Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex, nighttime. Wikimedia Commons photo.

ENTER DILLON RICE, EAST COAST

New Chapter, State of Control

Copyright WRBJr. Living Trust

Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board headquarters were dark and almost deserted this time of night. Dillon Rice, alone in the enforcement division, office lights ablaze, was on the phone with the Denver detective-sergeant, Buford. His eyes flitted over computer files displayed on his oversize monitor and he jotted an occasional note on a yellow legal pad.

For all his concentration, he heard the distant ding of an arriving elevator down the dark hall. “Excuse me, Sergeant. I think that’s my chief coming back.”

But he released his mouse and leaned back, fingers lightly tapping a part-open desk drawer above his big Smith & Wesson 645. Dillon Rice was a cautious man. Acknowledged without peer in paper-chases involving liquor and organized crime, he had seen much. Learned much. And knew — by criminal reckoning — far too much. So he was cautious.

Rob Thornton peeped around the corner, placid features wreathed in a fatherly smile. “Don’t shoot, Dil. It’s only me.”

Rice’s chief was the comic opposite of a stern top cop. His ruddy pleasant features reminded most of a favorite uncle, maybe a whisker-less Santa. His expression always radiated compassion, whether over barroom shootings or pennant hopes of the Phillies. Rice smiled at his boss with real affection. Best boss a man could have. Maybe best man Rice had ever known.

Thornton had recognized Rice’s potential, mentored him, created the special-investigations office of which Rice was so far the entire staff. Rice had blossomed in the role and knew he was good at what he did. The proof was Thornton assigning him to find their vanished inspector. Rice shoved his drawer closed. “Sergeant Buford? It is my chief. If I need to reach you…thanks.”

He cradled the phone. Thornton was followed into the room by a man Rice knew he should recognize but didn’t. He considered it a personal failing he remembered faces only in context. Thick-set. Probable forties. Touch of temple gray in dark hair. Expressionless. Thornton eased into a visitor’s chair. “Dil, this is Hugh Poindexter. Pile those files on the floor, Hugh. Dil is a packrat.”

Of course it was the husband; the chief had gone personally to inform him about his wife. So the blank expression was shock. “I remember you now, Hugh. You sold me my new Smith. Best .45 I ever owned.” Hugh gave a perfunctory smile.

“What you got so far, Dil?” Thornton asked.

Poindexter leaned forward tensely. Rice met his eyes. “Still no word on Tory, Hugh. I’m sorry. Cops out there are busting their humps.” He glanced at his pad, marshaling his thoughts. “The wounded man in Denver isn’t talking. A high-priced law firm insists he go to a private recuperative facility. With private security.”

Thornton was surprised. “For a beer-route driver? Cops gonna let ‘em?”

“M’mm.” Rice’s favorite noncommittal sound. “It’s complicated, Chief. All they have on this Curtis is he’s a tourist shot at a fancy hotel.”

“What’s this got to do with Tory?” Hugh’s voice cracked with tension.

Rice looked at Thornton, who nodded. “He deserves to know.”

“Know what, dammit?”

Rice looked at his pad. “The wounded man and the dead man each took one round from a 9mm. Two recovered shell casings, both nines. They match the brand in Tory’s spare Glock magazine in her purse. Which was recovered at the scene. The question, Hugh,” Rice added gently, “is whether Tory shot them.”

“What? That’s nuts! Why on earth — ”

Thornton half-turned to him. “It’s what cops call a mystery. Means they have no idea.”

“No idea whether she shot them? Or why?

“Either, or both.”

“Whatever happened, we’ll find Tory,” Rice promised. “Cops call this hostile action against a fellow officer. There’s no higher priority, Hugh.”

“What else you got?” Thornton asked.

“It’s really preliminary,” Rice said doubtfully.

“Meaning I’m not to know?” Poindexter was getting angry.

“Well, Hugh, it’s an ongoing investi — “

“Dil, Dil,” Thornton interrupted. “Hugh is her husband. Used to work for the Liquor Board.”

“I hadn’t known that.”

“State-store assistant manager.” Poindexter waved it away. “Going through college on the GI bill, before I went into business for myself. I met Tory when she audited my store.”

“Liquor store. Gun store.” Thornton smiled. “Gonna open a tobacco shop next?”

“For Christ’s sake, Thornton!”

“Sorry, Hugh. Go on, Dil.”

Rice steepled his fingers. “It’s only preliminary, remember that. The dead guy in Denver was from Pennsylvania too. Worked in a Pittsburgh beer-distribution center.”

“So?”

“The Pittsburgh warehouse is owned by a corporation. We suspect hidden ownership.”

“You mean the mob?”

Thornton said, “We’re trying to untangle the paper trail. Off-the-books money floating into political coffers from unknown donors. If that’s just democracy at work, we don’t do election reform. We do mob influence in the liquor business.”

“Influence-peddling,” Hugh identified. “To protect anti-competitive practices. Violation of law about the three-tier system?”

Rice was impressed. “You know liquor code pretty well.”

“Hell, he lectures on it,” Thornton said. “At Middletown college.”

Poindexter rubbed his face. “In school I did a thesis on the Board, and they asked me to do a class for the state-history series. No big deal. Was Tory investigating this hidden ownership? I know she likes to snoop.”

“No,” Rice said. “That’s my turf. Still, quite a coincidence: dead guy from a connected Pittsburgh warehouse next to Tory’s purse. A dead guy with a rap sheet for assault. Alleged intimidation of tavern licensees. No convictions. He had a good law firm.”

Thornton put in, “Like the wounded guy in Denver does.”

“M’mm. Not the same firm of course. No known connection between a Pennsylvania warehouse worker and Oregon beer-route salesman.”

Rice did not say Denver police wondered if the dead man had been Tory’s extra-curricular activity. His computer showed Tory had done tax-compliance audits at the Pittsburgh company. And Hugh had just admitted he met his wife when she did state-store audits. Another troubling coincidence. The husband seemed to catch his thought.

“You’re not telling me everything.”

Thornton laid a hand on Hugh’s arm. “We don’t know everything. Well, one thing we do: if they did jump Tory, your training paid off. Two shots. Two down. The Pittsburgh mope didn’t live to tell about it.”

Poindexter wagged his head. “She shoots better than me. But dammit where is she?”

“Hugh,” Rice said reluctantly, “we have to face the fact she may have been abducted.”

“You mean kidnapped?”

“It’s what RICO conferees are asking Denver cops,” Thornton said. “Do they need to go to full security now, just to hold a conference? That’s all we know, Hugh.”

The prospect of organized crime behind Tory’s disappearance was more comfortable to Rice than possible cuckoldry with a warehouse worker. Rice’s wife was chums with Tory; he would have to ask if she knew of any marital discord. At least rule it out. He didn’t look forward to it.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.