective Grayson didn't like), others had been on probation for years. Again, it was all over the place, no real common theme emerged.
We even listed their various Probation and Parole Officers and then called for their case files and client lists looking for a link. Some had state officers supervising work release or other type of parole, a couple of them reported to city officials, one had a social worker they checked in with. Their main offices were all over the place, including in other counties to cover the suburbs.
"Damn. There it is." I said at one point as lightning struck on the pad I was doodling on. To quote a TV chef: Bam!
"There what is?" Grayson said looking at the board.
"I don't want to go through it twice," I got up and opened the door and called for the captain and a couple of others to come in.
"This is still a green one, but hear me out," I said to them, as they came in and looked at me.
"OK, we're here, spill it."
"They all use the satellite office at the Parsonsville shopping center," I said after we established that, so far, everybody on the board had had a "PO" of some description.
"So the killer is a probation officer?" The Captain said incredulously.
"I don't think so," I answered immediately. "My guess is somebody there has access to the records or files. And look, only two of them had ever been there, but their PO's all use it regularly." I tapped the name of the center with its lines to the various officers and then to the victims. "So the killer, or killers, may have a second or third degree connection to them, through the location, through their probation officers."
The Captain was nodding at me.
"Don't say it," I said to him and looked over at Grayson, "We're going to Parsonsville."
The community services offices at the shopping center were less than impressive. If you looked up over the rows of cubes and between the posters with their inspirational sayings beneath their heavily doctored photos you could see where the building had once been a department store that sold auto parts on one end and women's fashions on the other. Now, it was a consolidated government office complex where you could do everything from register to vote or appeal the denial of your food stamps to get a license for your dog, or, more to our point, check in with your conditional release supervisor.
"No, don't follow the green line," the receptionist said to us when I noticed the sign that explained where the people we wanted were. "They moved and the new sign isn't in yet. They're over there, go back to the United Charity desk and turn left. ... No, right. Hang on, I'll take you."
"When did they move?" Grayson asked.
"A couple of months ago, maybe a little longer than that."
I looked at Detective Grayson and she looked at me and we both nodded. I don't believe in coincidence, and I didn't think she did either.
During my career I had to talk to some Probation and Parole Officers who called themselves "release counselors" and others who thought their primary job function was to put people back in prison for the most minor transgression possible. Today, I talked to both extremes of the breed, and everything in between.
We inspected filing cabinets and email accounts. We looked at where they kept the sign in log and the computer workstation that offenders used to fill out job applications on line. Then we over their printers and copiers which were all on an isolated network. They didn't even share their fax machine with anybody else.
The system was ugly, but it appeared to be secure. I used a couple of tricks I learned from the departments old line tech guys to try to get into the system and found myself staring at an error message.
As Detective Grayson watched one of the counselors show her how they had to sign out of one system to sign into the other one I was back to toying with the idea that it was one of the PO's themselves that was reducing the client list one individual at a time.
But while I was sitting there, I happened to catch something out of the corner of my eye.
One of the administrative assistants had printed something on the big multi-task machine. Then she went through the pages she had printed and selected what she needed. She stapled those to another form....
... and dropped the rest into the recycling bin next to the printer.
I casually walked over to the bin and took the lid off and looked in.
"Bingo," I said to myself.
We had our breach. But not our suspect.
According to the office manager all of the stuff in that recycling bin was supposed to be shredded before being put out into the general trash at the end of the day.
But then as we watched the surveillance video tape we saw that the closing crew, employed by the center, didn't always conduct the ritual as mandated. They shredded some of the documents, but if the shredder jammed or got behind, they just dumped the rest of the bin into the regular trash.
Then we got to watch endless hours of videos of the trash area. Which looked to be a total waste of time.
"Once the papers, shredded or not get into the general trash collection, trying to find them would be a nightmare. I'm betting they were picked off before they got that far," I said as another hour of opportunistic raccoons flew by on fast forward.
There were no cameras monitoring the inside of the probation area, supposedly to maintain the privacy of their clients.
But there was a camera up front at the main reception desk where everybody, including us, had to come in.
But again, that was hours of video, with hundreds of people per day, and at least half of them were carrying papers when they walked by.
We needed another break.
And then we got another call.
Two more victims had been discovered in the basement of a warehouse just outside of town. My contacts at the Sheriff's Office said their entire department was more than happy to turn the matter over to us once their preliminary investigation was over.
We drove out there and checked out where the victims had been found. Then we went through the building with one of the deputies to get an overview of the complex where the real estate agent had found them.
Then Detective Grayson opened a previously neglected access panel in a side hallway just to see where it went.
"Did I scream?"
