A fire at an upscale mountain resort area outside of Colorado Springs, leads ATF's Sam Tanner and DEA's Mike Reach on an investigation into the world of Mexican drug cartels, Chicago crack houses and murder.
Follow Tanner and Reach and their investigative team as they work to unravel the grand conspiracy being orchestrated by rouge Army combat vets and their former street gang brethren.
Straw Men is the second in a series, following Rocky Mountain High, in which Tanner and his ATF and DEA colleagues work to infiltrate a tightknit unit of gang members, narcotics traffickers and the "good citizens" who supply them with guns.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.59(d)|
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By Dan K. Thomasson, Scot L. Thomasson
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2016 Dan K. Thomasson & Scot L. Thomasson
All rights reserved.
"The guy left the accelerant evidence where it couldn't be missed," the fire marshal said. "He was sending some sort of message."
Sheriff Walter Johnson nodded, surveying the damage and wondering what might have happened had the wind been up. He was standing in front of the burned out hulk of a house in a heavily wooded development 15 miles out of Colorado Springs. The smell of burned rubble was still heavy in the air and smoke was still rising from the warm ashes. The house to be used as a model was worth close to $2 million.
"You might think he wanted to be caught or he was daring us to find him or he was just plain arrogant," the marshal continued.
"Yeah," Johnson replied. "But just think what could have happened here. There was no one home and the rest of the 10 houses were just being completed. Had the wind been high, they all would have gone up. But worse than that, the fire would have hit the pines and this whole area might have been hotter than the first circle of hell."
As it was, there were 10 pieces of fire equipment committed to trying to keep that from happening and more were on alert. Ten deputies were strung out at the immediate site and the road leading to it. Johnson moved toward his own car, stopped, and went back to the marshal.
"Can we have a truck left overnight here in case of a flare up?"
"I'll see to it," the marshal said.
"Good, I'll leave a deputy on site to secure the scene and dissuade gawkers or anything else."
He turned around and headed back toward his car. He opened the door, sat down and reached for his radio.
"This is one" he said.
"Go ahead, sheriff," a voice crackled almost immediately.
"Grace, is young Roger Whitcomb back from that accident on county line road?"
"That's affirmative. He just walked through the door."
"Good," Johnson said. "Send him out here and tell him he'll be spending the night."
Whitcomb, just out of college with a criminal justice degree had been on the job for just five months and as the lowest in seniority he automatically drew the short straw for an all-night watch. It was simple enough.
The sheriff hung up the receiver and walked back to where the fire marshal was conferring with a couple of firemen who had been checking the other houses but had not been involved in dousing the blaze.
"Ralph and Bob here will keep a pumper on site," the marshal said.
Johnson shook their hands and turned toward the marshal. It was nearly five o'clock on Thursday and the early April air was cooling quickly. It had been a miracle that no one was on the site that afternoon when the fire was started, and the sheriff had no explanation for that. A call had been put into the developer and builders in Denver but he didn't expect them until the next day. He guessed that interior finishing touches were being put on in the rest of the houses by a subcontractor who had decided to take the day off. The fire's smoke had been spotted just before noon by a passing motorist who was curious and turned up the private entrance to the compound where a fancy sign proclaimed "Hermosa Vista — a Unique Enclave of Superior Homes, Coming Soon."
"I'm assigning a young deputy to stay here for the night. He can keep you company. I'll send down a car for chicken and whatever you guys would like for supper," he said to the two firemen. "It's on the sheriff's department."
The two firemen voted for fried chicken and fries and the marshal said he had one of those large thermoses for coffee that he would lend them.
"If I may," the sheriff said, "I suggest you rotate the watch so everyone gets some sleep."
They all nodded their agreement and the sheriff went off to send one of his deputies after enough food for three. When young Whitcomb showed up 45 minutes later Johnson filled him in on the fire, told him to keep anyone away from what clearly was a crime scene strung out with the usual yellow tape, and to stay alert. He could sleep in shifts coordinated with the two firemen.
"We will send a forensic team up here first thing in the morning to see what clues we can find and we may have to bring in the state boys. In the meantime keep things tight. We will give you some relief by 6:30 tomorrow morning."
The deputy, trying to be accommodating, told the two firemen that he would take the last watch at 2am. They could split up the rest as they wished. They finished their supper and sat around until about 8 o'clock when the two went back to the truck and he climbed into the cruiser, parked about 50 yards down the drive and turned on the heat. He left the engine on, cracked the window and was soon fast asleep.
At about 10 minutes until 2 o'clock, Ralph, the older of the two firemen, tapped on his window, startling him.
"Better shake it out, deputy," he said.
Whitcomb rubbed his eyes and opened the door, gratefully accepting a large mug of coffee from the fireman.
