Murder Out of Hand
by Gary Clifton
Homicide Detective Felix St. John was wondering how many cars could creep onto the old bridge before it collapsed. While he was absorbed in subconscious arithmetic, his cellular broke his reverie.
“Detective St. John?” the dispatcher asked. “Your 10-20?” Twenty-two years of experience as a cop, with eight years in Homicide, he was instantly warned that he was about to catch a murder case that the brass did not want broadcast on radio.
“Stuck on the 27th Street Bridge with three thousand others.”
“Uh... We show a three-car minor accident on the south end. Should clear in another minute or two.”
“You call to tell me that?”
“No, sir. Shots fired at the main gate of the Kastonax Plant on South Turner Road. Five fatalities, including two police officers, plus another officer down and transported to County General.”
St. John could see traffic beginning to accelerate gradually. “Show Homicide 113H responding. About twenty minutes out. Call Rucker. Then call somebody at the crime scene and tell the CSI’s not to touch a damned thing.”
“Yes, sir.” The dispatcher hung up.
Since Homicide cops havie take-home police cars, St. John was able to clear the bridge with his grill lights and siren. He reached the sprawling Kastonax complex in minutes. He grabbed rubber gloves and threaded his way on foot through a tangle of emergency vehicles and people standing beside cars caught in the traffic jam into the main gates.
Kastonax was a high-security, government-contract operation, which St. John knew employed five to six thousand people, mostly computer and engineering types. Security constraints limited the public and the local cops from knowing much about what actually went on inside the heavily guarded operation. St. John reminded himself how little he gave a damn.
Kastonax regularly hired off-duty unformed city cops to assist with the massive traffic jams backing up incoming traffic for thirty minutes during the morning rush. The problem was that Kastonax allowed only two lanes into the plant, both requiring a left turn off highly congested Turner Avenue.
A husky man, his coat bearing the logo “Medical Examiner,” was bent over one of two tarp-covered bodies. St. John knew these would be the two slain cops.
He opted to look at the rest of the carnage first. He would probably know both of the dead officers; he could look at their bodies later.
Three male victims, slumped where they had died in their cars. Their shattered heads were evidence of violent death by gunfire.
A uniformed sergeant approached. “St. John, we got a slaughter house here. AK-47, single shooter, black hood, Kevlar vest, approached the first cars side by side, opened up on the drivers, killing both. Then he gunned down the three cops.” The sergeant pointed to the two tarps. “Then he walked back and shot the guy in the second car, in the outside lane, and then he strolled off like he was walking his dog.”
St. John surveyed the scene. “After he’d gunned the two vics in front, the guy behind was trapped by that retaining wall.” He pointed. “I’m thinkin’ the shooter capped him for good measure. The driver shoulda got out and run. Musta froze.”
“Looks that way.”
“Witnesses?” St. John asked as he watched his partner, James Rucker walk up.
The sergeant continued. “Probably a hundred. And everyone says the shooter casually crossed the parkway through the trees across Turner. Must’ve had a vehicle stashed there.” He shook Rucker’s hand. “Hey, James.”
“Hello, Louis,” Rucker replied to the sergeant, nodding to St. John.
St. John asked, “Any idea why he stopped shooting? Maybe ran outta ammo?”
Rucker, a husky, seven-year veteran Homicide detective, had been a star running back for a small Arkansas College. He appeared sufficiently fit to suit up today. “Another damned nutball.”
A well-groomed man in an expensive suit exited the main gate and hurried the twenty feet to where St. John stood. The Sergeant stepped back out into the street to attempt to divert traffic around the tarped officers.
“I’m Charles McCurley, Director of Security for Kastonax. I’ve called the FBI. They’ll be here to take over shortly.” St. John extended a hand, which McCurley ignored.
St. John and Rucker exchanged glances. All five dead: the two cops beneath tarps and the three dead men, still sitting in their cars were well within the city limits, outside Kastonax property. Both detectives had endured turf wars with the Feds before. Both ramped up game faces.
St. John motioned the group of evidence techs milling around, waiting for orders. “Guys, start working the scene. We’ll get all five bodies to the morgue. I doubt we’ll get many prints, but I see shell casing all over hell. They’ll be 7.62 if the guy used an AK47. Check the area between here and beyond those trees on the outside chance he tossed the weapon.”
McCurley broke in. “Perhaps you don’t understand, officer. The FBI is on the way.”
St. John turned to McCurley. “Two problems here, sir. First, unless your firm bought Turner Avenue, this is a multiple homicide in city jurisdiction. Two, FBI can do whatever, but we will investigate these homicides. If you think the Feds can kick us off a case, you watch too much TV.”
Fire department crews and the Medical Examiner had loaded all five bodies onto gurneys when two black SUV’s rolled up. Waving FBI credentials, five male agents and a female bailed out. St. John and Rucker would have both wagered that not one of the Feds had ever investigated a homicide.
“Special Agent Hanson Hodge,” said the man who appeared be in charge. Thirtyish, with dark hair combed over in the preppy, FBI-approved style. His countenance clearly was typically officious.
