Saturday, October 27, 2012

The fourth chapter of my new novel. Thanks for reading, and all comments are welcome. 
Wayne C. Grantham


Mars and Regis were searching Valerie MacDougal’s Gaslamp District loft, which had been converted from commercial use to residential condominiums decades ago.
San Diego’s Gaslamp District was an attempt, successful for many years, to convert the old, dingy, peril-filled downtown area into an upscale urban center with clean and nicely appointed bars and lounges, fine restaurants, entertainment houses, stores and theaters. Part of the effort was to take old garment works and other light industrial buildings, vacant as these business moved to less expensive business and light industrial malls away from the downtown area, place the stores, art galleries and restaurants in refurbished ground floor spaces and place upper floors for lease or sale.
These lofts, as they came to be called, were sold or leased as empty spaces, often the size of the entire footprint of the building, the interiors to be built and decorated to the desires of the buyer. Many were very luxurious; others were left bare, with temporary partitions and furnished sparsely, with a portion devoted to the owner’s hobbies or businesses.
MacDougal’s loft had been the third floor of a four-story hardware warehouse, which had been divided into four apartments, years previously. The apartment had two street-facing walls, both covered with multi-pane windows, facing the streets of an intersection. There was a restaurant/lounge with jazz and blues combos playing most evenings.
Her apartment had rooms built and looked a lot like an ordinary luxury apartment that might be located in a wealthy suburb. Walls were papered tastefully, the floor was covered with a good-quality carpet, the furniture was made of solid hardwood with quality finish and upholstery. Mars caught himself wishing he could afford a place like this.
Mars was digging into her computer, lining up files that might provide information about her associations and pastimes, to save on a disc for further study at his desk. Regis was going through dressers and closets.
      “Nice clothes!” Regis said from inside one of the closets. “Some were hecho en Mexico.”
      “From Freestate, more likely,” Mars said without looking up.
      “Some from there, too. I hear there are no taxes down there.”
      Mars tapped away on Valerie's computer. He paused and he looked up as Regis knelt to look at some storage boxes on the floor of the closet.
      “Bullshit!” he said. “Where has there ever been a country with no taxes.”
“That's what I heard, from a, uh, sort of a relative from Guadalajara.”
      “Careful, Partner!” Mars looked up again. “You got any relatives that are here illegally, and don’t report ‘em, you're out of a job.”
      “They're tourists,” Regis grinned.
      “Yeah.” Mars shut the computer off and pocketed a disc. He looked through the drawers of a dressing table that Regis hadn’t gotten to.
      “Check this out,” Regis said, taking a small package out of a carton. “There are two whole boxes of these.”
      After removing it from its packaging, Regis held up an object that looked like a rather large bracelet, about four inches wide. He pressed a button on the edge.
      “The screen lit up,” he said, looking into its face. “Um, wait. There are little rows of icons, most of which are meaningless.”
      “Meaningless to you. Probably not to her, and those who know how to use the thing. We'll take ‘em with us. There’s probably an instruction booklet or something in there.” Mars carefully put everything back in its place. “Why are we bothering, anyway. Horiuchi says he's gonna take the case over.”
      Regis set two of the cartons on an evidence cart they’d parked in the living room. “We don't have to tell him everything.”
      Mars went into the corner of the bedroom, next to the toilet, which had a pair of sinks and a makeup table. He looked through the makeup chest and the table’s drawers. “I ain't gonna tell him anything.”
      Regis continued to examine with the electronic bracelet. He turned it in his hands. “I just found a little keypad in the screen. Not the same as ours, though.”
      Regis touched some keys. The view on the watch face changed to a camera view. The image zoomed dizzyingly as he moved and turned the device. The image zoomed around the room, then settled on Mars’ full body at the desk, as Regis discovered how to aim it properly. The screen brought the image of Mars’ face into close-up as Regis played with the device.
      Mars’ voice erupted from the bracelet-computer. “More Freestate shit. We'll take it with us.”
      “Wow! Sound, too! Mars, this is something we can use!”
Mars finished looking through Valerie’s makeup cabinet. He looked into the toilet area, which was partitioned off from the rest of the bedroom.
“We don't want to give those things to Horiuchi,” he said.
      “He'd just sell 'em,” Regis agreed.
      There was another, smaller closet near the entry. It contained jackets and a couple of coats. While Regis set the two cartons on an evidence cart, Mars went through the outerwear. Then, Mars turned his attention to a small desk outside the door of the closet, going through the drawers one by one.
      “There’s some Freestate money in here.” Mars said, as he rattled through many small items in the drawer. “Gold and silver coins of smaller denominations, as well as some US money. Coupla boxes of those....bangers.”
      “Those explosive cartridges? We’d better take them with us,” Rodrigues suggested. “What’s the Freestate money like?”
      Mars examined several coins as he picked them out of the drawer.
