Living in a small town can be murder...
A SIGNATURE IN BLOOD
Some days, Pete Adams loved his job as police chief of this rural township. This was not one of them. Old Wilford Greene's daughter had placed a frantic call to Pete last evening. Her father hadn't shown up for her son's fifteenth birthday party and everyone knew that Wilford would never miss his grandson's big day. Not for anything. Then this morning, a fisherman phoned that he had spotted what looked to be a pick up truck beneath the surface of the lake. Pete sent a man out to investigate and the report came back to him that there was indeed a truck submerged and the license plate number confirmed his worse fear. The truck belonged to Wilford Greene.
The day only got worse once the divers, called in from the city, arrived. They surfaced from their initial dive with the news: The cab held a body.
Pete squinted through the long shadows cast by the evening sun as he wheeled his Ford Bronco up to the organized confusion at the edge of the lake. Emergency vehicles parked at odd angles in every available space. His two officers strung yellow tape around trees and underbrush. Divers bobbed in the water, directing heavy cables from the tow truck down into the murky depths.
Pete sloshed through the mud and muck toward the officers. “What have you got?” he asked.
Seth Metzger waved him toward a bend in the road where the berm dropped off sharply into the lake. “This is where he went in.” Seth pointed at a set of tire tracks leading into the water.
“Looks like he never made the turn.”
Pete nodded. “Anything else?”
Seth shook his head. “Waiting for them to haul him out.”
Pete thanked the officer and turned to scan the scene. He spotted an embankment overlooking the activity in the lake, which would also keep him out of the way of the recovery effort. A familiar form stood atop it.
“Hey, Zoe,” Pete said as he struggled up the slope, grabbing onto saplings as he went.
Zoe Chambers leaned against a tree, arms crossed, watching the divers. She turned her head and gave him a half-hearted smile.
“Hey, Pete. I was wondering when you'd get here.”
The presence of Pete's favorite deputy coroner cast a little light on an otherwise ominous scene.
“I've been fielding phone calls from Cheryl and trying everyway possible to avoid giving her an answer,” Pete said.
Zoe nodded glumly. “This is going to be hard on her. She and her dad were close.”
Pete's gaze rested on the divers struggling with the steel cable in the muddy water.
“Any thoughts on what happened?” Zoe asked.
“At first, I thought he swerved to miss a deer. Been a lot of wildlife movement lately.” Pete tipped his head in the direction of the bend in the road. “But it looks like he never made the turn and went straight into the lake.”
“Wilford was getting up there in years. Maybe he had a heart attack. Or a stroke.”
“Guess it'll be up to your department to figure that out.”
A shout went up from the lake as one of the divers circled an arm in the air. The tow truck driver fired up the engine and kicked the winch into gear. With a groan, the cable tightened and the surface of the lake bucked as the Dodge Ram began its slow reversal. The crowd of firemen, ambulance personnel and other assorted emergency workers grew silent as the tailgate, then the bed and finally the cab broke free of the lake's grasp. Water poured from the truck in torrents.
“I'd better get to work,” Zoe said with a sigh.
Pete nodded. He knew he wasn't the only one who hated their job this afternoon.
She slid down the slope, rocks and leaf matter cascading ahead of her. Pete followed, struggling to stay on his feet. Zoe headed for the lake's edge and the mud encrusted pickup.
Pete followed and paused next to a small gathering of volunteer firefighters, who were discussing the various scenarios that could have led them all to this spot.
Zoe donned Latex gloves and climbed into the soggy cab beside the lifeless shape of old Wilford Greene.
“I'm afraid we've all been wrong,” she called out from inside the cab. Pete stepped over to the driver's side door and looked in through the open window. Zoe's Latex-covered fingers gently gripped Wilford's head and turned it toward Pete, revealing a small, dark hole in Wilford's temple.
“What we have here,” Zoe said, “is a murder.”
Pete sat at his desk in the township building with his head in his hands. Cheryl Carpenter had just left his office after demanding justice for her father's murder. Her tear-choked voice still echoed in his ears.
A soft tap at the door caused him to lift his head. Zoe stood in the doorway, a file tucked under her arm.
“I just saw Cheryl leaving,” she said.
Pete let out a sound that was half moan, half growl as he rubbed his eyes.
Zoe sunk into the ratty chair across from him and laid the folder in her lap. “How are you doing?”
“How does it look like I'm doing?” Pete leaned back and cupped his hands behind his skull. “Have you got anything for me?”
Her face appeared uncharacteristically tense. “Doc finished the autopsy this morning and I knew you'd want to see it.” She slipped a paper out of the folder and presented it to him. “Cause of death: single gunshot wound to the head. Close range. He was able to retrieve the bullet. Twenty-two caliber.”
“Oh, good,” Pete grumbled. “Shouldn't have any trouble at all locating the gun that bullet came from. There're only about two thousand of them in this township alone.”
Zoe's smile didn't quite happen.