"All quiet?" he asked, thinking immediately how dumb was that question. Of course it was or he would have heard. The fireman nodded, clapped him on the shoulder and headed to the fire truck up the road. The deputy took 15 minutes to drink the coffee, and then closed the door. The engine was still idling with the heat on and he expected it was about 38 degrees outside the car. Nevertheless, he turned off the heat to avoid dozing off. Moments later there was another knock on the window and he expected that one of the firemen had returned for some reason. He rolled down the window without looking and it was his last act.CHAPTER 2
The vibration on Tanner's hip was persistent, but he didn't even glance down at the phone.
"Now, Agent Tanner," Assistant United States Attorney Robert Langston said, "were you the arresting officer in the case?"
"No. I was the undercover agent."
"Well, were you there when the arrest was taking place?"
"Yes I was. This was a sting operation and I went to the ground as ordered by the arresting ATF agents — a team out of Denver — because I wasn't ready to blow my cover yet. As a safety precaution, the undercover agent never takes part in the actual arrest if it can be avoided."
His phone vibrated again. Tanner glanced at Federal Judge Robert Moses. He knew any gesture including even a glance to find out the caller would result in a rebuke from a jurist whose reputation for arrogance and unfriendliness to government agents was legendary. This judge had once presided over a trial that had drawn national attention, and it was Tanner's opinion and that of the criminal justice fraternity that he had never gotten over it. There was speculation that he was looking for at least a bump up to the circuit court of appeals if not more, as unlikely as that was. Tanner hated his courtroom. It made him wish he was back in the State Department where he didn't have to deal with men like Moses.
"Do you see the defendant in the courtroom?" asked AUSA Langston.
"Yes sir," Tanner replied gesturing toward the defendant, "he is the gentleman with no facial hair seated at the table wearing a blue shirt blue jacket."
"I make a motion the witness has identified the defendant."
"The witness has identified the defendant," Moses grumbled.
"Did the defendant in this case resist arrest?"
"What did he do?"
"He pulled a pistol while we were dropping to the ground and we wrestled for the weapon. It went off twice in the scuffle and I was wounded in the leg. He took a shot in the hip."
Again the phone vibrated.
"I have no further questions," the prosecutor said.
The judge looked toward the defendant's attorney.
"No questions," the public defender assigned to the case said.
"You may be excused, Agent Tanner," Judge Moses said, adding that it was noon and that he had an afternoon appointment that couldn't be ignored. "We will resume promptly at 9:30 tomorrow morning," he said, standing up.
"Your honor I have one more thing. I ask that Agent Tanner be released from the subpoena and placed on a three hour recall if needed," asked Langston.
Before the judge could speak, the public defender said "I have no objections" trying to garner good will with the judge and prosecutor."
Moses grumbled. "Very well, Agent Tanner you are released but be prepared to come back if needed"
"All rise," the bailiff fairly shouted.
Tanner stayed put for a moment until the courtroom cleared, then dug for the phone. It was from his office in Colorado Springs and before he could dial the number it vibrated again.
"What the hell, Josh," he said to his boss, Resident Agent in Charge Josh Gorton. "I was in the midst of testifying and with that son-of-a-bitch Moses on the bench I didn't dare check the phone. What's so urgent?"
"We've got a situation," Gorton said, "A deputy sheriff stationed over night at a fire site in a new development on the backside of Cheyenne Mountain has been murdered."
"Isn't that a local matter?" Tanner replied. "That's Walter Johnson's office, isn't it?"
"It would be local if the shooting hadn't involved a silencer. Besides, Johnson asked for our help. He's really shaken up. The deputy was just a 23-year-old youngster fresh out of Boulder with a degree in criminal justice. He hadn't been on the job more than five or six months. How soon can you get here?"
"If the prosecutor gives me the all clear, I'm on my way. I think he will since the defendant's attorney had no questions for me. This is all pretty much a done deal and I expect some sort of plea agreement will be underway already. We got the guy cold, after all. He's lucky to be alive."
So am I, Sam Tanner thought as he clicked off the phone after promising to call Gorton back immediately after consulting with the Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Langston. It took only a minute or two to get the all clear from Langston and he called Gorton as he was hurrying to the elevator to the big garage in the Denver federal building.
Fifteen minutes later he was headed out the Valley Highway to US 25 south for Colorado Springs. Traffic was heavy but when necessary he put on his flashing lights and once or twice even the siren in the government issued Mercury.
He didn't like the car much. Its suspension was too soft and it floated on the curves, but he expected to get something better toward the end of the fiscal year in September. That's when federal agencies siphoned off unspent funds so they wouldn't undercut the annual request for increased budgets. Although the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had to fight for every nickel because of the gun lobby, it still managed to save some for badly needed equipment.
Ninety minutes later he was pulling into the drive that led to the burned out house and now murder site where forensic experts were busily working. Josh was standing talking to Johnson and a state trooper as well as Charlie Gadsen, Tanner's partner on a number of cases. Tanner recognized a couple of members of the ATF arson team and he saw Tom Gardner from the Springs' FBI office. By then there must have been 30 law enforcement officers at the site and more were arriving from jurisdictions throughout the area. Nothing brings out the force like the killing of a fellow officer. He would expect one hundred or more before this manhunt ended.