      “Who knows? They’re marked in fractions of a troy ounce and some are in grams. Two gold dime-sized coins, a silver ‘quarter,’ a coupla copper ‘pennies,’ and a gold octagon a little bigger than a quarter.”
      Mars dumped all the coinage into a ziplock baggie and put the cartridge boxes on the evidence cart.
Regis’ unmarked police sedan parked in the lot in front of the Free Trade Company, which had been the name on some pay stubs found in Valerie’s apartment. Mars and Regis went inside to find a tastefully furnished reception office. A pretty young receptionist, apparently of Mexican ancestry, was on the phone. Receptionists, Mars mentally confirmed an earlier observation, are always young, and pretty.
      “I'll give you his voicemail. Good afternoon, sir.” She said in accent-free English. She punched keys on her phone, and then looked up and greeted the officers. “My name is Elvia. How may I help you gentlemen?”
Mars and Regis flashed their badges.
      “Your manager, please?”
      “Mr. Gambucci. A moment?” Elvia pushed buttons, spoke to the intercom. Mr. Gambucci? Some gentlemen are here to see you. San Diego PD.”
      “A moment.” A smooth voice answered.
      “We heard,” Regis interrupted. “What kind of business is this?”
      “Imports,” she answered.
      “Imports? What do you do, though?”
      “We facilitate getting shipments through Customs, for our clients.”
A fit-looking, impeccably groomed fortyish gentleman came in from a rear area. He wore a very stylish, very expensive-looking pin-striped black suit that fit him perfectly.
      “I’m really in the wrong business.” Regis muttered to Mars.
      “Officers, I am Sergio Gambucci. I manage this office.” He came over and shook hands with Mars, then Regis. “How may I help you?”
      “I’m Lieutenant Marlowe, this is my partner, Detective Rodriguez. We have a few questions.”
      “Of course.” Gambucci indicated the door from which he’d come. “Shall we sit?”
      They stepped through the door, into a short hallway and entered a conference room. Gambucci indicated that they sit around a hardwood conference table in a room with a large chalkboard on one wall and a larger video screen on another. The chairs were upholstered in leather, and were very comfortable. Elvia entered with a platter with coffee and rugelach. She served the guests first, then her boss.
      “Do you have a Valerie MacDougal in your employ?” Mars broke the ice.
      “Oh, Valerie.” Gambucci shook his head. “Has she gotten herself into trouble again?”
      “Bad trouble,” Regis said. “She's dead.”
      “Oh, no!” Gambucci cried.
Mars could see no deceit in his surprised and shocked look.
      “Murdered. Last night.” Regis continued.
      “What did she do here?” Mars asked.
      Gambucci took a deep breath to help compose himself. “She was a field agent. She worked at the port, mostly, inspecting shipments with Customs officers.”
      “Does your firm have business arrangements with any Freestate California exporters?”
      “Of course not,” Gambucci said, not hiding his bitterness. “I'd love to, if Sacramento wasn't so hard-headed about it. Because of the lack of state regulation of manufacturing there, they're constantly creating new consumer goods, hardly any of which appears on this side of the Wall.”
      “I've seen some of their stuff,” Mars admitted. “Too bad we can't get any of it here.”
      “Sixty years ago, Baja California was a sleepy little Mexican state in which everyone was poor, overtaxed and...”
      “...Lazy.” Regis put in.
      Not giving in, Gambucci added, “Lazy, at least partly because there was no incentive to work. Mexico took nearly everything you could earn, leaving you poor whether you worked or not.”
      Regis picked out a rugelach; popped it into his mouth.
      “And then?” Mars asked.
      “And then along came Thorsen. He brought billions with him. You know, nobody realized how wealthy Thorsen was. He was rated only in the four hundreds by Eurobank...”
      “...But he kept a lot of South African diamonds under his bed.”
      “But Mexico didn’t repay the loan at the scheduled date,” Gambucci continued. “When Thorsen foreclosed on his loan, he insisted they give him sovereign ownership of Baja in lieu of payment, as stipulated in the loan contract. Presidente Zorrillo got nasty and refused to deliver.”
      “Coincidentally,” Mars added, “Presidente Zorrillo was found dead in his safe room...”
      “...Shot three times in the head with his own pistol. Noticias Mexico reported it as a suicide.” Regis paused to scoop up another rugalach. “Mmmm! These are good! His VP assumed the office and immediately fulfilled the terms of the contract...”
      “...And Thorsen got rich all over again selling real estate.” Gambucci took a long drink from his coffee cup. “There was no shortage of people with money to invest in tax-free ventures.”
      “And live in a tax-free country,” Regis said, looking at Mars.
      “I still don't believe that tax-free shit. Everyone would be going there,” Mars scoffed.
“Everyone is,” Gambucci said. “I’ve been thinking about it myself. Unfettered by taxes and government regulation, they're creating an amazing variety of consumer goods and services.”
      “This is a lot of fun, but let’s get back on topic,” Mars said. “We have a murdered woman, who appears to have been, among other things, a dealer in illicit goods. Miss MacDougal had a lot of Freestate goods in her apartment. It seems convenient that she happened to work for an import house”
      “Could she have been making private deals?” Regis asked.