“If he had any cash on him, and I'd bet he did, it's gone. But none of his credit cards were missing, as far as we could tell. The crime unit guys are still going over the truck, but the water most likely destroyed any other evidence.”
“Great. That's just great. So basically, we have nothing.”
Zoe looked down at the folder. “Not exactly. There's more. Good news, bad news sort of thing.”
“I need good news. Give me the good news first.”
“Well, it's both. It's good because it will help narrow down the search. And it's bad because, well…” She removed a photo from the folder and laid it on the desk in front of Pete.
He stared at the picture and felt the breath slowly leaving his body. “What the hell?”
“That's Wilford's chest,” Zoe said.
And on Wilford's chest, standing out in dark reddish brown against the pale gray of his skin, was a strange symbol, a scrawl that looked, for lack of any other way to describe it, like a treble clef on steroids. Pete had seen the mark several times in recent months, but had been unable to identify its meaning or its source.
“The son of a bitch carved it in his flesh.” Zoe's voice quivered.
Pete looked up at her. “Before or after he was dead?”
A sick sense of relief rolled over him. At least old Wilford hadn't had to endure that agony on top of whatever else had happened to him.
“Pete, we've seen this symbol before.”
He nodded. “I recognize it.”
The symbol had first been spotted a month ago as graffiti on a railroad trestle over the river. Then it was found carved into the upholstery of a car that had driven through a storefront window. Later, a veterinarian's office was broken into after hours and robbed of animal tranquilizers; the same symbol was spray painted across the front counter.
And a little more than a week ago, it had appeared on his own bathroom mirror when someone--kids, he supposed--had broken into his own house and stolen nothing. Except his badge.
“Huh?” He looked up and realized that Zoe had been talking. “I'm sorry. What?”
She stared at him, wordless, for a moment, and then shook her head. “Never mind. I'm sure you're thinking the same thing I am.”
Zoe swallowed hard. “That something we had believed to be relatively harmless and juvenile has escalated to a whole new level.”
He grunted. When had Zoe added mind reader to her list of talents?
She rose and headed for the door, but hesitated before crossing the threshold. She turned halfway back to the room and leaned against the doorjamb. “Not to change the subject or anything…”
“Please. Change the subject.”
“Are you planning on going to the picnic at the Gray farm Saturday?”
Pete sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Doesn't look like it. I've got way too much to do, what with this case now and trying to figure out what that damned squiggle means.”
“Well, that's just it. You know everyone within a twenty-mile radius is going to be there. If our murderer is local…”
“He'll be one of the several hundred people at the picnic,” Pete completed her sentence for her. “All I have to do is figure out which one.”
She shrugged. “Might be a good opportunity to ask some questions, pick up a clue or two. I really think you should go.”
Pete chuckled. “I'll go on one condition. You come with me.”
“Are you kidding? You honestly think I'd let you go without me? I don't want to miss out on any evidence you stumble across,” she grinned. “Pick me up at eleven.”
Pete smiled for the first time in days.
Pete's gaze strayed from the ruts of the old ridge road to take in the beauty of the valley below them. Beside him, Zoe tipped her head toward the side window.
With more than a mile to go before they arrived at Gert Gray's farm, Pete's thoughts wandered back over time and the many summer picnics he had attended there. Each year the bash had grown bigger and wilder and for a while, it evolved into a two-day affair, but even with her son's help, an entire weekend soon became too hard on old Gert, so last year and this, they cut it back to one day.
Pete smiled as he recalled swinging out over the pond on a heavy rope and the exhilaration of letting go, hitting the cold spring water on a sweltering summer day. He and Gert's two grandsons carried on a competition over the years to see who could dive in farthest from the shore. The oldest boy, Tommy, won more years than he lost.
“Wow, will you look at that.” Zoe's voice interrupted his reminiscences.
He looked ahead at the hillside jammed with cars. “Almost looks like the mall parking lot at Christmas,” he commented as he turned into the lane.
Gert Gray's farm swept from hilltop to hilltop, spanning the valley in between. A dwindling herd of sheep speckled the sun-drenced pasture. The long farm lane turned off the ridge road, splitting the valley in half and rose toward the opposite ridge and the pristine white clapboard house with its nine-over-nine pane windows framed by green shutters. Flowerbeds bursting with color bordered the house and a well-tended vegetable and herb garden surrounded by a wire mess fence bordered the sidewalk next to the kitchen door.
As Pete's Bronco crossed the valley and started up the other side, he turned into the recently cut hayfield to find a parking space.
A circus-like atmosphere enveloped the picnic. Three large tents had been pitched just in case the weather had turned out less than the perfect day it was. Small children ran in clusters playing all the outdoor games that Game Boy and Play Station had almost made extinct. Older folks sat together, chatting about the how much better life had been twenty, thirty, forty years ago.
As Pete and Zoe strolled into the throng, a swarm of picnickers besieged them with questions about the murder. Pete sputtered out variations on the theme that he couldn't discuss the case just yet.
“Leave them alone, you gossip hounds,” a lanky, fair-haired man boomed good-naturedly as he waded through the crowd to rescue the new arrivals.
