Problems in the Ponderosas Ch. 02byHansTrimble©
Val and I were sitting with detective Harry Peters in his office at police headquarters downtown. He had gone over the responses Clyde had given to my questions in the interview room. "I'd like to go out to the woods with you two and get a better idea of what was going on where. Do you think you could find the clearing again where you went for your picnic?"
"I think so. No guarantees, though. What do you think, Val?"
"We had plastic wine glasses with us, the kind that the base snaps onto the stem, and we never got to use them. Later, when we got our stuff back from there, after it had been taped off as a crime scene, they weren't with the rest of it. All the stuff had been pawed through by the police, and I guess the wineglasses didn't get packed back in the backpack. Must have been dropped or whatever. I didn't worry about them because they weren't worth much, but they might still be out there in the woods, so if we come across them, they'd show that we're in the right place, wouldn't they?"
Harry was thinking. "What I want to find is the tree with the bullet in it. Not that there aren't other bullets in other trees from hunters, but this one was aimed to the north, and hunters know they aren't supposed to shoot in that direction, toward the railroad. So maybe that would be a sign. I don't know if we could read a direction from a bullet in a pine tree. It should have gone in a little way. Pine's soft compared to oak or maple, so itshouldn't be just a smeared bullet on the surface. If there's enough of a hole, we can get a direction from it."
That had me thinking. "Look, when the bullet hit, the sound of the shot came real quick. Not seconds, more like half a second. The bullet should have been going about three thousand feet a second. Hunters like three thousand because it gives them a pretty flat trajectory and if they've guessed the distance wrong, it won't make a lot of difference in the drop of the bullet. The sound would have been traveling at around eleven hundred, but we can round it off to a thousand for rough guesswork. Here, let me have some paper to figure this out. Every second that the bullet traveled, it got ahead of the sound wave by two thousand feet. And then the sound wave would take two seconds to catch up. But I think the sound wave caught up in half a second, which means that the bullet flew for only a quarter of a second. And in that time it would travel a quarter of three thousand, or 750 feet. So if you can find the direction from the tree, and you go that direction for 750 feet, you ought to be around where Clyde fired the warning shot. Sort of rough calculating, but it ought to give you a ballpark. Maybe if you can get the rifle and the ammo to your lab, they could measure the velocity accurately and come up with a closer approximation."
Harry stuck his head out of the office door. "Bruce, I've got a job for you." Bruce came into the office. "Go get the rifle that was used in the killing by the railroad, and the cartridges that were with it. Get them to the lab and have them measure the muzzle velocity with three shots, and let me know what they were. Right away."
Bruce sped away and Harry got onto the phone. "This is Harry Peters at headquarters. Who's the duty sergeant this afternoon?" Pause. "Steve, Harry Peters. Who led the search party out in the woods after the shooting by the railroad track? Okay, get him on the horn and have him call me at headquarters, or if he's near here, have him come to my office. Good. Thanks."
The phone rang almost as soon as Harry had come back to his seat at the conference table. "Peters." Pause. "Gordon, when you canvassed the woods, where did you go?" Pause. "Is that all? Who the hell told you to do that?" Pause. "I should've known. Thanks a lot."
"Your friend Captain Mueller had his men search from your picnic clearing to the railroad. In other words, they were nowhere near the spot where the action was taking place. The could have missed it by a quarter of a mile. If we go out there with a search party, we can look for a place where Riley left a shovel, some handheld instrument, and binoculars. That's where Clyde fired his warning shot, and there ought to be an empty case there from his rifle cartridge."
"Yes," I said, "but that's the wrong place for the hole he wanted Clyde to dig, because he was still looking when all this action started. So we'll know where Clyde fired the shot, but not the place where Riley's hole was supposed to be dug."
"Well, then we'll go in there with Clyde and see if he can really read the trees and the woods the way he said he can."
CAN'T SEE THE FOREST FOR THE TREES
The unmarked police car came to pick us up at 6:30 in the morning. The driver, a detective named Hank, had brought coffee for both of us, which perked us up a bit. Val sipped hers and said, "This could be a good day after all."
