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Oathkeeper Chapter 22

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 22

 

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.

“Shots fired.”

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…”

“Yes, sir?”

“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?”

“No.”

“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 who?”

“Like your wife, relatives, a close friend. No deputies, though.”

“How about Frenchie?”

Bear groaned. “I guess I’m okay with that.”

“Then what?”

“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.”

Oathkeeper

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Oathkeeper Chapter 21

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 21

 

The mountains along the western rim of the Calumet Valley form a fourteen thousand foot granite levy, thwarting the storm fronts that surge in from the west. The moisture-laden clouds get trapped behind the jagged peaks and drop their snow and rain outside the valley. Once relieved of their loads of moisture, they float upwards and over the ridge, leaving the valley mostly arid. Some refer to the valley as Colorado’s “Banana Belt”, but although the microclimate is dry and temperate, it cannot support tropical plants. Heavy snowstorms are not common, but occasionally, when a sufficiently massive front crests the ridge, the laden clouds spill down and get trapped in the giant bowl. This typically happens in the spring, when the waxing sun is high and powerful enough to fuel the storm. Such a storm was predicted by meteorologists to hit Calumet in three days.

At the moment, the U.S. attorney general was conducting a weekly conference call with Inspector Weathers in his room at the Sumerset Motel. Agent Acevedo was in attendance as well. The predominant item on their agenda had to do with the disposition of Sheriff Bear Ellison.

“My preference,” offered Acevedo, “is to take him at the department. My agents will back up the marshals. They can arrest him and hold him at the federal pen until he’s transferred. I say we do it today.”

“I understand your position,” replied the attorney general, “but we need to cool things down there a little.”

“What do you mean?”

“The governor’s been talking to the president about this.”

“The president? I don’t see how this concerns him.”

“It’s politics, Vince.”

“Politics doesn’t have anything to do with this.”

“Politics has everything to do with everything.”

“What did the governor say?” asked Acevedo.

“This Calumet situation has implications regarding the governor’s future.”

“Like what?”

“The governor has political aspirations: a cabinet level post, maybe veep.”

“What does that have to do with our problems out here?”

“He’s done favors for the president. He delivered the state in the election, but it nearly cost him his own position. Colorado’s a purple state, Vince. The party’s hold is tenuous. The governor can’t afford to let the rural opposition get energized – all those BLM ranchers and gun nuts and right wingers. If you go in there and take that sheriff down, there’s gonna be blowback. Those folks up there are going to feel like they’re being pushed around by Big Brother. They’re going to demand that the governor take a position, and he doesn’t want to take a position. Do you follow me? If he sides with us and authorizes you to go after that sheriff, he’ll probably lose re-election. Then he’s tainted, with no future for him in DC. And if the governor sides with his county, he’ll lose PAC funding. The New York boys aren’t going to funnel money into a rogue governor’s campaign. Any position he takes is a loser, so he doesn’t want to take any position…and he doesn’t want to be forced to take one, either.”

“What does the president say?” asked Weathers.

“The president owes him, and he personally doesn’t want another Waco or Ruby Ridge during his term, so he wants us to back off.”

“So I have to sit around and do nothing while Ellison plays cowboy? No way. I’m bringing him in.”

“Calm down, Vince.”

“This is bullshit!”

“Do I need to have you reassigned?” asked the AG. “I didn’t say to do nothing. Just back off from the sheriff for the time being. Go do some police work. Your boys have nothing to do at the moment. Go find out where Turcot is and make the arrest on your own. That would be the ideal scenario for everyone involved.”

“Ellison is obstructing justice. He needs to be in jail,” said Acevedo.

“There’s nothing to be gained by locking him up. We’ll deal with him after the general election.”

“I can’t believe you politicians. You’ll be the end of us all.”

“I’m sorry, Vince. It’s the president’s recommendation. He’s accounting for the blowback.”

“Yeah…have you thought about the blowback if we don’t do anything?” retorted Acevedo. “Whatever happens – we get Turcot or we don’t – Ellison ends up looking like a hero. How many hillbilly sheriffs are going to get crazy ideas after they see him strutting around? Have you thought about that blowback? Have you thought about all those redneck sheriffs disregarding and disrespecting the authority of the federal government? You’re talking about unleashing chaos in half the country.”

“Let’s not go off the deep end, Vince. I can assure you that Sheriff Ellison is not going to come out of this looking like any hero. When we get our Turcot conviction, Ellison’s going to look like someone on the wrong side of history. The media will feast on him. He’ll be friendless and isolated. We’ll even push some money down to make sure he loses his re-election.”

“Still…”

“You’re just going to have to deal with it, Vince. The mission here is not the sheriff. Let that go. Go find Turcot. Weathers, are you still there?”

“Yeah, boss.”

“Do you understand the objective?”

“Yes sir. We’re working on it. There’s a lot of places to hide out here. It’s possible he’s left the state.”

“That’s unlikely,” Acevedo said. “He couldn’t have gotten far…not without cash.”

“Unless the sheriff’s bankrolling him,” Weathers suggested.

“I doubt it,” replied the AG. “Ellison isn’t that brazen. I don’t believe he’s that committed to Turcot. He’s just committed to being a pain in your ass, Vince. You really screwed up your relationship with him. What did you do?”

“I was doing my job,” Acevedo answered.

“Weathers, I thought you said one of the Calumet deputies knows where he is.”

“We believe so,” answered Weathers.

“Ken Kennesaw,” barked Acevedo. “I say we bring him in for questioning.”

“Have you spoken with this Deputy Kennesaw?”

“I doubt he’ll reveal anything to us,” explained Weathers.

“Are you tailing him?”

“He knows when we are.”

“Then maybe you should be tailing him in a less conspicuous manner.”

“I know what you mean, but we’ll need a warrant for that. Could we even get it? The courts aren’t very cooperative out here, and I’m sure the local sheriff’s department, here, would get wind of it.”

“If necessary, I can go to the FISA court,” answered the AG. “I’ll make it a national security issue.”

“Great, but I’m sorry, how is this a national security issue?” asked Weathers.

“Terrorism is practically the definition of ‘national security issue’.”

“It doesn’t sound like terrorism to me,” Acevedo remarked.

“Terrorism is defined as ‘the intent to intimidate or coerce a significant portion of a civilian population.’ Turcot fits this bill. He can easily be portrayed as a domestic extremist. And we have reason to believe Deputy Kennesaw knows his whereabouts.”

“Do you think the court will buy it?” asked Weathers.

“Yes,” answered the AG. “The court’s definition is broad, and they err on the side of national security. Plus, my boss appointed them.”

“Maybe we should try to motivate the locals to give Turcot up,” suggested Weathers. “Maybe we could offer a reward.”

“You might be on to something. But I don’t think a reward will work on its own,” answered the AG. “It’s tough to get people to snitch purely for selfish gain. We’ll need more.”

“What do you suggest?” asked Weathers.

“Propaganda. Turn Turcot from a hero into a psychotic killer. Play that up every time you talk to the media. Create fear and panic. I’ll make some calls and get the Quantico people to cook up some crazy psych profile. Maybe we use the suicidal mass shooter template. We’ll throw in some racism or religious fanaticism or sexual deviancy for good measure. We’ll use the FISA warrant to turn the NSA loose on him. They’ll find something in his internet searches and emails and metadata – contextual or not, they’ll find something. Then we’ll leak it to the press and let them build a public safety hysteria. Psychotic, suicidal, fanatic, pervert, Nazi – that should get those sympathizers out there second guessing their loyalties.”

The AG signed off.

“Well there you have it,” Weathers said, turning to the agent.

Acevedo’s phone buzzed. “I have to go deal with something,” he said, and excused himself.

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Oathkeeper Chapter 20

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Chapter 20

 

“…less than a week after the controversial not-guilty verdict in the Monte Turcot trial, events in the mountain town of Calumet City took a bizarre turn when the county’s chief law enforcement officer, Sheriff Bear Ellison, announced during a joint press conference with the DEA and U.S. Marshals that his department would not cooperate with federal law enforcement officials in their pursuit and arrest of Montgomery Turcot. Turcot, who was just acquitted of first degree murder, was indicted Thursday on a federal civil rights charge related to the death of DEA Agent Kevin Sniggs. In a rambling and at times cryptic rant, Sheriff Ellison made references to his oath of office and the U.S. Constitution as the basis for his decision. When asked for comment, U.S. Marshal James Weathers said that he found the sheriff’s behavior ‘perplexing’.”

“I don’t know what is going through the sheriff’s mind, right now,” Inspector Weathers stated as his face appeared on the television in front of the Calumet County Sheriff’s Department. “He seems irrational to me. We have a cold blooded killer – someone who murdered a federal agent – out there running loose in this county. We have reason to believe Sheriff Ellison knows where he is. Yet, he refuses to cooperate. I just don’t understand it. We believe Monte Turcot is an armed and highly dangerous individual who needs to be apprehended, but the sheriff would rather have a philosophical debate instead. I understand what his point is – I don’t agree with his position, but I understand it – but this is a public safety matter. This is not the time or place to argue about what the Fifth or Tenth Amendment means. Frankly, it’s not his place to even do that. That’s what we have courts for. Sheriff Ellison’s job is to enforce the law, not interpret it, and keep the people here safe, and make sure that armed killers aren’t on the loose. I just don’t get why he’s doing this.”

“We’ll keep you updated as the situation here in Calumet City develops. Chase Carson reporting, Channel 9 News…”

Ben Stern had seen enough. He turned his attention from the Wagon Wheel Saloon’s television to the emails on his cell phone, but was soon interrupted when a shadow fell across his screen.

“You have a lot of explaining to do, Stern.”

Stern looked up to find Falco hovering over his booth.

“Please have a seat,” he offered, holding back a look of surprise. He’d been expecting something like this, but Falco’s sudden appearance still startled him.

“We had a deal, Stern.” Falco sat down across from him, fixing him with an imposing stare.

The attorney sighed. “Yes, I suppose so.”

“What happened?”

“Why don’t you ask Miss White?”

“That’s not any of our concern. You were paid a substantial amount of money to ensure a specific outcome.”

“I can’t control all the variables. She was the prosecution’s witness”

“For starters, you need to start with returning the money,” Falco said. “Then we can talk about what else you’re going to do to make things right for my clients.”

“Is that so?”

“You’re on very thin ice here, Stern. My people are very upset.”

“I imagine they are, but they have no one to blame but themselves,” Stern explained. “Besides, I don’t have the money.”

“Where is it?”

“I gave it to charity.”

“How selfless of you. Go get it back.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”

“Then go see one of your Jew bankers and get a loan.”

“One of my Jew bankers? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t need to explain myself further,” muttered Falco.

“This matter is resolved, as far as I’m concerned,” Stern said. “The DA needs to appeal. God knows I left him plenty of arguments for that. Had I pulled some of the shit I pulled here back in Philadelphia, I’d be disbarred by now. Go tell your clients to get to work. They’ll get their outcome.”

“You think you know who you’re dealing with.”

“I’m not stupid. I do my research. I know all about you, Francis Michael Gottfried. Falco’s your nom de guerre. You’re a narcotics distributor, at least you were…until Acevedo put you on the dole. It seems you’ve been working with him for five years, now. And you’re working both sides of the law – setting up shops in these rural counties, raking in the cash, then turning them over to the DEA for a finder’s fee when you’ve milked it dry. No wonder Acevedo seems to know where all the operations are. He’s amassed quite a record of busts, thanks to your help.”

“You’ve got it wrong.”

“No, I don’t think so. You got busted in San Bernardino. You were looking at ten years until Acevedo swooped down and rescued you, putting you to work. I must say that I am very impressed, but working both sides has got to be stressful. You can never know for sure when the bikers or the Mexicans might catch on. If they did, I imagine they’d come pay you a visit.”

Falco was speechless.

“Do you trust Acevedo’s boys?” Stern continued. “Do you think they’ll protect you? I wouldn’t be so sure if I was in your shoes. At best, you’re just an expendable informant who they could replace tomorrow. At worst, you’re a loose end that they might just allow the gangs to tie up.”

“So what exactly do you suggest I tell my people, Stern?” Falco growled. “Tell them to forget about our deal? Tell them to forget about the money and just walk away?”

“Sell it to them, Falco. Your life may depend on it.”

“What’s to stop them from paying you a visit?”

Stern placed his hands behind his head, leaned back in his seat, and grinned. “You really do think I’m an idiot, don’t you? It’s like this, Falco: if anything happens to me, then a file I’ve assembled gets emailed to the sheriff’s department. It’d implicate you and Acevedo and DA Chalmers, too. I can tie you all together. Phone records. Pictures. Emails. You really should update your Internet security.”