      “Well, that'd be smuggling, wouldn't it.” Gambucci smiled over his coffee cup. “I'm sure it's possible, given her political views. She was no dummy, though, and did nothing to arouse the suspicions of our staff. She's never gotten into any trouble.”
      “The first thing you asked when we mentioned her name was, ‘has she gotten herself in trouble again?’” Regis reminded him.
      “No, I was referring to her politics,” Gambucci explained. “She was always agitating--rallies, protests. Nothing serious.”
      Mars set his coffee cup on the table and stood. “Getting killed is pretty serious.”
      A half-hour later, Mars and Regis were driving on the freeway headed toward downtown. They were in heavy traffic, moving fairly fast, given the roughness of the pavement. Regis was driving. Mars was on the car's computer.
      “See if you can miss one of those potholes occasionally,” Mars grumbled as his finger was jounced from the “enter” key to “delete.”
      “Hitting as many of them as I can, Partner,” Regis said, checking his mirror and making a lane change. “Well, that was kind of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink interview, wasn’t it?”
      Mars tapped away at the keyboard. “She was freelancing, but he knows it. He may have even been taking a cut. She would've needed the firm's resources.”
      “None of our business, unless he killed her.” Regis’ words were distorted by one of the rugelach pastries Gambucci had insisted on his taking, as he chewed. A paper plate on which a couple remained was sitting on the dash. He swerved within his lane to try to avoid a nasty pothole, but hit it anyway. H 
“He didn’t kill her.” Mars said. “He liked her. Maybe loved her, though he kept that from showing. Much.”
“I don’t think he killed her, either. He doesn’t seem like the killer type.” Regis glanced in the side mirror and changed lanes again. “I think some Freestate tech would do California a lot of good.”
The car hit another nasty pothole, shaking the entire vehicle.
Mars swore. “A little road repair would do us all a little good!”
A black Suburban with darkened windows, followed. It made repeated quick lane changes in an attempt to pass cars, causing nearby traffic to brake and swerve.
      “Strange....” Regis mused.
      “What's strange?” Mars kept pecking away and didn’t look up from the computer screen.
      “How, even with all that money, Baja California could go from being the asshole of the beach resort world, to not only the best thousand-plus-mile beach resort on earth but a first class high-tech mecca, in just fifty-odd years. Whoa! Look here!”
      “Some crazy bastard behind us,” Regis said, shifting his eyes back and forth between the road ahead and his mirror, “is trying to get someone killed. Black Suburban, fairly new. I’ll let him pass and get his tag, and call it in.”
      Mars picked up the mike; took a look back. “I’ll call it in now. Shit! He doesn’t have a front tag!”
      The Suburban, closer behind the police car now, cut off a truck. The truck, brakes screeching, swerved onto the shoulder.
     “Units northbound I-5 south of Imperial. Reckless driver late model black Suburban. I’ll have the tag in a minute.”
The Suburban pulled alongside. The two detectives didn’t notice the Suburban’s passenger side window going down right away, nor did they see the pistol appear.
      “Here he comes,” he added. “I....Shit!”
      Regis saw the gun just as the window beside him blew inward. Holes appeared in the windshield. The car swerved. Regis' head snapped back against the headrest, blood splattered on the car’s interior and on Mars’ suit jacket and on his face. Mars grabbed the wheel, fighting to keep the car under control and simultaneously grabbing for his pistol and ducking low in the seat. Before Mars could do anything more, the Suburban bumped their car, which careened off the freeway and down a ten-foot slope.
      Mars, head and shoulder covered in blood and glass fragments, fell out of the car, gun in hand. He stumbled around to the other side of the car, keeping himself from falling by holding onto parts of the car. He checked Regis, who was very obviously dead, part of his skull blown away. Mars lowered his head for a moment, letting anger build. He half scrambled and half clawed his way up the slope to the freeway shoulder.
      Traffic was moving normally, still crowded, but moving near fifty to fifty-five miles per hour. There was no sign of the Suburban.
      A car had stopped on the shoulder. A man, dressed in a shirt and tie, ran toward him. Mars leveled his pistol; the man quickly raised his hands in front of him and stopped.
      “Police officer,” Mars challenged. “Hold still and keep your hands where I can see ‘em. Did you see what happened?”
      The man complied. “Yes, sir. I saw the Suburban crash into your car. Looked to me like it was deliberate.”
      Mars lowered his weapon. “Did you see where he went?”
      “He just kept going,” he said, pointing in the direction they’d been traveling.
      “Did you see the shooting?
      “Shooting? No! I didn’t see any shooting!”
      A black-and-white screeched to a halt, partly blocking the right lane, lights flashing. A uniformed officer got out, pistol drawn. He used his car door for cover.
      “Drop the weapon and raise your hands, both of you!” Mars and the witness complied. The officer approached, pistol held ready.