With a murmur, the mob wandered off, but not too far off.
“Thanks, Tom,” Pete chuckled. “I could use you for crowd control, if you ever need a job.”
Tom Gray had taken over the operation of the farm in recent years, but really didn't have the constitution for the long hours of manual labor. Best known as a free-wheeler with a love of scotch and cigars, he preferred parties to setting fence posts.
“I'll keep your offer in mind,” Tom said with a grin. He pointed out the tables overloaded with food set up under a canopy. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Pete and Zoe thanked him and moved toward the buffet. After they had piled a small mountain of fried chicken, corn on the cob, homemade noodles, coleslaw and three-bean salad on Styrofoam plates, Zoe guided Pete toward a circle of lawn chairs. In the center sat Gert Gray holding court with her loyal subjects.
“Zoe, my dear,” Gert called out. “It's so good to see you. It's been too long. And you, too, Chief. Welcome.”
For the bulk of her long life, Gert ran the farm alone, having been widowed close to fifty years ago. She single-handedly raised her son and still kept the books and gave the orders. And she raised Tom's two boys, as well. Now, as she greeted her guests, her pale eyes sparkled, showing no hint of the frailty of her body.
Zoe leaned down and gave the woman an affectionate kiss on one wizened cheek. “It's good to see you, too. You're looking as young as always.”
The old woman waved her off. “Lies. The young folks today all tell such lies,” she muttered, but her face gleamed with pleasure.
A tow-headed boy of about twelve or thirteen appeared at Gert's side. “Here's the lemonade you wanted, Grandma.”
Gert accepted the glass and slipped a bony arm around the boy's waist. “Thank you, Jeremy. Such a good boy.”
Pete studied the youngster. Although tanned from hours in the field helping his dad, Jeremy's face seemed drawn and he slumped, as though he were carrying around burdens much too heavy for his narrow shoulders.
“Jeremy, you've grown a foot since I saw you last,” Pete said.
A weak smile flickered across his face.
An outburst of laughter drew everyone's attention to a group of older teen-aged boys gathered at the edge of the yard. Most of them wore over-sized black jeans and dark, hooded sweatshirts even in the summer's heat. Pete had seen this bunch before and they always made an effort to give him a wide berth. However, the presence of Gert's oldest grandson within the gang surprised Pete. With his shock of blonde hair and white t-shirt, Tommy looked out of place.
“Ah, those kids,” Gert muttered. “Bad news, every one of them. All they do is hang around and do nothing. A good hard day's work wouldn't hurt a one of them.” She waved at them and called out for her grandson.
With his hands shoved deep in his pockets, Tommy left the group and shuffled over to stand beside his grandmother and younger sibling.
“Say hello to our guests.” Gert nudged him.
He mumbled something that sounded vaguely like a greeting.
To Pete, the boy looked like a zombie with dark circles under his eyes.
Zoe must have noticed it, too. “You look awful, kiddo. Don't you sleep?” she asked.
He averted his gaze. “I've been up late studying the last couple nights,” he said barely loud enough for them to hear.
Gert smiled and clapped him on the arm. “Good boys, the both of them. Their father and I are lucky to have them. You've got to appreciate every minute. They grow up so fast. And you never know how long any of us have on this earth. Why just look at dear old Wilford.” She shook her head sadly.
Gert's loyal subjects nodded somberly as they gnawed on their ears of corn. The boys hung their heads.
Gert began to reflect on her friendship with the dearly departed. Pete and Zoe listened in silence. After a couple of tales about Wilford and Gert's late husband, she took a deep breath. “I don't suppose any of you knew that Wilford and I were lovers.”
The area in Gert's immediate vicinity became deadly quiet. The color drained out of both boys' faces.
“Oh, it's been years ago,” Gert went on. “My Samuel had been long dead. But Wilford and I always stayed close.” She wiped a tear from her cheek. “I'll miss him. Chief, I sure hope you catch whoever did this terrible thing.”
Pete nodded. “Don't worry, Gert. I will get whoever killed him. Count on it.”
The conversation changed direction as someone in the group mentioned the price of oats. Pete nudged Zoe. “I'm going for seconds,” he whispered.
When Pete approached the buffet table, a small group from the initial welcoming party descended on him. Since he remained unwilling to offer his perspective on the big news item of the day, they freely offered their own theories on the case. Pete pretended to ignore the wild claims and speculations, but kept an ear open for some tidbit of information.
“I'll bet you his daughter did it,” came one theory.
“His daughter? Are you nuts, man?” someone else replied.
“It's always the person you're closest to, isn't that right, Chief? Besides, Wilford had a secret stash in the bank. He made a killing in the stock market a few years back. And Cheryl's got those two kids who'll be wanting to go to college in a couple more years.”
“Yeah,” another voice in the crowd chimed in. “And everyone knows that good-for-nothing husband of hers gambles away every cent they've got.”
Pete cleared his throat. “And just how do you know all this?”
