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Authors: P.T. Deutermann

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BOOK: The Cat Dancers
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His cell phone trembled in his pocket. That will be Himself, he thought, and now comes the fun part. He saw Will Guthridge talking earnestly to Steven Klein as some excited media types were shouting questions at them from the press box.
“Okay, let’s go,” he said to Kenny. “See if we can unscrew this mess.”
THE MAJOR CRIMINAL APPREHENSION Team was a unique organization for a metropolitan Sheriff’s Office. It consisted of four senior detectives, a sergeant, and a lieutenant who ran it. Their job was simple: Once one of the local criminals rose to a position of real prominence in the county’s outlaw society, whether as a major drug dealer, an enforcer, or a gang chieftain, the captain who headed Major Crimes would hand MCAT his name. They would then spend all of their time and effort busting the guy’s chops until they either provoked him into making a major mistake, one that could lead to real prison time, or made him so radioactive among the rest of the rat pack that
they
would take care of the problem. MCAT had essentially unlimited access to all of the resources of the Sheriff’s Office, which were considerable. The sheriff was intimately familiar with the federal criminal asset forfeiture and seizure program, giving the Manceford County Sheriff’s Office every modern law-enforcement toy out there.
What MCAT did was to direct all of those bells and whistles against one badass at a time. The team worked off the clock and around the clock if necessary. They followed the subject, wiretapped him, pulled in any and all of his close associates again and again, searched his crib and haunts, came up to him in public restaurants and bars to thank him noisily for his cooperation, planted false leads in the papers implicating the guy in the successful prosecution of someone else, and generally made his life miserable. All of this was done with appropriate court orders and warrants, of course. Most of the judges, if only in chambers, positively licked their judicial chops.
Cam’s job was to provide adult supervision. With a license
to run outside the normal checks and balances of the field operations forces, the MCAT cops were under constant scrutiny to ensure they didn’t become the modern-day version of the Untouchables of the 1920s. Cam made sure they had court papers backing up everything they did, and the sheriff interviewed the entire squad frequently, both to keep up to speed on what they were doing as well as to assess their level of professionalism. He once told Cam that they were his armored cavalry, substituting speed, surprise, and aggression for the more plodding nature of criminal investigation.
Sheriff Bobby Lee Baggett was on the phone, his back to the door, when Cam knocked and went into his office. The room was spacious, and the walls were covered with memorabilia of famous people or famous arrests made during Bobby Lee’s nine-year reign as sheriff of Manceford County. Parked against the back wall were three silhouette targets from the gun range. The sheriff took great pride in the fact that he, too, qualified once a month, just like the rest of them had to. Cam dropped into one of the two enormous leather chairs stationed directly in front of the sheriff’s desk and waited for him to finish up.
The sheriff, at forty-nine, was five years older than Cam. He was in his third term as an elected official, having come to Manceford County from the governor’s personal staff in Raleigh, the capital of the Old North State. Once upon a time, he’d been a Marine Corps aviator, and he’d apparently never gotten over it. He was six one, hatchet-faced, leanjawed, buzz-cut, extremely fit, and all business all the time. He addressed everyone under his command by their rank, and sometimes they all wondered if he knew anyone’s first name. In turn, everyone on his staff was cordially invited to address him as Sheriff. Cam couldn’t say that he liked the man, but he did respect him. He’d whipped the outfit into becoming the foremost Sheriff’s Office in the state any way you wanted to measure it.
The sheriff hung up the phone and swiveled around in his chair. “So WTF, Lieutenant?” he asked in his gravelly voice. “They just
walk
?”
“What happened was that those two went to the minimart to rob the place,” Cam replied. “It went wrong somehow, and now three people are dead and, yes, the do-er’s are free to go.”
He gave Cam his commanding officer look. “Your detective failed to Mirandize these suspects?”
Cam wanted to say that Will was hardly his detective, but he knew that Bobby Lee would simply look at the organization board, and there would be Will’s name, most definitely parked in the MCAT block. “Detective Guthridge went in behind the SWAT front line,” Cam said. “They did their usual monster mash. A Sergeant McMichael from District Three went eyeball-to-eyeball with the white kid, Simmonds, asked him if he did the minimart. Mutt said yes.”
“While dangling from his dick, no doubt.”
“SWAT, what can I say?” Cam replied. “We don’t ask them to be nice. We do ask them to be professional.”
“And where was Detective Guthridge during this interrogation?”
“It was hardly an interrogation,” Cam told him. “They had the perps on the floor, and McMichael literally got down in Simmonds’s face, popped the question. By the time Guthridge came through the doorway, it was all done.”