Hank said, "We'll have a couple of the lab boys with us. Harry wants us to divide into two groups, you two with Clyde, to try to pump all the info out of him that you can. Maybe he'll like being out in the woods instead of in a jail cell, and that may get him to open up a little, volunteer something that he hasn't told us yet."
"Yeah, Val, maybe you can play on his ego a little, you know, the way you do with me when you want to manipulate me for something."
"Why, what ever can you mean by that? Surely a big strong man like you could never be manipulated by a poor, defenseless little girl like me. What an awful thought! You ought to be ashamed, you big brute, you."
"Yeah, like that. Like your full length leather coat, or the stereo for your car. That way."
"Oh, whatever must you think of me? I could never do a thing like that."
"At least today I can watch how you do it, so the next time you pull it on me I'll see it coming."
We were turning in off Miller Road and starting along the railroad right of way when I noticed cars up ahead. Looked like a pretty big deal. And all the cars except one were unmarked. "Is Captain Mueller going to be here?" I asked.
"No. You probably haven't heard. He's been reassigned. There's a woman captain running that station now. I think that's probably her over there in uniform." I could see a tall, blond woman with her back to us, and as we got closer I could see the twin bars on her collar. Whatever was going on, she was laughing at something that Harry Peters had just said.
"Where's Captain Mueller now?"
"I haven't heard. Maybe someplace where he can't do any damage. If they could ever find such a place."
"Who's going to be with us and Clyde?"
"I will, and one other detective, probably Bruce. No uniforms. That was Harry's decision."
"Hank, just exactly what is Harry's title?"
"Just Detective, First Class, but with seniority over everybody else in the bureau and the ear of the Chief of Detectives, the Chief of Police, plus everybody who matters in the city government, state police, prosecutor's office. Harry doesn't talk all that much, but when he does, people listen. In this job, that's more important than all the titles in the employee handbook."
LOOK AT THE TREES AND FORGET THE FOREST
Clyde was leading us into the woods by the route that he said he had taken with Riley. We went straight in, heading due south, until he found a tree that he said was special. I had to take his word for it; they all looked alike to me. Val was at my side, and Hank was behind us, dropping little yellow markers, like Hansel and Gretel with the bread crumbs. Up front with Clyde was Bruce, who seemed to be taking an interest in the trees that Clyde pointed out as we walked along. From the special tree we went southwest, and soon were in a slight dip in the terrain. We turned east at that point and followed the dip until Bruce exclaimed and ran forward. He picked up a long handled shovel and waved it over his head to show that we were at the point where Riley had been searching. The wrong place to dig, but a good place to search.
Clyde was looking all around on the ground, and finally found the handheld instrument, which he handed to Bruce. Hank walked past Val and me, and looked it over. Turned on, it merely emitted clicks at random intervals, maybe ten or twenty a minute. Hank held it up to his watch and it clicked rapidly. I turned to Val and exclaimed, "It's a Geiger counter! Hank's got a watch with a radium dial, to glow in the dark. We must be looking for something that's radioactive!"
Hank got on his gee-whiz radio and asked for the lab techs to join our party. He handed them the Geiger counter and explained that the thing we wanted to find was apparently radioactive. They began a coordinate search of the immediate area. Meanwhile I got Val talking with Clyde to see what we could draw out of him. "When Riley was searching for the place to dig, how did he know where to look?"
"He had stuff wrote down. I remember when he found this little swale here he was excited. He kept sayin' as it hadn't been buried all that long an' it oughta be easy to spot. I seen a coupla places like that but he di'n't want no conversation so I kep' my mouth shut."
"Where were these places you found? Around here?"
"Wull, yeah. Jus' over yonder, like." We walked over to a place where the thick mat of pine needles and aspen leaves was slightly rolled back. "See here, an' they's another'n over there."
Bruce saw us looking at the ground and came over, still carrying the shovel. "Can we mark these spots, Bruce?" I asked. He dug into his coat pocket and pulled out two of the little yellow markers. I set them on the ground at the two places and started to look for more spots like them.
