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.

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