“Assuming it’s true, they aren’t going to let you just walk around with that kind of information.”

“I’m betting my life that they will.” Stern smirked. “That’s how the real world works, Mr. Gottfried. It’s called leverage.”

“Then I guess there’s nothing left to discuss.” Falco got up from the booth, as if to leave.

“Sell it to them,” Stern repeated.

“You think you got all the angles figured out, don’t you?”

“All the ones that matter.”

“I don’t think you really understand who you’re dealing with,” Falco said, and walked out.

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Oathkeeper Chapter 19

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 19

 

Sheriff Ellison left the Francione residence and was back on the road by eleven. The clouds were filling back into the skies, and it was darkening to the south. On the radio, the sheriff could hear weather reports of a storm front backing up into the valley. Laden smoke rolled out of the chimneys he passed on the road, sinking straight to the ground. Small winter birds – frenzied chickadees and finches – scurried about gathering seeds and other edibles. Mule deer were out grazing. Foxes were hunting as the late morning faded to gray.

The scene at the Sheriff’s Department was exactly what Ellison had expected. The flotilla of news vans had returned, someone obviously having tipped them off. Three black Tahoes were on the scene, as well as two unmarked Grand Cherokees. A throng had gathered at the steps before the main entrance. Ellison avoided them and drove around to the back garage. He was sure they spotted him pull in, but he got the door down before the mob could push through.

Ellison went straight to his office. The marshals, Inspector Weathers and Deputy Scott, were already there, both sitting on his office sofa. Agent Acevedo had taken a seat in the swivel chair, with his feet up on the sheriff’s desk. The marshals stood up as Ellison entered.

“Gentlemen,” Ellison greeted them unenthusiastically.

“Sheriff,” Acevedo replied. He was still seated.

“Has the DEA commandeered the Calumet County Sheriff’s Department without my knowledge?” asked Ellison.

“Not that I’m aware of,” answered the agent.

Ellison narrowed his eyes. “Then please remove your feet from my desk and your ass from my chair.”

“Touchy this morning, eh Sheriff?” Acevedo waited another few seconds, as if mocking the sheriff, then withdrew his feet and rose from the chair.

“Are you two not getting along?” asked Weathers.

“You’re late,” Scott stated.

“It’s only 12:10,” answered Ellison, pointing to the wall clock.

“Let’s not waste any more time,” said Acevedo. “You know what we’re here for.”

“I suppose you have the warrant?”

“Right here.” Scott produced a manila folder.

“So where is he?” Acevedo inquired.

“We’re going to do a little horse trading first,” said Ellison.

“I love all this redneck talk,” replied the DEA agent, “but there isn’t anything to deal, here.”

The sheriff sat down behind his desk and swept away the dirt specks that had fallen off Acevedo’s shoes. He noticed that his drawers had been opened as well. He slowly pushed them shut, emphasizing that he knew they had been compromised, then collected his scattered pens, placed them in their mug, and straightened out his papers.

“When you get your man,” he addressed them after he had finished tidying up his desk, “it’ll be time for you boys to wrap things up around here. You and your expeditionary force can move on. I think that’s a fair trade.”

The eyes of both marshals shifted hopefully from Ellison to Acevedo. The agent, who was now standing across from the desk, responded with a clicking, squirrel-like sound made with his tongue behind his teeth. He stared at the floor, then gazed upwards to the ceiling and sighed.

“Uh…no.” he said. “That’s not going to work for us.”

“No?” asked Ellison.

“Did I stutter?”

“What do you mean, no?”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Sheriff,” Acevedo answered snidely. “We’re deep into a surveillance program on an operation up by Twin Lakes. It could take until June to wrap it up. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we can’t just pull up stakes. We’re too far into this.”

Ellison stared blankly, pondering the explanation. He had guessed beforehand that Acevedo wouldn’t yield. The DEA had to know that they had worn out their welcome, but it made sense to him that there wouldn’t be any flexibility. Regardless, he thought he would take one more crack at it, just to be sure he was on record. At least the marshals would know he had exhausted every possibility.

“I’m asking you Vince, as a professional courtesy, to move on to the next county.”

“No, Sheriff.” Acevedo clicked his tongue, sighed, and looked down and up again. “I’ve got my orders. You see, we’re going to scrub this little county of yours. We’re going to scrub it clean of meth. Somebody has to enforce the law around here.”

Ellison wondered how Frenchie would handle this. He envisioned him giving a command and a battery of deputies storming into the office, wrenching the agent’s arms behind his back, and escorting him out of the front doors as if they were nightclub bouncers removing a belligerent drunk.

“I understand what you’re dealing with,” Acevedo continued, “but don’t make it any more difficult for yourself.”

For an instant, Ellison considered tossing his badge on the table and walking out, leaving them empty-handed, but that wouldn’t make things any easier. He would likely be detained and suffer the ignominy of being booked and having his mug shot plastered on Channel 9. His entire legacy – whatever good he had done – would be zeroed out by such an outcome. He’d be disgraced. And what about his wife? How would Nguyet deal with it? Would she ever come back after something like that? After he stepped down, the interim sheriff would probably just call Kennesaw and have him bring Turcot in, anyway. No good would come from him quitting. His control of the knowledge of Turcot’s whereabouts was the only leverage Ellison had. He thought again about Frenchie, masked in his tinted glasses and puffing away on his cigar, grinning. No, he couldn’t resign.

“So why is all the media here?” he asked.

“We thought we’d have a little press conference,” explained Acevedo. “Let them know we’re bringing in the cop killer.”

“Presumptuous.” Ellison stated.

“Is it?”

“Are you going to publically address the Fifth Amendment issue?” Ellison asked.

“What issue?” Acevedo replied.

“Double jeopardy.”

Acevedo huffed and rolled his eyes. “I let the lawyers handle that. I’ve got news for you, Sheriff. No one cares about the Bill of Rights anymore. What they care about is being safe…safe from drug dealers and rapists and junkies and cop killers and terrorists. We’re doing what’s necessary for their well-being. We’re the only ones that stand between the good guys and the bad guys. You think John Q. Public cares about some cop killer’s so-called rights? That he gets a fair trial? They want him hunted down like a dog. They want to know that law enforcement is capable of doing what’s necessary to keep them safe. That’s all.”

“You’re probably right,” Ellison replied. “I suppose you better get on with your press conference, then, while I make a call.”

“Oh no, Sheriff,” replied Acevedo. “You are going to give the press conference. This is your county, after all. It’s the least you could do, considering how little help you’ve given us.”

“That’s going a little too far, Vince, don’t you think?” Weathers interjected. “We got what we came for. There’s no need to beat the sheriff up like that.”

Acevedo rolled his eyes again in dissatisfaction. “No. I want the sheriff out there showing these folks whose side he’s on.” He turned to Ellison. “Then you go get Turcot just as soon as it’s over.”

“That’s totally unnecessary,” said Weathers.

“I think it is necessary,” Acevedo countered. “The folks around here need to see their sheriff cooperating with the federal government.”

“But–”

“Let’s just get it over with,” interrupted Ellison.

The four men left the office and passed through the front doors, making their way out onto the steps where a hundred civilians and the press with their cameras and microphones had convened. Weathers was the first to speak.

“The Department of Justice is here today to announce the indictment of Montgomery Turcot on the charge of violating the civil rights of Special Agent Kevin Sniggs.” He held up the indictment dossier for effect. “With the help of my partner, Deputy Scott, the U.S. Marshals intend to bring Mr. Turcot in and see that justice is finally carried out in this terrible case. The DOJ, along with our partners at the DEA and the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, know that the citizens of Calumet County will greatly appreciate that this matter is finally being set straight–”

“Why don’t you go back home!” someone shouted from the crowd. The cameras swung around, searching for the heckler. Another voice roared, “Double jeopardy!” and another, “Turcot’s innocent!”

Weathers, still holding the indictment dossier aloft, glanced disbelievingly at his partner, who looked equally confused.  He turned to Acevedo, searching for guidance, but the agent had none to give.

“Get out of our county!” shouted another heckler. “Free Turcot!”

“You want the drug dealers to take over?” someone shouted in response. “Lock him up!”

Shouting, pushing, and shoving ensued as the news crews moved in to capture the spectacle.

Acevedo had had enough. He turned to the sheriff and grabbed him by the collar. “Get your people under control!”

In that instant, Bear Ellison had a moment of perfect clarity.

“Take your god damn hand off me,” he ordered.

“You calm them folks down, or I’m going to start making arrests for disorderly conduct,” Acevedo barked as he released his grip on Ellison’s shirt.

The sheriff walked forward into the sea of microphones and cameras, pushing Weathers aside. The marshal had seemingly forgotten that he was still holding his dossier aloft. Before he spoke, Ellison looked back over his shoulder and spotted Kennesaw. He winked at the deputy, and Kennesaw disappeared back through the department’s front doors. Bear bought himself a moment by grabbing the dossier from Weathers’ upraised hand. He thumbed through the papers while the reporters pushed microphones and hurled questions at him.

“You’re not with them, are you Sheriff?” asked another voice from the crowd. “Are you going to sell Turcot out?”

“You’re either with the feds, or you’re with the drug dealers!” shouted another.

Ellison handed the folder back to Weathers, who looked even more confused than before. Acevedo watched intensely. The sheriff glanced back over his shoulder once more, back to the front doors of the department. He cleared his throat and waited for the din to subside, but the reporters grew restless. They asked the same questions again, only louder. Weathers glared at Ellison, who simply raised a hand to silence the mob.

“So where do you stand, Sheriff?” asked a man from the crowd.

Keeping his hand up while he scanned the crowd, Ellison looked over his shoulder again. Kennesaw finally emerged from the building, flanked by a group of six deputies.

“Tell us, Sheriff!”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Ellison began. “Thank you for coming out today. Please forgive me if I begin to sound like I’m giving a sermon. My grandfather was a minister, but I didn’t inherit any of his talent. I do apologize.” He glanced at Acevedo, whose face was turning red as the CCSD deputies lined up behind them. “Back when I took this job, I was required to take an oath. In that oath, I swore that I would faithfully perform the duties of the Office of Sheriff of Calumet County and support the Constitution. For many, their oath is just words. But not to me. I don’t take my oath lightly.

“A few days ago, a Calumet County man stood accused of capital murder in district court in Fremont County. After a trial, decided by a jury of his peers, he was acquitted in accordance with the laws of this state. That’s how the law works, whether we like it or not. I have nothing to say about whether Monte Turcot murdered Agent Sniggs or not. As sheriff, that doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. What matters to me is the law. And regardless of whether you or the DOJ or CNN or anyone else thinks Monte Turcot is a killer, he was acquitted by that jury.

“Like I said, I swore to support the Constitution of the United States. That Constitution says that ‘no person shall be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.’ The meaning is perfectly clear. No one can be tried twice for the same crime.”

“Sheriff!” a reporter spoke up. “Sheriff, are you interpreting the Fifth Amendment in place of the Supreme Court?”

“I don’t need some lawyer or judge to interpret for me. It’s written in plain English. Sometimes the Court makes mistakes,” continued Ellison. “Dred Scott comes to mind. Ever hear of it? You should remember that case from junior high school. The Supreme Court ruled that black men cannot be citizens. I can think of a few others. There’s Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld forced segregation in Louisiana. The Kelo ruling lets big cities seize people’s homes and land and sell it off to giant commercial interests like big box stores. And what about the Korematsu Case? Did the court interpret the Constitution right? Our all-wise Supreme Court ruled that the government has the right to put Americans in concentration camps. These rulings were all obviously wrong, but did everyone just give up and accept them because the Constitution only means what the court says? Of course not.

“I’ve known quite a few lawyers in my day, and I’ve come to the conclusion that if you get enough of them together, they could convince five of nine judges that two plus two equals five. Can the Court deny your right to free speech or religion? If the Constitution means only what they say it means, why not? They could argue: ‘We just can’t have people going around stirring up trouble or questioning authority. That might cause a riot or interrupt someone’s tranquil evening.’ Could they take away your right to defend yourself? They might say: ‘If we could take all the guns away, that’d reduce violence and promote the general welfare, wouldn’t it?’ What about your right to be secure in your effects? Free from warrantless searches and seizures? But they could say: ‘How would we catch terrorists without the ability to access everyone’s emails and phone conversations?’ Imagine what the government could find if they could poke around in everyone’s bank statements and phone records and emails and web searches whenever they want. It’s already happening. They can find something on anyone. And if they can do that, they could jail or silence or blackmail anyone who disagrees with them. The courts might say that it’s in the interest of public safety to create a secret court to issue warrants and keep things constitutional. They might say that if you’ve got nothing to hide, then you’ve got nothing to fear. We’ve all heard that one, haven’t we? You may have nothing to hide today, but what about a decade from now, when there are different people in power?  What if those people in power don’t like you? What if they fear you?