I looked over at Detective Grayson and nodded, "I'm afraid so."
"It's OK, it saved me from having to do it. I'll stay here, you can go back downstairs and get the M.E.."
The shattered corpse that had fallen out of the maintenance access to land on my partner's feet had been there for awhile, but just from looking at what was left, they hadn't crawled in there to die of their own free will.
"This one isn't yours," the Medical Examiner said as they put the bagged body on a gurney to wheel it out. "He's been in there a long time. Probably three or four years, maybe more."
"Nobody's opened that door for four years?" I said looking back at the now well lit crime scene.
"Why would they?"
After that, every law enforcement officer on the scene, except for Detective Grayson that is, went through every inch of both buildings. She sat in one of the vans and drank coffee, and nobody blamed her.
We discovered two dead cats, a very upset opossum, a stray dog, and the spot where some local junkies had spent a long weekend getting high, but no other dead bodies or anything related to the crimes under discussion.
Later we went back to the office with photos and diagrams and measurements of the two different murder sites at the warehouse and added the information on the double killing to our chart. The single we left off for the time being unless the autopsy dictated otherwise.
Victims one and two had been done in together in the utility room of the warehouse building where they had watched each other be tortured to death at the same time. From the initial evaluation by the same examiner that had let me know that our third friend from the site may not be ours after all, they had both died within minutes of each other, but only after a prolonged bout of absolutely brutal torture, including having their intestines pulled from their bodies, tied together between them, then dropped on the floor.
Both victims had been part of a street gang and had been sentenced and released at the same time for various gang related crimes. Once out, they'd gone back to the gang but hadn't been as active in the petty crimes and drug trafficking the gang was known for. According to their 'conditional release officer' they were both working inside the gang to get others out of it instead.
At least they were until about two days ago.
I wasn't sure I believed him, but he seemed sincere that his two clients had been sincere. All I knew for sure was that the two bodies that had been hung from the ceiling of the furnace room of the warehouse facing each other about six feet apart, and both were now were sincerely dead and it hadn't been an easy death at that.
As for number three, the best guess the coroner could come up with that he, and it was a he, had died over four years ago and had been crammed into the inspection tube sometime later. He had been hit in the back of the head, but they weren't sure if that had been the death blow or not because of the condition of the body. And no ID of the corpse yet either. He had been a white man, in his mid to late forties. Other than that, the body was almost too decayed, eaten by vermin, and then partially mummified to give up any secrets quickly or easily. But it was fairly clear that he wasn't victim twelve on our chart.
I sat and stared at the white board, trying to force myself to see a clue.
And then the phone rang with one.
The aunt of victim one from the warehouse remembered Chuck saying that he had to go meet a new probation officer the other morning and had called the tip line as the TV had requested she do.
"He didn't have a new Probation Officer," Detective Grayson said.
The lady was about fifteen seconds from crying again. She shook her head and said, "He thought he did. Him and Marty were going to go see them together. And then that happened to them."
"Did he say who he was going to go see or where he was meeting them?"
We had a lead.
"And we're looking to rent office space for?" She raised her eyebrows at me as we drove by the address on the envelope.
"A life insurance office."
Chuck's aunt had handed us a piece of paper that Chuck had written the address down on. It was a cold hard reminder that that mangled body had once been a living, breathing person that wrote addresses on the backs of cable TV billing envelopes. And if he hadn't had the best of character traits he still didn't deserve what had happened to him.
The strip mall wasn't the best in town, but it saw a lot of traffic. The convenience store on the one end was the kind of place a gang member would go to buy beer and smokes after checking in with their Probation Officer. The Chinese take out a couple of doors down looked like every one of its relatives nationwide, with the same half faded pictures that looked nothing like what you'd get on the menu over the counter. In between them was a thrifts store that was only open on weekends. On the other end of the building was a storefront church that promised "Jesus Is In Every Service".
Between the church and the take out restaurant were two empty units. We took our printout from the landlord's website and got out like we were looking at unit Two when every bit of our attention was on unit Three.
Fortunately nobody was home in Three.
We spent a lot of time looking around the front and then the back. The only person that even seem curious about our curiosity was working at the Chinese place, we just said we were looking at Unit Two.
While Detective Grayson milled around and looked at the parking spaces, I kicked at stuff around the overflowing common trash receptacles. Then, trying not to look overly suspicious I took out my handkerchief and picked up something that looked out of place.
"What is 'ace-pro-mazine'? I think that's what it said," I asked my partner as we got back in the car.
"I have no idea."
"Let's stop by the lab and ask."
"We usually don't test for it. But I will now," the coroner's assistant said. "It's not used much in the US anymore, it's been known to kill some dogs without explanation."
