Five Card Stud: A Jake Hines Mysteryby Elizabeth Gunn
It's a frigid winter in Minnesota, but detective Jake Hines has bigger problems than keeping warm. The body of a man, nearly naked and frozen solid, is discovered at a highway overpass. The victim is identified as a local trucker shot through the head, leaving Jake with the following questions: where is the man's truck and his missing/p>/b>
It's a frigid winter in Minnesota, but detective Jake Hines has bigger problems than keeping warm. The body of a man, nearly naked and frozen solid, is discovered at a highway overpass. The victim is identified as a local trucker shot through the head, leaving Jake with the following questions: where is the man's truck and his missing partner?
The truck is later found, complete with an unusual spattering of blood; then police locate the body of the other trucker. As Hines probes the last days of these two men and the relationships they had with family and friends, a strange dichotomy begins to emerge, as well as a grim picture of betrayal, greed and fear. But for Jake, solving a murder is a lot like playing cards figure out who's bluffing and who's got the perfect hand, especially when one of the players is a cold killer.
This is the third in Elizabeth Gunn's popular Jake Hines mystery series following Triple Play and Par Four. When not writing bestselling mystery novels, she and her husband explore the shipwrecks and reefs of south Florida and the Bahamas. This Minnesota native now lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Read an Excerpt
LET'S see, now," Darrell said, "has everybody got three cards?"
"One, two, three," Rosie said. "Yessir, three cards."
"What a coincidence," Kevin said. "I have three cards also. How about you, Lou?"
"I have exactly three cards," Lou said, "no more, and certainly no less."
"Okay, you guys," Darrell said. "Make fun of me for being careful."
"What makes you think we're making fun of you?" Rosie said. "We're just trying to help."
"And as soon as you master this counting thing," Lou said, squinting into the wavering blue light, "we'll give you a boost with your ABCs."
"Hey, my spelling's just as good as yours is," Darrell said, "for all intensive purposes." His iron-pumper's shoulder muscles bulged under his T-shirt as he slid a card carefully off the top of the deck and laid it faceup in front of Rosie Doyle.
"Seven of clubs, now isn't that sweet?" Rosie smiled smugly at the pair of sevens lying next to her ace. Her expression plainly indicated that she had a second ace in the hole. She dropped five one-dollar chips into the pot from the fistful she was holding. Her brothers must have taught her to wear that infuriating smirk when she plays poker; I've never seen her look like that anyplace else. Her other favorite trick is holding that stack of chips in one hand, as if she can't wait to raise the bet again. Rosie likes to win.
Kevin, on Rosie's left, had a jack and a ten showing, got a five, shrugged amiably, and folded. Hishandsome Eagle Scout face looked oddly exotic in the flyblown funkiness of Lou's rumpus room. The table light was an unshaded seventy-five-watt bulb in a white ceramic fixture nailed to the rafters, augmented by an old beer sign hanging on a stud. It featured a voluptuous woman in filmy lingerie holding a long-neck bottle of beer, reclining above a length of blue neon tubing that spelled out Pabst lue Ribbon. Power arced across the missing B with a nervous buzz like a fly caught in flypaper.
Darrell dealt me a six of diamonds, which fit very well with the rest of my lousy hand: a four of spades and a three of hearts. I called, because my hole card was the seven of diamonds, and it amused me to stay in the game and pretend, for a few minutes, that I had the kind of luck that would ever, in this universe, fill an inside straight.
It wasn't a high rollers' game, anyway, just a monthly amusement Kevin and I had ginned up last summer to create a little camaraderie in my newly assembled investigative team. We had promised each other we would keep it simple: no sandwiches, no housecleaning. We split the cost of cards and a few boxes of dollar chips, which we agreed were worth a dime in this game. Every month we chipped in two bucks apiece for snacks that we took turns buying in a Circle K on the way to the game.
Originally we played in my apartment, which was grubby but spacious, since I owned hardly any furniture. After I moved to the country, for a couple of months we borrowed one end of the teachers' lounge at Northside High. The chairs were comfortable, but a lot of our ritual razzing was drowned out by the rhythmic thump of Sunday night basketball practice overhead. Tonight we had moved to Lou's house so he wouldn't have to take his asthma out in the winter's first blizzard. Heavy snow had been falling all day; high winds and a temperature of twenty below were forecast by midnight.
