THORNTON MAKES MOVES
(Copyright WRBJr Living Trust. “State of Control.”)
Pennsylvania, 11:30 am-2 pm EDT
Rob Thornton and his wife ate a late breakfast in the cozy kitchen nook overlooking the creek behind their house. Thornton figured he was entitled, after being out half the night trying to calm Hugh Poindexter. They watched three mallards splash sun-dappled water beneath the vast oaks that canopied the creek, two drakes and a hen. The hen playing hard to get, bowing her neck chasing them, taking sudden wing to lead both down the creek in aerobatic swoops, then back for heavy splashdowns. Then one drake would preen contentedly while she bullied the other one. “Aren’t they cute?” Dolly Thornton said. “Looks like a second hatch this summer.”
Thornton slanted her a sly look. “Reminds me of Harry and me chasing you back in the day.”
She slapped his arm. “Rob Thornton! You never preened for a female a single day of your life. And Harry never got a chance once you showed up.”
“So you say now, Dolly.”
“Oh, stop trying to wind me up! I will say it’s nice to have you here mid-morning on a weekday.”
“Better get used to it. I may just retire one of these days.”
“Promises, promises. You were off and galloping like an old fire-horse when you heard about Hugh. You’ve been non-stop since something happened to Tory. Who will look after everybody if you retire?”
“Not doing so well this time. But I’m working on it.”
“By living in the office since Tory’s been gone.” Dolly could change gears with the best, in the time-honored tradition of wives. “You haven’t taken your daily walk since we heard about Tory. If you drop dead of a heart attack you’ll be no use to anybody. Least of all me! Doctor’s orders, Rob. Take your walk before you go in today.”
He patted her hand affectionately. “I’m not expected until after one.”
“Wear your hat.”
So he wore his floppy camouflage boonie hat when he set out down the quiet street, hands tucked in capacious pockets of baggy walking pants. Across the bridge where the creek doubled back under the street he walked faster, left arm pumping. His right hand stayed in his pocket comfortably wrapped around the worn walnut grips of his old Smith&Wesson Model 10, purchased when he was commissioned. After a quarter-century in the liquor-cop business it was an elementary precaution, like wearing his hat in the sun.
When sweat began to trickle below his hat-band, he turned back near deserted high-school playing fields, cutting his accustomed loop by half. Enough to keep peace with Dolly — he knew she, like Dillon Rice, worried about his health. Despite his comfortable waistline a secret shared with his doctor was his health was fine. He just enjoyed his walks, almost as much as he enjoyed the idea certain people with less-benign interest in his health underestimated his staying power. He had made a career of being underestimated.
An unfamiliar maroon Dodge Diplomat turned into the otherwise empty street, rolled past — heavily tinted side-windows increasing his sudden alertness. He kept walking, thumb on checkered metal of the Smith’s hammer. He liked a single-action pull first shot. He heard the car stop behind him.
“Chief?” Familiar voice, taking a moment to place out of context. “That you, Chief?” Thornton released his gun, turned. The driver’s-side glass was down, Ed Scheff’s heavy ruddy features hanging over his elbow as he reversed slowly. “Drove right by you!” he said unnecessarily. “Dolly said you were out walking. Didn’t recognize you in the boonie hat. Didn’t know you served in ‘Nam.”
“I got the hat at a surplus store, Ed.”
“Oh!” Scheff looked confused. He often looked confused.
“You’re a long way from Pittsburgh, Ed.”
Scheff’s face cleared. “Got something for your ears only, face-to-face. Office said you wouldn’t be in till after one, so I came out.”
Thornton considered his subordinate with a wry grin. “Now Ed, what’s so confidential you spend a day away from your office and burn two tanks of state gas? You have heard of telephones, right?”
“Oh very funny hah-hah.” Scheff was wounded. “What I got on Tory ain’t for phones!”
“What about Tory?” Thornton felt his pulse elevate in a way his walk hadn’t accomplished. He had placed a baited hook in the water. This could be the first nibble.
Scheff rattled it off: “You said lean on Tucci’s warehouse folks, turn up known associates of the stiff in Denver. Well I pressured everybody right up to Tucci himself. That’s how I finally got it, see? Tucci. Oh I turned a known associate all right. Boy, did I. Wait till your hear!”