“We all have unalienable rights, like them or not. They don’t come from a judge or a government. They’re inherent. Civil rights are what living in a free country is all about. Just because one right inconveniences or offends or scares someone doesn’t mean they get to overrule it – whether they be cops or federal agents or even presidents. The Bill of Rights is not à la carte. You don’t get to pick and choose which rights you can ignore, no matter who you work for. It’s all or nothing. If the law doesn’t apply to everyone, then there is no valid law. And without the law, all we are left with are the whims of men more powerful than you and I.

“I may not have an Ivy League education, but I can read the Constitution. It’s written in plain English. And frankly, I don’t give a damn how any Harvard lawyer interprets it to mean the exact opposite of what it says in order to push some agenda. The meaning is clear, and I swore an oath to uphold it. This is Calumet County, not Washington D.C. or New York City or even Denver, for that matter. I’m the sheriff of this county. That means I am the chief law enforcement officer here, and that means that any law enforcing that is to be done here needs to have my authorization. Now these fine gentlemen came all the way out here to serve their writ. They’ve served it. They’ve asked me to arrest Monte Turcot and hand him over to them for a second trial on the same crime. But as far as I’m concerned, if I was to do what they demand, I would violate my oath. I’m not going to do that.

“Furthermore,” the sheriff concluded, “as the chief law enforcement officer of Calumet County, I’ve determined that the DEA’s mission in this county has been concluded. It’s time for them to pack up their things and move on. My department will not be authorizing any more surveillance or any other operations by the DEA here for the foreseeable future. That order is coming from the sheriff’s department, and if any agent refuses to obey that order, I will instruct my deputies to arrest them. That’s pretty much all I have to say. Thank you for coming out, and have a pleasant day.”

Ellison turned, pushed through the reporters that had circled behind his deputies, and stepped through the department doors back into the building. Acevedo and two of his agents started towards the sheriff, but Weathers intervened before they could make their move.

“Not now,” he said, and motioned towards the deputies, the press, and the crowd of nearly a hundred Calumet County citizens. “Not yet.”

Oathkeeper

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Oathkeeper Chapter 18

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 18

 

Bear Ellison slammed his hand down, killing his alarm. He got up, dressed, and stepped out the door into a morning fog, then climbed into his truck and drove south, the opposite direction of the Calumet County Sheriff’s Department. After driving for a half hour, the fog lifted and the clouds began to break apart.

As the sheriff headed further south, the pines receded from the tawny valley floor, drawing back up into the foothills and north-facing slopes where they grew thick in the cool summer shade. The only trees hardy enough for the dry valley floor were the cottonwoods, clustered along the banks of the creeks and seasonal washes. The dried grasses, matted by winter snows and early spring winds, spanned the plain in a sea of rolling straw. A swarm of ten thousand black birds swirled in an undulating cloud.

The sheriff turned off the highway onto a dirt road going east. The trek took him four miles to a narrow gap passing through cliffs of gray shale. A wide canyon opened on the other side, carved out by a once mighty river – now just a meandering creek. The road bent left and hugged the cliffs, eroded through a million years of sediments. Across the valley, the southern wall sloped gently away, covered by still leafless aspen. The sun dried valley floor was dotted with yucca and cactus, and a smattering of black cattle soaking in the warmth of seminal spring.

The road pulled Ellison onward, climbing higher into a Goshen of lush alfalfa grass nurtured by tributaries that wove through it like an unraveling braid. His cruiser clanged over a cattle guard and past a barbed wire boundary fence set with lodge pole trunks and a sun-bleached bull’s skull mounted on each gate post. Immaculate bursts of white clouds sailed the cerulean sky from west to east. A pastel crescent moon climbed towards a lunar noon. Red-tailed hawks circled above, gliding, hanging from the sky by invisible lines, effortlessly scanning the shadows between the brambles far below in search of a feast. Every so often, the raptors dove down upon the voles, trapping them on the ground with their talons and hauling them up and away to be devoured.

The pickup turned onto a quartz stone drive and stopped on a cement apron loop at the door of a stucco ranch house. Ellison shut off the engine and waited for the dust to be carried off by the breeze. He got out and walked the flagstone steps up to the front door, then reached out and rang the bell.

The door opened, and a Nordic woman appeared. She was sixtyish, lean and tall, her silver hair pulled straight back, her alabaster skin mottled and coarsened by decades of the intense, high valley sun. Her piercing eyes were softened by amber safety lenses and she had a set of hearing protection earmuffs wrapped around her neck. At her side was holstered a stainless steel .357 Magnum.

“Hello Astrid,” Ellison greeted her. “Going shooting today?”

“I just got back. Frenchie’s in the den,” she explained, welcoming him in. The sheriff stepped into the quiet house onto lacquered terra cotta tile. Mrs. Francione closed the heavy paneled door behind him with hands hardened by a lifetime of bending the natural world to her will. She showed Ellison through the house to the back where the den was, swung open the French doors, and let her guest through.

The room was darkened by plantation shades and walnut paneling. A hundred framed photos filled up the walls. Many were pictures of a young Enzio “Frenchie” Francione: strapping football nose tackle with a mane of black hair, graduate, crew cut sergeant, a slightly heavier golfer, and a heavier still and balding sheriff. Mrs. Francione, also pictured, was stunning in every era of her life, crisp in posture, fastidious in attire, with pale blue eyes and an ice-dagger stare. She never smiled, at least not in any of the photos, but she did not look unhappy. The Franciones had three children: two daughters and a son, and their faces filled most of the other frames on the wall. The Francione progeny were each pugnacious and dark and good-natured-looking – archetype Italians just like their father – but they each beamed a steely aura through their mother’s Nordic eyes. They were all grown now and moved far away and had their own children, but those pictures were hung somewhere else in the house.

On the far wall hung an assortment of hunting trophies: antlers, horns, and stuffed heads. A bull elk surveyed the room with obsidian eyes, hung above the mantel on a river stone fireplace. Just aft of the hearth reclined the former sheriff of Calumet County – tanned, bald, paunchy, face hidden by his tinted lenses with their oversized gold frames. He was a little grayer then Ellison remembered him, but essentially timeless. Frenchie didn’t bother to get up when he sensed the visitor in his den. In fact, his eyes didn’t leave his phone.

“So what brings you all the way out here, Deputy?” asked Frenchie.

Ellison knew well that Francione couldn’t stand to have anyone being called “sheriff” who wasn’t him, regardless of the current state of things. “It’s good to see you again, Sheriff.”

“Go ahead. Sit down.”

Ellison took a seat on a deep leather sectional with built-in recliners and cup holders, opposite the former sheriff.

“What can I do for you?” Frenchie asked, still without lifting his eyes.

“I wanted to get your advice on a little situation I’ve got going on.”

“You have a situation?”

“I do.”

“Hmm. I’m guessing it’s one of two things,” Frenchie squawked. “Either you want to know what to do about those feds raising hell in my county, or you want to know what to do with that Monte Turcot fellow. Am I right?” He put down his phone and looked up with a grin. “Or maybe it’s both.”

“Pretty much both.”

“You know, I think I can count on one hand how many times you’ve asked me for advice. How long have you been sheriff now? Four years?”

“Do you still miss it, Frenchie?” Ellison deflected.

“Miss what? Being Sheriff? Nah!” Frenchie snarled. His compensating tone made it clear that he still did, despite his words.

“Do you still have your finger on the pulse of the county?”

“I think so.”

“So tell me what the consensus is. What’s the attitude out there?”

Frenchie sighed and adjusted his dark lenses that covered half of his face. The tint was so dark that Ellison couldn’t even see his eyes.

“Can I give you my honest opinion?” he asked.

“Of course.”

Frenchie reached for a cigar and tucked it into his mouth, then reached for his lighter. He flipped it open with a metal shwing, struck a blue flame, and lit the end. He set the lighter back down on his end table and took several puffs until each draw made the end glow bright orange. Sweet fragrance filled the den.

“Let me ask you something,” he began.

Ellison nodded.

“Do you like my job?”

“Your job?” Ellison asked.

“Do you like being sheriff?”

“I suppose.”

“It sure doesn’t seem like it.”

“Oh?”

“Are you smoking in there, Enzio?” called Astrid from another room.

Frenchie rolled his eyes. “No. I say that because it shows.”

“How so?”

“Enzio!” Astrid repeated.

“Because you look so grim all the time.”

“Grim?”

“Yeah, grim. You know, like you’re headed to a funeral or something. ”

“The job has its stresses,” Ellison explained.

“Yeah? So?”

“I’m not you, Frenchie.”

“You certainly got that right,” the former sheriff answered through several more puffs.

“I came out here for your help,” continued Ellison. “Marshals came by last night.”

“What did they want?”

Footsteps sounded from the adjacent room, and Mrs. Francione appeared in the doorway with her fists on her hips. She didn’t say anything, just stood there and glared.

“I know, honey,” Frenchie explained quickly. “I’d smoke outside, but I’m talking business, here.”

Astrid stared at him in silence.

“I said, I know.”

Still no response. A furrow formed in her brow.

“I’ll make it up to you,” Frenchie promised in a pleading tone. Ellison couldn’t tell whether he had managed to convince his wife or not, but Astrid turned and left after another few tense seconds. Frenchie sighed, took another puff, and turned back to the sheriff. “So what did the marshals want?”

“Turcot,” answered Ellison. “They want Turcot.”

“So why don’t they go get him?”

“Because I’m the only one who knows where he is.”

“I see.” Frenchie flicked the ash from the end of his cigar. “So what are they saying they want him for?”

“They want to retry him,” Ellison explained.

“I take it they didn’t like our jury’s verdict?”

“I would say no.”

“So what do you want to ask me? Do you want to know if I would hand him over,” Frenchie surmised.

“Yes. That, and other things.”

“What are the other things?”

“I’m trying to gauge how the county will react,” said Ellison.

“Now you sound like a politician.”

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“It’s never a good thing when you sound like a politician,” Frenchie took another puff, “even if you are one. Only the worst politicians make up their minds based on what their constituency thinks.”

“Can they really retry him? That’s a Fifth Amendment issue, isn’t it?”

“You think a piece of paper’s gonna stop them?” Frenchie replied. “They don’t give a damn about that. They’ll just have their lawyers find a workaround.”

“How do you feel about that?”

Frenchie took a long draw and blew out a stream of blue-gray smoke that rose and dispersed just above his bald head, then set the cigar down on the empty lowball glass on the adjacent end table. “I’ll indulge your questions, Bear.” He took his glasses off and set them on the table next to the glass, the cigar, and the lighter. “What would Sheriff Francione do? Hmm. Would I turn Turcot over, or tell them marshals to go fuck themselves? Let’s see. If I was concerned about public sentiment, I’d look like a rat selling out a local guy to some smug pricks from DC. On the other hand, if I didn’t hand him over, those marshals might make my life miserable.”

“What if they threatened to arrest you?” Ellison asked.

“Arrest me?” Frenchie laughed. “If they even suggested that, I’d kick their fat asses right on out of my county. No, they wouldn’t arrest me. Now, arrest you? That all depends on what level of respect they have for you – if they think you’ve got it in you to stand up to them, if they think you have any allies that will back you up… Do you?”

“What about the press?”

“What about ‘em?”

“I’m worried they’ll work against me and my department.”

“If you’re worried about the press, then you’re already finished,” scoffed Frenchie. “You’d better just hand Turcot over, resign, and move on out of the county, because no one here will even serve you donuts after that.”

“Can the press be managed? Can it be made to look like the feds got Turcot without my cooperation?”

“Bear, let me tell you something,” Frenchie continued. “The press? They’re just in it for the popularity contest. They don’t care one whit about anything other than seeing their name on a byline or their mug on TV. They don’t believe in anything other than their own egos. They can’t be made to tell people what you want them to. They have to want to tell them. Ego, Bear. The press wants to be acknowledged, that they have power and influence – all that Fourth Estate horseshit. They like to think they’re an important component of our democracy. Maybe that was even true forty fucking years ago, but today, they make nice with whoever has the power, whoever’s winning, because everyone loves a winner. The ones with power – the winners – they control their access, and access is their business. Now the metro guys, they don’t respect anyone in any place with less than 3,000 TVs per square mile. That means Calumet County might as well be the surface of Mars. The local guys, on the other hand, they make their living off the scraps. They’ll sympathize with you if they think you can win.”

