Courage begins a ray cou.., p.4
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       Courage Begins: A Ray Courage Mystery Novella, p.4

           R. Scott Mackey
 
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new, just the same scene from different angles. The last photograph showed a close-up of the hole in the flue stack. I had to admit, Royle’s description of how the hole could’ve been created seemed spot on.

  “Do you have the surveillance video from the Hyatt in Sacramento?” I asked. Cal Farm’s file lacked the actual video footage. Our report relied on the written description of the video provided by the Tahoe Police, stating Garrett Bate was the subject captured on camera the night of his wife’s death.

  “Yeah, Sac PD helped us a lot with this one. They went through all the videos from the Hyatt and sent us digital files. It took a few weeks with all the footage and red tape with the hotel. I personally reviewed everything and wrote the report. I can forward you a link to the video if you want.”

  I told him I’d like to see what they had and gave him my e-mail address. “Our file says the coroner put the time of death at midnight.”

  “Plus or minus an hour, but certainly within that window.”

  The timeframe bothered me as much as anything. Even if Bate had been able to leave immediately after the real estate awards at the Crocker, there was no way he could get to Tahoe in time to tamper with the furnace’s gas line. Hell, they might have been dead about the time the event ended.

  “Could Bate have tampered with the furnace earlier, like a day or two, or even a week before?” Bate supposedly had an alibi for a couple of weeks leading up to the deaths, but he could’ve sneaked out at night and returned the next morning.

  “No. All our experts agree that the hole would have leaked enough carbon monoxide to kill anyone in that house running the furnace for more than a couple of hours. Tiffanie had been staying there for almost a full week. If the tampering had been done earlier, she would’ve suffered from the CO poisoning before she did.”

  “Maybe she didn’t turn on the heater.”

  Royle shook his head. “It was cold as hell that week. She probably ran the heater non-stop while she was there. The PG&E meter records confirmed that.”

  I thought I’d been coming up with new possibilities, but the police and the Cal Farm investigators had already explored every angle I’d imagined. So much for my cleverness.

  “What about a hired gun, so to speak? He could’ve paid someone to go inside the house, when Mrs. Bate was out during the day, and tamper with the furnace.”

  “We looked at that hard. Went through all of his bank records and assets. He hadn’t taken more than forty dollars at a time out of an ATM in over a year. No major transactions in any of his accounts. Other than his two houses and the cars, he didn’t own anything major. We confirmed, with their homeowner’s insurance company, they didn’t own any expensive jewelry, except for Mrs. Bate’s wedding and engagement rings. We’re still monitoring his finances in case he, you know, deferred payments, but so far nada. We even put our best snitches here at the lake to work on it, but they said there was nothing on the street about someone doing a number on that furnace.”

  “Could’ve been an outside guy.”

  Royle reached over and grabbed one of my nuggets. “Do you mind?” He held it up, and I shrugged. “There’s a slim chance that happened. But again, no indication that anyone, from anywhere, has been paid. I just don’t see it.”

  “Were there any other suspects besides Bate?”

  “We talked to everyone they knew up here, and nobody had a motive to kill either one of them—Tiffanie or Harley. We talked to several people at Bate Real Estate, but that was a dead end. In Sacramento, Tiffanie Bate didn’t have any enemies we could find, or anyone who’d benefit from her death.”

  I turned to the last page of the file, a sheet of lined notebook paper on which someone had written “Miscellaneous.” “Is this your handwriting?”

  Royle craned his neck to look across the table. “Yeah, those are my notes. I always jot down any random things that come up during an investigation. There’s nothing that’s worth a damn.”

  I skimmed the sheet anyway, stopping about halfway down the page at a one-sentence notation. “Tom Oberto says he spotted the suspect on the eight hundred block of Seventh Avenue in the Tahoma neighborhood at seven o’clock the night of the murder.” I turned the file around so Royle could see it. “What’s this?”

  “Nothing,” he said with a snort after reading it. “Tom is a local drunk, who also happens to believe in every conspiracy theory on the market. We get a call from him two, three times a month, claiming he knows for certain this neighbor or that is making crystal meth. He heard about the deaths, came to the conclusion the husband did it, and in a drunken stupor, called us. Even if he had spotted Bate, Tom isn’t credible. Lacking a corroborating witness, his testimony is crap.”