“Okay Ed,” Thornton said. “You did good. But if you don’t stop beating around the bush and tell me, I may strangle you to death on the spot.”
“Oh very funny hah-hah, Chief. You’re a barrel of laughs today.” Scheff squinted into the bright sun. “Say, can we find some shade — ”
“Ed — talk!”
“Jeez! Okay! Tucci said, get this, Gerner’s best-known associate was Tory. Claims she ‘associated’ with him in them hot-sheet motels every time she came over there!”
Thornton thought if he’d been on a lake with his fishing rod, his bobber would have just been yanked underwater. He was surprised James Keyes had taken his bait so readily; Keyes must be under a lot of pressure. And the only person in a position to pressure him was the Chairman.
“Say something, Chief! Ain’t this the damnedest thing?”
“Don’t suppose you asked Tucci how he got the nerve to dump an allegation like that on a Board inspector did you?”
Scheff goggled at him. “Did too! Course I did. You mad at me?”
“Not you, Ed. The situation.”
“Didn’t like him trying to tie a can to Tory, see. Kinda almost called him a damn liar. I don’t really like these wiseguys a lot. You know? ”
“I know, Ed. What did Tucci say when you pushed back?”
“Said oh yeah, Gerner was doing her all right. With his blessing, because if she got too nosy on audits they could back her off by threatening to tell hubby. Pretty sleazy to mousetrap her like that huh? You think Tory found stuff Dillon Rice can’t?”
Thornton adjusted his boonie hat. “What I think is Tucci offered too much detail. Liars do that to sell a lie. We know he’s mobbed up, always been a good soldier — never more than name, rank, serial number, and I’m calling my lawyer — when Dil takes a run at him. Now he volunteers Gerner played footsie with Tory — on his say-so. In case she found anything shady. Amounts to him admitting there’s something to find — a first. Meaning smearing Tory is more important than being a good soldier. He didn’t think it through.”
“She gonna be in trouble again?” Scheff asked anxiously.
“Trouble again? She’s missing, Ed. Isn’t that enough trouble?”
“Well…yeah. But I meant like the trouble she got in screwing her husband before they were married same time she audited his liquor store.”
“Ed, that wasn’t our division, and it wasn’t in Pittsburgh.” Thornton’s imaginary fishing bobber was deep underwater now. “How do you know about it?”
“Hell, I didn’t! Rocco did. Said she’d have to play ball because it would be easy for hubby to believe she was doing Gerner like she did him.” Scheff swallowed. “See why I don’t want to talk on no phone?
Thornton used his reassuring tone. “Relax, Ed. Defies belief Tucci blabbed all this to you. But we’ll take it. Down the road, Dil will hold his feet to the fire for admitted attempt to suborn a liquor inspector.” He thought a minute. “I want your deposition — near verbatim as you can. Right now. Go back to the office. Tell Nancy I said personally take your dictation, type it up for your signature, notarize it. No word-processing pool — no rumors. No damage to Tory’s reputation, see?Get a good meal when you’re done, sleep over, go back tomorrow when you’re rested. This is important stuff, Ed — I say again, you really did good. Remember: not one word to anybody but Nancy. Got it?”
“Okay, go. I need to finish my walk and take a shower.”
When Thornton walked into his office, his secretary was right behind him, closing the door. “Boss, Ed Scheff said — ”
“Nancy,” he interrupted, “Tell me you didn’t palm off what he gave you to word-processing.”
“Don’t insult me! But — but — Tory and a forklift operator?”
“For your ears only, Nancy, it’s all bullshit. I honest-to-God mean this: not a word to anybody. This is a put-up job to flush the bad guys. Even Scheff doesn’t know, he’s just reporting what the hoodlums said. Don’t you dare enlighten him! Nobody sees Ed’s deposition but Dillon. Not the Chairman, not the governor, not the god-damned president of the United States.”
“Boss — there was a story in the Patriot about Hugh shooting a guy! After what Ed dictated, I wondered if it had do with Tory fooling around. Now you say she’s not, it’s all made up…” Her voice lapsed.
“Hugh shot a burglar. That’s all there is to that.”
“Is Hugh okay?
“Better off than the burglar.”