      One of the few good things that have changed in California law enforcement since sovereignty was declared was that because of a court decision five years previously, police were no longer allowed to compel suspects to prostrate themselves. Mars had never liked that, and had refused to do it. He preferred the “hands on the wall, step back and spread ‘em” technique. Making a man lie down on the bare ground was both distasteful for Mars and humiliating for the suspect. Not all suspects are guilty.
      “Detective Lieutenant Eric Marlowe, San Diego PD, Homicide. Can I show you my shield?”
      The officer stopped about fifteen feet from the two men, keeping them covered. “Very slowly.”
      Mars produced his badge holder, held it at arm’s length, open. “Get a call out. Late model black Chevy Suburban. Collision damage to right side. No front plate. Occupants armed and dangerous. Coupla minutes north of here by now.” Mars ordered.
The officer moved close enough to take the badge holder from Mars, stepped back to examine it, then holstered his weapon.
      “Stand easy. Patrolman Art Niedermeyer, Chula Vista PD. You’re injured, sir. Are you ok?”
“Make the call. Now!”
That was when Mars noticed the holes in his jacket sleeve, and felt blood on his arm.
      The officer stepped back and called in on his shoulder mic. Mars picked up his gun and put it away. He took the badge holder back from Niedermeyer and pocketed it.
      “I’m ok. My partner's been killed. This citizen's a witness.”
      Niedermeyer spoke again into his shoulder mike, “Officer down. Northbound I-5 at......”

Friday, October 19, 2012

The third chapter of my new novel. Thanks for reading, and all comments are welcome. 
Wayne C. Grantham


The conference room would have been big enough to hold eight or nine cars, with plenty of room to walk around each comfortably, were it not for the twenty-five-foot long solid hardwood table in the center. Eighteen deep brown leather-upholstered executive chairs surrounded the table with two dozen or so stackable chairs behind them. There was a well-stocked wet bar in a corner of the room. A bartender was on hand, now cleaning up. The governor insisted that drinking or alcohol stop during the meeting.  Two other corners of the room had fully carpeted raised platforms, each containing a video camera and a full complement of recording equipment.
Governor Fred (Blue) Ballou was presiding over a meeting of his cabinet. Blue Ballou was a tall, slender man, who kept himself in good physical shape. He was balding and had a pencil mustache, looking slick and sharp, but somehow predatory. He was wearing a very expensive, perfectly fitting dark blue suit, with a blood red necktie. He looked like a gangster in a noir suspense film.
After the bartender finished up and left the conference room, only Cabinet members and their secretaries were present, along with a couple of technicians, one on each of the recording platforms, handling the video recording equipment. When they finished their setup, they left the room, as well. There were no members of the news media in attendance. He stood behind the head of the conference table and directed his laser pointer at a graph on which most lines formed a downward slope.
“Good day, gentlemen,” Ballou addressed the group, ending private conversations and bringing elbows to the table. “I called you here to discuss our falling revenues and what we can do to get things back in working order. We have a number of problems. They have to be identified, and we must deal with them.
“As you can see,” he said with increasing anger, “Businessmen and engineers and other professionals continue to leave the state! California! The best place in the world to live! With fewer wage earners and profitable businesses, along with increasing expenditure requirements we’re, to put it colloquially, in a bind. What with the feds having defunded their programs, tomorrow I’m going to have to ask the Assembly to shove another income tax increase through.”
      The Secretary of Commerce, who would look like an aging Apache warrior but for his being well capable of filling a very rotund pin-striped suit, spoke. “Since the World Bank called in its markers, the federal government is struggling just to stay afloat. As long as we cost them nothing, they’ll continue to leave us alone. That’s something positive, anyway.”
      “All well and good,” Blue replied, “But, we need the money. We’re trying to keep their programs alive.”
      The State Comptroller, a slight, meek, balding man in his sixties, tentatively pointed at the graph with his pen. “We could consider cutting those obsolete federal programs.”
      The Governor, flaring suddenly, vigorously pointed at the Comptroller. “Are you crazy? Think of the children!”
      “But, Governor,” the comptroller persisted, “It might be more cost effective if we scrap the old federal program and replace it with a more, ah, streamlined one of our own.”
      “Yes, yes,” Blue snapped. “Perhaps in our leisure, we can do that. But we have the problem now. And it must be dealt!”
      Also showing a measured degree of anger, the Secretary of Commerce leaned forward, elbows sliding toward the middle of the table. He hit the table with one fist. “We should initiate incentives to keep professionals from leaving.”
      “They’re all going to Freestate California,” Blue added. “They’ve been wooed by Thorsen’s outfit with Atlantisco money. Nobody has to pay taxes down there! There are no regulations on business! One can only imagine the dog eat dog savagery they have to deal with in the Freestate business world! They’re sucking entrepreneurs, professionals, engineers, workers and money not only from California, but from the Rocky Mountain states as well.
