Peril in the Pines Ch. 05byHansTrimble©
BACK TO THE BRICKS
The next morning I'd just finished updating my list of which deputies were going where when the Sheriff stepped into my office and closed the door. This was so unusual that I immediately dropped what I was doing and stood up. "What's up?"
He took a chair and said, "I've got interesting news about the brickmakers. The state CID director called me, all excited. And it takes a lot to get those guys stirred up. They think they have a lead on the big boss of that operation and it's not good. You know what a problem it always is when we have a dirty cop. He thinks the boss of the brickworks is somebody in the state government. He asked me if we could help him sort it out, work with them to make sure they've got the right guy."
"Any details available? Like what's inside the bricks, to start with?"
"They've figured out that there are two varieties, and they can tell them apart by a very faint color at one end. The ones that are yellowish contain uncut diamonds, and the ones that look a trifle greenish contain drugs, but not the kind you'd expect. It's powdered oxycontin, ready to be made into tablets by anybody who has a pill press. The bricks are also very sophisticated, made from powdered silica but with a binder added to keep them intact if they get wet. But if they're cooked up in hot water, around 180 degrees I think he said, they break down immediately. The payload is in what they're calling a capsule, like a small jar made of aluminum with a screw top. It's all sealed up tight until somebody unscrews the lid. The jars with the diamonds are smaller than the jars with the oxy, so all that somebody at the receiving end has to do is dump a bunch of bricks into a big pot, fill it with water and cook it up, and then spill out the whole mess onto a coarse screen and sort out the jars that are left after the pulverized rock has been washed away."
"Seems like a complicated way to hide something."
"The key is in the distribution. We picked up about three thousand. They could make millions of them, and the payload could even be something entirely different in each lot. The brick scheme is just a way to store and move high value contraband, without anybody knowing what it is. There could be tons of stuff already shipped all over the country that we never knew about."
"Okay, I can see that. But who is the suspect?"
"We don't know."
"And how can we help?"
"We don't know that, either. He's just trying to line up players right now, assemble a team that can jump in when he knows more."
Our Saturday night dinner party started on Saturday afternoon, with everybody sitting around our backyard patio, sipping drinks and, by the time that we were on our second round, telling stories. I heard about funny things that Marty and Marilyn did when they were dating, how Marilyn became the unofficial mother figure for their "gang," and about the time they all went to Colorado together to a custom car show and Marty rented one motel room, in which all the guys slept on the floor in sleeping bags while Marty and Marilyn shared the bed, and how embarrassed Marilyn was to be seen in bed with Marty because they weren't married yet.
Then there was the story about the afternoon of their wedding reception. The guys got drunk and put a black bra on the statue of Venus in the garden where the reception was held. Gordon added one last detail, "Nobody ever knew whose bra it was!"
"I knew," said Marilyn.
"It wasn't yours, was it?"
"No. Remember Geraldine, my bridesmaid?"
"It was hers?"
"Tommy Wilkins helped her out of it down by the weeping willow tree, and put it in his pocket. Later it fell out on the ground, and one of the other guys picked it up and was waving it around. Gerry couldn't very well say, 'Hey, that's mine,' so nobody objected when they put it on the statue. It was a pretty good fit, too."
Jan looked over at me. "You'd better not let anybody pull a stunt like that when we get married."
"Look, unless you want to elope we'll have every cop in the county at our reception, with plenty to drink and Gordon and the Sheriff and your mother there to coach them. So there's no telling what might happen. Twenty-five years from now we can all sit around and tell stories about it to our next generation and they'll say things like, "Mother! How could you let such a thing happen?"
Jan came over and sat on my lap and said, "Now Mom and I have to go in and check the roast and do a bunch of other things or nobody will be eating tonight. I want you to remember every story that gets told so you can tell me later."
Rose stood up and said, "I'll come and help." That's how she said it, not "Is there anything I can do?" but with a positive spin on it, to show she wanted to help. Grace chimed in, too, and all four of the ladies went trooping off to the kitchen and left us men alone.
