The Slider, Chapter 7: CSI Montana

CRIME SCENE, WARM SPRINGS, MONTANA

Sheriff Ray Dunmore barreled his SUV down the highway, no siren but lights flashing. Up to ninety on the two-lane, well over 100 mph on the final 25 miles of freeway between Garrison Junction and Warm Springs. His fellow sheriff’s phone call had gotten him out of bed at 4:46 a.m. He’d flown into his uniform, made a quick pass at his stubble with the electric razor, ignored a hangnail that begged for attention, and been out the door in thirteen minutes flat. Normally, this run took a couple of hours. He made it in 67 minutes, arriving at 6:06. Powell County first responders were out in force. He only hoped the scene hadn’t been contaminated too badly.

“Record time, Ray.” Powell County Sheriff Errol Barnabas didn’t waste time shaking hands. Errol’s left eye was twitching, a tic that often manifested when facing an ugly case. “We’ve kept the scene as clean as we could. Had to get the victim out, though.”

“Where is he now?”

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Errol jerked a meaty thumb over his equally burly shoulder, indicating the state mental hospital. Big ugly brick buildings, suited to the dual purpose of restraint and, far too seldom, successful treatment. “Seventy-two hour hold. They’ll fix him up. He was in restraints for quite a while.”

Dunmore grinned. Couldn’t help himself. “Plus, you can hang onto him longer without charging him.”

“There’s that.”

“You said on the phone, you had two concerns?”

“Yep. One, finding whoever did this to him. Not thrilled about vigilantes operating on my turf. Two, Solomon himself. Calls himself a fugitive apprehension agent.”

“A bounty hunter. And is he?”

“Probably. We’re running background on him as we speak. But I didn’t want us digging around in his Suburban. Especially with the stink. Solomon didn’t get any potty breaks, so his body did what it had to do, number one and number two. Aren’t you glad we left it up to you?”

“Yeah. Thanks a lot.” Unknown to many outside of Montana law enforcement personnel, Ray Dunmore wasn’t merely a man with a badge. He’d also educated himself thoroughly on crime scene investigation, acquiring a Master’s degree in Forensic Science from Emporia State University and even, just last year, getting himself certified by the International Organization for Identification as a Senior Crime Scene Analyst. This scene was unusual, even for a county that housed Montana’s state mental hospital and state prison for men, both. A few months ago, the local judge had sentenced a serial child rapist to 300 years in prison. Deer Lodge might look on the surface like Leave it to Beaver country, but there were undercurrents. For good or for ill, the Solomon case might have interstate ramifications or other aspects that would eventually land it in the laps of FBI and/or BATF investigators. No matter what happened, Errol Barnabas knew his friend’s name on the initial crime scene analysis forms would pack a lot of weight, maybe contribute to putting away a really bad guy. Or two.

Dunmore gloved up, donned a full Tyvek jumpsuit (with booties) to keep his own actions from contaminating the scene, and went to work. Starting with a wide circle around the vehicle, he “walked the spiral”–not a technique taught in professional classes but one he’d found useful when the key focus, in this case the big black Chevy, could be centered in his “bullseye.” Later, he’d walk that same spiral in reverse, almost timidly crunching over gravel, all the way to the edge of the two-lane paved highway some sixty feet out from center.

It wasn’t a perfect spiral. Fence and law enforcement vehicles in the way, not to mention yellow crime scene tape. Ray Dunmore made adjustments. He also fibbed a bit and recorded his action as “walking the grid.” No need to raise eyebrows or give defense attorneys a crack at which to pry. The spiral just worked better for him.

The roadway was useless. Too many vehicles used it. Unless somebody dropped a note on the shoulder saying, “I did it, come get me at this address,” there wouldn’t likely be anything useful there. When he got to the vehicle, however, everything changed.

The first jolt was the discovery of Solomon’s catch-and-return contract on old John Cavanaugh. Kermit the Coyote’s signature screamed at him from the final page. That, however, was merely the tip of the iceberg.

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TOM SLIDER

It had been a mighty long time since I’d ridden a bicycle. More than seventy years. My legs let me know it, too. I could still hike over rough country for hours, but pump the pedals? Whole different ball game. Add to that the deficiency in the folding bike and the eleven miles to Anaconda tested my determination considerably. The design wasn’t bad. When everything was snugged up tight, the two-wheeler worked just like any other bicycle. But the knurled nuts securing rod to pipe…not exactly perfect. They tended to work loose every couple of miles, making the pedal-powered vehicle nearly uncontrollable. The only option was to stop and tighten the nuts again. Back home, with proper tools at hand, it would be an easy fix. Drill a small hole through each forward pipe end, right next to each nut, or maybe notching each nut, then add a securing pin. Should work.