”So, Mr. Secretary, what kind of incentives can we offer that’ll beat that?”
      The Secretary of Commerce shrunk down in his chair then, just as quickly, leaned forward again. “Freestate California is too rich. We all know what a dump Baja California was before Thorsen got his mitts on it. They’ve done it all at the expense of California! Hell, even some of the undocumented workers from Mexico are going to Freestate!”
The men discussed, talked and argued for some time about what could be done about the financial problems the state was suffering, and the governor, at length, came up with just one solid idea.
      “We have to do something about Freestate California.” Blue said with a note of finality. He scanned the long table, his eyes narrowing. He spoke quietly, as if sharing a closely held secret. “Even now, there are plans in the works that you gentlemen will be briefed on as soon as they are firmed up.
      “So, gentlemen, let’s adjourn to The Cavern, and speak of more pleasant things, like how the Cardinals are doing on their bid for the Rose Bowl.”
      Later in the evening, after a few drinks, the party broke up, the cabinet members off to their evening pursuits and Governor Ballou to his office to await an important phone call. Unbeknownst to his cabinet, staff and members of the State house, Blue never drank alcohol while working. He wanted his mind sharp always, and was often able to seize an advantage simply by being more alert than those with whom he dealt.
He had a deal with the bartender at The Cavern. He always ordered his “favorite drink,” a Cuba Libre. He paid the full price of the drink to the bartender in exchange for a glass of iced Coke and a kept secret. He found other ways to deal with bartenders in other lounges.
Those with whom he went out for drinks were never aware that the governor
remained stone sober and coldly observant while they edged toward inebriation.
He sat at his desk looking at a report, but not really seeing it. Trying to sort out the difficulty he was having funding federal welfare programs without federal money, his thoughts went over recent history.
The United States government, after dozens of little police actions against smaller, weaker, but surprisingly obstinate countries in the Middle East, Africa and South America, and with entitlements increasing by orders of magnitude over the years, had finally managed to spend itself to the point at which it could no longer borrow, while the decades-old Afghan war still dragged on. The welfare state had been expanded to a degree that stifled production and made the growing black market the most profitable trade venue.
      The US dollar had gone to the point of a 10-for-1 devaluation twice in fifty years, and much of small town local trade was being done with black market local currency, issued by stores and unaffiliated local banks.
When several states seceded, the federal government had no will, never mind funds, to militarily stop them from establishing national sovereignty.
Texas was first to declare its sovereignty, taking Oklahoma along with it. A confederation of western states, now calling itself Rocky Mountain America, followed soon after. They included Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, Idaho and Montana. California reverted to its Republic of California roots, and Oregon and Washington combined to form the Republic of the Pacific. Other states were still discussing secession in their state capitals. Of the seceded states, only California stubbornly tried to maintain the welfare state that the federal government had been partly supporting.
Having a strong productive base in farming, electronics, fishing and tourism, California began its sovereignty well. Continuing the welfare policies, along with the increasing brain and money drain from the state was having an increasing negative effect on the new Republic’s economy. California was, for the first time since its Declaration of Sovereignty, facing serious and increasingly devastating financial problems.
      Blue relaxed and admired his office, which was done in walnut paneling, was more luxuriously appointed than the conference room. He had spent over a half million dollars remodeling it to his desires. His desk was one of the sort they used to call an “aircraft carrier” desk. So large it seemed one could land a plane on it. Under electrically activated panels was his computer with a photo-quality monitor, courtesy of Freestate technology. It doubled as a videophone and he was also able to route feeds from several spy cameras located throughout the building.
His phone buzzed. It was the call he was waiting for. At the push of a stud, the monitor rose out of the desk top to show the image of Zeno Horiuchi.  
“Our little problem is solved, Governor,” said the snake-like image on the screen.”
      “If you’d handled it more cleanly, all this would be unnecessary. There shouldn’t have been a bloodbath of the sort that would be reported on news broadcasts all over the state. How on earth did you screw it up so badly? Is it that difficult to cancel a contract with a single, unprotected woman?” The governor said, glowering. “Is it solved permanently, or are the repercussions merely delayed?” Blue eyed the image on the screen with suspicion.
      “Willie should’ve handled this himself. I got drawn into it cold. I barely knew the girl, except for having bought a few items of weaponry from her. And, he saddled me with a pair of overeager, under-experienced punks who had no sense of timing.
“Neither myself, nor apparently Willie, were aware that this woman was well-armed and very proficient in handgun combat techniques. She made a good fight of it. If I hadn’t set it up so carefully, she might have gotten away.
“The matter will be removed from the hands of San Diego PD. We'll clean it up ourselves,” Horiuchi assured him.
      “Your saying ‘will be’ is a little disturbing. Stay on top of it and see that it’s done once and for all. Handle it right into the dustbin. I want no loose ends.
“Did she have any more of those wrist computers with her?”  Blue asked.
“The cops got there too quick,” Zeno shrugged. “I didn't have time to look. They have her car.”
