Heroes, p.20
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       Heroes, p.20

           Leigh Barker
“That has to be some kinda record,” Ortega said. “You wrap the case in what? Six hours last night?” He put the file he’d been reading onto a pile of other files on his desk. “You got a big S on your chest?”

  “You trying to tell me something, Chief?” Elmore said. “Because if you are, I’d appreciate you just saying it.”

  “What did you think when forensics told you about the Semtex?”

  “I thought that the Semtex was the real bomb, and the truck was just to piss us off.”

  “And now?”

  Elmore sat on the corner of Ortega’s desk and ignored the pointed look. “You mean after Perez and the meth addict confessed to it?”

  Ortega shrugged but said nothing.

  “I think we got the guys who blew up a perfectly good Toyota pickup.”

  “And the bank?”

  “You asking me to speculate, Chief?”

  “Break a life-long rule and go ahead and speculate.”

  Elmore watched his boss for several seconds. “Okay, but don’t take notes.” He got off the desk and crossed to the window to look out onto the street stationary with rush-hour traffic. Then he turned back to face the room. “I’d say whoever blew up that bank had probably never set foot in it, let alone was an employee, disgruntled or otherwise.”

  “Keep going.”

  “I’d speculate that this was a practice, a dry run for something bigger. Much bigger.”

  “How’d you get there?” Ortega leaned back in his big chair and folded his hands on a stomach that liked junk food.

  “The facts mostly.” Elmore returned to sit on the desk. “The Semtex was military grade, hard to get and expensive. It was just placed against a wall, no shaped charge and not even at a key structural point. The only reason it did so much damage was the amount he used. He must have used a two-wheeler truck to get it into the bank. Ten pounds would’ve brought down the building.”

  Ortega nodded slowly and his jowls moved in counter-time. “So you figure he’s a novice?”

  “Don’t you? But he’s smart.”

  “He doesn’t sound it.”

  “Kept me chasing around all night after a couple of patsies.”

  Ortega laughed deep and short. “He did. What was that about?”

  Elmore leaned across the desk and flipped open the lid of a cardboard box that had once contained a stack of doughnuts. “You eat all those?”

  “Helps me think.”

  “Camila know about your thinking?”

  “No, and if she finds out from you, you’ll be investigating firework parties on Staten Island.”

  Elmore closed the lid. “Pickup truck wasn’t a diversion. The bomber really thought it would cover up the evidence of the real bomb.”

  “Bit naïve.”

  “Like I said, it was a practice. He won’t make that mistake next time.”

  “Then you’d better catch his ass before there’s a next time.”

  “You know that’s not going to happen. He’s got no priors, no MO, no record. A mystery man as far as our records go.”

  “You sure of that? Maybe he’s playing a double bluff.”

  “I considered that. If he could do it, he wouldn’t have wasted his time on some small-time bank. He’d have done what he’s planning right out of the gate.”

  “And what you think he’s planning?”

  Elmore stood up. “Now if I knew that, Chief, I’d be sitting in your chair.”

  “They got bail this morning,” Riley said as Elmore returned to his desk.

  “They were just saps. Detonated their truck and probably broke a few windows before the bomber blew up the whole building.” He picked up the first of a pile of buff files off his desk. “Still, we should probably go talk to them some more. They might remember something now they’ve had time to calm down.”

  “You know a good medium?”

  He looked up.

  “Sandoval had a ninety-five Cadillac Fleetwood, brown. Can you believe that? Who in God’s name would drive such a thing?”


  “He got in. It blew up.” She shrugged and returned to the papers she’d been reading.

  “You don’t seem very affected by his demise?”

  She looked up, a slightly puzzled expression on her face. “He blew things up. He got blown up. There’s a kind of karma in that, don’t you think?”

  “For somebody so cute, you’ve got a heart of flint.”

  She looked up quickly. “You think I’m cute?” She frowned. “I’m not sure that’s within agency guidelines. You finding a colleague cute.”

  “Don’t beat it with a stick. That moment has passed.”

  “Still, we had a moment.” She winked at him.

  “You get Will’s number?” he said, shaking it before it settled into his memory and kept him awake nights.

  She patted her jacket pocket. “He didn’t play hard to get.”

  He watched her for a moment while he tried to decide if she was messing with him. He decided she was.

  “You ask him out, bring him over to The Old Alamo.”

  “Don’t tell me, it’s a Texan bar.”

  “That’s why you’re an investigator, nothing gets past you.” He leaned over his desk and took his badge and gun out of the top drawer.

  “You going somewhere nice?”

  “I figured I’d let you drive me to see a Cadillac Fleetwood. Haven’t seen one since I was a kid.”

  “They were driving LaSalles when you were a kid.” She pulled her badge and gun out of the drawer and followed him to the door.

  “Now that was a Cadillac,” he said, and held the door open for her.