“Well — that’s good.” She turned to go. “Oh — Dilbert said bring you this bunch of faxes from Australia.”
“I know about the faxes. But Dilbert?”
“Little old lady Down Under named him. He’ll never live it down!”
“One note of humor, in an otherwise unhappy day.”
“Oh — Jim Keyes needs to see you. Says it’s urgent.
“Not to me. Tell him I’m tied up.”
“You suppose he heard rumors about — about Tory and the dead guy? He finds out stuff awfully fast sometimes.”
“Mostly through leading conversations. Do not get trapped into talking to Keyes about this. Repeat, do not. Got it?”
“Gosh you’re in a mood. Anything else?”
“Give me the faxes. Hold all calls unless it’s Dilbert. No drop-ins. Not Keyes. Not the Chairman. Not the governor, not the — “
“Got it, got it,” she said. “Boss, you want some coffee?”
“You never bring me coffee, Nancy. You say it’s not in your job description.”
“Today it is. With you in this mood. I’ll bring it.”
When she did, he was already on the phone to the United States Marshal for Central Pennsylvania, a political appointee; retired State Police major. When the major had been a mere lieutenant and Thornton a field inspector, Thornton had hauled his drunken teenage daughter home from a notorious Steelton tavern instead of busting her for minor in possession. Now he was calling in the favor. “You want me to appoint Dillon Rice Deputy Marshal?” the marshal said.
“And book him to Denver on one of those little Marshal Service jets, yeah.”
“Rob, you know Marshal Service professionals hate it when an appointee like me exercises those powers.”
“Yeah, Gene. Unless it’s them asking you, to curry favor with local cops. Tell ’em you’re currying my favor.”
“The colonel, my former boss, was already onto me about federal badges for troopers he wanted to assign. I thought your Chairman passed.”
“He did. I didn’t.”
“You think her abduction connects to PA? Mob-connected?”
“One tight link so far. The Tucci family in Pittsburgh.”
“I remember that asshole Tucci.”
“I know you do, Gene.”
The marshal laughed. “You never forget a thing, Rob.”
“Especially not favors, Gene.”
“I’ll tweak some schedules. You want the troopers badged too?”
“Need to divide my forces, keep Rip here. Badge Radzinsky.”
“You got it. If Rip needs a federal shield call me.”
“I owe you.”
“Not if you bring her home whole. That will make me feel like a pretty good cop. Like I was before I turned into a political. I’ll tell the colonel that Radzinsky flies with Rice. Rip stays and holds your hand.”
2:15–3 pm EDT
Thornton buzzed Nancy, told her to check out a cell phone and charger for Rice, tell him to go home and pack when he called in. The Board had finally issued laptops to inspectors but balked at cell phones. Penny-wise, pound-foolish in Thornton’s view. Nancy said he’d missed a call from Sergeant Buford, Denver PD. “Why didn’t you put him through?”
“Because he wasn’t named Dilbert. And you’re on a tear today.”
He laughed out loud. “Guess I am at that. Get Buford.” But when he picked up the phone it was an FBI agent named Shaw.
“Sergeant Buford is right here,” Shaw said. “We’re using my car phone. We may have some good news. Here’s Buford.”
Buford wasted no time in preliminaries. “We’re in Goodland, Kansas, Chief. We made positive ID on Poindexter from a gas-station security camera. Date-stamp matches when her card was used. Restaurant cashier across the parking lot remembers her from her photo. She had breakfast there day before yesterday. Paid cash.”
“Alone?” Thornton grabbed his notepad.
“Yeah, in no evident distress I could see. She filled the tank of a Ford Taurus. The tape is an old VCR system, black-and-white. Couldn’t make out car color or plate number. Utah plates. This douche-bag Curtis rented a Taurus with Utah plates.
“Good work, Sergeant. Excellent!”
“Call me Buford, everybody does. Tell Rice his tip on the VISA card came up aces.”
“Kind of her mad-money card,” Thornton identified. “Carried it in a money clip with some folding money, because she was always walking off without her purse.”
“About the money clip: Rice said it has Kansas and Colorado lettered on it.”
“Yep, I’ve seen it. She said the Kan and orado were the important letters.”
“Kanorado,” Buford said.
“Rice got out his Atlas. There is such a place.”