St. John extended his hand. “Detective Felix St. John. I’ve seen you around the courthouse.”
Hodge grinned, a rare act for a Fed, St. John thought. “Look, we’re not trying to jump into your case. There are national security issues up the wazoo inside that plant and probably with the three dead employees in these cars.” He gestured at them. “You might need our help.”
“Can you get the company man to provide their personnel files and a list of work associates?”
Hodge said, “I can get you enough for leads and background, but some of that secret crap is off limits. Until we find this carnage is a national security issue, it’s all yours.”
St. John replied, “We’d only need Kastonax info on the dead men to determine what or whom may have been in conflict inside to cause this. We can comb the streets and learn most of what we need.”
Rucker said, “We see a lot of this crap today. Good chance the shooter was random, maybe pissed at Kastonax... or the world and started shooting.
“Or maybe not,” St. John said.
* * *
In thirty minutes, McCurley and Hodge were sitting with St. John and Rucker in a small office in the Kastonax lobby.
McCurley shuffled papers and explained that the 37-year old slain engineer in the left front car, Jason Hendricks, was a program manager of a highly sensitive project. He had been married with two children, and supervised forty other engineers.
The man shot and killed in the right front car, Clyde Nave, 51, an accountant, had been recently divorced. McCurley explained that Nave’s estranged wife had shown up at the main gate and caused a disturbance, twice.
The dead man in the GMC pickup behind the two cars in front, Wilbur Scroggin, 44, was a groundskeeping supervisor with limited access inside the plant.
St. John looked at McCurley. “You’re the security guy. Which, if any of these three had enemies, were screwing their secretaries, had unusual absences, such as sick leave, had received threats, fired someone, or had any other reason to be a target?”
McCurley, a fleshy man with thick glasses, studied his papers. “Hendricks, as a program manager might have had somebody who didn’t like him just because he had a high position. We haven’t fired an engineer or anyone else from his section in two years. I knew him pretty well. If he has an enemy, I’d be surprised.”
“Nave, the accountant?” Rucker looked over his half-glasses. “Divorce pending, wife charging the main gates.”
McCurley slid a sheet across the table. “Married thirty years, no kids. I’ve heard he loved to golf and garden. Often went half a day without saying a word. No idea what caused the divorce, but she’s a real barracuda. If he had an enemy beyond her, I couldn’t imagine who.”
St. John said, “The groundskeeper, Scroggins? He witnessed the shooter murder the two drivers in front of him and was trapped like a crippled dog while he awaited execution.”
“He was not an actual employee. Worked for a contract outfit that mowed and planted flowers. As I said, no inside access, and we don’t know a hell of a lot about him outside the government clearance it took to get him on site. Big photography buff. Shot weddings and the like, but, of course, he was restricted from bringing a camera onto our premises. Security, you know.”
St. John asked, “If he couldn’t get inside, do the groundskeepers have to take a leak in the bushes?”
“We have a facility out back. Showers, restrooms, a small lunch room.”
Hodge said, “I’ll look through the files from each of the three security clearance investigations. See if anything jumps out.”
Rucker stood up and said, “I hope it doesn’t happen again until we catch somebody. I still lean toward a nutball shooting at targets of opportunity.”
* * *
Henrietta Nave answered the door with a martini in one hand and a small pistol in the other. Fiftyish, in need of a shampoo, with eyes that seemed incapable of staying in focus, she struck St. John as crazy as hell, particularly since she was pointing a .22 revolver at him.
He said, “We’re police officers, ma’am. Lay it on that little table behind you.”
Henrietta complied. “By God, somebody murdered my Clyde. Cops just came by and told me. He was a bastard, but he was my bastard.”
St. John and Rucker stepped inside without invitation. Rucker picked up the pistol, dumped the cartridges from the cylinder, and laid it back on the table.
“You’ve showed up at Kastonax twice, creating a disturbance.” St. John said. “Do you have an explanation?”
“Damned right I do. I went there to make certain he didn’t screw me outta my share of his pension and give it to his floozy.”
Rucker asked, “That floozy would be...?”
“She works there in the plant. Sweet young thing, name Gloria Swartz. I followed the jerk and saw them clawing at each other in her front doorway. Went back by to tell her I knew, but neighbors said she worked at Kastonax. Later I saw her ugly ass. Clyde musta been desperate. So I went to make certain my part of that pension was intact.”
“You have a boyfriend or some other man, say, a relative in your life?” Rucker asked.
“No boyfriend. And are you suggesting I’m sleeping with my relatives?”
“No, ma’am,” St. John said. “We’re looking for a guy with a machine gun.”
They walked away, followed by a symphony of profanity.
“I’d guess she’s not involved,” Rucker said as they found their car.
“Landscape company next?” St. John asked.
* * *
Shortcuts was a large outfit with a yard crammed with lawn equipment. Manager Charles Kline, fifty and friendly, tossed a thin folder on his desk. “Scroggins had been with us three years, a long time in this business. He was a supervisor, sorta, on the Kastonax job.”
“Sorta?” St. John asked.