  She sighed heavily, shook her head and waved him on. “Jesus, you think I’m your granny?”

  Even in the morning traffic, it took just twenty minutes to get across Brooklyn to the police impound, where Sandoval’s car was smoldering and the crew was sitting on the fire truck’s steps, eating breakfast burritos.

  A tall thin lieutenant unwound himself and came over to the car, looking like a biped giraffe. He dropped his arm on the car roof, leaned down and put his head in through the window.

  Riley’s mental picture of the giraffe got real.

  “Fire’s out,” he said, “but that’s why you’re just getting here.” He looked past Elmore, who was unconsciously pressing back into the seat, and nodded at Riley. “Hi, ma’am.”

  She looked at Elmore. “Another Texan? What is it with you Texans? Don’t you like Texas?”

  “Love Texas, ma’am,” the fireman said, “New York fires are more fun.”

  “This is Art Crowther,” Elmore said. “He’s just leaving.”

  Art extracted his head from the car and stood up so that his belt buckle was almost level with the SUV’s roof.

  “Don’t waste brain space,” Elmore said, reaching for the handle. “He’s from Dallas.” He seemed to think that was all that needed saying.

  “Least we don’t eat our firstborn,” Art said, stepping back to give the door space. “He ever invite you down to El Paso, ma’am, you run a mile. Hear?”

  “Drop the ma’am, Art, I’m not your schoolteacher.”

  Art gave her a smile that would’ve melted Hitler. “No, ma’am, you sure ain’t.”

  “Thought we’d take a look at the crime scene,” Elmore said. “You finished tramping all over it.”

  “Found a written confession,” Art said, still looking at Riley as she got out of the car. “Littering the place up, so we tossed it in the blaze.”

  “Good to see you have the cleanliness of the city at heart,” Riley said.

  “And the occupant?” Elmore said, butting in.

  “The crispy critter? Wagon took him away someplace. All you can eat barbecue or some such.”

  “Jesus, I haven’t had breakfast,” Riley said, pulling a face.

  “Sure, ma’am, smell of roasted meat in the morning always gives me an appetite.”

  She stopped and looked around intently.
  “Looking for something?” Elmore said, stepping up beside her and looking around too.

  “I’m looking for the attendants in white coats.”

  “Save your eye-juice,” Elmore said, strolling off. “They ran away screaming day one.”

  “Show you around, ma’am?” Art said, and put out his elbow for her to take. She would’ve needed a stepladder.

  She lifted her jacket to show her Glock in its belt holster.

  He stepped away. “See you can find your own way just fine, ma’am. I got things that need doing.” He strode away, eating up two yards with every step. It was awesome, and more than a little disconcerting.

  “He a friend of yours?” she asked, catching up with Elmore as he approached the burned-out wreck.

  Elmore looked across at the fire truck. “Never seen him before in my life.” He looked back. “At least that’s what I’ll say when they come to question me about him.”

  “Are all Texans alien replacements?”

  “Only the good ones.” He picked up a piece of pipe. “Ma’am.”

  “Get shot a lot, do you?”

  “No more than most.” Elmore lifted the Cadillac’s trunk with the pipe. “Hey, Art, better get the meat wagon back.”

  Riley walked around from the side of the wreck and looked past him into the trunk. “That’ll be Emiliano Perez.” She leaned a little closer. “He doesn’t seem happy to see us.”

  She turned to see Elmore looking at her with a worried expression. “What? It’s not like he’s a family member or anything.” She walked away before Art could get close enough to start calling her ma’am again.

  Elmore watched her go. That was what happened to a girl brought up with three older brothers. Tragic really.

  Art looked over Elmore’s shoulder. “Never thought to look in the trunk.”

  “No, you wouldn’t,” Elmore said. “You just squirt water on them. We come along to do all the thinking.”

  “So what’re you thinking, Brains?”

  “He’s dead.”

  Art staggered back clutching his hands to his chest. “I believe I’m gonna swoon from your brilliance.” He stood up, and up, and up. All six foot eight of him. “All your kin down in El Paso got the genius gene?”

  “Just the dumber ones.”

  “Yeah, I see that.” Art stepped back up to the Caddy. “He didn’t climb in there to get away from the fire.”

  “See there, I could tell being a bozo was just an act.”

  “He’s all curled up so didn’t struggle.”

  Elmore nodded. “Keep going, you’re doing just fine. For a two-day rookie.”

  “Now I’m hurt.” Art turned to leave, stopped and pointed. “That bullet hole in his chest is a clue though, right?” He walked away.

  Elmore pushed the hot metal up higher with his steel pipe and leaned in a little. Sure enough, it was a bullet hole, but almost lost in the charred flesh. He glanced quickly at Art as he loped back to the truck. Man pretended to be slow. Needed acting lessons.

