Marry new technology to old-fashioned policing and you’ve got something special.
The car is found just outside Picketsville, Virginia, a smoking ruin of twisted metal and shattered glass. It takes only a glance to confirm that this is Ike Schwartz’s car. Ever since he left the CIA, the incorruptible Picketsville sheriff has made enemies at home and abroad. Now, one has caught up with him, with a bomb powerful enough to turn quiet Main Street into a smoking crater. Is this a cop killingor domestic terrorism?
The town plunges into mourning, and Ike’s wife Ruth, the president of the local college, puts on a brave face as the sheriff’s department organizes a manhunt, the likes of which Picketsville has never seen. Back at the CIA, Ike’s old colleague Charlie Garland joins the hunt, becoming fixated on a blurry videotape of the crime scene. Charlie’s elastic job description includes monitoring Ike’s life.
Investigationsled by more than one playerfan around and out of Picketsville as far as a small town in Idaho where Martin Pangborn, head of the radical militia called the Fifty-First Star, runs his organization. If some banks and businesses are too big to fail, are some people too deeply connected or too wealthy to bring to justice? Is Martin Pangborn such a person?
The Fifty-First Star’s tentacles run long and deep. But the Vulture is something no one, not even Martin Pangborn, is prepared for.
“Surefooted prose speeds this well-told tale of greed and betrayal among the nation’s covert elite." – Publishers Weekly on the 9th Ike Schwartz mystery, Drowning Barbie.
About the Author
Frederick Ramsay has published fourteen books that range from historicals (The Jerusalem Mysteries), to Africa (The Botswana Mysteries), to police procedurals (The Ike Schwartz Mysteries). In addition, his stand-alone Impulse was named one of the Best 100 Books of the Year in 2006 by Publishers Weekly. He is an iconographer and an accomplished public speaker. He lives and writes in Arizona.
Read an Excerpt
An Ike Schwartz Mystery
By Frederick Ramsay
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2015 Frederick Ramsay
All rights reserved.
Smoldering flames and a streetlight leaning at an acute angle and flashing on and off like a badly programmed strobe, and firemen's work lights illuminating the street bright as day. Frank Sutherlin's head spun. In spite of the glare, he sensed only darkness. Nauseated and short of breath, he felt his knees start to buckle. Darkness comes. In the middle of it, the future looks blank. The temptation to quit is huge. Frank read that somewhere. He couldn't remember who wrote it ... Piper ... somebody Piper. It seemed eerily strange, remembering that line just now, but also appropriate. He was a tempted to cut and run, to get as far away from this place as possible. He took a deep breath, steadied, and forced himself to focus on the awful truth: that the otherwise unrecognizable, charred body behind the wheel in what was left of the twisted and scorched Buick must be all that remained of Ike Schwartz. The car's trunk had sprung open from the blast. He studied what was left of its familiar contents and the blistered and twisted just-readable license plate dangling from the bumper. Ike had used his own car again. He was funny that way.
Frank pivoted on his heel, his gaze took in everything — the glass shards from broken store windows, twisted bits and pieces of automobile, and still-smoking chunks of what might have been upholstery or ... he didn't want to think or what ... scattered over a quarter of an acre of downtown Picketsville, Virginia.
It had to have been one helluva bomb.
The Volunteer Fire Department had arrived almost as quickly as he had and made sure that fire did not spread. Some of its members, still booted and helmeted, stood by keeping watch on the smoldering wreckage while the rest were busy rolling up hoses and storing equipment. A low haze, part steam, part smoke from burning upholstery and gasoline, drifted over the area. Those who spoke did so in hushed voices. EMTs, seeing that their medical skills would not be needed and having been assured that the vehicle had cooled sufficiently, donned gloves and began the grisly task of removing the body and placing it in a body bag and thence onto a gurney to be taken to the morgue for autopsy. What they expected the medical examiner to find was anyone's guess.
Frank's head swam: Ike Schwartz dead. He had a hard time getting his mind around that. Sure, Ike had enemies. What cop doesn't? And Ike had served time in the Agency; there could be some bad stuff left over from that, but this was Picketsville, Virginia. What were the chances? He took one last look at the scene, turned and went back to his cruiser to think, to plan.
Who would tell Ruth? Frank assumed that, as second in line and now acting sheriff, it fell to him to make the call to Ike's wife. Once he'd done that, he'd call everyone in — all shifts, part-timers and retired. They would mount a taskforce the likes of which had never been seen anywhere. Vacations off, leaves canceled. He wanted everybody on this for as long as it took. He'd ask Karl Hedrick to call in some favors from the FBI, that is, if he had any left to call in. And Sam, he'd ask Sam to jump on the Internet. If there was anything lurking out there in cyberspace, she'd surer than hell would find it. Whoever had done this was about to find out they'd made the worse mistake of their life.
* * *
The phone's insistent ringing woke Ruth. At night, she made a point of disconnecting the answering machine on the assumption that any call made after midnight would likely be an emergency and need her attention.
"Okay, okay, in a minute." She fumbled for the phone and picked up at the same time as her mother. "Hello," they said in unison.
"Hang up, Mother, I've got it."