“What will make them think I can win?”

“When the people rally for you,” answered Frenchie. “The people will let the press know if they’re with you or not. If they are, then you can pretty much do as you please.”

“And what about the network guys?”

“You’re a dusty cow town sheriff. At best, you might be a Don Quixote to them – some crazy guy with a badge, jousting windmills, a public curiosity, a freak show. They don’t give a shit about a popularity contest in Calumet County, or even Colorado for that matter. It’s a goddamn flyover state to them – ski resorts and pot shops, that’s all.”

“So what do the people think?”

“Of you?”

“Of me. Of Turcot. What do they expect me to do?”

“For starters, they aren’t going to get behind any sheriff who doesn’t want to be sheriff, whether they agree with you or not.”

“How do I convince them I want to be sheriff?” Ellison asked.

“Start by convincing yourself. Do you want to be sheriff, Bear?”

“I’ll be honest, Frenchie. I don’t like the politics.”

“A politician who doesn’t like politics? You have a problem, Bear. Winning hearts and minds is the biggest part of being sheriff. Maybe you’re looking at it all wrong. I can understand why you hate politics, all that glad-handing and keeping your enemies close and all that. But think of it like this: I hate hanging barbed wire, but I don’t hate it as much as I hate chasing my cows all over this valley. If you can’t see that side of it, then why are you doing it? If you can’t find joy in hanging barbed wire, then you shouldn’t be a rancher. You don’t want to be sheriff? Then do yourself a favor and get the hell out. Hell, I’ll come back and straighten things out. I’m bored to tears out here.” Frenchie looked and listened for Astrid, making sure she hadn’t heard that. He reached down for his cigar and took another long drag. “So what’s it gonna be?”

“I’m not quitting,” Ellison stated.

“Then change your attitude,” said Frenchie bluntly. “Listen to me. I keep tabs on you. I follow what you’re up to. What I see is you’re always reacting to everything. You’re always on defense. You’ve got to seize the initiative if you want to make any headway with this whole situation.”

“How?”

“Jesus, Bear!” Frenchie sighed. “You’re the goddamn sheriff! You’re the most powerful man in my county! Do whatever the hell you want. What do you want your legacy to be?”

“I want to be a good sheriff.”

“Oh, bullshit.”

“What?”

I want to be a good sheriff,” Frenchie mocked. “That doesn’t mean anything. What’s your reason for being sheriff, Bear? ‘Good’ is a judgment. It’s how people will describe you based on what you actually accomplish. You can’t just aspire to be good. You have to aspire to do something and let the judgment be what it is. What do you want to change, Bear? What do you want to make better? What cause do you want to champion? No one’s going to give a hootin’ hell about some civil servant who just wanted to be known as a good civil servant. What are they going to say about Sheriff Ellison after he’s gone? ‘Oh, that Sheriff Ellison, he was such a good sheriff. No sheriff ever made decisions based on public consensus as well as he did. Oh how we miss him so.’ Give me a break. You’ve got power, Bear. What do you want to do with it? Figure that out, and then go out and do it. The judgment will be what it will be.”

“I don’t know if the county will support me.”

“Stop worrying. If whatever you do is done enthusiastically, and done in their interest, they’ll see it. If you stand up for them, they’ll rally around you. Hell, they voted for you, half of them did anyway. They’ll stand up for you if you give them a reason. They don’t want to think they voted for some self-promoting, bureaucrat jackass like Chalmers. They want to feel like they invested in a leader. You’re the sheriff, the shepherd, and they’re the sheep. They want to be tended. If they didn’t want to be sheep, then they wouldn’t vote for anyone. And if they don’t vote, then you wouldn’t have to worry about them. So what do you want to do? Go figure that out.”

Frenchie went back to checking his phone while Ellison pondered what he had just said. Finally, he spoke.

“The Department of Justice…”

“What about them?” Frenchie asked, still scrolling through his phone.

“I think they’ve overstayed their welcome.”

“I wholeheartedly agree. If you want them out, and it’s in the best interests of the county, then run them bastards off. You’ll get all the support you need.”

“Any suggestions on how to do it?”

“Oh, you’ll think of something. Worst case, you got as many deputies as they have agents. And you know the terrain.”

“What are you implying?”

“That you don’t need to worry so much.” Frenchie set his phone down again. He struggled for a moment to lean forward. On the third try, he pulled his recliner upright, then put his cigar back into his mouth and took several puffs. “Bear, don’t worry. Everyone wants them gone. It feels like we’re being occupied by a foreign army. Make those feds march on out of here, and you’ll be a bigger hero than Monte Turcot ever was.” He grinned from ear to ear, a grin that he reserved only for his most trusted cohorts. Bear had never seen Frenchie smile that way towards him before.

“What should I do about Turcot?”

“What do you want to do? You ask me, the feds lost. Shouldn’t that be the end of it? Now they want a do-over? You don’t get do-overs, Bear. That’s not how the system works. They’re giving this county the finger. They’re giving you the finger. They’re wagging it right in your face, and everyone in this county sees it. Are you going to let them do that? Are you going to let them just do as they please – make a mockery of our county, our courts, our citizens, our sheriff’s department?”

“It’s complicated.”

“No. It’s black and white. You took an oath, Bear. Remember your oath? ‘I, Thomas Bear Ellison, being duly sworn, say that I will support the Constitution for the United States and the State of Colorado, and faithfully perform the duties of the office of sheriff of blah blah blah….’ Remember that?”

“I thought you said they don’t give a damn about the Constitution.”

They don’t, but I didn’t say you shouldn’t. Use it to rally the public. Look, the feds got beat and they don’t like it. They’re arrogant. Losing doesn’t even compute in their brains. They win 97% of their cases by verdict or plea bargain. That isn’t justice, it’s kangaroo courts…it’s show trials. They have infinite resources. They’re accustomed to always getting their way, and they do whatever they please. Now some hick jury finally stood up to them, and nullified them, and they throw a temper tantrum. Retrying Turcot is about sending a message, Bear. The message is that they are invincible and that resistance is futile. That visit by the marshals at your house wasn’t just about getting Turcot. It was about getting you – getting you to heel like a dog. If they showed up on my doorstep, I’d a met them with my Mossberg. Then I’d make a few calls. I’d round some people up. I’d round up a posse and chase them off.” Frenchie took another series of puffs on his cigar, making the ash grow precariously long. “That’s what I would do, Bear. You’ve got your own way of doing things. You’ve just got to do it. You’ve got to let the feds know that this is your county – Sheriff Bear Ellison’s county – and that you want those DC boys packed up and gone. Make a big goddamn populist spectacle out of it too, for the media. Let them know you aren’t giving an inch – that you’re on offense, now. Remind the feds that they’re a long, long way from home. Those agents have pensions, families, and mortgages, and dreams of high-paying desk jobs pushing papers from in boxes into out boxes. When they get to thinking about a war out here in the mountains, they’ll come to their senses.”

Ellison pondered for a moment, then stood up. “I appreciate your time, Sheriff. Thank you for your advice.”

“Don’t thank me for anything, Bear.” Frenchie reclined back in his chair and smoked his cigar. “Just go do your job…and do it like you love it.”

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Oathkeeper Chapter 17

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 17

A predawn knock on Sheriff Ellison’s front door filled him with dread. Nothing good ever happened after 2 a.m. If it had been Kennesaw or another deputy trying to reach him, he would have received a call beforehand. Ellison got out of bed, trying his best not to wake Nguyet, but then he remembered that she had already left – gone to Atlanta to be with their granddaughter. Pushing the thoughts of her aside, he felt his way over to his dresser in the darkness.

The visitor knocked again. Ellison fumbled around for his pants and moved blindly toward his armchair. Reaching out, he felt for his holster, snatched it from the chair, and fastened it around his waist. The sheriff slowly stepped down the hallway towards the front door without turning on the light or making a sound. Before the next knock could come, he flicked on the exterior porch light, blinding whoever was there to his movements inside. He peered between the curtains of the dining room window, careful not to disturb them. Any ruffling might reveal his location.

Two men stood outside: one on the porch about to knock again and another one step down on the stairs. Both of them wore baseball caps and blue windbreakers with yellow lettering on the sleeves – the uniform of the U.S. Marshals Service. Ellison moved over to the front door, turned the deadbolt, and opened it about halfway.

“What brings you gentlemen out here?” he addressed them.

“Sheriff,” greeted the agent standing at the door. “I’m Inspector James Weathers, and this here is Deputy Kelly Scott. May we have a word with you?”

“What would you possibly need to talk about at this hour?”

“We just need to have a brief conversation with you,” Weathers explained.

“We’d prefer to have it in our Jeep,” added Scott.

Ellison found the request unusual. It sounded more like the prelude to an interrogation as opposed to a brief conversation.

“There’s no one else home,” he said. “We can talk right here. Or better yet, come inside.”

“We’d rather talk in the Jeep,” Scott repeated.

Ellison spotted the Jeep Cherokee parked outside, and reluctantly stepped out onto the porch.

“We don’t think that will be necessary,” commented the agent, eyeballing the sheriff’s holster. Ellison felt his heartbeat quicken. The rush of blood pressure sent his focus into overdrive, and his instincts rapidly took hold of his mind.

“I never leave my house in the middle of the night without it,” he said, beaming his resolve directly into Scott’s skull. Relinquishing his firearm was not in any way negotiable.

The deputy stared back, revealing no lack of conviction on his part. A silent standoff ensued, lasting an uncomfortable half minute. Law enforcers are conditioned to never yield, to never back down. When faced with resistance to their demands, their response is simply to escalate, all the way to violence if necessary. The vast portion of the civilian population quickly and wisely capitulates before it comes to that, regardless of the legality of the demand. But this was a standoff between two law enforcers – an irresistible force and an immovable object. The standard model could not resolve the situation.

Deputy Scott stared at the sheriff like a poker player attempting to unnerve a weaker opponent. Ellison continued glaring back, unflinching. He knew that if the marshals forced him to give up his firearm, then it was not just a simple conversation they sought, and that he was, in fact, being detained, questioned, and possibly arrested. He needed to know that before he would proceed with them into their vehicle. He considered just coming out and asking them directly, but he didn’t want to do that. Asking directly might raise suspicion in their minds, although he had no clear idea what they might think he was guilty of.

Exhausted by the silence, Ellison decided to press them. “Well, I can keep my sidearm, or you two can come down to my office and we can chat during business hours. How does that sound?”

“You’d probably lose a lot of sleep if we had to go away now and do this later,” replied Scott.

“I haven’t been sleeping much since my wife left for Georgia, but the suspense is killing me.”

“It’s okay, Kelly,” Weathers intervened. “He can keep his sidearm.”

Sheriff Ellison had gotten his answer. He wasn’t being detained. Still, he found the irregularity of the situation curious. He reasoned that it had to do with his aiding in Turcot’s disappearance. He knew how meticulous the Department of Justice was. They had probably sent the marshals to gather information on him, and were likely attempting to glean Turcot’s whereabouts and probably build a file on the sheriff as a person of interest. They wanted to make a statement by knocking on his door in the darkest predawn hours, startling and stressing him and his wife. They must have been unaware that Nguyet had left.

“Shall we go, then?” Ellison asked.

The two marshals escorted the sheriff into the Jeep. Ellison was offered the front passenger seat, while Deputy Scott took the rear seat directly behind him, where the sheriff could not see him without turning awkwardly. Weathers got in the driver’s side.

“So, what’s this conversation going to be about, gentlemen?” asked Ellison once the doors had closed.

“I’ll come right out with it, Sheriff,” said Weathers. “We need you to tell us where Monte Turcot is.”

“Excuse me?”

“A warrant for his arrest will be issued in the morning. We intend to bring him in.”

“On what charge?”

“Violating Agent Sniggs’s civil rights.”

Ellison looked confused. “Explain.”

“They’re going to try Turcot again,” Scott added, “since your redneck jury blew it.”

“That would be double jeopardy, wouldn’t it?” replied Ellison.

“It’s a different charge,” explained Weathers.

“Still sounds like you have a Fifth Amendment problem to me.”

“Whose side are you on?” inquired Scott.

“What?” Ellison asked, indignantly,

“Do you want justice for Agent Sniggs or not?”

“The law, however imperfect, has already been applied,” Ellison answered. “If we just hit the reset button whenever the verdict is wrong, then the law means nothing.”