The group of gossipmongers began to buzz like a swarm of bees. “It's common knowledge, Chief. Everyone knows.”
Yet another expert with his finger on the pulse of all the local news worth repeating—whether it was accurate or not-- spoke up. “You're all wrong. I'm willing to bet that old Ralph Wheeler did it.”
“Ralph? Why he's Wilford's brother-in-law,” someone else exclaimed.
“I know that. Ralph's hated Wilford for years because Wilford cheated on Ralph's sister,” the man's voice dropped to a clandestine whisper, “with Gert Gray.”
One of the others added in the same low tone, “Yeah, and I heard that Ralph had the hots for Gert, himself. So there you have it. A crime of passion.”
“It's no secret that Ralph hated Wilford. Why, you can ask him yourself, Chief. He's here at the picnic somewhere.”
“Thanks, gentlemen,” Pete said, licking his fingers after loading up on chicken. “I might just do that.”
“What are you doing?” Zoe appeared at Pete's side. “Leave something for the others to eat.”
The amateur sleuths mumbled greetings to her and slunk away to do their detective work.
“Thanks for baling me out,” Pete said with a grin.
She folded her arms in front of her. “Yes. You are quite the popular fellow around here, aren't you?”
“Have you learned anything?”
“You mean besides the fact that Gert had an affair with Wilford?”
“I know ,” Zoe said incredulously. “Can you believe it? And those two boys! Poor kids. What teen-age boy wants to hear that their grannie does… that ? They looked like they wanted to crawl in hole and die.”
“I did pick up on some gossip that could prove interesting,” Pete said and recounted the offerings of the local volunteer detectives.
“Well, shall we interrogate Mr. Wheeler?” Zoe asked.
“Ha. You don't think you're leaving me out of this do you?”
Pete grinned. “Never.”
They found Ralph Wheeler nursing a can of Budweiser and swapping barbs with a small group of local farmers. Pete apologized for the interruption and asked to speak to Ralph. Alone. The other men drifted away, but stayed close enough that those among them who didn't suffer hearing loss could still tune into the conversation. Pete cleared his throat and raised an eyebrow. They muttered and reluctantly headed toward the buffet.
“What can I do for you, Chief?” Ralph asked.
“I'm sure you've heard about Wilford Greene,” Pete said.
“Yeah, I have. I don't live under a rock, you know.” He took a slug of beer from the can. “I'd like to be able to say I was sorry. But I'm not. As far as I'm concerned, it couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy.”
“Don't hold back, there, Ralph,” Zoe quipped. “Tell us how you really feel.”
He nodded. “I am. No use hiding it. I despised the son of a bitch.”
“And why would that be?” Pete asked.
Ralph glared at Pete for a moment. “I have my reasons. And they're personal.”
“I don't suppose you'd own a .22, would you?”
“I do,” Ralph replied. “A Ruger Single Six, if you must know.”
“Do you know where it is right now?”
“Sure do. It's locked in a box in my bedroom closet. And since it sounds like you're accusing me of something, let me cut you off right now. I have an alibi.”
“You do? And what would that be?”
“Me and the boys had coffee at Pearl 's, then headed into the city for the big sportmen's show at the convention center.”
“And what boys would that be?”
Ralph rattled off a list of four of his usual cronies, none of whom were in attendance at the picnic. Pete jotted the names in his notebook and was putting the pen back in his pocket when his cell phone chirped.
“Excuse me a minute, would you?” he said to Ralph. “Don't wander off. I'm not done with you yet.”
“What? And miss more of this scintillating conversation? Never.”
“Hey, Chief. Seth here,” came the voice on the other end of the phone. “The divers just pulled a gun out of the lake near where they recovered Wilford's truck. It's a .22.”
“I'll meet you at the station in fifteen minutes,” Pete said, snapping the cell phone closed and turned back toward Zoe and Ralph.
“I have to go,” he said. “Ralph, I may need to see that gun of yours later.”
“No problem, Chief.”
Pete turned to Zoe. “You can stick around here if you want. I'm sure someone would give you a ride home.”
“No way,” she scowled. “You're not getting rid of me that easy. I'm coming with you.”
A waterlogged Harrington and Richardson .22 special nested on a brown paper bag on Pete's desk
“Do you think that's the murder weapon?” Zoe asked. “Ralph said his was a Ruger.”
Pete nodded. Handling the gun carefully, he slipped it into the bag, which he turned over to officer Seth Metzger. “Take this into the city and let the lab run its tests on it,” he said. “That's the only way we'll know for sure.”
Seth wasted no time heading for the door.
Pete slid into his chair with a groan.
“You don't really believe that Cheryl could have done this, do you?” Zoe asked, planting her jeans-clad derriere on the edge of Pete's desk.
He didn't, but he rubbed his eyes and shrugged. “I've got to check her out. The murderer often turns out to be the person closest to the victim.” The amateur sleuths at the picnic had that much right.
“Using that rationale, Gert could be a suspect.”
Pete met her gaze without smiling.
“Oh, come on, Pete,” Zoe exploded. “ Gert ?”