“So SWAT hooked them up, not Guthridge?”
“Yes, sir.”
“And did so without reciting their rights? I find that hard to believe.”
Cam sat back in his chair and tried not to sigh. “I wasn’t there, Sheriff,” he said. “And I find it hard to believe, too. You click the cuffs, you say the magic words. But apparently no one on the SWAT team is willing to swear that he did in fact give the warning.”
“The other thing I can’t believe is that she dismissed,” the sheriff said.
“It’s not like she didn’t give Steven the chance to nolle,” Cam said. “He got all wrapped around the axle.”
“He going to appeal?”
“I don’t know, sir,” Cam said. “I mean, I can see her tossing the confession, but dismissing the charges?”
The sheriff shook his head. “This—this was a big deal. Gas station burned up. Two innocent bystanders burned alive in their car. The store clerk shot and then cremated. I mean, damn, attaboy for finding these pricks, but aw shit for this mess. You know the rule.”
It was another one of the sheriff’s favorites from his days in the Marine Corps: one aw shit erased ten thousand attaboys. Cam thought it was time for him to defend his outfit. “This whole goat grab arrived in slices,” he said. “The incident originally came in as a bad fire. The fire investigators didn’t report bullet holes in the pump island until daylight. They had bodies from the fire, but nobody knew the clerk had been shot until the coroner called in
his
prelim. The district got the bullet holes repot from the fire department at about the same time as the street witness report filtered in, and then here comes the district, asking for a SWAT takedown. MCAT never officially rolled on it. In my view, Will Guthridge stepped into a Special Operations mess-up. It was Sergeant McMichael who popped the question without a warning, not Will.”
“God help us, we train and we train, and now this,” the sheriff muttered. “But why in the hell dismiss the charges? I mean, I know it was Bellamy, but damn!”
“Those shitheads are factory-programmed to screw up again,” Cam said. “Or maybe Klein can get around it, reconstitute the case—it’s not like we don’t know who did it.”
The sheriff stared down at his desk, probably calculating the degree of damage to his own professional reputation once Bellamy’s decision got some traction in the media. Cam, on the other hand, had two years and some change to go for full retirement eligibility, although he could walk right now if he was willing to accept a little less pension money. He was pretty sure he would survive the gathering shit storm, although one never knew with Bobby Lee. The sheriff defended his people vigorously, but he also could be ruthless when it came to major mistakes.
The sheriff seemed to have made a decision. “You’re right,” he said. “A judge doesn’t have to explain anything. Unfortunately, we do. Next Door is up in arms, as you can appreciate.”
“Next door” meant Triboro’s mayor and the city council, whose offices were in an adjacent building. Bobby Lee was always pointing out that he answered directly to the voters, but nearly two-thirds of those voters lived in Triboro. “The vultures were in the courtroom,” he said.
“Which is why I have the victims’ relatives in my conference room as we speak,” the sheriff said. “I need them calibrated before the media gets to them, if that’s possible.” He gave Cam a meaningful look.
Perfect, Cam thought. Absolutely perfect. “Any suggestion on what to say?” he asked. “Like, we’re going to work it some more? We’re going to appeal? Or should I just say we’re going to roll over, pat ’em on the ass, and just watch ’em go?”
“The charges are dismissed,” the sheriff said evenly. “That’s pretty final, the way I understand it. I assume Steven Klein is conferencing with the AG’s office up in Raleigh right now, but, yeah, I’d say they flat got away with it.”
“He should have nolle’ed,” Cam said, exasperated. He wanted to hit someone as the enormity of the injustice sank in. He wanted to tell the sheriff what Kenny Cox had suggested: trail the two bastards, then tell the victims’ family where they were. That dead woman’s husband—he’d been really quiet after the judge’s rulings. Cam hadn’t been able to tell if it was total shock at the ruling or the ignition of a slow fuse.
“So, what do I tell them?” Cam asked again. “Because otherwise, I’m just going to lay it out for them. Tell the truth.”
The sheriff shrugged. “Your box, Lieutenant. Paint it as you see fit.” He looked pointedly at his watch. “You’re not the only one with unpleasant duty—I’ve got to go Next Door.”
OKAY, THERE’S NO WAY around it, Cam thought. I’ll just go in there and tell the poor bastards the truth. Answer their questions straight up. There’s no official spin, so I’ll just tell them what we knew, when we knew it, what we didn’t know, and what we failed to do. If they took any of it to the press, so be it. He’d been policing long enough to know that telling the truth first time up was the best way to put the media vultures off their feed, because the truth left them nothing to uncover. Sounded good anyway.