      “Grab that, too. I want a clean sweep.”

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The second chapter of my new novel. Thanks for reading, and all comments are welcome. 
Wayne C. Grantham


A dreary dawn found the crime zone taped off and surrounded by several police black and whites. The light, damp, chilly fog had become wetter and chillier with the coming of what San Diego weather reporters call “late night and early morning low clouds and fog.” Uniformed officers guarded the area around the front of the machine shop, the alleys on either side of the block wall and the dumpster area. The intersection and both the adjoining streets had been closed to traffic for a block in each direction, adhering to the police penchant for large closure areas at crime scenes.
Tarps covered the bodies. Two lab vans had arrived; one parked near the driveway entrance and the other near the rear of the machine shop. One of the lab people was snapping close-ups of the male body nearer the female who’d been hiding behind the dumpster; a uniformed cop lifting the tarp, and holding it to shield the corpse from view of the small but growing group of onlookers watching from just behind the tape. Another was walking the site shooting the area with a video camera, pausing to capture whatever appeared to be relevant to the investigation. A third was examining the second dead man behind the machine shop. A detective was with her.
      A uniformed patrolman raised the tape so that another unmarked car could enter. Lieutenant Eric Frank “Mars” Marlowe got out of his car and, standing next to the open door, took a long, sweeping look at the crime scene.
The first thing that stood out about Mars Marlow was his hair. He was called Mars because the color of his hair was very nearly the same as the color of the planet. Then, people noticed his eyes, which some saw as green and others, gray. Mars wasn’t a big man, standing an inch less than six feet in height. People tended to think he was shorter at first, because of his build. He was wide-shouldered, had a barrel chest and had muscular arms and legs.
Mars looked over the scene bit by bit so that he could quickly begin mentally mapping the crime scene. He moved from one vantage point to another to try to take everything in. Then, he walked over to greet his partner, who was still looking at the nearest body
      “How’d you get here so quick, Regis?” Mars asked.  “I just got the call half-an-hour ago.”
      Regis Rodrigues was older than Mars, in his fifties, but was fit as an athlete. His hair had gone gray, but he could have passed for thirty if he colored it. He had what he laughingly called an “ethnic” moustache--one that was almost typical for middle-aged men of Mexican ancestry.
      “You forget, partner. I’m a homeboy.” He pointed up the street with his nose and a quick nod. “I live less than a mile from here. Hell of a hand we’re dealt, Mars. Three dead. Blown apart. Come on. I want to show you this.”
      He told the patrol officer he was finished for now, and led Mars around the end of the block wall. They walked toward the dumpster.
      “Gangs?” Mars scribbled into a pocket notebook as they approached the area. He put the notebook away and studied the dampened pavement around the tarp and the dumpster.
      “Doubt it,” Regis said. “No local gang I know of has this kind of fire power. Also, these guys are dressed too well. Looks like Freestate. Smuggling, likely. You know, if you could buy that technology in local stores, people wouldn't be shooting each other over it. We’ll have to hope they don’t start smuggling the kind of guns that can do this anytime soon.”
      “Speaking of guns,” Mars muttered as he stooped to look under the dumpster. “There’s a lovely high-powered auto pistol under here.”
“Lucky you’re the first one who spotted it.”
A rookie cop stood watch over the area. Stooping down on one knee, Mars picked the sheet up, winced. The rookie's curiosity got the best of him. His eyes went to the corpse under the tarp.
      “Jesus Christ!” The rookie coughed, stumbling around the other side of the dumpster and retching. The dead woman's eyes were wide open and glazed. Damaged organs and broken ribs were visible in the cavity opened by the bullet. Dried blood and bits of bone and flesh were splattered on the dumpster and the block wall surrounded the corpse and had run a couple of feet along the wall footing.
      “Don’t contaminate the crime scene, Kid.” Mars snickered, winking at Regis.
      Regis shook his head slowly. “They made a helluva mess. The girl’s foot is way over there,” he said, pointing to a plastic sheet over a small lump. “I hate seeing this kind of weapon turning up here.”
Mars had to go down on both knees and an elbow to reach under the dumpster with his pen. He hooked the pistol by the trigger guard. Easing the large pistol out from under the dumpster. He stood up and looked the gun over, turning his pen back and forth to see all sides.
“We’ll assume this is her weapon,” Mars said as he examined it as it hung from his pen. “Shirl can check it for prints to be sure.”
“Looks like we’ll be seeing this kind of weapon here. Except that we don’t get ‘em. Crooks get ‘em.” Mars patted the bulge in his jacket. “All we get are old single-stack ‘45’s.”
Shirley Gibbons, one of the lab techs, stepped up with a large baggie. Mars dropped the pistol in. “I want a better look at this when you're finished.” He brushed at the knees of his suit, which were wet and dirty from the moist pavement. “Damned fog,” he muttered.
“Back in a few minutes,” Shirl said, zipping the baggie shut.