“I have to look into the possibility. As for Cheryl, you know anything about her financial troubles?”
“No,” Zoe admitted. “I don't know anything about the claim that Wilford was secretly rich either, but I could sure find out.”
Pete shook his head. “You're a deputy coroner, not a cop.”
“Maybe not, but you have enough on your hands. You have to investigate Ralph and Gert. And that damned symbol. Let's not forget that. Plus you've just sent an entire third of your department into the city with the gun.”
She had a point and he knew it. “The symbol,” he said pensively. “I can't for the life of me see a connection between any of the suspects and that symbol.”
“It would help if we had some idea of what it means.” Zoe had a knack for stating the obvious.
“When we find that out, I think we'll have our killer,” Pete mused.
Pearl 's Restaurant sat at the edge of the railroad tracks, across the road from the long-abandoned train station. The décor hadn't changed much since the 1940's and some might venture that the floor hadn't been waxed since then, either. Pete found all four of the men Ralph had named as his alibi crammed into a booth, sipping coffee out of sturdy white mugs.
“Hello, gents.” Pete pulled a chair up to the end of the booth and sat down.
“Chief,” they murmured.
“I was hoping you fellows could help me out.”
Rob Cunningham, lean and perpetually grimy from his work at the local garage, flagged down a waitress and motioned for an extra cup. “Be glad to. If we can,” he said. “What's up?”
“I understand you had coffee with Ralph Wheeler the afternoon Wilford Greene was killed.”
Rob nodded. “Yeah. The five of us met here and then went into the city for the sportsmen's show.”
The other three heads bobbed in agreement.
“Don't suppose you remember what time that was, would you?” Pete asked.
The waitress set a cup of black coffee in front of him.
Rob rubbed his chin. “We met here at one and left about a half hour later. Then we were at the show until…oh, I'd say six thirty, maybe seven.”
“Now wait a minute,” Dale Putnam spoke up. “Ralph wasn't with us the whole time, remember?”
Pete turned to Dale. “No?”
Dale shook his head. “Ralph left the show early. He said he had to meet someone. Didn't say who.”
The other two men nodded. “Yeah, that's right.”
“I'd forgotten about that,” Rob said. “He did leave early. But I couldn't tell you what time.”
No one else could either, beyond it was when they were at the Shimano display, checking out fishing reels.
“Okay,” Pete said, taking a sip of the coffee. “Well, thanks for your time.” He stood and pushed the borrowed chair back where it belonged. “Oh, by the way, since I've got you here, let me ask you something else. Do you recall seeing that strange symbol spray painted on the railroad trestle a while back?”
“That graffiti?” Rob frowned.
“Yeah, we've all seen it,” Dale said.
“Any idea what it means?” Pete asked.
They all shook their heads, their faces blank.
“Probably some kids from the city. Gang graffiti would be my guess,” Dale said.
“Yeah,” Pete agreed. “You're probably right. Well, have a good one, fellows. And thanks for answering my questions.”
“No problem, Chief.”
Pete tossed a dollar bill on the table, disregarding their protests, and headed for the door.
Zoe answered her phone on the third ring.
“Hey, it's me,” Pete said. He sat in his Ford Bronco in Pearl 's parking lot. “Did you find anything yet?”
“I'm just leaving the People's Federal Bank,” Zoe reported. “Wilford has an account here all right, but that's all they'd tell me. Stupid privacy regulations.”
Pete smiled and pictured Zoe in Pit Bull mode, trying to brow beat the poor teller into coughing up Wilford's bank balance.
“I'm going to head on over to Cheryl's place,” she went on, “and pay her a courtesy call to express my sympathies. I'll call you if I find out anything.”
Pete slipped the phone into his pocket and chuckled. If he could only infuse his officers with Zoe's enthusiasm for solving mysteries, the criminal element in his township wouldn't stand a chance.
He decided he'd better track down Ralph Wheeler and get a look at that Ruger. Pete made a return visit to Gert Gray's picnic, which was still going strong, but Ralph had left. Pete found Ralph's rusty Buick in his driveway and Ralph greeted him less than enthusiastically at his front door.
“Hello, again, Chief. What brings you here?”
Pete stepped into a tidy and prim living room. “I told you I'd be needing to see your gun.”
Ralph huffed indignantly. “Fine.” He led the way through the spotless house to the bedroom and flung open the closet door. He reached into the top shelf above his head and explored the space with one oversized paw. His face shriveled into a scowl. “I know it's here. Wait a minute.”
Pete waited as Ralph disappeared momentarily and returned with a kitchen chair. He thumped it down in front of the closet and climbed up. The chair wobbled under his weight and Pete winced, concerned that he may have to call in the ambulance crew if Ralph fell.
Ralph rummaged through the shelves, tossing what had been neatly folded blankets and comforters out onto the floor. With shoulders sagging, he stepped off the chair and turned to Pete.
“I swear it was here. I can't imagine what happened to it,” he mumbled.