"Oh, OK," I answered as we read a fact sheet about what was essentially an animal tranquilizer. And a rather dangerous one at that. What an empty vial of it would be doing behind a dumpy shopping center a mile or more from either a pharmacy or a veterinarian's clinic was an open question.
"Look, it says that small doses only last for an hour or two in horses," Grayson said. "but the effects can last three times longer in humans. Including confusion and drowsiness."
"You read faster than I do."
"Don't apologize, that's good to know. Remember, they were all awake when killed. But they had to have been sedated to get them there."
"And they don't usually test for it at the autopsy."
The next day we got a call from the Coroner.
"We found traces of acepromazine and midazolam and a couple of other veterinary drugs in their systems in very small quantities. It looks like they were given a minute dose of a cocktail of several different drugs. None of which are routinely tested for. We're re-running the samples from the other victims now to look for them."
I had to ask, "how much would they have had to been given to render them compliant but not knock them out? You know, to make them go along with a suggestion or to not resist?"
"With this list? Not much. Ace-Pro as it's know is a distant cousin to Thorazine. But it hasn't been used in humans that I know of in ages. It's got some nasty side effects."
"I don't think the murders were worried about the side effects. Where can you get it?"
"From every farm store in the state."
"Oh." Once again we had information that wasn't a lot of help.
Office Three had been rented to a professional association with a PO box, but we tracked down two of the names associated with it.
I didn't want to go through the bother of getting a search warrant just to tip off the killers that we were on to them and have them vanish into thin air again. So we went about it in reverse, we went through the other units and made sure that the church and the thrift store, as well as the empty unit and the restaurant had no stock of race horse sedative that they had a valid reason for possessing. And we double checked that it wasn't on the shelf next to the energy drinks and condoms in the store either.
Then we set up shop in unit two, looking for all the world like we were painting the place so it would become our new insurance agency, and waited.
I painted the walls, rebuilt the toilet so it would refill after we flushed it without involving mopping the floor. We put together a desk, and even hung a sign in the window that 'Creekside Insurance Agency' would be open soon.
And we played cards on the laptop, and ate sandwiches, and watched the delivery driver for the restaurant break every traffic law we could think of. And waited.
I was putting up a lighthouse wall calendar when I saw a car and a minivan pull up in front of Unit Three.
Three people, two men and a woman, walked up to the office, unlocked the door, and went in.
I looked at Detective Grayson and she nodded and picked up her phone.
I took a casual walk down to the convenience store to satisfy a sudden need for some beef jerky and a soda pop. On the way back one of the men was out by the car getting a bag out of the back seat. I nodded and said hello.
"You working next door now?" He asked me.
"Yeah, we should be opening in a couple of weeks. We're just waiting on my partner's license."
"Yes, sir. Home, Life, and Auto," I said trying to sound like a commercial.
"I think we're fine. But thanks."
"No problem sir. When we get our calendars in I'll drop one off."
"Thanks," he said and went back inside with the bag.
It was about an hour later when a young man got out of a car and walked into Unit Three. Then the car that had dropped him off drove away.
"How long do we give them?" Detective Grayson asked me.
"For all we know they're employment counselors for that church," I nodded toward our other neighbors. "They haven't done anything yet."
"So we wait."
Also now waiting was an unmarked car across the road, another in the parking lot of the plumbing supply house around the corner, and a helicopter that went over every so often.
And then, it all changed.
The woman led the young man out of the office by the hand and helped him into the van. One of the men got in next to him and the woman drove, then the other man locked up the office and followed them in the car.
"We've got two cars, they are proceeding north on Lexington. Vehicle one is a white minivan..."
Considering what they were suspected of, and looked to be on the verge of doing again, the three didn't resist at all when we swooped in on them outside a housing subdivision construction site.
The young man couldn't even tell us his own name. The paramedics took him to the hospital and it was a good two hours before he started wondering where he was and why was he there. Other than a hangover from the drugs, he was unharmed.
The crimes he was about to have been executed for included assault, domestic violence, driving without a license, and a probation violation. The group had already rigged a room upstairs in the partially completed house they had parked behind for the coming festivities. From what we could tell, the young man would be suspended spread eagle, horizontally from each corner of the room. After that, I didn't even want to try to imagine what they had in mind for him with the various tools and instruments they had collected in the room. But I was sure that it wouldn't have been pleasant for him once the anesthetics had worn off.