      Mars pointed at the holes in the dumpster, which went into the block wall behind.
“Wait, Shirl,” Mars directed her attention to the larger bullet spalls on the block wall. “These are armor-piercing. Dig 'em out and see what they say. The others,” Mars pointed at the smaller ones, the ones which were discolored by black charred stains that discolored the gray block wall. “Are explosive. Freestaters call ‘em bangers. Sample this residue. I’ll want to see a chemical analysis.”
      Shirl nodded, “I’ll do that as soon as the coroner picks up the body.” She turned toward the lab van.
Mars addressed his partner. “Y'know, I remember my dad telling me about Baja California as it was when he was young. It was mostly a primitive desert with dirty beaches, where you could get drunk cheap but you'd get sick from the water and you couldn't depend on the phones. Now they have technology that makes Silicon Valley look like Afghanistan--and there are top notch vacation hotels along the beach that rival the south of France.”
“After almost a century of heavy taxation and government control,” Regis suggested, “Silicon Valley almost makes Afghanistan look good!”
Regis carefully lifted the sleeve of the dead woman’s trench coat to reveal a forearm computer with an abbreviated keypad and a three-by-four-inch screen. The face of the device had been smashed.
“Freestate electronics are so advanced that, while no government will let them be imported for consumer sales, officials all over the world outbid each other for stuff for themselves, the police and military,” he said, pointing at the device.
Mars looked at the little computer. “Can’t tell what all it can do, but it looks like it could be handy.”
He stood up straight and looked back along the wall toward the street. “This looks like where it all ended,” he said. “I’m gonna backtrack this little skirmish and see if I can make a  story out of it.”
      He slowly followed the bloody trail toward its beginning, looking both ways for anything others might have missed. He picked up the dampened tarp that covered the next corpse. He had been a man in his twenties. The front of his shirt and jacket were blown away, along with his lower abdomen and some of the flesh from his upper right thigh. His intestines were torn up inside and outside of the opening from which they came. The blood stain and the mess that had been the man’s lower abdomen were not entirely covered by the tarp. A large caliber handgun, not unlike the one found next to the female victim, was still clutched in his hand. Mars, trying to ignore the foul odor, made more notes.
      After draping the tarp over the body, Mars stepped on a car bumper and hoisted himself over the wall. “Seems like the walls get higher every year,” he muttered to himself.
      The third corpse was much like the second one, although the man had been running when shot, and left a trail of blood and entrails for twenty feet in the death collapse. His abdominal cavity was nearly empty, lying on the asphalt in the direction from which he’d been running. The smell was awful.
      As Mars lowered the tarp over the corpse, an agitated man approached from the rear door of the machine shop. He was in his sixties, wearing oil-stained clothes, much of which oil seemed to have made its way to his skin and hair.
      “Officer! The bastards shot up my shop!”
      “Lieutenant Marlowe, sir. Lead the way.”
      The old machinist walked quickly back to the shop, looking back often to be sure that Mars was following. The shop, with the lights on, looked pretty ordinary. The smell of oil and grease was welcome after what was outside.
The shop was filled with oily metal cutting machines placed seemingly too close together for comfortable work, and the floor was littered in places with inches deep metal shavings. Light from above caught Mars’ eye. He looked up to see a gaping hole in the ceiling. As he gazed upward, he almost tripped over the electric motor, lying damaged on the gritty concrete floor, which had been blown off the drill press next to him.
The machinist pointed, “Who the hell's gonna pay for all this? The—“
      “Take it slow, sir. It’s awfully early in the morning.” Mars interrupted, looking over the damaged equipment. “Give me a chance to look the place over. How did you get in here, anyway? This is a closed crime scene.”
      “I was here before you guys arrived. I heard all the noise and walked down here right away.” The machinist shook his head angrily. “I saw the broken front window and was inside looking at the damages when the sirens came.”
      “Did you see anyone when you got here?” Mars asked.
      “No, but I did see an old Ford, I think it was, leave the parking lot in a hurry, now that I think about it.”
      Mars was writing in his notebook. “Anything distinctive about the car? License number?”
      “No. My eyes aren’t that good.” The machinist rubbed oil from his hand onto his chin. “And the air was hazy. I couldn’t even tell if it had a plate. The car was light colored. Light gray or maybe beige.”
      “Thanks. It’s something.” Mars peeled out a business card from his shirt pocket. “You think of anything else, give me a call.”
Mars knelt to look at some glittering bits on the floor at the foot of the lathe. “Is this exactly the way you found it? You haven’t moved or taken anything?”
“I think I might’ve stepped on some of that shit.” The machinist pointed down at the crushed glass on the bare concrete floor.
“This glass is nothing of yours, is it?” Mars pushed the bits of glass into a paper envelope with his penknife, wrote a note on the envelope, then added a few scribbles to the notebook.
The machinist shook his head. “No. It wasn’t there yesterday.”
“I hope you're insured--“
      “Insured! The bastards'll give me a coupla grand and double my rates. Look at this drill press! Look at my front window! There ain't even supposed to be any guns in this state.”