Val joined Clyde in the search and soon she shouted, "Over here!" I looked at the three spots and noticed that they formed a right angle. Bruce noticed it as soon as I started to point it out to him, and soon we were drawing a crowd. The tech with the Geiger counter brought it to the midpoint of a line connecting the two most widely separated points, and moved it around. Suddenly the clicking became a buzz, and then at one particular spot, a screech. Clyde reached for the shovel and started to dig. He had removed three shovels full of dirt and was pushing the shovel down into the ground farther when he hit something. Hank handed him a small trowel and he got down on his knees and carefully dug around a small object, like a box. Eventually it came loose, and he could lift it out of the hole. The Geiger counter went crazy when it was pointed at the object. We all stepped back and looked at it lying there on the ground, as if it were alive.
Harry Peters walked up to the crowd, with the blond captain at his side. They listened to the explanations from Bruce and the senior lab tech, and spoke together quietly for about a minute. Then Harry spoke up in a normal voice. "For those of you who have not had the pleasure, I'd like to introduce Captain Bobby Winston, the commander of the fifth precinct. She's going to tell you how we'll handle this new twist in the case.
"Thank you, Harry. We'll cordon off the area with crime scene tape, and mark the trail from here out to the railroad right of way. As we're leaving the site, uniformed officers will guard the area until the Department of Energy can take it over. After they have examined the radioactive object we will meet with them to decide whose case this will be and what direction the investigation will take from that point on. Thank you all for your help in finding this, whatever it is."
As Harry and the captain turned to head back out of the woods, Harry indicated Val and me with a wave of his hand, and she walked over to us. "I wish to thank you personally for all you two have done for us. You helped us find this mysterious treasure, and you managed to get our only inside witness to cooperate. But besides that, the wording of your agreement to help in exchange for immunity was the nudge that got the department to remove Captain Mueller from his command, a necessary move that had been postponed far too long."
Val was all smiles. "We're very happy about the change of management, and we're glad to meet you. Congratulations on your new command. It was fun helping out. Please, Captiain, be gentle with Clyde. He's really not an evil person, and he needs a little help to understand what's happening."
"I understand. Harry tells me that you two just moved in together. That's a big move. It's a long time since I was at that stage of my life, and I wish you the best of luck."
Val gave my hand a squeeze, and I said, "Thank you, ma'am. We wish you luck too, with a precinct to make over in your image. If there's any other way that we can help you, just ask."
"I've already been thinking about that. Please call and make an appointment for both of you to come and see me next week, whenever it's convenient. There's something I'd like to talk over with you."
FORGET RADIOACTIVITY, HERE'S A REAL CRISIS!
We got home to our little castle on Walnut Street, walking on a cloud. That metaphor was reinforced because we left the weight of our muddy hiking boots at the door and proceeded in our socks. We were talking about what a difference it makes to have the right person in command of the precinct. Our egos were puffed up and we were thinking all the best of thoughts, right up until we turned the corner in the hallway and cold water soaked through to our feet. Might as well say to our souls. Every step brought a fresh squishing sensation. Each sock became totally saturated as the foot was raised up, and then the water was squeezed out between our toes as we stepped down on that foot again. What a mess!
We soon learned that there was too much water on the floor to soak up if we put every towel in the house down on the floor. Our natural impulse was to go into the guest bathroom to plan our next step, but the water was just as deep there as in the hallway. We took off our sodden socks and tossed them into the bathtub, which allowed us to feel our wet pantlegs slapping against our shins with every step. So we took our jeans off and hung them on the clothes hook. I went to the mudroom, where the wet and dry shop vacuum cleaner was sitting, and then realized that I'd have to open it up and clean out the dirt inside before using it to suck up water. That meant taking it out to the back yard in my wet, bare feet. By the time I was coming back in, I was leaving muddy footprints with every step. At least I was using the mudroom for its intended purpose. "Val, I need a towel to wipe my feet."
"I can't bring you one without leaving more wet footprints across the living room carpet."
"Wait a minute till I can get outside the bathroom window and you can hand one out to me."
Ever walk barefoot across your back yard? For the first twenty feet, the lush grass felt good, but then I got to the gravelly part and every step was a fresh discomfort. But I was heroic, got the towel Val threw to me, and got back to the mudroom where I wiped my feet sort of clean. Then, carrying the big vacuum cleaner to keep it up off the carpet, I got it to the hallway and plugged its power cord in alongside the washing machine plug.