Vince leaned forward conspiratorially and asked in a lowered voice, "Okay, what's the story on Kathleen Cafferty?"
Gordon looked at me, and I just shrugged my shoulders and said, "Oh, go ahead and tell him. I think it's sort of funny anyway."
So Gordon launched into the sad, screwed up tale of Kathleen and her abortive career in law enforcement. That done, I explained the pressure that had been brought to bear on the Sheriff by the mayor and the monsignor to give her a job, and how that one hiring decision had brought about the plan to give us almost a whole new building.
Vince, being Vince, sat and thought about it for a few seconds. "Gordy, what kind of a person is she?"
"Well, I'd say she'd be an asset to any department. Start with her appearance. She stands about five seven or eight but she doesn't appear that big because she's so perfectly proportioned. Very pretty face. She works out and keeps herself in good shape, bench presses about two hundred, but she doesn't look like a big muscled person. She's fast, too. In martial arts, she can take any of your medium sized deputies and put him on his back. The high grades she's made speak for themselves, but for all that, I think of her as a little girl. She hasn't any street smarts. If she knows that a guy is bad, she can take care of business, but there's a good chance that she'd never suspect him of whatever he's up to because she doesn't think of people the way we do. And it's not exactly that she's been sheltered. She's just so nice that everybody has always been nice to her in return. You get what I'm saying?"
"She's a diamond in the rough, and with the right polishing she can be a real jewel."
I got my two cents in. "And you are going to partner with her and educate her in the ways of the world, for two reasons. I want her to learn the ropes the right way, and you can teach her far better than anybody else. And I don't want any harassment of her. Period. This girl has a right to a job, and I'm sure she'll be an asset to the department. Diversity is real, and we're behind the times. We'll be getting Hispanic and African American and American Indian deputies and it's up to us to integrate them as coworkers and friends. The community looks to us for direction, and we'll supply it without exception."
Vince smiled. "So we're coming into the twenty-first century, at last. Well, you're right, Jack, I am the best one to give this girl her street training, and I'll do it right. Probably Rose will invite her to dinner one night to get her to feel less like an outsider, and I understand where you're coming from about the guys treating her with respect. That'll be my project, too."
"Okay, so now all you have to do is keep this under your hat until it happens. When I announce it, look surprised."
"Oh, I will. How's this?" and he made an exaggerated face to indicate the kind of shock that would mean he just saw a ghost. That was good for a laugh, and we were exchanging droll comments about that and related subjects when Marilyn came out to announce that we should come in to dinner. When we were all seated around the dining room table, I asked, "Marilyn, you're the senior member of our little family. Would you please say grace?"
"Dear God, thank you for good friends to warm our hearts and good food to warm our stomachs. Please watch over us going out and coming in, and keep us all in peace and safety, in Jesus' name. Amen."
Gordon chuckled. "Marilyn, you always did have a way with words, and you haven't lost it."
After dinner we were sitting at the table, digesting. Let me make it clear that the food was not delicious. No, it went way beyond that, maybe to superb, or magnificent, and we'd all had seconds of something because it was so good and the company was so pleasant. We were basking in the glow of the well fed, and I asked, "Rose, Vince said that you would be the best one to tell us how you two met. Would you enlighten us?"
"Oh, well, all right. Now I know you've probably never noticed it, but he and I are both a little on the tall side." That drew a laugh. "We were at a basketball game, over at the college. We like basketball, especially because when we're in the company of all those giants, they make us look petite." More laughter. "During halftime, everybody was milling around, getting coffee and snacks, and in came a deputy all covered with snow to announce that while we were all concentrating on first half of the game it had started snowing, and it wasn't safe to drive right then. By the time the game ended it was a real mess. The parking lot hadn't been plowed, and some of the streets were cleared of snow but not many. The deputy was back and he got on the public address system, to say that plowing was going on but it would be safest if people would hang around the gym for an hour, to give the trucks a chance to get caught up. You know how people are, impatient when anything interferes with their plans. I was relieved to have a place to wait where I'd be warm and dry but a lot of people were grumbling. Somebody said let's just sit down on the bleachers again instead of standing around, so we did, and a guy Vince had gone to school with yelled, 'Hey Vince, why don't you do your magic act for us?' and somebody else said, 'Yeah, Vince, do it,' and then a lot of people were shouting it, so Vince got up. This magic act was something he'd done in high school, tricks that didn't use special equipment but relied on presto, no, pesti, no, Vince what's that word?"