Pete almost felt sorry for him. His confusion, in Pete's professional opinion, seemed sincere. “I talked to Rob and Dale and the boys at Pearl 's,” he said. “They mentioned you left the Sportsmen's show early to meet someone. Do you want to tell me about that?”
Ralph appeared to shrink in stature. “No, I don't. I think I'd better be calling my lawyer before I talk to you anymore. But I'll tell you this much; I did not kill Wilford Greene.”
Pete's cell phone chirped as he headed down Ralph's sidewalk toward the Bronco.
“Hey, it's me,” came Zoe's strained voice. “I think you ought to get over here to Cheryl's right now.”
He climbed behind the wheel. “What's going on?” he asked.
“I'd rather not say on the phone. Just get here.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, yes, I'm fine. But I think I've found something.”
Zoe greeted Pete at Cheryl Carpenter's front door. “I don't believe for a minute that Cheryl has anything to do with this,” she whispered as he stepped into the house. “But her boy has some interesting information I think you should hear.”
Red-eyed and drained, Cheryl slumped on her sofa. A carafe of coffee perched on the table in front of her. Her son sat next to her gently holding her hand.
Pete took a seat in a wing-backed chair. Zoe picked up the carafe and topped off Cheryl's cup before pouring a fresh one for Pete. Once she was seated, Zoe turned to the boy.
“Anthony, why don't you tell the chief what you told me. About the symbol.”
The boy squirmed. “Well, there's this bunch of guys in school—kind of outsiders, you know—and they've started hanging together. They call their gang ‘the Fraternity.' They're really bad news, you know. Like bullies and all. They get into trouble all the time for vandalizing school property.” His voice got very small. “I'm kind of, you know, scared of them.”
Cheryl squeezed his hand.
Zoe reached across the coffee table and patted his knee. “I know. And I appreciate you being brave enough to talk to us about them. Go on. Please.”
The boy drew a deep breath. “I've heard that they're very picky about who they'll let in. Invitation only, you know. And then you have to prove yourself to them. Kind of an initiation.”
“Like hazing?” Pete asked.
Anthony shook his head. “No, not really. I mean, maybe. Sort of. I've heard them call it a ‘rite of passage.'”
“Tell the chief about the ceremony,” Zoe prompted.
Anthony licked his lips. “Um, well, the group's leaders give the new guy a task to perform. You know, to show they're worthy. And when the task's been done, he has to sign it someway with the Fraternity's signature. The railroad trestle thing was one of them. That's the Fraternity's signature. That symbol. You know?”
Pete and Zoe exchanged glances.
Cheryl cleared her throat. “Excuse me, but what exactly does any of this have to do with my father's murder?”
“Maybe nothing,” Pete replied quickly before Zoe could open her mouth. “But it could lead to solving several other recent break-ins. Anthony, could you give me a list of names of these boys?”
The color drained from his face. “They'll kill me, sir. Please don't make me.”
“Son, this could be the vital link to taking some very bad people off the street. I need those names.”
The boy started shaking and a tear trickled down his cheek. “I—I can't, sir.”
Cheryl reached over and put a hand on her son's knee. “Chief, we've been through enough this week. I'm going to have to ask you to go easy on my boy. You'll have to get your names from somebody else.”
Pete sighed. “I understand. Anthony, is there anything else you can tell me about this Fraternity or their signature?”
He shook his head. “No, sir. I don't even want to know as much as I do, you know?”
“Yeah, I know,” Pete smiled reassuringly at the boy. “I want to thank you for your honesty. You've been a big help.” Pete stood up. “Now if you'll excuse me. Cheryl. Anthony.”
“I'll be leaving, too,” Zoe added. “If there's anything at all you need, call me. Okay?”
Cheryl nodded and thanked them both.
Outside, Pete and Zoe stood between their vehicles.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“Probably the same as you.”
“Do you think those young punks at the picnic could possibly be…the Fraternity?”
Pete shrugged. “If not, I'd be willing to bet they know who is. And when it comes to naming names, I won't let them off the hook like I did with Anthony.”
Zoe shuttered. “Tommy was with those boys. And did you see the look on Jeremy's face when we were talking about the murder?”
“Yes, I did,” Pete sighed. This was turning into another one of those days when he hated his job. “I'm going back over to the Gray farm. I'll call you later.”
“Ha! No way are you going over there without me, mister. I'll follow you in my car.”
The sun hung low on the horizon as Pete and Zoe parked their vehicles in the now nearly empty field.
“Looks like things are winding down around here,” Zoe remarked as they walked toward the farmyard.
“I remember when this shindig went on all weekend,” Pete grinned.
“Ah, the times, they are a'changin'.”
A few stragglers splashed around in the pond, but most of the guests had cleared out. Tom and Gert sat together in the yard, sipping the last of the beer.
“You're too late,” Tom called out with a grin as they approached. “The party's over.”
“There's still some food left, if you're hungry,” Gert offered.
Pete and Zoe pulled up a couple of lawn chairs. “Thank you, no. I'm fine,” Pete said.