“The law means whatever the court says it means,” retorted Scott. “If they say we can try him again, then we can try him again. You can leave the constitutional questions to the Supremes. That’s not your job. You know that.”

The sheriff considering giving Turcot up right at that moment, but he looked at his watch instead, and decided that he needed more time to think. “I can’t tell you where he is. Not tonight.”

“That’s bullshit!” snapped Scott from behind, almost shouting in Ellison’s ear.

“I sent him away with a deputy. They’re out in the woods, out of cell range.”

“He’s a fugitive!” Weathers exclaimed.

“Not until you produce a warrant.”

“Why are you hiding him?”

“I was helping him get out of the public eye for a few days until things calmed down,” explained Ellison. “I was made aware he was receiving death threats. My deputy will check in with me in the morning. I’ll give you something by noon at the latest.”

“Who do you think we are?” asked Scott. “Do you think we just came from Bumfuck County down the road? We know you know where he is. Don’t think we can’t get you on obstruction if necessary. That would be the end of your career.”

“Ending my career might just be doing me a favor,” answered Ellison as he twisted around to face the marshal. “In the meantime, I’d be happy to send someone out to bring him in…after you produce an arrest warrant. Otherwise, you can go.”

“We can live with that, Sheriff,” Weathers interrupted, before the argument escalated. “Noon tomorrow will be fine.”

“Good,” said Ellison. “We’ll see you then.”

The sheriff wrenched the door open and pulled himself out of the Jeep. He heard the engine start as he walked towards his porch. As the two marshals backed out, a bright light flashed on from farther down the driveway. Ellison hadn’t realized that another visitor was parked in the darkness, obscured by the trees. Its engine revved, and he managed to identify it as the purr of a Vortec 5300 V8, a Tahoe engine. It pulled out and drove off into the night with the Jeep following close behind.

Ellison walked up the stairs onto his porch, and stood there for a moment under the light, contemplating the evolving situation. There wasn’t much reason for him to protect Monte Turcot from the feds. Still, the notion of giving up the man he had done so much to protect bothered the sheriff. He reached in the doorway and shut off the porch light, then went back into his house and locked the deadbolt. The night was still and completely silent. The sky was its blackest just before the predawn glow, painted in innumerable stars.

Ellison lay in bed, staring out the window until the sky grayed in the east.

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Oathkeeper Chapter 16

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 16

 

 

“Good morning, Sheriff,” Stern announced as he propped himself up on the sofa. Ellison stood by the window, peering out through the tattered mini blinds. He was wearing the same uniform from the day before, and it didn’t appear that he had slept. “What are you looking at?”

“There’s a big crowd gathered out there. Take a look.” Ellison stepped away to refill his coffee cup while Stern staggered over to the window. “You see all those news vans?”

“Yeah. Looks like five of them.”

“Don’t forget that CNN hybrid by the mailbox over there.”

“I’d better hold a press conference then, before they get bored and leave.” Stern felt the side of his neck. “Damn. You wouldn’t happen to have a razor, would you?’

“Check my office bathroom, in the medicine cabinet.” Ellison switched on his radio to Kennesaw’s frequency as Stern made his way to the head. “You there, Ken?”

“I’m on my way, Boss. Five minutes out.”

“Do me a favor. Park in the garage, then come straight up to my office. I’ve got an idea to run by you.”

“Sure thing.”

Ellison sat down in his swivel chair, his eyes bloodshot and glassy from the pots of coffee he had consumed throughout the night. He peeked out into the reception area and saw Turcot asleep on the davenport. Grabbing the remote, he clicked on the TV, and a glossy Denver morning show filled the screen. VERDICT IN CALUMET DEA AGENT KILLING crawled along the television, below an orange-complexioned hostess with dyed hair and enormous, gleaming, bluish-white teeth, interviewing a man dressed like a chef. MONTE TURCOT FOUND NOT GUILTY IN DEATH OF FEDERAL AGENT.

The sheriff sipped his coffee. A thin, plucked and coiffed male reporter appeared on screen next. One glance at him and Ellison deduced that he had never been so much as five miles from a Starbucks during the entirety of his lifetime. Then he recognized the CCSD police station in the background of the shot. The reporter was standing right outside.

“…to say the verdict came as a surprise would be an understatement, even in a small mountain town like Calumet City, known primarily for its ranching, white water rafting, and slower pace…”

“In other words, ‘those hicks blew it’,” mumbled Ellison as he sipped from his cup. The shot ended, and the feed suddenly cut to Special Agent Acevedo.

“Kevin Sniggs was an exemplary agent,” Acevedo said. “He dedicated his life to fighting the War on Drugs. He loved his job – his service to his country. It’s just unbelievable that any jury could have ruled this way – to let a murderer go like that. I still can’t believe it.”

The footage cut to a courtroom scene.

“Bedlam broke out after the bailiff read the verdict,” the reporter continued. “A court clerk suffered a broken nose in the melee. A sixty-year-old woman was taken to the Canon City medical center for treatment and later released. Unable to subdue the rioters, Sheriff Bear Ellison, shown here, escorted the acquitted suspect and his attorney into a safe room…”

“The court’s not even in my county,” Ellison scoffed to no one in particular.

“As of this moment, it is believed that Turcot is holed up here, in this building behind me, the Calumet County Sheriff’s Department, protected by the sheriff and his officers…”

“They’re not officers,” growled the sheriff. “They’re deputies.” He switched the television over to CNN.

“…Connor is on scene. Connor, what’s going on there?”

Ellison could hear a helicopter on the television and overhead simultaneously. The seven-second delay made it sound like a whole squadron was flying outside.

“Less than twelve hours ago, the accused killer of Special Agent Kevin Sniggs was found not guilty by a small town jury in nearby Canon City,” Connor announced. “But the suspect, Montgomery Turcot, is not a free man, yet. He’s been taken to the Calumet County Sheriff’s Department, which you are seeing now. All requests for an interview have been denied. As you can see, there are numerous reporters on the scene, in addition to several dozen, perhaps a hundred or so citizens of this small, rural community. The crowd has grown considerably since last evening.”

“Do you know why Turcot was taken into custody?” asked the anchor.

“It’s not yet known why the sheriff is holding Turcot, whether he is in custody or there on his own free will.”

The scene returned to the studio.

“In the studio today, we have clinical psychologist Ravi Prashad. Thank you for coming on. Dr. Prashad, would you care to speculate on what is going on up there in the Colorado mountains?”

“This ought to be good,” Ellison muttered.

“Sure,” answered Prashad. “It’s my belief that that the Calumet County Sheriff’s Department took Mr. Turcot into custody, as you speculated, based on some information that led them to suspect that he was a danger to himself or possibly others. We’re talking about an alleged cold-blooded killer here, also a man who is a combat veteran, and a man who recently lost his wife in a tragic accident. He has been in jail for several months now. You can’t just turn a person under that level of stress loose in society. He is most likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as elevated levels of anxiety and maybe even paranoia, mania, adult oppositional defiant disorder, or depression. It’s quite possible that the sheriff evaluated him, and determined that he was unstable and required overnight observation. Many kudos to this small town sheriff for his progressive action. I do believe that Turcot should be kept there until he can be evaluated by medical and psychiatric professionals and it is determined that he will not pose any danger to the community if released without supervision…”

Ellison shut off the television. “Did you hear that?” he asked, just as Stern returned from the bathroom with a razor in hand and half of his face covered in shaving cream.

“Hear what?”

“Channel 9 thinks I’m harboring a fugitive, and CNN thinks I’m detaining him for psychiatric evaluation.”

“Did you expect the media to tell the truth on their own? You’ve got to spoon feed them, Sheriff,” Stern said as he went back to shaving. “So, do I just go out there and start talking?”

“No,” Ellison answered. “I’ll go and let them know that you’re coming out to speak. You’re a little short, no offense, so I’ll try to stake out a place on the steps for you out front.” The sheriff turned toward the davenport. By this point, Turcot had woken up and was fumbling around with the coffee maker. “Monte?”

Turcot didn’t respond.

“Monte?”

“Yeah, Sheriff?”

“I want you to stay inside, if that’s okay with you.”

“Whatever you think is best.”

“I’ll tell them you just want your privacy right now, that you’ve been through a lot and that you’ll talk to them later.”

“Then what?” Turcot asked.

“Well, you can’t stay here,” replied Ellison. “I don’t want them thinking I’m harboring or detaining you. And I don’t want all them news vans and that crowd getting in the way. Can you make some arrangements?”

“I could go home.”

“Can you go someplace else? I’m sure they’ll be waiting for you there.”

“I can’t think of anywhere.”

“All right. Just sit tight. Stern, you need to keep them reporters tied up for at least twenty minutes. If you run out of things to say, which I’m sure you won’t, just start taking questions. They never run out of questions.”

“Then what?” asked Stern.

“While you’re doing your presser, we’re going to get Mr. Turcot out of here, right out the back door.”

Kennesaw appeared five minutes later.

“Good morning,” the sheriff greeted him.

“Morning, Boss.”

“Would you mind staying here in my office with Monte while I take Mr. Stern down to meet the press?”

“Not at all, Boss.”

Sheriff Ellison led Stern to the front doors. The attorney was wearing his suit from the previous day, but he otherwise looked fresh. Behind the frosted glass windows lurked his destiny. The trial and its conclusion were merely a prelude to this moment. How he handled the press now would determine his legacy from the victory in court. They had the potential to bury him if he botched it. The press was a delicate instrument, easy to play but difficult to master. Stern took a deep breath and released it in short bursts, a technique he’d learned from a yoga DVD.

“Are you ready?” Ellison asked.

“Let’s do this,” answered Stern.

The frosted glass doors swung open, and the reporters swarmed in. Ellison guided Stern to the landing at the edge of the granite stairs leading down from the station to the sidewalk. A dozen microphones jabbed into their faces immediately.

“How are you all this morning?” the sheriff addressed the crowd.

“Where’s Monte Turcot?” asked a reporter.

“Is he in jail?” another inquired.

“Mr. Turcot is inside. He’s not in jail and he’s not in custody. We are not holding him.”

“Is he under observation?”

“Negative. Mr. Turcot is free to go whenever he pleases.”

“What’s his condition?”

“He appears to be in good health, but he’s been through a lot.”

“Why isn’t he out here?”

“Yeah,” asked another. “Why won’t he speak to us about his victory in court?”

“Look,” answered the sheriff, “I just came out here to let you all know that Mr. Turcot is not in custody, and that we are going to provide transportation for him in just a few minutes. I think that you all should honor the jury’s’ verdict and be respectful of the law and of Mr. Turcot’s wishes to be left alone. He’s been through a great deal these past few months.”

“Is the sheriff’s department providing protection for Mr. Turcot?”

“Protection from who? From you guys?”

“Sheriff, are you aware that several death threats have been made towards Mr. Turcot?”

“This is the first I’ve heard of that, but I will look into it. Who’s been making them?”

“Sheriff, do you think justice was served in this case?”

“Mr. Turcot was acquitted,” answered Ellison. “That’s all that matters, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Have you heard any of the rumors that the Department of Justice wants to retry him?”

“I’m assuming that would be double jeopardy and–”

“Try him on a different charge, a civil rights charge?”

“I’ll leave that to the lawyers,” said Ellison. “I’ve got to make arrangements to transport Mr. Turcot so I can attend to other county business. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to hand things over to Mr. Turcot’s attorney. This is Benjamin Stern.” He stepped away from Stern, who began answering a flurry of questions about retrying Turcot in federal court by reciting the 5th Amendment. Ellison slipped back into the station and not ten minutes later, while Stern was still fielding questions, his cruiser emerged from the garage. The swarm of reporters scrambled into their news vans and joined in the pursuit, leaving Stern without the bulk of his audience.

Ellison led them onto the highway, then east into the arroyos and pinion forest. The road turned to dirt, and the parade of vehicles kicked up a maelstrom of dust. Mule deer pranced along the shoulders of the road, darting into the shrubs in fear. Stones pinged against steel, and the engines roared. The caravan turned north, passing through three narrow railway tunnels drilled and blasted in succession through solid granite. The sky above was cloudless, save for wispy braids of cotton contrails.

Ellison turned west, leading them onto an even rougher road. The news vans struggled to keep up, bottoming out in the ruts and on the bumps. A black Tahoe appeared in Ellison’s mirror, passing the news vans and closing in just behind them. Its driver’s side mirror had been sheared off.