"Prestidigitation. The hand is quicker than the eye."
"He came out onto the basketball court and made a few things disappear and then pop up where you'd never expect them to be. Then he called for a volunteer from the audience, and one of my friends pushed me out toward him. He started the bit about what's your name and have we ever met before, and I said yes. That's not what he expected. He said, 'We have, where?' and I said 'On Route 85. You gave me a speeding ticket and it cost me a hundred dollars,' and everybody laughed. Then he said, 'Well, I'll give you a chance to make your money back,' and he did the trick where he makes a twenty dollar bill look like a whole bunch of them, and then when he shakes the handkerchief just the one bill falls out. The whole crowd went 'Awwwww.' and felt sorry for me. So I went right along with it and pretended to cry. He was still holding the handkerchief so he made a big show of wiping my tears, and we bowed, and everyone applauded like crazy. While they were applauding and asking for one more trick, he said to me that I'd made his act look good, and he'd like to show his appreciation by taking me out to dinner. So that's how it all happened. It was true about the ticket, but I've forgiven him. And I drive slower now."
"I never knew you could do magic," I said. I've always been fascinated by guys who can do all those things with just their hands. Can you explain any of it?"
"Just like anything else that's tricky, it takes lots of practice. There's usually an element of misdirection, but the thing that all those tricks depend on is being good with your hands, meaning every single finger. Like this," and he took out a half dollar and held it between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. Then it looked as if the coin suddenly had a mind of its own, flopping from the back of one finger to the next while he held his hand in sort of a loose fist. It went stepping down to the little finger and then came back again, ending up right where it started. "Now I'll do it slowly and you'll see the very slight movements of the fingers that make the coin move like that." It was pretty amazing. At the end of the magic demonstration he flipped the coin up in the air and caught it with his left hand, and he did the down the fingers and back up the fingers trick slowly, then faster, and then so fast that it was just like a blur. And mind you, this was his left hand and Vince is right handed. We all applauded the show. He looked sort of bashful and made a show of fumbling around and dropping the coin. Then he looked for it on the tablecloth, and all over, looking puzzled, until he finally said, "Oh, there it is," and lifted it out of Rose's cleavage. He was good, no doubt about that. And he also had hands big enough to use a half dollar for tricks that guys my size would do with a quarter.
The party didn't last too long after that. Marilyn didn't have her car, so Vince and Rose dropped her off on their way home. Jan and Grace excused themselves and turned in, while Gordon and I sat in the living room and enjoyed a snifter of good French cognac. Gordon asked, "Was this the first time you've entertained?"
"Yes. We've talked about it but we don't have that many friends in common yet. Remember that I'm only recently back here after five years of wearing government clothing."
"How bad was it over there?"
"Bad. Maybe I'm just reflecting an enlisted man's view of things, but I found that the enlisted men were pretty good soldiers, whereas the officers were a very spotty bunch. Some excellent, but a lot of them not very good. There were officers who came out of National Guard and reserve outfits, who'd been just going to meetings and getting paid for it as an easy way to pick up a few bucks, without giving much attention to the details of being responsible leaders. ROTC officers were good, and West Point grads were the best. But most of the real leadership, training, and supervision was done by noncoms."
"Well, that hasn't changed a lot then since I was in. We had a few lieutenants who'd received battlefield commissions, and they knew what they were doing. But it's hard for an officer to get into a position to see a war from the soldier's viewpoint, and that's where it's being fought. So any officer who hasn't gone on patrol with his men knows as much about the war as a guy back home reading the newspaper.
"The same is true of police work. A guy like Vince is worth his weight in gold because he's constantly seeing the real world close up. I hope you're getting out there on the street, and in the farmland. What's your impression of the men you've got out there in the cars?"