“Strawboss is a better term. We got a roving supervisor. Scroggins was senior and seemed like the boss. Big photography buff; took all company shots at parties and stuff around here. Never married that I know about, except to his camera, I guess. Damn shame somebody had to go and—”
“Enemies?” St. John asked. “Did he fire anybody or get somebody fired, or was maybe playing grab-ass with a female employee?”
“He didn’t have the authority to fire anybody, and we have not terminated anyone who worked with Scroggins in over a year. And no female employees at Kastonax.”
Rucker asked, “No females? Why?”
“That security jerkoff, Mac... what the hell ever. Always tried to pull rank on the lowly female yard people. I guess he figures big shots are entitled to free hands-on shots at commoners. After we had two females complain, we just rearranged personnel. No women worked there.”
As Rucker swung back into traffic he said, “I made McCurley out as a jackass. You and I both know it’s not unusual for hotshots to hit on the hired help, particularly when they’re in a weakened spot such as contract sidewalk sweeper.”
“Yeah, but he’s smart enough not to have broken any law or at least get caught. And the ladies’ boss seemed to have handled it okay.”
* * *
Sally Hendrix, the widow of Jason, was bereaved to the point of incoherence. After fifteen minutes of disjointed conversation in her parlor in the presence of her father, St. John and Rucker realized further inquiry was pointless at that time, apologized, and left.
St. Johns cellular buzzed. “Detective, this is Charles Kline over at Shortcuts. You were here a couple of hours ago.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Kline, how can I—?”
“We wuz just talking around here, and somebody figured we oughta call you. Scroggins, like I said, was in love with his camera. Kept it locked in a steel box welded in the bed of his GMC. Man, he paid ten grand for that camera. If his truck got towed to the pound, it would be hell if some sucker stole that camera. Scroggins did have a mother who it could be left to.”
St. John broke the connection and explained the conversation to Rucker.
In fifteen minutes, the auto impound sergeant had popped the box on Scroggin’s truck and handed down a very expensive camera.
St. John turned it in his hands and said, “James, we need to sign this into the property room pronto.”
The property room clerk, scratched out the necessary paperwork. “Where the hell did you guys come up with this?”
“Long story,” Rucker replied.
The clerk turned the camera in his hands. “Damn, I’d kill to have one of these babies. Its memory retains every shot it ever took and they’ll be perfect. Here, lemme hook it up to this screen.”
After the clerk had spent ten minutes showing perfect photo shots while simultaneously drooling over the camera, an image appeared on the desktop screen. Taken in partial darkness, it clearly showed the features of a man and woman in an intimate pose, both nude, partially concealed under an outdoor arbor. Both cops recognized one of the two immediately. The clerk printed out two hard copies.
Rucker said, “Kastonex is still open for the day, St. John.”
With Rucker driving, St. John telephoned his new found FBI ally, talked briefly and hung up.
“He’ll meet us there.”
* * *
McCurley, Hodge, St. John, and Rucker sat at the same table they had shared earlier in the day.
Hodge leaned over and whispered to Rucker, “I checked security files, the woman in your photo is an employee of Shortcuts... or was. She ended up in the morgue in the next county six months ago. Found strangled in a dumpster. They extracted lots of DNA but no match yet.”
Rucker tossed the intimate photo on the table.
McCurley snapped, “What is this crap?”
St. John leaned forward. “That you making it with the hired help, McCurley?”
“I want a lawyer.”
“Maybe two,” St. John smiled. “And by the way, we’re gonna need a DNA swab. I suppose a high-grade, connected security guy like you would have no trouble finding a soldier of fortune down on his luck who’d be crazy enough to murder five people just to get one. Lots of secret guys in your secret world.”
The FBI Agent and Rucker stared intently at McCurley.
St. John continued. “It was a hit on Scroggins. Scroggins snuck in his camera and photographed McCurley with a girl from the groundskeeping crew. Then McCurley murdered her when she either threatened him or demanded hush money. He hired a contract gunman for Scroggins. The shooter killed the two drivers in front of him, then shot down the cops directing traffic. Since Scroggins was trapped, the gunman casually walked back and murdered him.”
“Horse crap,” McCurley spat.
St. John shuffled papers on the desk. “You’re smart enough to know you’re gonna be a match to the DNA found on the murdered lawn-service girl. Even if we never find who the hell you hired to murder Scroggins, your ass is grass on the girl’s murder.”
Hodge spoke up. “Uh... all of you know about the stories about Feds listening to telephone calls. The bad news is those stories are true. McCurley, we have you making—” he looked at his folder — “four calls to Chicago, to guy named John Sampson Russo. Our files call him ‘Johnny Dead’. He’s under suspicion for a half-dozen contract killings.
“We arrested him at the airport half an hour ago. He’s looking at the needle. We squeeze him enough, wave a deal in front of him, you don’t suppose he’s gonna roll on you for hiring him to off Scroggins and four others?”
St. John said, “Four others as window dressing. Jury’s gonna love it.”
McCurley began to cry.
Copyright © 2016 by Gary Clifton