As the vehicles crossed back over the highway, the pinion shrubs yielded to the tall ponderosa pines. Another turn and another mile or so, and they had turned onto Turcot’s gravel driveway. Ellison stopped in front of Turcot’s trailer, but didn’t exit his cab until the news vans and the black SUV had caught up and parked behind him. Once eight more vehicles had squeezed their way onto the shoulder of Turcot’s drive and a helicopter had taken position overhead, Sheriff Ellison finally got out to confront them. The reporters swarmed in.

“Where’s Turcot?” they shouted. “We want to ask him some questions.”

“Now this is pretty rude of you all,” Ellison replied. “I’m very disappointed. I thought I’d asked you all to respect Mr. Turcot’s privacy.”

“Just give us Turcot.”

“We just want to talk to him.”

“We’re just doing our job, Sheriff.”

“The public wants to hear from him!”

“This is private property,” Ellison said. “You are trespassing if you stay after being asked to leave.”

“Let Turcot ask us, then. Where is he?” The reporters closed in around the sheriff’s cruiser with their cameras and microphones.

“Please step away from my cruiser,” Ellison ordered.

The reporters cupped their hands on the windows, trying to catch a glimpse of the acquitted agent killer, but there was no one inside. They had been duped.

Ellison had come alone.

#

An hour later and twenty-five miles away to the southwest, Deputy Kennesaw stopped in front of his hunting cabin. It was a secluded place, up a rugged four wheel drive-only road, tucked snugly into the woods beyond the reach of the lumbering news vans. As they walked up to the cabin door, the deputy and Monte Turcot could hear water running in a hidden brook in the forest nearby. Kennesaw stretched and breathed in the solitude.

“Whenever I come out here, I cut all my troubles loose with this first deep breath,” he explained. “Try it out. You look like you could use it more than me.”

Turcot breathed in and exhaled.

Kennesaw smiled. “Welcome to my little hideout, Monte.”

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Oathkeeper Chapter 15

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 15

 

Three hours had passed before Sheriff Ellison heard a familiar knock on the holding room door.

“Who is it?” he asked, just to make sure.

“It’s Kennesaw.”

Ellison opened the door to let his deputy in, screening off the clamoring reporters from the hall outside. “Glad you could finally make it,” he said.

“I had to let it die down a little.”

“What’s going on out there?” Stern asked.

“It’s pretty lively. The networks are out there. They want a shot at your client. He’s the big national story right now.”

“Swarming flies,” the attorney observed.

“I figured you’d want to be out there with your client, getting some face time,” said Kennesaw.

“I suppose my fifteen minutes of fame is slipping away. But the press seems awfully hostile right now.”

“Not all of them,” Kennesaw said. “The network guys want to take their shots, but the locals coming in from all over are a mixed bag.”

“What do you mean?” Stern asked.

“I think many are sympathetic. I talked to a crew from Grand Junction, and they seemed almost pleased with the verdict.”

“We can use that, Monte.” Stern turned to Turcot. “Maybe it’s time for a press conference.”

“You’re free to do whatever you want,” said Ellison. “But I’m not going to be able to secure a press conference tonight, and I don’t recommend you doing a turkey strut right at this moment.”

“So what do you suggest?” asked Stern.

“I suggest you give it twenty-four hours. I know I’d personally appreciate that. I don’t want a riot on my hands.”

Stern looked at Turcot, who seemed to be falling back asleep.

“We can’t wait around in here much longer, either,” Ellison continued. “We should get back to Calumet City for the night. You could do your press conference there, tomorrow.”

“That sounds like a plan,” answered Stern. “I need a drink.”

Ellison turned to the deputy. “Kennesaw?”

“Yeah, Boss?”

“I need you to get Mr. Turcot some clothes. That jumpsuit he’s in is a little too conspicuous. Then I need you to pull your cruiser around by the south entrance. Text me, and I’ll bring us out.”

Kennesaw nodded. He cracked the door, picked the right moment where the commotion was at a lull, then slipped out of the room. Ellison blocked the door behind him. Stern straightened his tie and bundled his papers. He wasn’t sweating anymore, but dark rings had formed under his eyes, and his complexion had grayed. When his effects were gathered, he leaned back in his chair, and with a savory look on his face, he laughed.

“You seem pleased with yourself,” observed Ellison.

“I am.”

“You’re a celebrity now.”

“I suppose.”

“And a hero to some.”

“And an outlaw to others,” Stern answered proudly.

“Congratulations.”

“Yeah, I beat them bastards,” the attorney continued. “I beat them at their own rigged game. I’m sorry, Sheriff. I don’t mean to gloat, but it was a hard fought battle.”

“Didn’t you both win?” asked the sheriff.

“You’re right. Of course. It’s really Monte’s victory. He’s a free man.”

“A free man by one measure, maybe not so free by another. It seems he may have acquired a new set of chains,” observed Ellison.

“It’s a twenty-four-hour news cycle. The press will move on soon enough,” Stern replied.

“You’ve got a lot of public relations to do in the coming weeks,” said Ellison, “you being a villain and all.”

“I’m not a villain,” said Stern indignantly.

“I thought you just said you were.”

“I said outlaw, not villain.”

“What’s the difference?”

Stern’s exhausted face flushed with an aura of self-satisfaction. “Outlaws live beyond the law, but that doesn’t necessarily make them villains,” he explained. “Sometimes the ones who enforce the laws are the villains.”

“I have a question for you, Sheriff,” Turcot asked suddenly. His eyes were still closed, and his body remained slouched in his chair, motionless.

Ellison looked at him. “What is it?”

“Don’t you want to ask me?”

“Ask you what, Monte?”

“Don’t you want to ask me if I did it?”

“I don’t care,” answered the sheriff. “That answer’s meaningless to me. Guilty or not guilty is all that matters under the law.”

“Spoken like a true lawman,” said Stern.

“You’re a lawyer, Stern. You’re a man of the law, too.”

“Indeed I am.”

“My job as sheriff is to enforce the law. Your job as lawyer is to interpret it, but it’s still the law.”

“I guess I’m not so self-righteous about it, Sheriff.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Stern chuckled. “Don’t try to tell me that you don’t interpret the law, too.”

“I enforce it. That’s all.”

“But you get to decide when and where and how.”

Ellison surrendered, turning to the door to listen to the commotion outside.

“Monte’s innocent,” Stern said. “No jury from here was going to convict you, Monte, not so long as I was in the courtroom.” He stood up and started to pace back and forth. “I’m going to write a book. I’m going to write a book about how we beat the empire. We’ll go on the talk show circuit and wind everyone up. We’ll be a lightning rod.” He could already imagine all the high profile, million dollar cases he was soon to get. This victory was going to be his big break…

…but as he noticed Ellison watching him, Stern remembered that the sheriff, like the deceased Kevin Sniggs, was a member of the law enforcement brotherhood. He immediately wiped the self-satisfied smirk off his face and sat down.

Kennesaw’s text arrived thirty minutes later. The sheriff glanced down at his watch, then looked up at Turcot and Stern. “Are we ready to go?” he asked.

The two men nodded and gathered by the door. Ellison listened for a moment. It was quiet on the other side. He cracked the door to take a look.

“Okay, here we go.”

Stern straightened his jacket. Ellison opened the door, and the trio drove into the swarm of press that sprang to life with shouts and flashes of white light. Ellison led, followed by Turcot, then Stern, all triumphant five-and-a-half-feet of him. Ellison cut a path through the mass. Turcot’s eyes had glazed over, and he appeared to have numbed himself to the chaos enveloping him. The mob was mostly press, but some federal agents were mixed in. They were the ones without recorders or phones, stoic, watching, stalwart against the fluid froth of media. Their one unifying feature was the malice in their eyes.

Ellison looked ill as he pushed through. He was trapped by circumstances. It was his duty to protect Turcot, but in doing so, he felt as if he was betraying the brotherhood. He hoped his beleaguered expression emanated sufficient angst that the feds might understand. It called out to them: “I regret doing this, but I am just doing my job.” But he found no understanding in their faces. The mere act of him escorting Turcot offended them.

The trio pressed through the mob, out the side of the courthouse, and into the cruiser driven by Kennesaw. The car lurched forward into the crowd that spilled out around them. The deputy revved the engine to open a path, and as soon as the way was clear, they were off. However, they soon found themselves being pursued by two white news vans and a black DEA Tahoe.

“I want you to know something, Sheriff,” Stern said as the crowd vanished behind them. “We do appreciate your help. We’re both very grateful.”

Ellison tried to look gracious, which was difficult for a man whose troubled face evoked the image of a clenched fist. “I’m just doing my job,” he replied.

“What do you think the public’s take on the verdict is?” asked Stern.

“Back in the county?”

“Yeah.”

“They revere your client; they feel badly about what happened to him, and there’s a lot of folks who aren’t very pleased with the DEA. I imagine that makes them sympathetic.”

“Are you sympathetic?” asked Stern.

“I don’t get paid to sympathize.”

Kennesaw drove at a brisk pace up SR 24, but not so fast as to give the impression that they were fleeing. The clunky news vans yawed and heaved behind them on the rippling two lanes of asphalt. The trailing black SUV vaulted ahead of the news vans in the oncoming lane. Kennesaw checked it in the rearview mirror. The windows, including the windshield, were tinted, concealing everything inside. It was closing in on them. Ahead lay a slow-moving flatbed truck, presenting an opportunity to lose their pursuers.

“The feds can’t be too pleased with you, Sheriff,” Stern observed.

“I don’t answer to the feds.”

“That’s a refreshing attitude that I’m not accustomed to when it comes to local law enforcement. So many local cops are quite eager to please them.”

“There are plenty of people for me to keep pleased in this county, already.”

Kennesaw moved into the left lane to pass the flatbed. The oncoming traffic was obscured by a swell a half mile ahead.

“So, what do you think those boys in the black truck want?” asked Stern, looking back and watching the SUV close in from behind.

Ellison glanced at the driver of the flatbed they were passing. The man looked like he was in his twenties, and had the appearance of a ranch hand. He turned his head to the sheriff and cast a supportive nod, implying that he knew what had just happened back at the courthouse. He had probably heard it on local radio.

The cruiser shot through the pass a thousand feet before the road plunged below the other side of the crest, concealing anything barreling towards them. Kennesaw floored it. The black Tahoe remained in the oncoming lane, still accelerating in an attempt to pass the truck and close the gap with the police cruiser, but they weren’t going to make it before the crest.

“What do you say, Sheriff? What do those feds want?” asked Stern again as he removed his tie and tucked it into his coat pocket. He looked boyish inside his loose collar.

Kennesaw watched the SUV pull alongside the flatbed in his mirror, but it wasn’t pulling past it as the flatbed was now accelerating. The feds were trapped in the left lane with the crest of the hill approaching, and whatever unknown steel lay behind it barreling towards them at eighty miles per hour. The wobbly news vans pulled up tight behind the flatbed, like connected railcars.

“That’s a good question,” answered Ellison distractedly.

“So?”

“They’re not going to make it, Boss,” warned Kennesaw. Up ahead, an oncoming semi rose from behind the crest, approaching at full speed.

“Sheriff?” asked Stern.

The semi driver blared his horn. Its pitch climbed as the vehicles approached each other at a combined speed of 150 miles per hour. Ellison looked back at the Tahoe, waiting for it to capitulate and fall back. The eighteen wheeler’s horn blared again, but the flatbed refused to brake and let the feds pass. The news vans fell back and offered a gap, but surprisingly, the SUV didn’t take it.

“They ain’t gonna make it!” Kennesaw shouted.

The analog of dual yellow lines streamed like lightning on the road beneath them as the truck’s horn howled. A second before impact, the Tahoe swerved into the flatbed’s lane, nearly running it off the road. With the SUV straddling the ribbon of double yellow, the two lane highway became three, and the semi roared past them in the other direction, shearing off the driver’s side mirror of the SUV. A wake of air, displaced and churned by the fifty-three-foot-long box of steel and aluminum and spinning rubber, reverberated through the vehicles.

“Sheriff?” asked Stern.

“What?” Ellison shouted.

“What do they want?”

Stern looked back at the Tahoe, which was now just behind them.

“I suppose they want justice,” Ellison answered.

“But that’s already been decided.”

“They seem to have their own interpretation of it.”

The procession reached the Calumet County sheriff’s department station. Kennesaw pulled into the garage and lowered the door, sealing themselves off from their pursuers.

Oathkeeper

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Oathkeeper Chapter 14

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 14

 

Benjamin Stern adjusted his glasses, took a sip of water, patted a stoic Monte Turcot on the shoulder, pushed his chair back, and stepped out from behind his table to address the jury for the final time.