“Me, too. I might grab a piece of that chicken before we go, though,” Zoe said.
“I see almost everyone's gone. Are Tommy and his friends still around?” Pete asked.
Tom snorted. “Not hardly. Those boys are afraid they might get asked to help clean up. They'll stay for food, but not for work.”
Gert shook her head. “Nasty bunch of punks, those boys. I sure wish Tommy wouldn't spend so much time with them. But you know kids. If I say too much, he'll get closer to them to spite me.”
Pete leaned forward. “You know that graffiti on the old railroad trestle? I don't suppose you've seen that symbol anywhere else, have you?”
Both mother and son shook their heads.
They looked up to see Jeremy crossing the yard toward them. His blonde hair glistened from a dip in the pond.
“You've seen that symbol?” Zoe asked.
“Yes, ma'am. I have.”
“Where, Jeremy?” Pete demanded.
“Come on. I'll show you.”
The four adults followed the young boy into the house. He led them to his brother's room and pulled open a drawer in the desk. From under an array of papers and markers and old candy wrappers, he exhumed a notebook. The Fraternity's signature was scrawled all over it.
“Tommy's threatened to bash my head if I ever told,” Jeremy said. “But I'm scared for him. Is he in trouble?”
Pete took the notebook and stared at the symbol. His throat felt dry. “I'm not sure.”
Tom stepped in front of Pete, his face a collage of rage and fear. “I want to know exactly what you're getting at, Chief. What do you think my boy's done?”
Pete met Tom's steely gaze. “I've heard you're quite a gun collector.”
Tom bristled. “Yeah. So?”
Pete put a hand on his shoulder. “Relax. I've got a pretty good collection myself. You should come over to the house sometime. I'll show it to you over a beer. But for now, I'm interested in a Harrington and Richard .22 special. Do you have one of those?”
“Would you mind showing it to me?”
Tom pointed to the door. “It's in the next room. Come on.” He led the group into his own bedroom, to a gun safe. He carefully shielded the dial as he entered the combination and heaved the door open. His hand fell on a felted shelf where nothing metallic greeted his touch.
“It's not here,” Tom whispered.
Pete sighed. “Do you know where Tommy and boys went?”
“No,” Tom and Gert answered in unison.
Jeremy cleared his throat. His voice came out, little more than a squeak. “I do.”
Zoe sat in the Bronco's passenger seat as Pete coasted into Butch Holleran's driveway. He had insisted she stay behind, but she could be as mule-headed as anyone he'd ever met.
Butch's mother directed them to the garage where they found him and Tommy and a half a dozen other teens sprawled on an old sofa and several folding chairs. As Pete and Zoe entered, the boys scrambled to stash what Pete glimpsed to be thin, stubby cigarettes with a familiar pungent odor.
“Good evening, boys,” Pete said calmly.
“What are you doing here?” Butch demanded. Butch's naturally red shock of hair had recently been given a die job that made him look as though he had dunked his head in a vat of black ink. He wore black everything; black shirt, black jacket, black cut-offs and black sneakers. A black bandanna encircled his head and his eyebrows and ears sported several piercings. He even had a smudge of black eyeliner around his deep-set green eyes.
“I'd like to talk to you fellows for a few minutes,” Pete said, pulling up a folding chair and turning it around to straddle the back of it.
“No, no.” Butch hauled his burly frame up from the sofa and moved menacingly toward him. “This is private property, man. I don't want you and your babe here.”
Zoe hiked an eyebrow, but kept her mouth shut.
“Well, alright then,” Pete shrugged. “I'll just call for a van to take the whole lot of you down to the station and we can talk there instead.”
“I ain't getting in no van,” one of the other boys, also attired largely in black, grumbled.
“None of us are.” Butch crossed his arms in front of him.
“Fine. I guess we'll talk here.” Pete pulled a close-up photograph of the symbol out of a folder he had carried in with him. “What can you boys tell me about this?”
“Nothing. Not a thing.” Butch glared at Pete without so much as looking at it.
Pete held it up to the other boys, most of whom kept their gazes anywhere but on the photo. “How about you fellows? Anyone seen this before?”
There was a round of murmurs, but no real response.
Pete aimed the photo directly at Tommy who cringed in the corner of the garage. “Tommy. Look familiar?”
Tommy tucked his chin toward his collarbones and managed to shake his head in such a manner that it looked more like a convulsion.
“No? Hmm. That's odd,” Pete said. “Because I've seen this same symbol drawn on your notebook.”
One of the boys closest to Tommy reached over and slapped him on the back of his head. “Idiot,” the kid growled.
“So, let me try this again.” Pete stood up from the chair. “Who wants to tell me about this symbol? Or should I call it a signature?”
“It don't mean nothing,” Butch said.
“Really?” Pete pulled a second photo from the folder. This one clearly showed the train trestle emblazoned with the same scrawl. “What about this?”
The room had grown quiet enough that Pete could hear the crickets trilling in the woods behind the house.