Inside Unit Three was a collection of evidence, complete with fingerprints, copies of files from the probation office, photos of the various deceased before, during, and after, their demise, and so on, enough to mount a serious death penalty case against most of them. We even turned up their amazing supply of obscure and in two cases, unidentifiable (until we got an expert in who could read Vietnamese that is) veterinary and 'alternative' medications, complete with their recipes for 'mixed drinks' that would do everything from knock somebody out for an hour to, well, kill them if so desired. Some of the drugs could be absorbed through the skin, others could be inhaled, or injected.
And there were five suspects total.
The other two, husband and wife, surrendered at the front door of the Sheriff's Office the next day.
Of the five, one, the man who had gotten in the back of the van with the young man, worked in the office complex with the probation officers and couldn't resist the temptation to met out a bit of rough justice when his friend's wife was beaten and robbed and the suspect got off with a slap on the wrist.
The couple that surrendered to the deputies had experienced a similar crime, and felt cheated by the justice system, and came into the scheme later in the game.
But I couldn't just give up.
There was still an unexplained dead body from the service duct in the warehouse.
Detective Grayson was reassigned to other duties and the Sherriff didn't place a lot of priority on investigating a four year old cold, really cold, case.
As the prosecution of the "vigilante five" as the newspaper called them progressed I went through old missing person reports and checked dental records from the Navy as it appeared that the decedent had a tattoo that included a ship name, and put together a picture of who he had been so that I could find out who had smashed the back of his head in with a large round metal object like a galvanized pipe or big chunk of rebar.
Like I've said before, I don't like puzzles. I'm good at solving them, but sometimes, I absolutely hate them.
Finally I got a hit on the dead man I had taken to calling "Joe", and felt a personal responsibility for locating his killer.
His name was Clarence Smith. Yes, his last name was really Smith.
It was the narrowing down the search through the dental records from sailors that had been on the 'Mobile Bay' and were currently unaccounted for that finally brought him to light.
His last known address was in Chicago, several hundred miles from here. I contacted the Chicago department and got his missing person's report and other records.
Once the ID was positive, the Chicago authorities notified his family and they made arrangements for a veteran's funeral for him so Clarence could go to his rest with the honors due him.
Now I wanted to find out who had put him there. But all I had was a victim. No suspects. Not even a weapon. There wasn't a likely looking pipe anywhere near where the body had been found. And throughout the complex there were too many. But none of them had blood and hair on them, or rather, after laying outside in the weeds and weather they didn't any more.
I even had the lab scan the soles of his shoes with their electron microscope, hoping against common sense that something had survived that could lead me to an answer.
I attended his funeral out of simple respect.
As I stood near his grave as they closed it I apologized to him that it just didn't look like I'd ever bring his killer to justice.
But then an unexpected break came in that case as well.
"Were you the policeman that found him?"
"Yes, ma'am. My partner and I were working another case and came across him."
"Did you find his friend with him?"
"His friend, ma'am?"
"He was traveling with a guy from the service when he went missing, I think his name was Howard."
"Do you know his last name?"
"No, I'm sorry, but they were on the boat together and got out at the same time if that's any help."
"I'll check for news of him when I get back to the station, thank you, ma'am."
Howard didn't want to talk to me and Deputy Burnside when we showed up on the front porch of his trailer.
I heard the unmistakable sound of running inside the trailer after Howard slammed the door in our face.
"Take the back!" I said to the Deputy and pushed hard against the front door knowing it would give on my second try.
Deputy Burnside jumped the railing and stormed around toward the back side of the mobile home just as the front door gave and I dropped to one knee aiming my old revolver at everything in the living room at once.
There was a sudden burst of angry shouting from the hallway of the trailer and then hard footsteps came my way. Howard stopped dead in his tracks and put his hands up when he saw me kneeling in his doorway with my gun pointed at his chest.
In a second, Deputy Burnside was behind him with a set of shiny new bracelets for Howard to try on.
Howard confessed to having had an argument with Clarence over his wanting to move on in spite of both of them having jobs at a truck depot near where his body was found.
"I didn't know I'd hit him that hard."
The load stabilizer that he said was the murder weapon is an extendible steel bar with a jacking mechanism that fits between the inside walls of a semi-trailer to keep loaded skids from sliding around when the truck is moving. After he got rid of his deceased friend he rinsed off the bar and sent it out on another truck.
Howard got a nice long vacation with 'three hots and a cot' compliments of Superior Court on a plea.
Three of the "Five" were sentenced to various versions of 'life without' while the two who were implicated as the primary executioners, and cocktail mixologists, were given the death penalty.
And I went back to being retired with a vengeance.
-end 10-For more adventures with The Detective see:
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[NOTE: All characters, places, events, and businesses/organizations are FICTIONAL. NO inference to REAL anything is to be made. No similarities to ACTUAL anything is intended. This Piece Is FICTION, enjoy it as such. Thank You -the Author.]
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