As he left the sheriff’s office and headed toward the conference room, he saw Kenny Cox chugging down the hall, looking like the front end of a Peterbilt. Kenny was varsity front-line large. He worked out daily with some of the more extreme deputies in field operations and had the overlong arms of a gorilla, although that wasn’t feature a sane man would point out to Kenny face-to-face. When he was happy, he reminded Cam of a great big friendly bear. His game face, on the other hand, brought to mind a picture Cam had once seen of an East Berlin border guard, with that ruddy complexion, close-cropped blond hair, intense blue eyes under almost white eyebrows, a great beak of a nose, and a down-turning mouth.
“Sally said you were teeing up to face relatives,” he said. “Want some backup?”
Cam smiled to himself. He could always count on Kenny to know what was shaking down the hall. Kenny had Cam’s vote to step up to his job and lieutenant bars when Cam finally quit policing. The only fly in the succession ointment was Kenny’s run-in with the same Judge Bellamy who was
now making headlines. “Backup’s good,” he said, eyeing the piece of paper in Kenny’s paw. “That the guest list?”
“It is,” Kenny said. “James Marlor, fifty-six, husband of decedent victim Vicki Marlor, soccer mom, and stepfather of decedent victim Trudy Anne Marlor, age nine. He works for Duke Energy, something to do with forestry. His sister, a Mrs. Becky Thomason, is here to provide some family support.” He frowned at the next name. “Jaspreet Kaur Bawa, thirty-five, niece of decedent victim Jasbir Chopra, the minimart night clerk. She’s some kind of high-priced computer wonk, works down in the Charlotte area. Plus Jasbir Chopra’s wife, Surinder Chopra, plus three more female relatives, whose names I can’t
even
pronounce.”
“Okay,” Cam said. “And no lawyers?”
“Correct. The sheriff restricted this briefing to humans.”
Cam nodded in appreciation.
“Is there a party line?” Kenny asked, handing Cam the list.
“Nope,” Cam said, and buttoned up his suit jacket. The .45-caliber semiautomatic in his shoulder rig distorted the fabric on his left side, indicating that perhaps he needed to forgo the morning doughnuts in the MCAT office for a while. On the other hand, it was well known that suits did shrink. “Let’s do it,” he said, exhibiting lots more confidence than he felt.
They went in and introduced themselves to all those tight white and brown faces sitting around the table. For the next half hour, Cam briefed them on the sequence of events since the incident at the minimart. Then he took them through the DA’s current options, which weren’t promising. When he was finished, James Marlor was the first to speak up. He, too, was wearing a suit, but he definitely looked like an outdoorsman, with large, rough hands, a weather-burned face, and a determined, jutting jaw. Cam thought he looked a little like Kenny; they were about the same size. It had been seven days since the incident, and he could see the strain of the past week written all over these people. He didn’t feel so good, either, but he wasn’t burying relatives. It was a shitty deal all around.
“Did the judge do something that was outside her judicial discretion?” Marlor asked.
The question surprised Cam. “No, sir,” he replied. “I’m not a lawyer, of course, but a judge can dismiss the charges if he or she decides there’s insufficient evidence to proceed. Normally, the judge would telegraph that opinion to the prosecutor, and then the prosecutor would pull the case and recharge it later.”
“But not once the charges are formally dismissed?” Marlor was looking right at Cam, like a man who was making sure he understood the ground rules before he did something. Definitely more than just a run-of-the-mill country forester here, Cam thought.
“No, sir,” he said. “Dismissed means it’s over.”
“The judge kept asking the DA about a no-lay, or something like that. Was that a hint for him to pull the case?”
“I think so, yes, sir,” Cam said. “The term is nolle prosequi. It’s actually something you enter in the court record, but, roughly, it means ‘I won’t prosecute now.’ Doesn’t mean he can’t prosecute later, with new charges.”
“Unless the underlying charges are dismissed, correct?”
He’s like a dog with a bone, Cam thought. “Not unless he can get this ruling overturned.”
“And you’re saying you don’t know if he’s going to do that?”
“That’s correct, sir.” Cam didn’t say what he was thinking—namely, that a successful appeal was unlikely. Kenny sat beside him, his bulky presence comforting. Kenny’s face was a study in anger, but he also seemed to be watching Marlor.
The exotic-looking young woman at the other end of the table raised her hand. Cam had been trying not to stare at her; she was really striking, with that long oval face, the prominent Southwest Asian nose, glistening jet black hair, and luminous dark eyes. She was dressed in a rather severe-looking business suit, and her elegant long hands were devoid of any jewelry.
