A spring blizzard in the mountains is an inland hurricane of ice, swirling across roads and over fences, burying cars and drifting up to rooftops. Calumet County bore the brunt of one of these particular storms. Heavy, wet, barely frozen, it came down sideways in relentless torrents. Having been sucked up from the south by low pressure, the frozen moisture was trapped in the valley by the mountains on all sides. The front had crested the western peaks, and by the afternoon, the county was buried in two feet of snow.
Kennesaw got the call at 6 p.m. He switched on his flashers and radioed for backup, but help was at least twenty minutes out due to the weather. He pressed the accelerator, ripping a wake through the roadway slush. His wiper blades iced over and his windows fogged in the moist air. He could barely see through the windshield.
An old sedan emerged through the storm in front of the cruiser, its back end sagging with shot leaf springs and several inches of snow piled up on its vinyl roof. It barely crept along down the main thoroughfare, fishtailing from side to side as it drove. Kennesaw couldn’t pass the car. The two southbound lanes were compressed into one set of slushy ruts, and attempting to go around would likely result in careening into oncoming traffic or spinning off the road. He honked and hit the flashers. The sedan swerved in response, trying to accelerate away.
They came to an intersection, which finally presented the sedan an opportunity to turn off. Kennesaw hit the siren, but the other car only swerved, staying on course and blocking the way. Kennesaw plowed to the left, through the intersection and into the oncoming lane, horn and sirens blaring, flashers flashing, tires sliding, wipers grinding on the ice that had accumulated on his windshield. Traffic dodged out of the way, into the drifts piling up alongside parked cars. Kennesaw turned onto Main Street, drove over the train tracks, and stopped in the middle of the street, leaving his cruiser running and the flashers on.
“Code eleven.” Kennesaw hopped out, unfastening his holster and keeping his palm on the stock of his pistol. He darted into the Wagon Wheel Saloon. Inside, he spotted Tommyknocker with his wiry gray beard, cloudy eyes, and broken posture, standing just inside the door. The bartender pointed to the back of the saloon, frozen with shock but apparently unharmed. Kennesaw cautiously drew and raised his pistol. The long bar ran nearly the length of the establishment along the right with a row of booths on the left, but the joint appeared to be empty. The Rolling Stones droned on the jukebox, and Sports Center silently illuminated the television over the bar.
As he passed the third booth from the end, and finding it empty, Kennesaw searched the far end, which was darkened by shadow. A hall at the back led to the kitchen and a door to the alley, but the deputy couldn’t make much else out. He aimed his gun and moved forward, only to find that the second booth from the end was also empty. Keith Richard’s filthy, writhing riffs bayed over the speakers. Pro basketball highlights flashed and flickered on the television. Kennesaw could just make out the picture frames on the wall near the back door.
Kennesaw reached the last booth from the end. He first scanned the hallway again, but found no one there, then looked down into the booth. It appeared empty, but as he searched, he saw the top of someone’s head in the last seat. Kennesaw looked over his shoulder, back down along the bar, towards the front. Tommyknocker stood frozen, waiting for orders. Kennesaw turned back and looked under the table to check the victim. He had slid almost all the way down onto the floor, braced only by the post holding the table up. Kennesaw inadvertently nudged the table as he knelt, and the victim’s hand and wrist spilled out. Kennesaw rose and walked to the back hall, found the light switch, and turned on the buzzing, overhead fluorescent lights. The screen door leading out the back was closed, but the door was left half open, letting the cold, wet air blow in.
“He went out the back!” shouted Tommyknocker. “He’s long gone.”
Kennesaw holstered his pistol and went back to the last booth. He kneeled down and reached for the victim’s wrist, but there was no pulse. He took out his pen light, shined it on the victim’s face, and recognized him immediately. Benjamin Stern.
“I’m at the Wagon Wheel,” Kennesaw radioed in. “The inside is secure. We’ve got one victim, deceased. Looks like a gunshot…no, gunshots in the chest and abdomen.” He lifted his head. “One in the head, too. Witness says the suspect fled out the back. I need backup to secure the alley.” He stowed his radio and turned back to the bartender. “Did you see who it was?”
“I didn’t get a good look. I was standing here when I heard the gunshots. I looked up and saw him walk out. I was afraid to move.”
“Can you describe him at all?”
“Tallish. Husky. He had a brown coat, black stocking hat. I didn’t get too good a look at him. I just saw him get up from the booth and go out the back. He went out fast, but he didn’t run. Then the fella there just kind of slid down like he is now.”