Even so, I wasn’t complaining. Not a single vehicle had passed me during my run, so nobody would be reporting a guy riding a bike at four in the morning. It was still predawn when I rolled up to the east-end truck stop, dismounted, folded the bike back up, and stowed it in its leather bag. Overall, I was impressed with the beast. Other folding bikes existed, such as the lightweight Zizzo minibike in Europe, but American made? American iron? No way to be sure, but I thought not. Next to the Mile Folder–the manufacturers really needed to come up with a different name–the Zizzo would look like a miniature horse standing next to a Percheron.

I took a moment for my body to re-oxygenate, get the panting down to normal breathing, before sauntering inside. The little casino at the north end would do for now. A weary blonde bartender, hair more gray than gold, greeted me with a smile. “What would you like to drink?”

“Seven-Up.” I smiled back, casual, comfortable. Of the eight machines, five seemed to be Keno-only. Not my thing. I selected a video poker machine and shoved a five dollar bill into the slot. Heh. Just thought of that. Every machine in a casino is a slot machine ’cause it has a slot to take your money, right? Heh.

Another man came in as Blondie was handing me my Seven-Up. Five eight or nine, heavyset, paunch hanging over his belt buckle. Wide face, five o’ clock shadow, mussed dark hair, bloodshot eyes. A trucker? Best bet. He settled into a chair two machines over from mine, one of the Keno variety, and asked for a Coke to drink. Two of us with soft drinks in hand, no booze. Must be some kind of record. I waited until she brought the man his Coke, then flagged her. “Greyhound still stop in Anaconda?”

She looked at me like I’d grown horns. “Not for years, honey.”

“Hey,” I shrugged, grinning. “I don’t get out much. Been a while.”

She headed back behind the bar.

“Where you headed?”

Ah. Zee trucker had spoken. “East. Guess maybe I’ll have to call a taxi out of Butte. I know Greyhound still has a station there.”

The driver–that’s what truckers call each other, most times–didn’t respond for a minute or two. Frankly, I figured he’d written me off. I sat there, working to get my mind clear. I really, really did not want to call a Butte taxi. Powell County lawdogs were probably going to guess I’d had a partner in crime pick me up when I left Solomon in his Suburban at Warm Springs. They certainly weren’t going to expect anybody to try a stunt like that without getaway wheels, and who in rural Montana would think those would be two bicycle wheels? But if, if, if they thought to check out a few possibilities, taxi companies and Greyhound would be among the first contacted. There was also another danger, one more immediate and nerve wracking: This close to my old stomping grounds, I could all too easily run into someone who’d known me for years. My changed appearance would slide by some folks, but all of them? No guarantee. Worse, I’d be done for if they heard me speak.

The driver, without taking his eyes from the Keno screen, spoke again. “I usually run solo. But. Could use somebody to keep me awake.”

Careful, Tom, I told myself. Careful. “I could manage that.”

We left forty minutes later, me sweating every second of siting still in Anaconda. It was absolutely essential to show no stress and I managed that, keeping up a completely relaxed and casual demeanor at utter odds with my jangled inner self. All the way west, I’d stayed cool, but I’d had something essential to do, something to keep my mind occupied. When the body is forced to inactivity, the mind gets free rein to go bonkers. As it was, my gut told me we’d cleared the town just in time. Paranoia? Maybe. But they would be looking for strangers, and despite me presenting myself as a local, the sharp cop only shows up when you don’t want him to. It’s a fact of life.

Turned out trucker Mike owned his truck–the only way he’d have dared give me a ride. For most employees of trucking companies, the act of picking up a rider is a firing offense. Mike ran hard, beelining for Fargo, North Dakota, with a load of whatever in the 53 foot dry van tagging along behind his big Kenworth truck tractor. Montana has a 65 mph speed limit for trucks. Most of the time when his radar detectors weren’t beeping, he hammered the big rig down the highway at 85 mph, 20 over the limit. I began to wonder if I might regret riding with this guy. Logbook? He no need no steenking logbook. Ho obviously had one, of course. It’s required of every long haul trucker. But I was betting he only filled his when he was done for the day, and creatively at that.

He dropped me off at Billings, where I grabbed a cab to the Greyound bus station, and I never saw him reach for a logbook even once. It was a relief to be out of western Montana once again but also a relief to be out of the man’s truck. Crazy bastard. If he’d been stopped for speeding and a highway patrol officer had checked out his passenger….

I had two completely phoney IDs in my billfold, driver’s licenses that wouldn’t stand up to a computer check but which worked just fine to get my ticket to Casper, Wyoming, though I’d be getting off at Sheridan. In the Billings restroom, using the handicapped stall for space reasons, I unzipped the leather bag, used toilet-water dampened toilet paper to thoroughly wipe down the ingenious bicycle from stem to stern, ditto for the bag itself, and then…left the whole shebang right there where somebody would find it and either turn it in to Lost and Found or steal it. Didn’t matter which. Forget about fixing the loose-nut problem. I was free of the “bag flag” that could have identified me at some future date, a $900 investment that had served its surprising purpose. I could just picture the headline.