"Oh, just look at that pair of ladies," Lou crowed, as Darrell dealt him a queen. "Yes Lord, we are starting to cook now." He had a second queen showing, and a ten; he blew a kiss to his hole card and tossed five chips into the pot. "I'll see your five and"he added five more"raise you five. Let's get some money in this game, make it interesting." He beamed triumphantly at Ray Bailey, who sat on his left looking sad.
Ray can't help looking sad. His mournful expression is a family trait; he has a long, sallow face and tragic eyes. A tableful of Baileys can empty the rowdiest bar in town in just a few minutes. Ray looked worse, of course, as we all did, in the dim light of the basement, where Lou, in a rare attempt at home improvement, had nailed some studs to a section of the cement floor, hung pegboard on the studs, and sprayed red paint haphazardly over all. He put in an old dining room set, hung up his tacky collection of ancient flyspecked beer signs, and started calling the space "my rumpus room." It smelled like the laundry machines on the other side of the partition, and the poor light gave everybody eyestrain. Ray called it "Lou French's Last Erection."
Ray got a deuce, which gave him a pair of deuces and an ace showing. After a lot of pondering, during which Lou implored him to piss or get off the pot, Ray reluctantly pushed ten chips to the middle of the table and stayed in the game.
Darrell dealt himself a four of clubs, which he laid alongside the ten of hearts and eight of diamonds he already had showing, and said, "Now let's see, what have I got?"
"Goddamn little, unless your hole card has magical powers," Lou said.
Mamie French clattered down the bare wooden stairs into the basement, carrying a cordless phone. "Dammit, Lou!" She brought it to the table and shoved it at her husband. "You gotta remember to bring this thing down here! I was way upstairs at the quilting frame"
Lou touched her arm, said, "Sorry, Mame," and began to cough. He whooped helplessly into his left hand, holding the phone at arm's length with his right. Mamie, instantly silenced, watched him intensely, like a scientist observing some carefully thought-out experiment. After a few seconds she took a small respirator out of her jeans and moved a step closer to him. He shook his head and began some sort of self-control exercise behind his hand. Mamie watched. When his breathing returned to its normal heavy wheeze, she laid the respirator on the table and went back upstairs without another word.
Lou punched a button and said, "French." He listened a minute and said, "Jake's right here. Just a minute," and handed the phone across the table to me.
My inner wimp wailed, Leave me alone, it's Sunday night! but I kept my voice neutral when I said, "Hines."
The muffled uproar of the dispatch desk reached out to me, compelling attention, blotting out the game. Three or four voices were issuing commands, "See the man at One-one-two-two Third" "Neighbor reports possible burglary in progress" "Officer needs help, there's a fight going on in the intersection at" Each voice was quiet and civil but insistent, pouring out rapid-fire information while the computer keyboards thumped a relentless undercurrent. A desk phone rang endlessly in one of the empty offices just outside the door.
"We have a DOA," Woody said. "I got a nine-one-one call, motorist said somebody's lying in the snow by the street. I sent Hanenburger, he reports a dead male. He's yellin' for a detective to come right away, says he's freezin' his ass off by the Twenty-ninth Street overpass. Nobody left me the duty list for investigators, who'm I s'posta call?"
Seven years ago, when I first made detective, off-duty calls were rare, and assigned haphazardly, often according to who was easiest to find. Then Rutherford entered a growth spurt, crime kept pace, and dodging the phone on weekends became an art form. When the chief put me in charge of the division last summer, the first thing I did was make a schedule for after-hours calls. Investigators take nights and weekends in rotation, no excuses unless you or your loved ones are near death. I post the lists every Friday, without fail, one on the bulletin board outside my office and one at the dispatch desk. The first detective who fails to copy the list has been promised a return to uniformed duty on straight nights, split between the recycling plant and the city dump.
"C'mon, Woody," I said, "it's on the bulletin board behind you where I always put it. Somebody must have pinned something on top of it."