Kennesaw felt through Stern’s pants pockets, removed the dead man’s wallet, and checked the driver’s license to confirm his identity. Setting the wallet on the table, he began searching the pockets of Stern’s coat. He felt an object. The front door of the Wagon Wheel swung open. Kennesaw’s hand slid down to his sidearm.
“Step aside!” came the voice at the front door.
Shielding himself from view, Kennesaw reached in and removed the object from Stern’s pocket – a cell phone – then tucked it away.
“What do we have here?” asked the new voice from the front of the saloon. Kennesaw recognized it as Agent Acevedo’s. He stayed kneeling, searching the floor under the table for evidence with his penlight. Three shell casings lay on the floor. Kennesaw attempted to lift one carefully with his pen to determine the caliber without spoiling any fingerprints that might be left on it, but he dropped it when he sensed Acevedo slithering up behind him.
“Find anything?” the agent asked.
“There.” Kennesaw pointed to the casings on the floor. “You guys got here fast. How’d you know?”
“We heard the call on the radio.”
“You’re using our band now?”
“We listen to everything,” Acevedo answered as he reached down and picked up a casing, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger. “Nine mil? How many shots were fired?”
“I saw those three casings on the floor, there,” Kennesaw answered. “I’m guessing the suspect fired under the table, then he stood up and shot the victim in the head. I bet there’s a casing over there somewhere.”
“Hmm.” Acevedo turned back to Tommyknocker, who was still anchored to the same spot by the front door. “Bartender, did you get a good look at the shooter?”
“No, sir,” Tommyknocker answered. “Not his face. His back was turned to me. I was telling the deputy that all I saw was him walking out the back. He was wearing a brown–”
“Looks like the other casing’s right there,” interrupted Acevedo. He reached down to pick it up. “I think we’ll be securing the scene until the FBI can take over.”
“I don’t believe that’s protocol,” Kennesaw protested. “Why would the FBI take over?”
“Who do you think the prime suspect is going to be?”
“We don’t have any suspect, yet.”
“Take a wild guess. Someone who’s killed before. Someone on the loose.”
“Turcot? You think Monte shot his own lawyer?”
“Who else? Do you have an alibi for him or something?”
Kennesaw didn’t answer.
“You’re going to need to bring him in for questioning.” Acevedo turned to Tommyknocker again. “Hey, bartender…”
“What did the shooter look like?”
“Like I just said a second ago, I didn’t get a good look at him. He wore a brown coat and a black stocking cap. That’s all I remember.”
“Brown coat, black hat,” Acevedo pondered. “But he looked like Monte Turcot, right?”
“I don’t really think so. I don’t know. Like I said, I didn’t see his face.”
“Yeah, but he looked like Turcot, didn’t he?” continued Acevedo. “Would you at least say they had the same build?”
“I don’t know. I guess you could say that. Yeah, they had a similar build. But I don’t–”
“C’mon. Try and remember. There’s a psychotic killer on the loose. Now it looks like he’s killed again. You don’t want a killer on the loose if you could do something about it right now, would you?”
“I don’t know,” Tommyknocker answered.
“Think, bartender,” persisted Acevedo. “Think about how you can help. If you say the shooter looked like Monte Turcot, then the deputy here will bring him in for questioning. Now that would be a good thing, right? That would get a psycho killer off your streets, wouldn’t you think? You want to be safe, don’t you?”
“What are you doing?” asked Kennesaw.
“I’m interviewing a witness,” answered Acevedo. “What does it look like?”
“You’re telling him what to say.”
Acevedo laughed. “I think we can take things from here, Deputy.”
Kennesaw turned and left, stepping out into the snow to radio in his report. As he approached the cruiser, two DEA agents popped up on the other side of it, surprising him.
“Can I help you folks?” the deputy asked. The men did not respond, but walked around the cruiser and through the entrance of the Wagon Wheel. Frustrated, Kennesaw entered the vehicle and slammed the door shut, sealing out the cold and wind and the wail of an approaching ambulance. Taking a deep breath, he reached for Stern’s cell phone, and was surprised to discover that it was still recording. He replayed it from the beginning, and after listening to the audio file in its entirety, he drove directly to the Sheriff’s Department.