  He let the trunk drop and caught up with Riley at the SUV. “Perez was shot. Probably to shut him up.”

  “Way I saw it, that was just about the only thing that would.”

  “So now our bomber is a double murderer.” He shrugged. “Was always going to happen, just happened a mite sooner than I thought.”

  She turned and leaned back against the car. “You knew he was going to kill somebody?” She sounded doubtful.

  “They always do. Problem with this MO is it brings in other people, unreliable people, stupid people. Who else would play along with insanity? Stupid people talk, so they’re usually silenced as soon as they’re done.”

  “Okay, Sherlock, what’s our bomber going to do next?”

  Elmore walked around to the passenger side, got in and waited for her to start the engine. Then turned up the aircon. “Blow something else up.”

  She sat back in her seat, let go of the wheel and looked at him for a while. “That’s it? That’s your mighty El Paso deduction?”

  “Hey, don’t bring El Paso into this, it ain’t done nothin’ at all.”

  “You majored in English language at college, right?”

  “I was a jock.”

  “Course you were. Stupid me.” She put the SUV in drive and pulled it around and out of the yard.

  “Swing along Metro Ave.” He held up his wrist to show his watch.

  “Nice watch,” Riley said, then looked back at the road. “It’s six thirty. Thanks for that.”

  “It’s happy hour. I’ve got a date with Jose Cuervo.”

  “I hope you’ll both be very happy together.”

  “It’s tequila.”

  “And you think I don’t know that? What, I’ve just come from a convent?”

  “Don’t know, just met you yesterday. You could be faking it.”

  “Thanks.” She wrenched the wheel over and skidded onto Metropolitan Avenue, ignoring the blaring horns.

  “Up on the left there.”

  She screeched the SUV to a halt outside the bar, leaned over and looked up at the faded sign. “The Old Alamo.” She sniffed. “Well, it’s right about one thing. It’s old.”

  “Age has its benefits.”

  “Says old people.” She looked at the bar again. “You’re going to sit around with your old cowboy friends in that dump instead of working on the case?”

  “What case?”

  “The case, the bomber blowing up banks. Remember?”

  He opened his door. “We’re not going to catch him tonight or tomorrow.” He closed the door and leaned in through the window. “We’ll catch him when he’s done enough to make a mistake.”

  “And that’s what you’re counting on? Him making a mistake. What about good old-fashioned police work?”

  “That’s why you’re here.”

  “And you?”

  “This is where I come to think.”

  “Yeah, course it is.”

  “See you in the morning. Bright and early.” He walked away. Around the rear of the car, in case she went for a dirt-track racing start. With him on the hood.

  He pushed open the bar door, heard the old sound of Texas red-dirt country music and relaxed.

  An hour later he was sitting at the bar, still with his first tequila, watching the barkeep move in slow motion, as barkeeps do. It was too early for the after-work crowd, so the place was mostly empty, except for a couple of old boys playing checkers in the corner. He heard the door creak and looked up into the big mirror above the bar, then back over his shoulder as the newcomer approached.

  “David, you’re a bit off your patch,” he said, and nodded at the barman’s questioning look.

  “Can’t a man come and have a drink with his old friend?”

  “You are and always will be most welcome, old friend.” Elmore waved him to the stool next to his, pushed his untouched drink to one side and waited for the barman to put another tequila in front of him. He raised his glass. “Here’s to old friends and fine tequila.”

  David clinked his glass and knocked the drink back in one. “I needed that.”

  “I can see.” Elmore put down his tequila. “So okay. What’s this about?” He raised his hand off the bar. “Yeah, you’re always welcome to visit, but it’s not just a visit.”

  David laughed and raised his empty glass at the barman. “I should never bullshit a cop.”

  “Fire marshal.”

  “And there’s a difference?”

  Elmore shrugged. “Different uniform.”

  The barman glanced at Elmore and saw the slight shake of his head. He put one of the tequilas on the bar and faded away without any apparent movement.

  “How’s the finance business?” Elmore said, and sipped his drink.

  David laughed once, but it was hollow. “There you go. Like I said, a cop.”

  “Don’t take a cop to see something’s wrong.”

  David swallowed his drink, started to raise his glass and ca
ught Elmore’s look and put it down. “Finance business is doing just fine.”

  “Business might be, you’re not. Come on, you’re here to tell me, so tell me.”

  “Straight to the point, eh, El?”

  “Don’t do small talk.”

  “Okay.” He took the moment and signalled the barman. “They retired me.” His head sank forward a little. “I look like I’m ready to retire to you?”

  Elmore looked at the eighteen-hundred-dollar suit wearing the burned-out middle-aged man and lied. “You look pretty much like you always do.”

  “Your job means you know when somebody’s speaking with a forked tongue. Well, my job needs the same skill.” He picked up his fresh drink. “But thanks for the effort, it’s appreciated.” He swallowed the third tequila.