  6

  I spent the night in Tahoe, looking for Tom Oberto in every drinking establishment in the west and south sides at the lake. I started at Sunnyside, where the bartender had never heard of Oberto. I had no guarantees he’d be out drinking; he could’ve been a stay-at-home drinker. Yet Royle made it sound like Oberto was a local crackpot, known to the community at large. People like that tended to do their drinking where they had an audience. Nothing popped when I did a web search for him on my cell phone. No phone number, no address, no digital or social media footprint at all. If he was the conspiracy theorist Royle described, then it made sense Oberto had disconnected from the digital world.

  When I walked into the Fat Cat Bar and Grill, I’d pretty much exhausted all the local watering holes. I’d not had a drop to drink at any of the other bars, but decided I’d order a beer and think about whether to give the east and north shores a shot as well. It would make for a long night, but it was better than staying through the next night, or giving up on Tom Oberto altogether.

  I settled on a stool at the end of the bar, where about ten of us sat, all men, all middle aged or younger. The bar curved at both ends, with eight seats in the middle and two seats on the curved ends facing one another. Directly opposite me, on the far end of the bar, a man wearing a green baseball cap and red flannel shirt spoke in a loud voice.

  “I’m telling you those Arab motherfuckers are out to take over our way of life,” baseball cap guy said, loud enough that his words were clear even across the bar. “I saw one of them ragheads the other day at the store buying a Penthouse and a bottle of Jack Daniels. What the fuck? They say they’re all about religious purity—jihad and all that shit—and he’s out getting lit up and jacking off to an American chick. What’s up with that?”

  The bartender came over, and I ordered an Eel River IPA on draft. He set the beer glass in front of me. “Who’s that guy over there in the A’s hat?”

  “Tommy O.” He didn’t turn to look at whom I was referring. “Sorry if he’s bugging you. He gets a couple of drinks in him, and there’s no switching him off.”

  “No problem. Just curious.”

  Oberto continued to spout off about various topics ranging from the Internal Revenue Service, the NFL, anti-gun crusaders, and the Animal Liberation Front. He was a man with a remarkable ability to insult everybody, no matter their politics, race, or religion. His rants effectively cleared the barstools next to him, leaving him to share his opinions solely with himself. I picked up my beer and sauntered over to a barstool two seats away, nodding a hello at him as I sat down.

  “What do you think about that?” he asked.

  “Sorry?” I’d missed his latest topic during my journey across the bar.

  “Global warming. Crock of shit, right?”

  Despite my desire to argue the science with him, I demurred. “Right.” I held up my beer to him, prompting Oberto to do the same.

  “Name’s Tom Oberto. But you can call me Tommy, or Tommy O. That’s what everyone calls me.” Oberto was overweight with a big, red, drinker’s nose and a puffy face decorated with a scraggly gray beard.

  “Nice to meet you. My name’s Ray.”

  “You’re not from around here are you?”

  “No, just up for the day.”

  “
Business?”

  “Yeah. In fact, you can probably help me out in that regard.”

  “Me? How?”

  I got up and moved to the barstool next to his, leaning in to him conspiratorially. “Do you know a guy named Garrett Bate?”

  “Yeah, I know the fucker. Stiffed me a couple of years ago on a job. I cleared nearly half an acre of underbrush and hauled it away. We agreed on four hundred for the job and he gave me two. Said the job took me half the time I said it would. Son of a bitch. He screws me for doing a kick-ass job.”

  I shook my head in sympathy. “I’m actually here looking into the accident at his house that killed his wife and Harley Cowan two years ago.”

  “You a cop?”

  “Investigator for an insurance company.”

  He looked at me, nodded, and picked up his shot glass, knocking back the remaining amber liquid. He chased that with several long pulls from a bottle of Bud Light.

  “You know, I told the cops back then it wasn’t no accident. That son of a bitch Garrett did it sure as day. I saw him that night, not fifty feet from the house. Dressed all in black. He tried to turn his face when I walked by, but I knew it as him. Even in the dark, there was enough moonlight for me to be sure it was him.”

  “But the cops didn’t believe you, did they?”

  “They don’t believe nothing I say. If they did, the drug problem up here would be fixed overnight. I could tell you each and every
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