Kennesaw opened Sheriff Ellison’s office door, brushing drops of melted snow from the brim of his hat and the shoulders of his coat. The sheriff himself sat behind his desk with a phone in hand, but immediately hung up once he noticed Kennesaw’s shaken expression. He was about to speak, but the deputy shook his head and pressed his gloved finger to his lips. He glanced towards the television, then nodded to the remote on the sheriff’s desk. Bear picked it up and increased the volume until he was sure that any words they exchanged would be inaudible to any unwanted listeners. He pulled a chair over next to his desk, and Kennesaw took a seat.
“So, Stern’s dead?” the sheriff murmured.
“Yes, and Turcot’s the only suspect.”
“According to who?”
“DEA. The FBI will be involved soon.”
Bear scowled. “Of course they will.”
“There’s no way he did it, Boss,” Kennesaw explained. “He’s twenty-five miles away. He’s got no transportation. No cell signal. He’s totally isolated out there.”
“They don’t know where he is, do they?”
“But they want us to bring him in.”
“Then they’ll hold him over for the new trial.”
The sheriff nodded. “I need to go see him.”
“You don’t think that’s dangerous, Boss?” asked Kennesaw.
“He’s a person of interest. I need to get up there and see if he knows anything.”
“There’s something else,” Kennesaw interrupted.
“What is it?”
The deputy put his finger to his lips again. Taking the remote from Bear, he turned the TV volume down several notches and set the remote back down, then reached into his pocket and produced Stern’s phone. He started the voice playback and handed it to Bear, who put it to his ear. After listening for a few seconds, Bear took out a pencil and scribbled, Is that Stern? on a piece of paper.
The deputy nodded.
Who’s the other voice?
Kennesaw took the pencil from him. Not sure. Listen.
Bear continued listening. His eyes widened as three gunshots rang out, followed by the sound of Stern groaning. There was some shuffling, then another report, then more shuffling as a man’s heavy footsteps trailed off. In the silence, another voice emerged. It sounded like Tommyknocker.
When the playback ended, Bear glanced at the TV and Kennesaw turned the volume back up.
“The other voice clearly wasn’t Turcot,” the sheriff whispered.
Kennesaw shrugged. “I can’t place it.”
“And you found this at the scene?”
“Yeah. It was in Stern’s pocket. He was recording the entire thing. Guess the gunman didn’t think to check him. I grabbed it instinctively. I know it’s not protocol, but–”
“Does anyone else know about it?”
Kennesaw shook his head.
Bear checked his watch and pondered for a moment. “I don’t think we should be in any rush to hand this over just yet.”
“Yeah,” agreed Kennesaw. “This is the kind of thing that gets…well, misplaced.”
“So what do you think we should we do?” asked the sheriff. “Seems like they’re boxing us in. If we don’t deliver Turcot, they’re going to get a court order. I can’t protect Turcot if he’s wanted for questioning in another murder case. I’ll be relieved by the governor if I don’t give him up. ”
“That sounds about right, Boss.”
“I could go to the marshals and tell them about this,” Bear suggested, pointing to Stern’s phone.
“They’ll probably still want Turcot brought in,” replied Kennesaw. “I don’t trust them, anyway.”
Bear silently reached for the remote and turned the TV over to Channel 9. The current news story was covering a massive weed bust in Denver. They hadn’t gotten to the Stern murder yet, but the sheriff knew that it was only a matter of time. How was the media going to spin it, he wondered.
“Okay, here’s what I think we should do,” he instructed Kennesaw slowly. “I want you to make copies of everything on this phone. I mean everything – audio files, photos, phone numbers, everything. Have Jennings show you how to do it, but you do it yourself. Then put those copies in safe places, or with people we can trust.”
“Like your wife, relatives, a close friend. No deputies, though.”
“How about Frenchie?”
Bear groaned. “I guess I’m okay with that.”
“I have to see Turcot before we do anything else. I’ll interview him and see if he knows anyone who’d want Stern dead. Then I’ll give my notes to the FBI in lieu of bringing him in. That’ll give them their interview, and buy some more time while we decide what to do with this phone.”
“Am I breaking the law here, Boss?”
“This is my call,” declared Ellison. “You’re only following my orders. It’s all on me. We’re just hanging on to this evidence for the moment, making sure it’s secure. We intend to hand it over when the time is right. Got it?”
“Are you driving up there tonight? There’s two feet of snow, you know.”
“No,” the sheriff said. “Tomorrow. I’m gonna need CDOT to plow Mahonville Pass without anyone knowing I made the request.”