  “There are other jobs. Wall Street’s full of—”

  “My name was crossed off everybody’s Christmas list before I cleared my desk.”

  “You’re rich. Go out and enjoy yourself. See the world and relax.”

  David took a long quavering breath and placed his glass along the bar as a gesture of his intent. It was a lie; they both knew it but went along.

  “I’ve been chasing the dollar dragon since I blasted out of Yale. I’ve had my eye on the market every day since. You ever met my wife? Of course not. I don’t have one. No time. My friends?” He put his hand on Elmore’s shoulder. “You’re it, you know that?” He shook his head. “Is that sad?”


  “Sorry, that didn’t come out right. But you know what I mean?”

  “You met my wife?”

  David laughed suddenly and unexpectedly. “Peas in a pod, right? You and me. Career instead of life.”

  “I like to think what I do is more than a career.”

  “Yes, so did I. Right up to the moment they threw me out with the trash.”

  Elmore gave him a few seconds to wallow in self-pity, then waved the barman over for refills. He took his fresh drink and pushed his other one away, almost untouched.

  “Ask it,” he said, with a half-smile.

  David closed his eyes. “You know, that’s what I’ve always liked about you. You don’t take the scenic route, do you?”

  “Getting there gives you more time to get it done.”

  “Okay.” He took a long breath as if he was about to propose. “I’m out of the finance business, that’s a given, but I’ve got contacts in business all across the city, the country. I’m going to do what you said.”

  “See the world?”

  “No, relax.”

  “That’s good to hear.” Even if it wasn’t true.

  “I’ve always wanted to write. So now I’ve got time. Lots of it. I’m going to write.”

  Elmore was silent, just watching.

  “You want to know what I’m going to write?”

  “Story about New York firefighters?”

  David’s mouth stayed open in shock. Or from the booze. “How?” He put up his hands. “Right, of course you’d know. Detective.”


  “You worked it out though.”

  “What’s to work out? You’ve come across town to find me. Why would you do that when you know where I live? Unless you want to ask me something, and that something is hard for you. So you want neutral ground. It’s how you’ve been doing business and too late to change.”

  “And what you just did is what I want.” He saw the frown. “I want you to teach me how to do that.”

  “Can’t be done.”

  “You saying you’re smarter than me?”

  “That’s way off the mark; you’re the smartest man I know. I’m saying what I do isn’t just a learned skill, it’s…” He shrugged. “It’s who I am. A gift, I guess.”

  “Okay, I get that. But I’m going to write about what you do. I’m asking you to just let me.”

  “A movie?”

  “TV. I know people in the business, and how hard can it be?”

  “You want me to coach you?”

  “I want to tag along, ride shotgun so to speak. See what you do, how you do it. How you investigate a fire and catch the bad guys.”

  “Can’t do that.” Elmore put his hand on his friend’s arm. “It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just there’s a stack of rules a mile high. There’s no way I could take you to a fire scene, put you in harm’s way, and probably get you killed. There must be another way.”

  David breathed heavily while he drank his drink, more slowly this time. Then nodded. “You’re right, I’m being stupid.”

  “I’d help if I could, you know that.”

  “I do.” He frowned. “What about I meet you here? Occasionally. And you tell me what you’re working on. No names. Just how you do it. Then I’ll write the scene and let you give it the thumbs up or down.”

  Elmore let the no fade and looked at his friend’s reflection in the mirror. The man was right on the edge, clinging on by his fingernails. The idea was stupid, but it was all he had.

  “Okay, I can do that.” He smiled. “Might even help me to have somebody to bounce ideas off.”

  David’s smile almost split his face. “This calls for a celebration.” He raised his hand.

  Elmore reached over and lowered it. “I think you’ve celebrated enough. And don’t you need a clear head in the morning for writing?”

  “Yes, of course. Start first thing.” He slid off the stool and caught the bar to steady himself.

  “Hold up. I’ll take you home.” Elmore started to stand.

  “You sit there,” David said, and patted his friend’s shoulder. “I’m a big boy now and can get myself home. I’ve only had a couple.”

  “Are you driving?”

  “Was. I’ll call a cab.”

  Elmore settled back onto the stool. “You do that.”

  “I’ll drop back in a couple of days, when the consultancy room is open.” He dropped a hundred note on the bar and nodded at the barman, then smiled at Elmore, who was about to point out how much tequila costs. “Last rich-trader act.”

  Elmore watched him leave. Another high-flyer shot down by time. Unstoppable as a fire on a tanker. Saddest thing in life. He glanced at his tequila, but he’d lost the taste for it. The barman nodded as he left. Elmore had known Sam for twenty years, but still only warranted a single nod. Old friends, then. And he wasn’t even sure his name was Sam.

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