“So, here we are,” he began. “We’ve made it to the end. What a trial. What a trial. So…what did we learn? This is the point where I’m supposed to present the final argument for my client, but I’m not going to argue with you. Frankly, there is no need to argue. All I intend to do now is talk to you about what you’ve heard over the course of this trial, to talk about what reasonable conclusions I think we all can draw regarding the evidence presented over the last two weeks.

“You,” Stern continued as he scanned the jury, “you are very privileged. The first thing I want to say is that I know your job is not easy. It’s not easy to be away from your families and jobs for so long. I commend you for your service. You have my respect and gratitude. You are the caretakers of our great American system. The responsibility for making sure that justice is served falls to you, and only you. Not me. Not to the gentleman over there wearing the Salvatore Ferragamo penny loafers. Not even Her Honor. Only you get to decide. This is your moment. And it has all come down to right now.

“It is through your labors here, in this very trial, that our republic breathes. Our republic lives here, right now, right in this very courtroom in Canon City, Fremont County, Colorado, far, far away from the marble halls of Washington DC. The heart of the republic beats here, despite being so far removed from the center of power and the beltway lawyers and advisors and lobbyists and bureaucrats. A tiny number of them made the 1,700 mile journey from DC to here to participate in our living republic. You can see them around you, today, dressed in their fine suits. We commend them for making the journey – for taking part in our grand experiment called democracy.

“I can’t help but be reminded of the words of Thomas Jefferson, the author of our great Declaration of Independence, that revolutionary, that radical, that statesman who, along with the other Founding Fathers, stood up to injustice and tyranny, risking their lives and fortunes for what is right and noble. Thankfully, few of us here have had to risk as much as they did, but your calling is just as noble. As Jefferson said, ‘Courageous and informed people are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.'”

“What is this bullshit?” Chalmers muttered to his paralegal.

“You were shown a great deal during this trial,” Stern continued. “So let’s talk about some of that one last time before you go into that chamber to render a verdict. We all know that law enforcement officers have a very difficult job. No sane person can dispute that. Too many people’s lives, including officers’ and deputies’ lives, are taken by violence in this country. Law enforcement has been entrusted by the citizens with great powers to help solve these crimes, but as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.

“There are protocols and procedures that must be followed. We call that the rule of law. A republic is based on it, and we cannot continue as a free people without respect for it. Without the rule of law, we are left only with chaos – rule by those with the greatest power. Without the rule of law, our republic is meaningless, it is lost. Without the law, we no longer have the rights guaranteed by our Constitution. Instead, we would be like serfs, beholden to the whims of our overlords. The law is what a republic is. It binds it. And the law applies to everyone equally – rich and poor, black and white, man and woman, and law enforcer as well.

“Recall for a moment when we talked about how the sheriff’s department was not given control of the crime scene for almost 72 hours…three days. Ask yourself, was that appropriate? What is the law? The sheriff of Calumet County is the chief law enforcement officer of his county, yet he was not permitted access to a crime scene in his own county for three days.”

Chalmers grumbled.

“The sheriff, the highest ranking law enforcement officer of his county, a man elected by the citizens, was barred from a crime scene in his own county by an agency operated out of a headquarters 1,700 miles away. The DEA took total control of the scene at Perks Diner and controlled all the evidence involving the death of one of their own agents – one of their own family members. I can understand their zeal to find the killer, but to exclude the sheriff from the process? Does that stand up to scrutiny?

“Then there’s the matter of the evidence that was collected. The prosecution’s evidence, collected exclusively by a federal agency – not by the chief law enforcement officer of the county in which the crime was committed – where is it? I ask you, where is the evidence that convicts Monte Turcot of first degree murder? This federal agency that took total control of the crime scene, a federal agency with all the tools, infinite resources, paid experts in ballistics, fancy software…all these rocket scientists, what evidence did they produce?

“You have heard about the weapon involved in this case. We kept hearing from Mr. Chalmers over and over about a small caliber pistol that was used, and how that somehow means that my client committed the crime in question. How does it prove that? We all agree on what the weapon was, but so what? What does the caliber of the murder weapon prove? I ask you, how many small caliber weapons are there in Calumet County? This isn’t Washington DC. This is Colorado, where the right to self-defense is respected, where it’s even legal to open carry. I could drive down to the Alco in Calumet City right now, walk in, and buy a pistol. It probably wouldn’t take me more than an hour. How many of you exercise your Second Amendment right to bear arms? How many people do you know that own a so-called ‘small caliber weapon’? Has owning one made you a criminal? According to DA Chalmers’s logic, you…them…maybe we’re all guilty of murder.

“I just don’t understand the DA’s reasoning. You have to be asking yourself that as well. How does it make sense that just because a small caliber weapon was used, which we all agree that it was, that therefore, by some leap of logic, Monte Turcot is guilty? How? Because his neighbor said he heard him fire one into the open space behind his trailer? Does that mean anyone who does a little target practice is guilty of shooting Agent Kevin Sniggs? As they say out in the country: that dog don’t hunt.

“So there’s the matter of the highly irregular custody of the crime scene, and the suggestion that discharging a handgun in one’s backyard somehow implicates Mr. Turcot in the crime, but there’s also the matter of no weapon being found at his house, at all. If Monte did it, where is the murder weapon? The Calumet County sheriff took Mr. Turcot into custody within twenty-five minutes of the shooting at Perks Diner. We’ve shown that it takes twelve minutes to drive from Perks Diner to Monte’s trailer. Adding together the time to leave the crime scene, get into his vehicle, start that vehicle, then drive, park, turn off the vehicle, then get out and go into his trailer, you’re talking about eight minutes at the most where Monte could have concealed the murder weapon in his tiny trailer in such a fashion that no one would be able to find it. I ask you, is that reasonable? Where would he hide a gun? Monte lives in a small mobile home. Investigators were inside Monte’s home within forty minutes of the homicide. They turned his trailer inside out and found nothing. These federal agents are college educated, hand-picked, the best of the best, a cadre of elite law enforcement professionals, yet they did not find any weapon. They searched the roadsides along multiple routes with metal detectors and dogs. No murder weapon. They even drained the city park pond. No murder weapon.

“So what the prosecution is left with is to speculate…to guess. They want us all to believe that Monte, a man who had allegedly just avenged the killing of his wife and unborn child, hyped up on adrenaline, calmly drove – recall that we did not hear a single witness testify that they noticed him driving frantically – home along a populated route, turned off his normal route somewhere, stopped, got out and buried or somehow concealed the murder weapon in a manner in which no one saw him do it, in broad daylight, no less, and in a manner where it could not be found, not even by a battalion of elite federal agents with all their technology and unlimited resources. Some of the routes they searched took them on a thirty minute detour, way beyond the reach of Monte Turcot in the eighteen minutes he had to get home. No. The federal investigators found no murder weapon either in Monte’s possession or plausibly disposed of by him. Furthermore, the sheriff testified that he found Monte in a ‘calm state’. A frantic detour to some place where Monte could gather his wits and carefully conceal a murder weapon would not have left him time to get back home and get into a ‘calm state’ before Sheriff Ellison arrived to take him into custody. Is it reasonable? No. The entire case presented by the prosecution makes no sense at all. Remember: the irregular custody of the crime scene, and no murder weapon.

“Then there’s perhaps the biggest question mark of all pertaining to the DA’s case. The most important piece of evidence in the vast majority of trials, it’s even more important than the murder weapon. An eyewitness – someone who saw the accused commit the crime in question or at least place them at the scene. Where is this witness that can implicate Monte Turcot? None exists. The prosecution has produced no witness who could testify seeing Monte Turcot shoot Kevin Sniggs, and no witness that could even place Mr. Turcot at the scene. The diner, where Agent Sniggs was shot, was filled with DEA agents and restaurant employees. Don’t you think it’s reasonable that one of them would have seen Monte there if he was in fact there? What is going on here? Ask yourself that.

“Logically, I think the next question an informed and conscientious jury must ask is: why did the feds instantaneously assume, without any question, that Monte Turcot was the only suspect? They investigated no one else. The instant after they discovered Kevin Sniggs’s body in that restroom, they charged full speed to Monte Turcot’s home. No other direction. No consideration of another suspect.

“You heard testimony that there was a red pickup truck barreling south down Highway 24 at a very high rate of speed, almost immediately after the time of the shooting. Who was in that truck? Might they be a suspect? Might they possess the murder weapon? We’ll never know. We’ll never know, because federal agents paid no attention to anything other than Monte Turcot. Is that the level of good police work we’ve come to expect from federal agents? Is it common practice to just assume one person did it, and focus all resources and attention on that suspect?

“What do the feds have against…sorry…why did they only suspect Monte Turcot? I suppose motive is their answer. Did Mr. Turcot have a motive to shoot Kevin Sniggs? Absolutely. We all agree on that, if we were to put ourselves in Monte’s boots. Kevin Sniggs killed…accidentally killed Mrs. Turcot, and in the process, her unborn child. That is publically, undeniably known. It is an indisputable fact. Kevin Sniggs and those federal agents – perhaps overly exuberant and charged with adrenaline – went to the wrong house on that awful night, an inexcusable, unforgiveable error, and in a botched raid, they made a terrible, terrible, terrible mistake.

“Imagine what those federal agents are going through, right now. Recall the testimony of Doctor Frieze, our expert psychologist. The agents were likely feeling guilt, embarrassment, and shame. They must have been feeling very insecure and isolated, alone, 1,700 miles from their home base, unsure about their continuing mission way out here in the mountains of Colorado. They accidentally shot a Calumet County hero and killed his wife and unborn child. Monte Turcot is a hero and veteran of the armed forces, and that too is an indisputable fact. He served overseas, fighting for your rights and freedoms. And if not for Monte Turcot, how many people would have died in that Alco on that fateful day? How many lives did Mr. Turcot save through his courageous actions? How many lives have those federal agents saved compared to Monte? Mr. Turcot is a savior, a protector of life. The Book of Matthew says, ‘Ye shall know them by their deeds.’ I ask you, do you know Monte Turcot? I think you do, if you know his deeds. Are they the deeds of a cold-blooded, calculating murderer?”

“I thought Stern was Jewish,” Chalmers whispered.

“Doctor Frieze testified that the federal agents involved must have been feeling very, very insecure,” Stern continued. “Then one of their own is tragically killed right under their noses, twenty feet away from them, in a restroom. So they do what is natural for scared beings to do. They became aggressive, which affected their reasoning. They lashed out at the most obvious target: Monte Turcot. But Mr. Turcot put his life on the line for you and me as a soldier, fighting for our republic. He came home and put his life on the line again to save those people at that Alco from a mass-murdering lunatic. Yet despite all his sacrifice and service to his country and community, Deputy Ken Kennesaw testified that he feared for Monte’s safety when the federal agents were closing in, blinded by their rage, careening down the road leading to Monte’s home.

“So what does the prosecution have? What is their case against Mr. Turcot? My only hope is that you take all the evidence, or more precisely, the lack of evidence into full consideration: the irregular custody of the crime scene; no murder weapon either in Monte’s possession or anywhere that he could have concealed it; the aggressive, even arrogant mindset of the federal agents who refused to consider other leads, who focused solely on Mr. Turcot, a husband, a veteran, a hero, someone whom they had already taken so much from; and especially, most importantly, consider that no witnesses can even place Monte at the scene.

“It bears repeating that this is a charge of capital murder. The burden of proof is very high. The prosecution must prove that not only did my client commit this heinous crime, which nothing indicates he did, but that he also planned it in advance, that Monte Turcot is a cold, calculating killer. Did the prosecution meet that burden? They’ve argued that there was a motive. We all agree on that, but is that enough to convict a man of pre-meditated murder? Certainly not for capital murder. No weapon. No confession. No witness. Capital murder requires the prosecution to show that the accused planned this in advance. I’ve shown this to be impossible. Even if it was, why would Mr. Turcot plan to kill Kevin Sniggs in the bathroom of Perks Diner, where there were at least twelve federal agents present just beyond the door? It can’t make sense to any reasonable person. Monte is a bright man. He is college educated. Don’t you think he would have come up with a better plan than that? You must forgive me for asking again, but what is the prosecution’s case against Monte Turcot?

“I don’t need to remind you folks that you, the jury, are here to exercise your constitutional privilege, a privilege that cannot be taken away by anyone. You’ve seen a lot in these last couple weeks. You’ve seen a cadre of men in fancy suits and pedigreed, Ivy League experts flown in here on the taxpayer’s dime. What did they prove? What did they show you? Did they show you any physical evidence? Not one of them produced a murder weapon. Not one of them witnessed the crime. All they did was speculate. Speculation is not proof. Anyone can speculate. I could speculate that the District Attorney’s loafers have never stepped in cow manure. I can’t prove it. It’s only speculation.”