"Better than I expected. I've got a couple that need some re-motivating, but even the ones who appear apathetic, come to life when they need to. They know how to do the things that cops have to do, but their strategic thinking has never matured. None of them are candidates for firing, but some of them just need to be tutored a bit, so they can see what's important."
"Funny you should say that. I've been thinking about offering a refresher course for patrol officers. I think we might help some who've become complacent, and we could get some useful feedback from them, too, to learn what's really going on out there. We record audio and video in our classrooms all the time, and we sometimes pick up useful information that way. Our problem is figuring out what to do with what we learn. Some of the police chiefs and commanders are really anxious to improve, but some are resentful when we try to help them. And going to city managers and mayors is a joke. So our problem isn't so much getting information, as being able to put it to use."
"Well, if you come across any info that I could use, let me know right away. I promise that I'll use anything I can get my hands on to improve our performance. We owe the taxpayers that much."
"I'll let you in on a secret. We all have to keep working constantly on improving everything we do or see or hear or touch. It's not a challenge that gets done once and then it's over with. It has to be an everlasting preoccupation with making everything better and better and better, because we can never get it perfect. Your department is one of the best in the state, and yet if we put a good evaluation team in there for a week they'd come up with a list of things to work on that would cover half a dozen pages. Your Sheriff knows this, and you do too, I'm sure, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. But ignoring the need to improve, that would be something to be ashamed of."
"Speaking of useful information, Gordon, do you have any information on Kathleen Cafferty that would help me as I try to get her settled in successfully with my deputies? I'm anxious to do this right, because she'll become the cornerstone for diversifying the department."
"I'll put together a confidential file on her for your eyes and Vince's and the Sheriff's, only. I'll help you through this. Have faith. This will all work out and you'll come out of it knowing how to handle the next one better.
"But we'd better leave some problems for tomorrow. If we solve 'em all tonight, tomorrow will be a dull day. Many thanks for your hospitality. Good night, Jack."
THE BUG INFESTATION
I had called the state CID detective who was working the case of the mysterious bricks, and asked him to get together with me at the abandoned mine where the bricks were made. Two days later I was standing beside Detective Dolan in a doorway of a big, barnlike building looking at the press that he said the bricks had been formed in. He put a finger to his lips, and waved his hands at the things he wanted me to see. Then he took me by the arm and walked with me twenty yards from the building. "You can see that the mold has cavities for making twelve bricks. Our tech staff has estimated that it could make a dozen bricks in a half hour. Allowing fifteen minutes to dump out the bricks, fill the mold cavities halfway, set the capsules in, fill the mold the rest of the way, and close the mold again, we can talk twelve bricks every forty-five minutes, or nearly two hundred bricks in a twelve hour workday. That's a thousand a week. And they could expand, with more shifts, or more molds. You can see that in this building they're using maybe five per cent of the floor space. The main ingredient, pulverized rock, is from the tailing piles. They've got enough of it out there to last them a hundred years, just from this one mine, and there are mines all over the state.
"We figure this was a trial run. Three thousand bricks should be plenty to prove out the process. They could move them to selected destinations by truck, train or barge, because unless you Xray them, you'd never know they weren't just regular bricks to build stuff with. And who's going to Xray a brick? They'd need a connection to some building materials retailer, where the right people could order them by the pallet load, and get them delivered. Or the guy at the other end could pick them up with his own truck, and take them wherever because nobody tracks purchases of bricks. And if they're too conspicuous on pallets, then somebody could lay them on a patio or a garden path, even lay them two or three deep. Who'd suspect a bunch of bricks? I think it's a nearly foolproof scheme."
"All right, it's a wonderful way to store and ship high end contraband. But who would have the right connections with the kind of people who'd have products they'd want to hide in the capsules? I could see how there could be a chief executive to put together the whole business and several marketing people to make the connections. All the rest would be unskilled laborers and hired guns, and other than the guy actually making the bricks, nobody would need to know anything about the real purpose of them. Any ideas who the main figures are?"