"How do you know it's not for me?"
"What are the chances? I'll holler if it is, now go back to bed." Ruth waited for the click that indicated the line was clear. "Hello, who's this?"
She listened. Her expression changed from sleepy annoyance to concern, to fear. "You're sure? Oh, God, you can't be ... Tonight? Where? Yes, I understand. I will. What? When? Three days from now. I don't know. People will be all over the place. How will I ...? Where? Will you be able to do that? He will? You're sure? How do I reach you? Okay, yes, yes. I still don't understand. Okay, I will, I promise."
She hung up.
"Who was that?" her mother shouted from her third floor studio.
"Nothing, wrong number. Okay, since you're up, you take the next one, Mother. I'm wide awake for a while and I'm headed downstairs for something to drink."
Ruth slipped on a terrycloth robe with the logo of a Las Vegas hotel on the pocket — she called it her honeymoon souvenir — and descended to the first floor. She poured herself a brandy snifter full of red wine and downed half in a single draught. She needed fortification. She also needed a few minutes to prepare before her mother rushed downstairs and broke the bad news and all hell broke loose.
The phone rang again fifteen minutes later. She hugged herself closer in her robe. God in Heaven, what was going on?
* * *
Several miles away the County medical examiner received a similar call. He grumbled at first and then listened carefully. A frown squeezed his eyebrows so closely together it seemed his face was reduced one third its size. He shook his head, barked "No" several times, listened some more and reluctantly agreed to do as the caller requested. He didn't like it, but he would do it. It meant lying, a lot of lying, and he did not fancy himself a good liar. His ex-wife might have disagreed, but that was another story. More importantly, lying could lead to an accusation of perjury later and that could threaten his job and cost him his medical license. He hung up and started to dress. The next call he knew would come at any second and then he'd need to move.
The phone rang. He answered, was predictably shocked, and hung up. He had things to do. There would be DNA to process, naturally, and dental records. There could be no mistake about who had ended up on the slab. Then there would be the reporters, the State Police, the FBI probably, and God-only-knew who else would poke in their nose. Bombs tended to attract far more attention that simple shootings, or stabbings, or deaths by the old reliable, blunt force. Worse, he'd made it clear there might be a need to stall the release of the body for days, possibly longer. That would be the difficult part.
He started to slip his necktie under his shirt collar and then tossed it aside. What need had he for a tie at two in the morning? Later, maybe, when the crowds arrived to ask their questions, he'd dress up, but not now. Once in his county car, he headed straight to the highway. He ignored the speed limit all the way to the morgue. He wanted — no, he needed — to be the first one there. The problem with owing someone a favor is that they inevitably wanted to collect. People expected miracles from him. They probably watched too much television.
* * *
Felix Chambers had watched the car pull out of the parking lot. It had turned east, not west. The guy wasn't going home after all. He'd rigged the bomb to detonate when the odometer initiated a countdown and he'd calculated the miles with some care. This had not been a spur-of-the-moment job. Computer-monitored automobiles made his job so much easier now, no more guessing times or road conditions. Just hack into the car's "brain" and you could do damned near anything. All he had to do is measure the distance from a fixed point — for this job a convenience store a few miles away where the mark usually stopped for coffee — the point where he wanted the thing to blow. He'd intended for it to go off on the Calland University campus, with luck near the guy's house — at least blow out some windows. The man said he wanted to send a message. Some message. Well, it wasn't his fault that the cop didn't go straight home. Probably had to go somewhere else or maybe he had a little something going on the side and needed a dip first. Small-town cops were like that, right? So, okay, it didn't bust out some windows on the college. So what?
He called it in, skipped the part about where the thing went off, and waited. The man seemed pleased and said he'd move the money in the morning. No soap there. The deal was, pay on delivery. Move the money now. Then some bullshit about banks, but in the end he'd done it. He tapped off and checked his offshore account, saw the transfer completed. He lit a Cuban cigar and exhaled. Life was good. He ditched the burn phone, and headed to Dulles. He'd be on the next flight to Aruba one hundred thou richer and no one would ever put him in the frame.
Nobody shared the road when he pulled onto I-81 and headed north. He shook his head and smiled. Some guys really go to all kinds of trouble to get even. This last guy took the cake. One hundred K to snuff a small-town cop with a car bomb? Like, that was way over the top, like swatting a mosquito with a hand grenade or something. Hell, to do the job like that, he coulda got himself a hit man off the street for a short stack of Benjamins — or one, maybe even two, Clevelands, seeing as how it was a cop. Cops went down in the line of duty all the time. Nobody would have even noticed. Dead is dead, right? He flicked the ash from his cigar and smiled.CHAPTER 2
Charlie Garland had a title at the CIA which did not match what he really spent his time doing. In that secretive and institutionally paranoid environment, no one dared notice or even suggest this to be unusual. Few people outside the director's office knew what his job entailed and if asked, they would mumble something that sounded official but which, on reflection, meant nothing. All anybody knew for certain was he occupied an office in the basement of the main building at Langley which contained a battered and very old Government Issue oak desk left over from another era, a wall full of mismatched filing cabinets, and an array of electronic devices including two computers. The title on his door read Public Affairs Annex, but no one had ever heard of such a division or function, nor was a there a line in the budget so named. No one thought it politic to mention that either. A newer computer sat on a makeshift credenza against one wall; the older one sat on his desk. Whereas the one on the desk had all the markings and characteristics of Government Issue, the newer one did not and it was this latter, off-budget, machine which at that moment had begun filling the room with alerts and chatter.