KIDNAPPER GETAWAY BICYCLE!

Paranoia, paranoia…. (Otherwise known as common sense.) I washed my hands thoroughly with soap and water as hot as I could stand it, then repeated the process. Removing fingerprints with poop-water is not a hygienic procedure.

Having been awake for more than 36 hours by the time the bus pulled out of the station, I sawed logs big time, all the way to Sheridan, riding as Joe Thompkins of Biloxi, Mississippi. The diesel stink was perfume to my nose.

On the way east from Sheridan, all the way to Wall–home of Wall Drug, crawling with tourists this time of year–I was Laurence McVail of McPherson, Kansas. Nobody paid the slightest attention to me that I could see. Most bus riders are good that way. If nobody seems like a threat, we mostly ignore each other.

Once off the bus in Wall, South Dakota, I began to breathe easier. Wandered around for several hours, occasionally striking up conversations with this Indian or that. (Okay, Native American. Newfangled B.S.) Finally clicked with a Yankton Sioux man who was gassing up at the pumps, offered him fifty bucks to carry me as far as the Lucky 18…and that was that.

It was early afternoon, day two since Warm Springs, when I stopped in to let the night shift manager know it was me who’d taken the Dodge. Wouldn’t want Helmer Gribbit wondering if somebody had stolen it. I’d be home before midnight with a tale to tell. Otis would enjoy that immensely, relieved that it was me out there having wild adventures, not him. Tomorrow he’d start surfing the news outlets, looking to see what he could find about the Solomon case, if anything. Once I caught up on my sleep, maybe I could help him in the garden. It should be harvest time for everything but pumpkins.

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WARM SPRINGS, MONTANA

Luke Solomon practiced his institutional shuffle on his way to the counseling session. Head down, eyes on the floor, shoulders slumped, slippers ssh-shhing along the hard tile floor. It was early days, just his third inside these walls, but also the last day they could keep him here on their idiotic 72 hour hold. Mighty wicked, the way these institutions were able to keep a man from calling his lawyer. They thought they were hot stuff. But he had them. His beloved Chevy might give them something to wonder about, especially the tight contract with Kermit Cavanaugh, but his notes were all in code, his computer files were heavily encrypted, and the small, concealed compartment above the spare tire was so cunningly wrought, even an ace mechanic would ignore it as part of the original design. His weapons were many and varied, but so what? Bounty hunters in Montana were still largely unregulated, a remnant of the wild, wild West that had never been brought up to date legislatively. If you were a bounty hunter in Montana, you could bust into a private home, armed to the teeth, and handcuff a fugitive at gunpoint.

Right and proper law, that was.

Now all he had to do was maintain his composure in front of Dr. Gambhir Khumar. Easy peasy; the psychiatrist was foreign born, one of those south Asians who worked for the state because they couldn’t get any better job when they immigrated. Incompetent, inexperienced, easy to fake out. Yabba dabba doo.

====================================================

Ghambir poured his third cup of the day from his thermos, a bold Colombian blend, far superior to the institutional glop available in-house. Exquisite, in fact. Perfect for kicking back, reviewing the Solomon file before wrapping up his evaluation. Several labels could be applied without question. Sociopath. Narcissist. Superiority complex. Extreme drive to control others; being captured in his own restraints and then subjected to the discipline of the state mental hospital was affecting the man severely. He tried to hide it, of course. They always did.

One term could not be used: Evil. But Dr. Khumar knew evil when he saw it. He just had to use the societally approved labels, not the simple little four letter word that said it all. Psychiatry loved its labels.

Luke’s disdain for the doctor shouted from his very pores. Nothing new there. This happened with a significant percentage of patients. It had also happened during Ghambir Khumar’s childhood, growing up as he did, lean and mean in the slums of Mumbai. Specifically the Dharavi slum, largest slum in the world. One of eleven children, he was the first in his family to escape, to get an education, and eventually to emigrate–legally–to the United States of America at the age of thirty-five. There was little Khumar had not seen in his lifetime, both the good and bad Souls incarnated in whatever bodies had been decreed for them this time around. It was the doctor’s nature to look for the good in his patients but he was nowise blind to the dark side.

Lucas Paul Solomon was about as dark as they came.

“Good morning, Doctor.” Escorted by two burly orderlies, the stocky bounty hunter moved to take his usual seat, smiling easily. Ghambir Khumar trusted that smile less than he did the smile of a great white shark.