The gallery laughed. Chalmers attempted to grin, but it came off more like a grimace.

“Colorado is your state. You are a jury of Monte Turcot’s peers. Only you can judge him. Only you can decide the fate of this man, this veteran who fought to preserve the very constitutional rights you are exercising today. This man who risked his life to save so many lives in your community, could he possibly be a cold-blooded, pre-meditated, irrational killer who stalked Kevin Sniggs and then stupidly shot him in a public restroom? Or is this a man who has suffered enough? A man who has given so much and had so much taken away? Remember, ye shall know them by their deeds.

“You’ve heard the prosecution’s case. Can you make any sense of it? If you can make sense of it, if you believe they presented enough evidence – not supposition but actual evidence – to disregard reasonable doubt and convict Monte Turcot of first degree murder, then so be it. But I trust you will come to the right decision. Thank you. God bless you. And may the Lord be with you and guide you in your deliberations. The defense rests.”

Stern took his seat and began contemplating his odds of being disbarred.

After Chalmer’s brief rebuttal, the judge gave the instructions. The jury filed out of the courtroom, and Monte Turcot and his counsel were escorted out by a burly Fremont County deputy. They were led to a small, secured waiting room that resembled a jail cell in its starkness. The two of them sat across from each other at a metal table while the deputy, complete with crew cut hair and a barrel chest, stood sentry near the door.

“You’re excused,” Stern said to him, but the deputy didn’t respond. Annoyed, the attorney removed his suit coat and draped it over his plastic chair. “So, how do you feel, Monte?”

“I was going to ask you the same.”

“You go first.”

“I don’t feel anything,” Monte answered.

“That’s understandable, but you should be optimistic. We did well.”

“You didn’t talk about why Wendy White changed her testimony.”

“No need to give it legs, Monte. Let the appellate court sort that out.”

Turcot fell silent, looking as lifeless and stiff as a mannequin dressed in an orange jumpsuit. Stern loosened his paisley tie and unfastened the top button of his eggshell shirt. His hair was disheveled. His round, wire rim glasses hung askew on his face, framing his bleary eyes. He emanated exhaustion, but also relief. He had taken the case as far as he could, and had done all within his power to seize the moment. He had not slept in days, but he still had just enough fight in him to pester the guard once more, whose presence in the room was inappropriate. Still, the deputy didn’t flinch.

Stern turned back to Monte. “Everything is going to be okay. You’ll be okay.” His words were meant to assure his client, but the more confidence he expressed about the verdict, the more uneasy he appeared. He looked over his shoulder at the deputy once more.

“If we win, I imagine you’ll be doing a lot of that,” Turcot said.

“Doing a lot of what?” Stern asked.

“Looking over your shoulder.”

“I’m not afraid, Monte. This is America. Besides, I have a trump card.”

Turcot closed his eyes. Soon his head slumped forward and he appeared to fall asleep.

Stern felt the dampness of paranoia begin to ooze into him as he sat in that concrete room. He tried to drive it out of his mind, ascribing it to exhaustion. The trial was the most difficult thing he had ever endured. It was his life’s mission. Initially propelled by self-interest, once he was threatened at the Wagon Wheel, it became a crusade fueled by the fire of righteous indignation. Whoever Falco was, he represented a Goliath to Ben Stern’s David.

“Do you think they listened?” Monte mumbled, with his chin still tucked into his chest.

“I thought you were asleep.”

“I think I was, for a minute.”

“Are you talking about the jury?” asked Stern.

“Yeah.”

“If they’re thinking, then it would be good for us. Most juries don’t think, at least not very far outside the narrow boundaries set by the judge. Thinking requires effort and introduces discomfort and cognitive dissonance. Jurors tend to take the more comfortable path.”

“Do you think this jury can think?”

“I believe I made them think, Monte.”

“How?”

“I emphasized who the home team was for them.”

“Right.”

“Sometimes they need to be motivated.”

“Chalmers looked pretty upset.”

“He’s a hothead,” said Stern dismissively. “He’s a big, dumb buck chasing does into a hunter’s blind. I told you about what I’d do to him.”

“I heard him say ‘bullshit’ during your closing.”

“The jury heard it too, Monte. He can’t seem to keep the shit off his shoes.” Stern looked over his shoulder again. The mountainous, hairy-necked, tattooed deputy was glaring at him, the muscles in his crossed forearms rippling. Stern wanted to bolt out of the cell and into the fresh air, but he held it together.

“You look like you’re exhausted,” Monte observed.

“I’m fine. I’ve just been keeping my emotions bottled up for several weeks, now. It’s not a natural state for me. I’ve been trying to fuel the arrogance of Chalmers and the paid expert witnesses and the federal agents, all of them whores. Cockiness foments carelessness, and nothing feeds cockiness like an opponent’s self-deprecation. I set the ambush, and they stumbled right into it. Then I popped up out of the tall grass with my sling.” Stern paused, looked up, and noticed that Monte was asleep again. “We’re going to be okay,” he added, speaking more to himself than to Turcot.

Two hours passed. Monte did not move during that time, corpselike in his chair with his head slumped into his chest. Finally, a knock came at the door. The burly deputy opened it slightly and whispered to whoever was on the other side. He turned to Stern, who was watching over his shoulder in anticipation.

“They’ve reached a verdict,” relayed the deputy, his neck muscles bulging.

Stern got up, fixed his collar and tie, swept his hair back, and put on his suit jacket. He walked around to Monte’s side and stirred him.

“What do you want?” Turcot grumbled.

“It’s time.”

“Already?” Turcot snapped back into full consciousness. “How long have I been sleeping?”

“Two hours.”

“That doesn’t seem like a long time. What does it mean?”

“It means you have to go back into the courtroom to find out,” the deputy barked. “Get up.”

“What my client meant was,” Stern clarified, “what does it mean that the jury has reached a verdict so quickly?”

The deputy didn’t appear to care about an explanation. He stepped over to Turcot and shackled him for the walk back into the courtroom.

“Is that really necessary?” asked Stern.

The deputy didn’t reply. Turcot’s wrists were latched, then his ankles. The deputy led them out of the holding room and into the marble hallway. Turcot shuffled along, his gait foreshortened by his chains. Stern walked ahead of him, an entire head shorter than his client, and almost two shorter than their escort. The attorney’s shoulders could not even fill his own suit coat, but he walked with long, deliberate, confident strides. He held his chin up, projecting a pugnacious dignity, but beneath the façade, he was sweating. His neck burned bright red, and he had to re-loosen his tie to keep it from turning into a noose.

Journalists and photographers lined the hall. Flashes went off, and microphones were shoved into Stern’s face. He acted aloof. The urban TV reporters’ pancake-makeup faces scowled and shouted questions. The Denver press corps glowered. Stern sensed in them no pity or understanding towards his client, but he had expected this. He turned and whispered “Never mind them,” into Monte’s ear.

“Never mind who?”

“The presstitutes.”

Turcot smiled. A reporter shoved a recorder into his face, hitting him in the mouth as they walked. He could not deflect it as his wrists were bound. Stern shoved the reporter away.

“Stand back!” he shouted. “Make way!”

As they entered the courtroom, they could see that every one of the DEA agents in Sniggs’s squad were present, each dressed in their brassiest uniform, their faces donning hateful glares. One of the paralegals pointed Sniggs’s father to. His hair was disheveled and his tweed jacket was wrinkled. His face grayed and body sunk into the pew as the anesthesia of alcohol took hold. Special Agent Acevedo stood in the front pew. His unblinking eyes rarely left Turcot, fixating on him from behind. Turcot didn’t look at any of them. He stared straight ahead at nothing as he shuffled over to his chair. He did not appear at all afraid or concerned.

The jury came in and took their seats. Stern scanned them for an early sign of the verdict. They were everyday people: casual, unfit, diverse. Their eyes were wide, and they looked almost terrified, as if they feared having to answer for something.

“All rise!”

The judge entered. Her Honor took her place behind her altar. As the courtroom’s occupants returned to their seats, she fumbled through her notes, cleared her throat, and adjusted the microphone.

“Has the jury reached a verdict?” she asked.

The foreman rose. “We have, your Honor.”

“Please hand the bailiff the verdict.”

The bailiff took a manila folder from the foreman and walked it over to the judge. Turcot stood as tall as he could in his orange jumpsuit with shackled wrists and ankles. All of the agents’ eyes remained on him. Turcot looked straight ahead. Stern began to breathe audibly, anxiously. Sweat ran down his neck into his slackened collar. He loosened his paisley tie further.

The judge opened the folder and scanned the document inside. Her eyes moved from top to bottom three times. She adjusted her glasses and frowned a little, as if a bout of indigestion had welled up, then handed a page back to the bailiff and nodded for him to read it. The bailiff walked to the podium and adjusted the microphone to his height.

“Mr. Turcot, please face the jury,” said the judge, but Monte turned to them but stared through them into the wall. She turned to the bailiff. “Please read the verdict.”

The bailiff nodded and turned back to the microphone. He cleared his throat. The silence was oppressive, broken only by one muffled cough.

“The Superior Court of Colorado, County of Fremont, in the matter of the people of the State of Colorado versus Montgomery J. Turcot, case number BA013211, we, the jury in the above and titled action, find the defendant, Montgomery J. Turcot…”

Stern took in a deep breath.

The judge removed her reading glasses.

Chalmers tapped his Salvatore Ferragamo penny loafers.

Acevedo’s teeth ground together.

Turcot stared into the wall.

“…not guilty of the crime of first degree murder, a felony, committed upon Kevin Allen Sniggs, a human being, as charged in count one of the information…”

Stern exhaled and put his arm around Monte, shaking him vigorously.

The judge stowed her glasses in her robe pocket.

Chalmers stopped tapping his shoes and snapped his pencil in protest.

Acevedo’s grinding seized.

Turcot stared into the wall.

The gallery roared to life, equal parts jubilation and wrath. Curses clashed with cheers. The judge pounded her gavel to no effect. Stern pulled Turcot out from behind the table and pushed him towards the side exit, away from the building chaos. Turcot shuffled along, still staring blankly.

“Murderer!’ someone shouted.

The judge pounded her gavel.

“God bless you, Monte Turcot!” yelled another.

“Order! Order!” demanded the judge.

Stern made eye contact with the burly deputy who had escorted them from the holding room. The crowd closed in around them, blocking the way. Triumphant but terrified, the attorney tried to shove his way through to no avail. The deputy noticed the struggle, but remained anchored at the door. Stern held up Turcot’s handcuffed wrists and pointed to the lock. “Get these off!” he shouted.

The deputy averted his eyes.

Wild pushing and shoving ensued. One of the DEA agents pressed into the mob and shoved Turcot forward, almost knocking him over. The jurors were whisked out of the courtroom through a side door, followed by the judge who ducked into her antechamber, leaving the bailiff and Fremont deputies to deal with the mess. Someone climbed up onto the prosecutor’s table and shouted, “Guilty!” An instant later, another person from the gallery yanked him off the table and clubbed him in the face with his open hand, only then to be tackled by a uniformed DEA agent.

Stern and Turcot were trapped in the chaos. Someone shouted, “You made a big mistake, Stern!” Stern looked around, but couldn’t see who it was. Thankfully for them, Turcot was a beacon in orange. Sheriff Ellison, who was seated in the gallery, honed in on him, forcing his way through the mob. He reached Turcot and Stern and led them to the side door of the courtroom.

“Give me the key!” he shouted at the burly deputy.

The man ignored him.

“That’s a lawful order, Deputy!” barked Ellison.

The deputy reluctantly handed over the key, and the sheriff quickly unlocked the shackles, letting them fall to the floor. He grabbed Turcot and Stern by their collars and shoved them through the exit. The marble hall had become a froth of lashing elbows, thrusting shoulders, shouting, blinding lights, recorders, and careening boom mikes. Ellison led them into the fray. The media screamed questions into their ears and grabbed at them, but the sheriff guided them through and back into their holding room. He shoved the door closed with his shoulder, nearly smashing someone’s prying fingers in the jamb. At last, they were alone, catching their breath in the stuffy, quiet cell.

“So what do we do now?” asked Stern.

“We wait,” answered Ellison as he checked his watch. “Let it die down a bit. Then we’ll get you out of here.”

“So I’m free to go?” asked Turcot.

“Yes. But I recommend you not go out there alone. Wait here for a few minutes and I’ll escort you out.”

“Where are we going?”

“I’ll take you to the station if you want. You can stay there tonight.”

Oathkeeper

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