"I been through everything twice," Woody said.
Then I remembered: last Friday was New Year's Eve. About four-thirty, the support staff had sprung a little surprise party in the department, featuring noisemakers and double-strength eggnog. This week's list was locked in my office, still on the clipboard where I left it when Schultzy's conga line snaked through my office and gathered me up. Clever office techies. Careless Jake.
"You don't see it there anyplace, huh?" I knew he didn't. My mind groped for cover. "Well, shit, then"I tried to sound vexed but generous"just give it to me, I'll handle it."
"Okay, ready?" As always, Woody was anxious to download. Dispatchers guard their short-term memories like precious jewels, needing to keep them clear for the massive amounts of information they channel every shift. "Location is section fifteen, Burton Hills Drive under the Twenty-ninth Street overpass. Where the river and the drive go under Highway Fifty-two there? Victim is white male, maybe thirty, cause of death unknown but he might've froze to death because he's almost naked, I guess."
In January, in a blizzard? "Motorist called it in, Hanenburger took the call, Cooper was backup."
"You called for paramedics?"
"No. Hanenburger said, `Fixed eyes, not breathing, and his hands and face are black.' He said, `Believe me, this guy's dead, he's stiff as a board,' so I called you."
"Okay. Thanks." He gave me the computer-generated Initial Crime Report number that would follow this case wherever it went. I wrote it down, punched the Off button, and looked around the table. Rosie was smiling at her cards. Darrell was rearranging his hand as if he'd just noticed some new combination. Other guys fill inside straights, I thought. It could happen to me.
"What's up?" Lou asked.
"Got a DOA out northwest." I stood the phone carefully on the end table by the bean dip, searching my memory desperately.
"Damn! Well, who's got the duty?" Lou's expression became uncomfortable as he realized he could not remember copying the list. "Who'd he say was s'posta take it?"
"Seems like those turkeys mislaid the duty roster." Once planted, my lie had taken root and now was growing unchecked.
"Aw, that's bullshit! Well, who's got a copy?" He looked around the room again. "I didn't bring mine down here, I guess." They were all sitting there, looking at each other.
"I musta left it home," Kevin said, patting his pockets. "Let's give it to Bo; he's not here to defend himself." Everybody laughed, but they all knew Bo stayed home because his wife was sick.
They looked at each other again, and then Rosie said, "You know, Jake, I don't remember seeing a duty list on Friday before we started that par"
"Okay," I said hastily, "We'll just have to draw for it." Everybody groaned. "Come on, one of us has to get out there, Hanenburger's freezing his balls."
"Good, they need cooling off," Rosie said, and everybody laughed again. Hanenburger must have been hitting on her while she was still on patrol.
"Here we go, low card takes the call." I put the deck in the middle of the table.
Rosie drew a queen and smiled that infuriating Mona Lisa smile.
Ray got a ten, Kevin turned over a six. Darrell drew a king, looked up at Rosie, and laughed. Lou reached toward the pack, but I pushed his hand away. "Too cold tonight, Lou." He opened his mouth to protest but closed it again. He had six months to go till full retirement and had reluctantly accepted that we were all trying to get him through his last working winter alive. I took the next card. It was a five.
"Poor Jake," Rosie said, not sorry for me at all.
"Hey," I said, "No sweat."
"For sure," Lou said. "Temp's droppin' fast out there. Better lace up your booties."
"Don't forget the pot, though," Darrell said, "You've got some money in there."
"Jake can take back what he put in," Bay Bailey said, suddenly relaxed and casual, "and the rest of us can go ahead and play this hand. Can't we? We've all still got our cards." His eyes glittered for an instant as they all agreed; then he lowered his long lashes and looked gloomy again.
Climbing the rickety stairs out of Lou's playroom, I told myself, not for the first time, that I would never make a poker player. I had been watching Rosie and Lou, waiting to see which one of them was going to take my money, and all the while Ray Bailey must have had an ace in the hole, or maybe even a third deuce, and was sitting there, looking unhappy, ready to pounce.