“Leave us, please.” Ghambir nodded to Jason and Otto. They looked doubtful. What if the patient attacked the doctor? They were right to be concerned. They did not, however, knew what the doctor knew. Solomon was not insane. He would not make a move that would brand him openly. Best of all, showing trust in the man would make him even more arrogant, more certain that he’d snookered the shrink, more likely to slip up and reveal an extra morsel of his true self. Ghambir Khumar loved that word, “snookered.” It said so much.

Solomon glanced at the clock. Technically, his 72 hour hold was finished. He expected to be released. “Are you ready to leave our esteemed institution?” The doctor asked quietly, his slim brown fingers steepled in front of his chin as he leaned forward, elbows on desk.

The bounty hunter met his gaze squarely. “That’s pretty much up to you, isn’t it?”

“Not entirely.” He pressed a button on his intercom. “Nora, please send them in.”

“What–?”

The office door opened, admitting three Sheriff’s deputies. “Sir,” the lead lawman addressed Ghambir’s patient, “you are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say–”

“What is this?!” Solomon exploded, still seated but fists gripping the chair seat until his knuckles turned white. Hairy knuckles. His eyes bulged, one iris a bit darker than the other. Color flared around the network of veins in cheeks and nose. “I’m the victim!”

“–can and will be used against you in a court of–”

“No!” He jumped to his feet, standing rigid as a fence post, nostrils quivering in outrage. Lots of hair in those nostrils, too. “This isn’t right.”

“–law. You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him present while you are being questioned.”

“You bet I want to talk to my lawyer. Gimme a phone.”

“If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning if you–”

“I already said that.”

“–wish. You can decide to exercise these rights at any time and not answer any questions–”

“Are you even listening, asshole?”

“–or make any statements. Do you understand each of these rights I have explained to you? Having these rights in mind, do you wish to talk to us now?”

“Oh, I understand them, all right. And I’d love to talk to you, out behind the barn.” Vitriol dropped from the man, little giggling demons dancing around his head, flipping everybody off. “But no, scratch that, no threats and I’m not saying a word. I want my lawyer.”

“Good enough.” They hooked him up and frog-marched him outside, still in his hospital clothing, such as it was. “I just love reading those rights. You wouldn’t want to deprive me of my recreation, would you?” The lead deputy said this with a straight face.

By the time they reached the county jail, Luke Solomon had himself more or less under control. They fingerprinted him, did the mug shot thing, issued him the usual orange jump suit, and waited while he called Indianapolis. Carter Torgenson wasn’t licensed to practice law in Montana; he would contract with Montana attorneys and guide the defense from the background.

“What are the charges?” Torgenson asked the obvious question.

“They’re claiming I murdered Ollie Black.”

“Ollie?” The lawyer’s voice rose in surprise. Oliver Wendell Black’s body had been found in a patch of woods between two farmers’ fields, some six or seven years back. The wealthy chemical engineer had been fifty-three years of age and worth more than one hundred million dollars. Three .22 long rifle bullets had been recovered, all of them having rattled around inside the dead man’s skull before coming to rest. “Why do they think you did it? Did they say?”

“Oh yeah.” Solomon tasted bile. “They’re saying they found forty-eight ounces of gold bullion in my Suburban that belonged to Black.”

In his tenth floor Indianapolis office, Carter T. considered. In the end, he asked the next question. A risk, but not much of one. Luke Solomon was way too savvy to phrase any response in a way the prosecution could use against him. “Why do they think it was Black’s gold?”

“Yeah, they explained that. Couldn’t wait to gloat, I guess. I never had any gold, that’s for sure. The guys that jumped me must have put it there.” He’d had the gold in his supposedly secure compartment. The buggers had found it somehow. Naturally, he was not about to admit that. To anyone. “Anyway, they’re saying those particular ounces were sold by a broker that imprints serial numbers on every bar–is an ounce a bar? Got me. And that the bars with those numbers were purchased by Mr. Black a long time ago.”

“Luke?”

“Yes, Carter?”

“This case won’t be tried in Montana. The FBI will have jurisdiction due to the alleged transporting of funds–gold in this case–across state lines. They’ll also get involved with the investigation of your abduction. The whole mess, one way or another will come back to Indianapolis, probably be tried right here at the Birch Bayh Federal Building.”

“Gotta go, Carter. I’m getting the finger-signal to wrap it up. And a bunch of guys just walked in who purely reek of Fed-ness.”

Fed-ness? The attorney hung up, smiling. Even without the gold, Lucas Paul Solomon had a fair chunk of change socked away. Before this one was over, most if not all of the bounty hunter’s assets would be shifted to Carter Torgenson’s sock. Luke was a regular piranha, all teeth but no more than a foot or so across. The lawyer was a genuine shark, maybe not a great white in the grand scheme of things, but at least a hammerhead.