"Glad to see you," Gorton said. "I took the liberty of calling Sally to tell her what was going on and not to expect you too soon."
"Thanks, boss. I bet that went well seeing that she didn't pick up when I called. We had a special dinner planned for tonight."
Normally, Sally Tanner, a veteran of the CIA took things in stride, but now and then even she found it difficult to accept his long absences. It was one of the things that drove him out of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security where long periods away from home had been common. After four years of college football and some underpaid coaching, he had been selected for the first class of beefed up State Department security ordered by Ronald Reagan as an answer to embassy bombings and terrorist threats to diplomats. He was good at what he did and he liked it but finally had given into the pressure of overseas absenteeism from home. The ATF offered him a position that kept him in the United States and he took it.
Sally had guests coming and this was one of those times. Their two scamps, Claire and Haley, had gone off to a Girl Scout function for the weekend and Sally had been expecting a nice dinner and a nicer time after the guests left.
The forensic boys hadn't moved the car where the killing took place. Tanner nodded to the fire team and put his arm around Sheriff Johnson's shoulders.
"I'm sorry old man," he said. "This is never easy."
Tanner walked over to the car and peered inside. The blood and what he suspected was brain matter were evident on the passenger side window.
"Jesus," Tanner said, "How did this go down?"
"As best we can tell, the shooter put the barrel to the kid's head and fired at the same time. It was instantaneous. At least he never felt anything. From the looks of it, the guy was using a pistol with a silencer.
"The mother fucker damn near blew the side of his head off. There were two firemen sleeping up the road in a pumper. They heard nothing."
"One of them had wakened my guy only about 15 minutes earlier to take his shift on watch. The killer must have been waiting to see when young Whitcomb was taking over," he continued. "This has hit my department like a Mack truck. We aren't used to this kind of thing. He was a really good kid from a good family and I have just gotten back from the most unhappy chore I ever have performed — informing his parents and two younger siblings. Whew!"
His eyes filled and voice choked.
"We'll get this bastard!" Gorton said, clasping the sheriff's shoulder.
Gorton told Sheriff Johnson the first thing he needed to do was to have a conversation with the developers and the construction company.
"This is heavy duty building on a residential scale and we should find out whether there were any difficulties inside the company or with the subs. Most of these houses have been sold and there may be a disgruntled customer. Did anyone get pissed off enough to do something like this? Burning the house is one thing but taking out a deputy is quite another. There has to be another reason."
He looked at Tanner.
"Any suggestions?" he asked.
"Let's set up a team to go through all the houses. It looks to me like they're almost ready except for a few interior touches. We also should check the woods," Tanner said. "Any help from the State or the Springs PD?"
"The Springs PD offered to send a team, but you know how the chief is. The FBI said it would bring in some bodies, but I said we could handle this for the time being. The last time they took over we got a three week cluster fuck accented by a self-aggrandizing media circus that ended in a lot of hard feelings and no one going to jail. I would rather keep them out. Besides they will want to control everything and Johnson doesn't have much use for them. They treat him like he's a hayseed. You can see that Denver has lent us some support." He nodded toward five agents with ATF jackets who had just climbed out of their cars and were stretching after the long drive.
Gorton paused, took off the silver belly Resistol cowboy hat he always wore, ran a hand through his graying hair and reset it before continuing. He was a big chested former Georgia State trooper who had been wounded in the line of duty at least once. Tanner had liked him instantly when he had been assigned to the newly-opened Colorado Springs office, an adjunct of the Denver ATF field office. Gorton's sense of Tanner was the same.
"This is a bad man. Every cop within 100 miles wants a part of this, as you can imagine. There has to be something I'm missing. Why shoot the deputy and not the two sleeping firemen? The fire marshal tells me the arsonist left a gas can where it easily could be found like he was sending some message. We don't know if the same guy who set the fire was the shooter for that matter."
The sheriff was talking to a state patrolman and Gorton caught his eye and waved him over. "Was Whitcomb having any difficulty with anyone that you know of," the ATF man said. "Did he have a girlfriend and if so was there a rival in the picture?"
The sheriff looked away for a second. "I don't think he had a girl. He was interested in learning the ropes. He got to work early and stayed late. If he had someone he didn't mention her and certainly didn't bring her around. We have a few social events I know he attended by himself, so I'm assuming there was no one special." He pursed his lips for a moment. "Wait. I do remember he had a date on one occasion, pretty blond girl but I don't think any relationship had advanced very far. That was when he first came to the office and I haven't seen her since."
Tanner interrupted the conversation. He told Gorton he was going to organize a party to search the other houses.
"Are they locked?"
Excerpted from Straw Men by Dan K. Thomasson, Scot L. Thomasson. Copyright © 2016 Dan K. Thomasson & Scot L. Thomasson. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A page turner! At times hard to tell whether this is a novel or a non-fiction view inside big time criminal investigations and the federal law enforcement agents that conduct them out. Recommended reading either way.