As soon as the vac was turned on, it started to suck up the water. Very encouraging. But once it was full, it shut itself off and had to be emptied. Simplest thing in the world, except that the tank holds about ten gallons of water, which weighs about eighty pounds, and you can add fifteen for the vacuum cleaner. Lifting that up gently to pour the water into the toilet, without dumping half of it back onto the floor, isn't as much fun as it might seem. We settled for lifting the whole thing into the bathtub and tipping it over. Then we got back to the floor, which looked just as wet as it had before we started. It took six trips to the bathtub before we had got up all the water that the vacuum cleaner would pick up, which left water still covering the floor, just not very deep.
Naturally, the water had soaked into the living room and bedroom carpets from the underside, where it doesn't dry. We were exhausted from wrestling with the vac, and we hadn't got the hall and bathroom floors really dry yet, and had soggy carpet in the living room and both bedrooms. Do I have to mention that we still had no idea what went wrong to put all that water onto the floor in the first place?
"That's it! I'm going out on the back patio to sit for a minute." First I called our insurance agent, who promised an adjuster before nightfall. Then I called Val's mother, who as always was a voice of sanity amid the confusion. "Look, the adjuster will know the people who clean up this sort of stuff. When they come to get things dried up, they'll bring big blowers that sound like airplanes taking off. The whole house is going to be affected, and you still don't know about your drywall or what made the water leak all over. If it's some major thing with your washing machine, you're probably as well off to buy a new one as to fix the old one. Let's have you come here tonight, to have supper and sleep over. Then tomorrow I'll go back there with you and help you make sense of it all. Okay?"
"Absolutely! No argument from me. Thanks for the invitation and your help. Here, Val wants to say something."
"Oh, Mom, this is just awful! I've been trying to be so brave about it all, but I know once I see you I'll just bawl my eyes out." Pause. Then, unexpectedly, a chuckle. "Oh, you're right. Thanks, Mom. See you later."
"What was that all about?"
"She's so wonderful. She said, 'At least it's just water. Suppose it was all molasses.' That sort of restored my perspective and I felt better. She's right. It's just water. Let's relax and have a beer."
The adjuster came an hour later, and an hour after that we had people all over our house who specialize in cleaning up water damage. An hour after that, carpets were turned back to expose the wet padding underneath, blowers were howling, and a man was punching holes in our walls to determine how much of the drywall would have to be replaced. A washing machine repairman showed up then, to diagnose the cause of the problem.
By the time we left to go to Val's parents' house, the repairman had replaced the discharge hose that had failed; the blowers were howling away and would continue all night long; every window in the house was open; the extent of the damage had been determined and the cost estimate had been sent to the insurance adjuster; we had gathered up enough stuff for an overnight stay; the house was locked up; the police had been alerted to the fact that our windows were open, and we were off for a good dinner and a chance to get away from it all.
A FRIENDLY SURPRISE
Late Wednesday afternoon Val and I were in Captain Winston's office. The captain had excused herself to go into her private bathroom, and soon reappeared, dressed in comfortable slacks and a loose sweatshirt. She pulled her desk chair around the end of the desk so she could sit without any furniture coming between us. This was a nice touch, and showed that she wanted us to be on the same social level for our conversation. What in the world would be this important? Val and I were holding hands, and she gave me a squeeze as we waited for the other shoe to drop.
"I envy you two, obviously so much in love, your whole lives ahead of you. I vaguely remember what life was like when I was your age, and it was marvelous. It was a time when I had everything going for me, and the full weight of responsibility hadn't come down on me yet. I was in touch with the world on a personal level, seeing how everything and everybody functioned and interacted, and feeling a part of it all. It was a glorious feeling.
"Now I have to shoulder the responsibility for a whole precinct of policemen and women and the maintenance of law and order in a large area of the city, plus all our interactions with other parts of the city government and other law enforcement agencies, plus the prosecutors and the courts. It's true that I love every minute of it, but I'm so busy running everything from the inside out, that I don't have the luxury of seeing how it looks from the outside looking in. Do you see what I mean?"