      Mars stood and pocketed the envelope. “Let’s take a look at that window.”
      The crime scene included the parking lot in front of the machine shop. One of the lab people was examining, photographing and videoing the damaged car. Mars left the machine shop by the front, to inspect the battered HumVee a few yards away. He rubbed the dew off the glass to try to see inside, but it didn’t help in the gloomy morning light. His phone chirped.
      “Yeah,” Mars talked at the radiophone.
      Regis’ voice came over. “Shirl’s finished with that gun.”
      “Give that HumVee the treatment too,” Mars directed the nearest lab man. “We’ll impound both vehicles as evidence. Note that I rubbed the dew off the driver’s door glass.”
      Moments later, Mars had rejoined Regis with Shirl at the lab van.
“Take it out and play with it,” Shirl said, handing two evidence bags to Mars. One contained the pistol, the other held four magazines and several loose cartridges. “Got all the prints I need, and a sample of the burnt powder residue from the chamber.” Shirl pointed at the other baggie. “She had two more loaded magazines in a pocket of her coat.”
Mars handed the ammo bag to Regis and took the pistol out of the other.
“The way I see it,” Mars began as he began looking the handgun over, “the two men were hitters, with the woman as their job. She was a smuggler from Baja, who somehow crossed their boss. She was ready, though, and managed to kill both of them. There was one or two more that finally killed her when she took cover behind the dumpster. They must’ve gotten spooked and left quickly, leaving these weapons behind. I’m sure they would rather have picked ‘em up as they left.”
“A good working hypothesis,” Regis said. He raised the ammo baggie for a better look. “I’ve never seen anything like these cartridges. No brass.”
Mars turned the pistol over in his hands. He pulled the slide back to check that it was unloaded. Since there was no ejection port, he had to look into the open magazine port to see the chamber. He aimed it at a street light; snapped the trigger.
 “Light trigger, but crisp and clean,” he commented. He looked the cartridges over, without removing them from the baggie. “Looks like there isn’t enough propellant behind those big bullets to be very powerful.
“Except that they’re powerful as hell, said Regis.
The handgun was a large, gray-metal autoloading pistol, about .50 caliber. He snapped two of the empty magazines, side-by-side, into the underside of the action, in front of the trigger guard.
      “They fooled around with caseless cartridges back in the 20th. They never caught on, though. This switch,” Mars points to a small lever just above the trigger guard, reachable with the trigger finger, “is apparently used to select which magazine will feed the chamber.”
“The red-tipped cartridges are explosive. The blue-tipped ones are armor piercing,” Shirl said, pointing at the cartridges in the evidence bag.
“I’d like to try this out,” Mars quipped. “I wonder if Gunny’ll go for it.”
Chuckling, Regis opined, “I don’t think he’ll be ok with you blowing up the backstops.”                
Mars removed the magazines and continued examining the pistol. The name of its manufacturer was stamped into the slide: Alvaro's Small Arms, Ensenada, F.S.C. On the other side was: .50 Cal. CSLS. S/N 21449.
“You're probably right.” Mars handed the pistol to Regis, who looked it over, then dropped it back in the evidence bag.
Mars continued. “Did she have any ID?”
      “Valerie MacDougal. California drivers license; no warrants. $325 in US money. Nothing else unusual, except this.” Shirl said, taking a small baggie from her coat pocket and handing it to Mars.
      Inside the baggie was a gold coin about the size of an old US half dollar. Mars opened the bag and shook the coin out into his hand. It was inscribed, “One Rand -- Freestate California -- Gold .900 Fine” around the image of the bust of a middle-aged man, with “2031” along the lower edge. The reverse was a row of wind-blown palms over a man casting a line into the surf.
      A black Suburban drove through the police tape and stopped near the trio, as Mars pointed at the face of the coin. “That’s Thorsen in his youth--Hey! Who let--“
      A thin, wiry, middle-aged man got out of the Suburban and started toward them. Mars turned to intercept the intruder, pocketing the gold coin.
      “What the hell d’ya think--“Mars began a challenge.
      The man flashed a wallet with a badge. “My name is Zeno Horiuchi, CIATFBI, California Intelligence Agency to Thwart Foreign Bartering Interests.”
      “Oh, you’re with that bunch,” Mars spat. “Well, don’t fuck up the crime scene.”
“Don’t worry about it. I--“
“Horiuchi?” Mars said it as if it put a vile taste in his mouth. “Ain’t you the one who killed that kid out in El Cajon a couple--“
      “That kid had a weapon.”
      “A baseball bat, as I recall. He had a ball and glove in his other hand.”
      “I was cleared of it.” Horiuchi nodded toward where the Coroner’s people were loading Valerie’s body into one of their vans. “This is a crime of concern to the state of California. I’ll be asking your boss for the files as soon as the paperwork goes through.”
      “We’ll have it solved by then,” Mars sneered.