Unlocking my pickup in Lou's driveway, I could feel the cold already nipping at my cheeks and ears. I unplugged my head bolt heater from the eight-socket grid at the front of Lou's garage, checking carefully to be sure I hadn't knocked anybody else's plug loose. If somebody's engine froze up before the game ended, Lou might find himself hosting an impromptu sleepover, and I would hear rude adjectives attached to my name for a week.
Climbing into my frigid pickup, still mentally replaying my abandoned poker hand, I realized suddenly that the unlucky low card that had awarded me this assignment had been the five that would have filled my inside straight, and I laughed out loud. My breath froze to the windshield.
The motor started promptly, that was something. I shoved the defroster lever as high as it would go and turned on the power to the rear window heat grid. While I waited for a quarter inch of frost to melt, I pulled on a knit cap and leather gloves, wrapped my wool muffler higher on my neck, and tucked the ends inside my coat.
A peephole opened slowly above the steering wheel. When it was twice the size of a silver dollar, I backed into the street and turned west, peering out of my icy foxhole into the brilliant tube my headlights carved in the dark. Then another vehicle turned into the street at the west end of the block and came toward me. As soon as his lights hit the ice castles on my windshield, I was blind.
I pulled over to the curb, shifted into park, and left the motor running. I found my scraper in the glove compartment and got out, clutching it grimly. A mysterious fact, well known to citizens who live north of the forty-third parallel, is that ice scrapers, once dropped into snowbanks, disappear forever. No amount of digging locates them, and somehow they're gone by spring.
It took five minutes to clear the driver's side. While I worked, the motor warmed the truck body just enough to release a couple of gallons of dirty snow from the underside of the front fender and drop it in my boot. I shook my foot several times, which packed most of the snow firmly around my ankle.
Stomping uncomfortably around the truck to clear the right side, I paused to admire the wet stripes of clear glass appearing around the wire gizmos in my rear window. It was my first winter with this pricey pickup, and I was watching for any signs of superior performance that would ease the monthly pain in my wallet. So far my list included good radio speakers, plenty of space in the back for trash, and a rear window defroster that was fast and thorough. Otherwise this vehicle was doing just what the old one had: hauling me back and forth between my house and my job.
As soon as I was rolling again, I found my phone in my briefcase and called the coroner. He answered at the end of the first ring, "Pokornoskovic." I can say his last name, too, if I concentrate, but I never quite get the Ukrainian gutturals right. Most Rutherford cops won't even try it; they just call him Pokey.
"Jake Hines. Got a treat for you."
"Aw, Crimeny Moses," he said, giving American slang his usual thirty-degree tweak, "you ain't out findin' stiffs in this weather?"
"Just one. And you said it right, he's frozen stiff. Sounds like he might have died of hypothermia; he's almost naked, according to Woody."
"Uh-huh. You ever see one before?"
"No. Read about it is all." Minnesota cops and paramedics are expected to know the stages of hypothermia, including the final one, when the victim often feels warm and takes off his clothes.
"You sure he's dead? I seen 'em come back from what looks like corpse."
"Fixed eyes," I recited. "Apnea. Hands and face are black."
Pokey sighed. "Okay. Where you want me?"
I gave him the location and punched Off, put the phone down, and turned cautiously onto Broadway, watching for lights through the fog on my side window. I didn't want to open the window and dump all the air I had been warming for ten blocks.
Usually South Broadway, even on Sunday, has a fairly raffish air after dark, but tonight, at nine-fifteen, it was almost empty. Bar signs made fuzzy clumps of color through halos of frost. The thermometer on the First National Bank flashed minus twelve degrees. I punched the speed dial for the chiefs house and waited, listening to three rings over a distant, tinny conversation bouncing off the Heaviside layer from a truck driver in Texas. Then Frank yelled, "McCafferty," above a great clatter of music and voices.
"Jake Hines," I shouted into the din, and Frank said, "Wait" and set the phone down so hard it hurt my ear. A few seconds more of loud conversation and barking dogs came over the phone before he picked up again in a quieter place, saying, "Whee. There. Go ahead," and somebody crashed the first phone back into its cradle.
"If you're busy with a riot"
"Aw, Sheila's birthday, is all. But everybody came from both sides." Frank and his wife both have huge family clans, and they're creating another one of their own. I try not to listen to his descriptions of weekends. "What's up?"