“Yes, ma’am?” he said.
“If I understand this situation, Lieutenant, my uncle is dead—murdered, actually—and the two individuals who did this thing are … free?”
To Cam’s surprise, she spoke with a subdued British accent,
modulated by the rising and falling tones of the Indian subcontinent. Her posture was upright and she appeared totally composed. Compared to her, the older Indian women sitting next to her looked dumpy and plain, although just as angry.
“Yes, ma’ am,” he replied. “For the moment anyway.” He looked down at Kenny’s list. “You are Ms. Bawa?”
“‘For the moment’?” she said, ignoring his question. “In my uncle’s country,” she continued, “his family would see to it that appropriate justice was done for such a crime. We are Sikhs, you understand.” The other women seated with her nodded approvingly. Cam didn’t understand what she was getting at with the Sikh business, but he nodded, too. Marlor had a small spiral notebook in front of him on the table, and he was drawing a tight zigzag line on it again and again, pressing down hard. The Indian woman’s remark about retribution got Kenny’s attention, and he stared at her intently now.
“In this country,” Cam said as patiently as he could, “the victim’s family does not have the option of revenge, Ms. Bawa. If it’s any comfort, these men are career criminals. It’s my opinion that they’ll die in prison, eventually.”
She was not impressed. “‘Eventually’?” she spat out. “They should be dead. Now. Just like my uncle and this gentleman’s wife and daughter. They are animals. Crazed, drooling pariah dogs. They should be dragged by their genitals to the courthouse square and summarily beheaded.”
Cam detected a faint twitch in Kenny’s face, which meant he was in full agreement with this bloodthirsty woman. To tell the truth, Cam thought a beheading or two would do a world of good towards motivating their local criminals to seek the path of righteousness. “The Sheriff’s Office is going to go back over the facts of this case,” he said. “We’re going to comb the incident trail, see if we can put together a package of evidence that doesn’t depend on the one individual’s confession at the time of the arrest.”
“And then what?” James Marlor asked. His pencil was poised over the small notebook. The zigzag pattern was black and bold on the dented paper.
“And then we’ll sit down with the DA and see what can be done to resurrect the case or bring new charges.” Cam hesitated, but then he remembered he had promised himself he was going to tell them the truth. “In all honesty, I can’t promise much, because there will be an element of double jeopardy in anything we try to do now to these two. But I personally feel obligated to make the effort. Those two individuals are guilty and need to pay for it.”
“Especially after a police mistake,” Marlor said.
“Especially because of that, yes,” Cam said, facing him. “I’m truly sorry about that, but the police do make mistakes.”
“Did the judge
have
to dismiss the charges?” he asked.
“I don’t know, sir,” Cam replaced. “I don’t think the judge
had
to dismiss, but again, I’m not a lawyer. Most of the time, judges are constrained to make their decisions based on the law, not justice.”
“Where are they now?” Ms. Bawa asked.
“The two suspects? They’re still in police custody, but they’ll probably be released this afternoon.”
“Where will they go when they are released?” Marlor asked.
“I can’t say, sir. They aren’t on probation, so they can go wherever they please, I guess.”
“Will you follow them?” he asked.
Cam shook his head, although he fully intended to keep track of them at least. “Once they’re released, we can’t do anything that might be construed as harassment.”
There was a strained silence in the room. There were no answers for all of the other questions they desperately wanted to ask, and Cam was pretty sure they knew that. Finally, Marlor spoke up. “Thank you,” he said, looking first at Kenny and then at Cam. “For being honest with us. I expected—well, I don’t know what I expected.”
Cam nodded at him and asked if anyone else had further questions. No one did, so he closed the meeting. Kenny called a desk officer down to escort them back to the security lobby. James Marlor appeared to be lost in thought as he left, his sister holding on to one of his arms above the elbow. The
older Indian women gave Cam and Kenny venomous looks before they walked out of the room. Cam couldn’t really blame them.
As they walked back to the MCAT offices, Kenny asked if they were really going to resurrect the case.
“I’m going to until someone specifically tells me to stop,” Cam said. “This is awful.”
“Fucking liberal-ass Communist judges—that’s what’s awful,” Kenny said.
They arrived at the double glass doors leading to the Major Crimes Division’s reception area and Kenny punched in the entry code. Cam asked him if he thought the husband, Marlor, might have some vigilante in him.
Kenny paused as the door buzzed open. “You know? He just might. I should probably pull the string on him. He didn’t come across as some country boy.”
“I hope that Indian woman was just venting,” Cam said,
“I don’t,” Kenny replied with a disgusted look.
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