He pulled out yet another photo showing the vet's office decorated with the symbol and a fourth one showing the symbol carved into the crashed car's upholstery. “Any of these ring a bell for you? No? How about this one?” Pete held up a picture of his own bathroom mirror and the signature on it. “I just wonder if I dug around this garage a little bit, would I find my missing badge? Or I could get a search warrant for each of your houses. Bet your folks would love that.”
“You can't prove anything,” one of the boys blurted out. Butch shot a fierce look in his direction.
Pete withdrew the final photograph from his folder. He took a step toward Butch and shoved the autopsy photograph of Wilford Greene's chest in his face before holding it out so the other boys could see.
What slight tint of color had remained in Tommy's face, drained away. One of the boys wheeled away and made a retching sound as his dinner splattered on the concrete floor. The other boys turned away, squeezing their lips shut.
Only Butch remained unfazed. “Grow up, you morons,” he snapped at them.
The chirping of Pete's cell phone interrupted his presentation. “You boys will excuse me for a moment,” he said as he moved to a far corner, leaving Zoe to keep an eye on the Fraternity.
“Yes?” Pete said into the phone.
“Hey, boss, it's Seth. Got the report on that gun.”
“It's the murder weapon alright.”
Pete wasn't surprised. His voice dropped to whisper. “Okay. Here's what I need you to do. Tom Gray owns a Harrington and Richardson that's disappeared. Check to see if the murder weapon and his missing one are a match.”
“I'm on it, boss.”
Pete tucked the phone in his pocket and moved back toward the boys who had managed to compose themselves. “That call confirms that the gun we found at the lake is the weapon used to kill Wilford Greene.”
Butch's eyes widened and he turned to glare at Tommy. His lips parted into something very close to a snarl. Tommy's shoulders had hunched up around his ears and his arms wrapped around his suddenly frail-looking body.
Pete strode past Butch to stand in front of Tommy. “Your dad discovered that his gun—the same kind of gun that was used in Wilford's murder—is missing. It won't take too much longer to confirm that they are one and the same.”
Tommy began to shake and biting his lip did nothing to stop the flow of tears that trickled down his ashen face. “I'm so sorry,” he whimpered.
“Shut up!” Butch barked and lunged toward him.
Pete spun and held out a hand, blocking his approach. “That's enough from you. Sit down and keep your mouth shut.”
Butch sucked his lips into his face and for a moment, Pete thought that he, too, might begin to cry. But instead, he flopped down on the sofa and glared into space.
Pete looked at Tommy. “Tell me what happened, son.”
“I was so sick of always being the nerd. The farm kid. I just wanted to—belong to something. I—I thought I'd just have to do something like—I don't know—steal a car or break some windows, you know? But they told me I had to go hitchhiking and kill the person who picked me up. I didn't want to do it. I didn't even know who the old guy was. I sure didn't know my grandma was—like—friends with him.”
Zoe appeared at Pete's side. “But, Tommy, killing a man? To belong to a gang? How could you?” she asked, her own eyes filled with tears.
Tommy stared at his shoes. “I don't know. They made it sound like no big deal. And they gave me some stuff to make it easier.”
“Stuff?” Pete asked.
“Who gave you ‘stuff'?” Zoe asked.
Tommy looked at Butch. Butch looked as though he wanted nothing more than to wrap his fingers around Tommy's neck.
“We got it from the vet's office,” came a small voice from the boy who had lost his lunch.
Pete and Zoe exchanged looks. “I think you'd better call for that van,” she said.
Zoe sat across Pete's desk from him, picking onions off her cheeseburger. “It's really so sad, isn't it?” she sighed.
Pete dragged a French fry through a gob of ketchup. “It's up to the courts to sort through the whole mess, now.”
“Oh, did I tell you?” she began, licking her fingers as she spoke. “I finally found out about Wilford's ‘fortune.' There wasn't one. The only stock he ever owned was his cows and pigs.”
Pete nodded. “And Ralph called. He found his gun. His wife's a bit of a compulsive cleaner and she moved it when she did the closets.”
“What about him leaving the sportsman's show early to meet someone?” Zoe frowned.
Pete chuckled and shook his head. “I haven't a clue.”
Zoe laughed. “I'll bet those gossip hounds from Gert's picnic could spin a lovely yarn about it.”
“Yep,” Pete agreed. “And their stories don't have to be accurate to be popular.”
“But they'll swear that they're true.”
The phone rang. Pete wiped his fingers on a paper napkin before picking it up. Zoe watched him intently as he listened to the caller. “Okay, I'll be right there,” he said and hung up.
“What?” she demanded.
“There's a report that a hiker found a dead body out in the woods behind the old Sullivan place.” Pete wrapped his lunch in the paper it had come in and shoved it aside. “You can stay here and finish your food. I'll call you if I need you.”
“Ha! A dead body? Of course you need me.” Zoe crammed the last of the burger in her mouth and tossed the wrapper in the trashcan beside the desk. “You don't think you're going to get away with leaving me behind, do you?”
Pete smiled. “I wouldn't dream of it.”