Charlie stood with his hand on the doorknob having every intention of going home. After all, it had already been a long day and it was late, but the incessant pinging from his computer made him hesitate. He dropped his briefcase, returned to his desk, and swiveled to stare at the computer screen.
The mandate given the CIA by Congress limits its purview to foreign affairs, covert and otherwise, international terrorism, spying, and so on. Domestic surveillance remained the clear responsibility of the FBI and Homeland Security. There would be no reason for the CIA to keep tabs on any activity within the borders of the United States or its territories. Any suggestion that it might be doing so would be vigorously denied. There were, however, certain gray areas that the Agency believed needed to be accounted for and which they were not entirely confident other law enforcement agencies would cover to their satisfaction. For instance, international borders, particularly the more porous ones in the Southwest, were a concern. Mixed in with migrant workers, children fleeing gangs in Central America, the gang members themselves, and people seeking a shot at a better life in general, terrorists and double agents found them easy entry points. So, where did the Agency's mandate really end in an era marked by shape-shifting enemies and ambivalent allegiances? A threat on one side of an arbitrary line drawn on a map would be its responsibility, but ten yards farther on, it fell to the forces monitored by Homeland Security? How efficient was that? Then there were acts of terrorism within the borders which, until their sources had been identified, might be linked to cells outside the country.
Thus, to cover its bases, the Agency had undertaken some passive domestic surveillance. Deniably, of course.
Part of Charlie's job was to be the one who "watched the watchers." Therefore, almost every program run by the Agency could be mirrored in his office. When the electronics geek had arrived to install some new programming and the alternative computer, Charlie made sure that not only would the obvious cities be covered — New York, San Francisco, Detroit, and so on, but that links to less likely places, places like Picketsville, Virginia, for example, could also be monitored if required. He did not explain why and the young woman had not asked. Obviously, the Shenandoah Valley did not rank anywhere near to the top of anyone's list of terrorist hotbeds.
Ike Schwartz was the sheriff of Picketsville and the closest thing to a best friend Charlie had — maybe even his only friend. They maintained that friendship by keeping each other at a distance, which might seem counterintuitive, but in the world of cloaks and daggers, as they used to say, it had been necessary. Charlie wanted to know what Ike was up to, whether Ike liked it or not. That was how he discovered the wedding, for example, but that was then and this was now.
Anyway, Picketsville or Podunk, any explosion bearing the signature of a professional bomb maker would trigger alerts up and down the line in all of the agencies now affiliated, however loosely, with Homeland Security. A car bomb with enough explosive power to crack and scorch asphalt and blow in windows in adjoining buildings fit the criteria and had set computer screens dancing across the country. As unlikely as it seemed, Picketsville had made the list of possible terrorist sites after all.
Alerts streamed across Charlie's alternative screen. He scanned each in turn, barely able to keep up with the volume of messages as they came pouring in. His gut told him, even before the dispatches confirmed it, that whatever had happened down there had to somehow involve Ike. Why he believed it, he could not say. There was something about Ike Schwartz, about his unyielding — some critics would say, insufferable — rectitude that seemed to attract trouble. People who always insisted on doing the right thing seemed to find themselves in the path of more than their fair share of enemies, critics, and untimely violence. When Charlie saw the burned-out shell of the Buick, he slipped off his coat, and sent the night porter for a pot of coffee. Whether Ike was alive or dead, Charlie would dig until he knew if he was, and then who, and what, and why all it had come about. He settled in to his desk chair. The coat slipped to the floor. He didn't notice. No one else would either. Charlie wore clothes that Alice, his administrative assistant, referred to as permanent un-pressed. One more wrinkle or a dozen would not be remarkable.
Once he'd determined the scope and magnitude of the bomb, Charlie put out a BOLO for any suspicious person to every airport within two hundred miles of Picketsville. He particularly wanted the explosive-sniffing dogs deployed. If he knew his bombers, and Charlie believed he did, he knew the person responsible for this last one would either be on the way out of the country or he would go to ground. The latter would take some digging, but the possibility of the former dictated tighter security at the nearer exit ports. He also knew that bomb makers, for all their cleverness at manufacture, rarely appreciated the evidence left on their clothing. If one were headed through an airport any time soon, the dogs would sniff him out. A wipe down would confirm it. The BOLO would also call for the facial recognition programs to be cranked up and not just the "usual suspects," but tourists, persons flying for business or pleasure, parents visiting their children or vice versa — everyone would be subjected to an increased TSA scrutiny for the next week. They would not be happy about that and mutter darkly about what the country had come to since 9/11, but there it was.
Excerpted from The Vulture by Frederick Ramsay. Copyright © 2015 Frederick Ramsay. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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