"I'm on my way to look at a DOA. It's probably just a frozen drunk, but in case something looks funnywe're gonna stick to this new rule, right, that if we call BCA for help with a homicide, we get them to do the autopsy as well as the lab work?"
"Sure. You bet. Why not?"
"Just that they're very backed up right now, and there may be quite a delay," I said. He didn't ask me where I got that information. He knew I was splitting the rent on a farmhouse with Trudy Hanson, the photographer and fingerprint analyst at the state crime lab.
"Maybe so, but if it looks like a homicide, then you know we're gonna want their lab work. And they say if they're gonna handle the evidence, they wanna start with the body. Which seems reasonable to me. I know Pokey doesn't like it, but that's just tough titty. Pokey's not a forensic pathologist, he's a dermatologist with a part-time coroner's license, and I can't justify having him handle sensitive evidence when there's better help available."
"I wasn't thinking about him," I said, although I was, a little. Pokey got pretty outraged, last summer during the Rowdy's Bar case, about "goddamn fascist bureaucrats" invading his turf. "Just wanna be sure I know what my options are, before I get there and say the wrong thing."
"Okay, let's go over it again. If you're pretty sure you got a homeless person who fell down drunk and froze, something like that, get Hampstead County to put him in their morgue overnight, and in the morning we'll get Pokey to confirm the cause of death. But if you got any reason to think it's homicide, call BCA."
"Gotcha." I put the phone down on the seat and pulled my 35-millimeter camera and flash out of the glove compartment. If it turned out we were handling this DOA by ourselves, I'd want to take a few pictures. I dropped the camera in the inside pocket of my jacket, felt how cold it was, and remembered the manufacturer's admonition: warm it up too fast in very cold weather, you'll fog up the lens. So I pulled it out of there and dropped it on the seat, just as I made the wide turn onto Burton Hills Drive. A broad new express road that hopscotches on pilings across a grid of older streets to reach the new developments at the northwest edge of town, it's busy at rush hours and almost empty after dark. Four costly lanes of new concrete glittered under a glaze of ice. Snowplows had windrowed three-foot snowbanks along the curb, and now a rising wind blew them in white streamers back across the street. Occasional gusts threw whirlwinds of snow up to halo the streetlights.
I speed-dialed Milo Nilssen's home number. He answered before the first ring ended. One thing about this lousy weather, most people were staying close to the phone.
"Nilssen?" He put a funny little question mark after his name, as if he were looking for somebody to confirm his identity. Milo's self-esteem seemed to have shriveled, not grown, since his sudden jump to acting county attorney last September. His former boss had departed suddenly during a scandal, and even though nobody was blaming Milo, the sudden weight of responsibility had made him jumpy and defensive.
"Jake Hines. I'm on my way to look at a DOA out on beautiful breezy Burton Hills Drive. You wanna come out and play with me?"
"Oh, hey, that's really thoughtful of you, Jake. I mean it's only about twice as cold as a witch's tit out there tonight, right? Whaddya got? Homicide?"
"Don't know for sure. Possible. But probably hypothermia because the body's way out on the edge of town wearing hardly any clothes."
"Ah-hah. A clue. You haven't seen it yet, huh?"
"No. But I promise you, I'm not going to take any longer than necessary deciding what to call it. It's twelve below downtown, and out here it's starting to blow. Not a good night to stand around and speculate. So if you want somebody from your office to view the scene, you better be sending him soon."
"I hear you." He took down the address, sighed, and said, "Hell, I'll probably come myself. It's easier than chasing down my joy boys on a Sunday night." Milo had been given a staff of three newly graduated attorneys, shanghaied out of various other county offices, to help him through his transitional phase as acting CA. The county paid them peanuts and expected donkey's labor. Milo was supposed to make it work.
As I punched Off, I saw the two squads, far ahead and downslope from me, parked close to each other with their headlights blazing into the underpass. Their roof lightbars flashed a jittery message of trouble into the night. Battery-powered caution lights blinked, four ahead and four behind. Two officers were stringing crime scene tape around something on the ground.
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