“Right down the road. Maybe your inspector has a friend there. Rice said no known relatives. Changing subjects, Chief — my guys canvassed RICO attendees. Poindexter was on a mission, kind of.”
“She alleged corruption involving how your Board handles liquor sales. Not sure how a state agency sells booze in the first place, but that’s just me. She was asking if what she had fit the Sherman Antitrust Act, or the Clayton Act, or the Federal Trade Commission Act. Heavy stuff — I had to look it up. She thought what she had qualified for a RICO complaint. You gave her a big job.”
“That’s the problem,” Thornton said. “I didn’t. She was freelancing. Her husband calls it wildcatting. We didn’t know a damn thing about it.”
Long pause. “Well that’s interesting. Wanted to bring it to you gift-wrapped I guess. Got a couple detectives like that on my watch. Chief, I have to level with you — given what she told people, I didn’t know if, in your position, you could be a suspect. This liquor stuff is more complicated than simple assault or murder. But we found a guy who was at the conference and said she told him she trusts you implicitly.”
“I guess that’s reassuring,” Thornton said dryly.
“Yeah. This guy’s from another of these liquor boards that sell liquor, like yours. His opinion: she was in dangerous territory. But confident of your support if she nailed it. For what it’s worth.”
“Could be worth a lot. I better talk to him.”
“I’ll dig up his particulars. Uh — something else: how many people you got working this thing?’”
“Me. Rice. Two troopers. Why do you ask?”
“Captain says our chief got a call from some Pennsylvania Board big shot. Chairman, executive director, something like that. Who imparted, confidentially, Poindexter and the dead guy had a ‘thing’ going on. Chief don’t want to waste a lot of time on an out-of-state domestic.”
“But you’re in Kansas anyway.”
“Yeah — Shaw sprung me for a day. I don’t know why people back there are trying to slander her. But it’s bullshit. Shaw will tell you why.”
Shaw said, “Your inspector was definitely assaulted because she was on a case. Maybe the RICO thing. You can take that to the bank. Formal report of our electronic overhears to follow, once paperwork catches up.”
“You’ve got recordings? Admissions?”
“From the wounded guy and his fancy lawyer. The good news is, she extricated herself. She’s off on her own. But it’s bad news too, far as the Bureau goes.”
“Mugging,” Shaw said, “successful or not, is a local crime absent provable evidence they knew she was law-enforcement. But our overhears are off the books for now so it’s still Denver’s case. When they arrest Curtis, the U.S. Attorney will add federal charges for assaulting an officer. But the Bureau came in on the supposed abduction — ”
“But again and you’ll but my brains out, Mr. Shaw.”
“Agent,” Shaw said automatically.“What was that about but? Oh I see. Then here’s the big but: now we know she is on her own, the Bureau may have to butt out. If she came to Kansas under her own steam, for her own reasons — as now appears likely — it’s no federal crime for a woman to take it in her head to go for a drive. Thankfully! Eventually she needs to clarify events in Denver but timing is up to her. Another but.”
“So the Bureau butts out?” Thornton didn’t try to hide his disappointment.
“Given other commitments it’s probable. Up to my SAC when I get back. Until then, however…”
“Kanorado is on our way back to Denver. Buford and I thought we’d stop for late lunch, poke around. Small town. You never know.”
“I really appreciate this,” Thornton said. “I’ve got two men on the way to Denver tonight. Dillon Rice and a state trooper, both deputized U.S. Marshals. Can you brief them tomorrow?”
“Consider it done. You must draw a lot of water, Chief, to spring a couple federal badges.”
“We’ve got a missing inspector. Big deal to us.”
“To us too, Chief. I mean that. I’ve already briefed highway-patrol detachments and sheriff’s offices both sides of the state line. Modified our BOLO for the missing rental-car so no one tries a felony stop on your inspector. If she’s running away from trouble I don’t want friendly-fire incidents.”
Thornton experienced a chill. “Good thinking. Especially if she still has her Glock.”
“New notice says the car is in custody of law-enforcement — but no official radio. Observe and report to the FBI — to me — do not interfere. We’ll initiate any contact.”
“You’re a good man, Agent Shaw.”
“I want to get her back in one piece, Chief. Like we all do.”