by Gary Clifton
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Homicide Lieutenant Roger Duncan, lanky, gold-rimmed glasses, shuffled across the squad room and tossed a sheet of yellow notepad paper onto Detective Davis McCoy’s desk.
“Car bombing with one dead. You and Maggs are primary.”
McCoy looked at the address, caught the eye of his partner, Maggs, and they headed out the door.
McCoy, husky, tough, cynical, close-cropped black hair flecked with gray and a haggard face showing too many years of hard living and travel in the fast lane, had been a Dallas cop twenty years, seven in Homicide.
McCoy’s wife, a former high-school sweetheart, had died of breast cancer two years earlier. McCoy, in his own words, unraveled like a cheap sweater. Grief had buried him in the bottom of a bottle until his superiors gave him the option of entering a program or finding other employment.
He had cooperated, kept his Detective rank and was still active in the AA program. He’d just received his twelve-month chip. Smart, both book- and street-wise, mentally his give a damn factor remained dead even with the floor.
Margaret “Maggs” Williams, his partner of eight months, was leggy, slender, attractive. She had been a homicide detective for six years and a track star in college. An outstanding officer fully capable of the coarse give-and-take banter around a squad room, she could outrun and then kick the crap out of most male suspects. And she would finish by typing a report at warp speed while correctly spelling every word in the English language. She lived with a sergeant from the Patrol Division.
Maggs Williams was just what the doctor ordered for a drifting, mentally wounded oaf like McCoy. Instinctively, she “saw behind his eyes” and never hesitated to take a giant bite out of his ass if she sensed he was drifting off-center.
When Maggs and McCoy were halfway to the crime scene, the lieutenant notified them by cellular that the victim was Donald McKnight, a well-known, long-time Special Agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Maggs snapped off her cellular. “Didn’t McKnight retire a year or so ago?”
“Yeah, heard he’s running a private investigator business and doing pretty good.”
Maggs looked across the seat. “Well, he isn’t doing so good this morning.”
* * *
Don McKnight, after twenty-seven years as a DEA Agent, had, in fact, retired. At fifty, he found gold in the private sector. Hard to gauge in what distant spot McKnight’s mind was parked that morning when he strode out of his Royal Lane condo and slid onto the seat of his brand-new Lexus ISC.
He cranked the convertible and his existence — at least in this world — ended in a crashing explosion. The top was down. The blast, later ruled two sticks of dynamite under the driver’s seat, actually blew McKnight clear.
He landed, smoldering and shattered ten feet away. When emergency personnel arrived, he was alive and whispering into the pavement. He died before they could load him on the wagon.
* * *
Maggs wheeled up to the scene amidst the usual glut of emergency vehicles parked every which way: cops, firefighters, reporters, and gawkers. The sunny August morning was stifling at 8:00 a.m., a dead-certain guarantee of afternoon, steamy misery.
McCoy knelt over McKnight’s burned remains beside a man wearing a blue windbreaker with “Medical Examiner” across the back. The M.E. was rotund, cheerful, with Coke-bottle glasses and a pleasant, Christmas-morning disposition. He was gouging at the cadaver with a chrome-plated tire iron.
In an hour’s canvass, McCoy and Maggs learned McKnight and his wife had frequently engaged in dish-throwing, screaming arguments. Recently, he had bought the now devastated convertible as a peace offering after a particularly noisy free-for-all. Neighbors thought him to be some kind of cop, but knew no specifics.
A lady who lived across the alley said she thought, but wasn’t certain, she’d seen Stephanie McKnight in an embrace with a big man at a park five or six blocks away a few days earlier.
A Fire Captain brought McCoy and Maggs a young soot-stained firefighter.
“I was first on the scene,” said the kid, who was working on a bottled water and soaked in sweat. “Victim was trying to talk. Said something like ‘Stef Kay Tees’. I heard his wife is Stephanie, so maybe he was calling out to her. Didn’t say nothin’ else... Then died.”
Stephanie was twenty-plus years younger than McKnight, and flashy-attractive, with a shapely figure honed by frequent, determined battles with the gym. Despite the horrible tragedy, her eyes reflected a cold, negative hue which McCoy and Maggs both recognized as “street eyes.” Stephanie was no veteran in the affluent homemaker business. A look at her background would be an early priority.
Stephanie had married McKnight seven years earlier. She appeared, outwardly at least, too distraught to talk. “Stef” as she was called, told McCoy and Maggs that McKnight was a “solo”; he had no employees and used the back bedroom as an office. She said she had no idea who McKnight’s enemies might be, nor who would want to kill him. When asked about domestic arguments or embraces in the park, she told them to piss off.
“Here’s his entire file system.” She pointed out a two-drawer file cabinet, then huffed out of the room with a belligerence that appeared permanent.
“The little wife sure doesn’t seem torn to pieces,” Maggs whispered.
McCoy glanced after Stephanie and nodded. “I’m certain she’s got some history.”
“You’re so damned cynical, McCoy. Maybe she’s switched gears. People can change. Look at you.”
“Maggs, remember: you can’t baptize a cat.”
An hour examining the records told them McKnight’s PI business consisted of a major client: Skyview Marine in west Dallas and two downtown Dallas lawyers who specialized in defending dope dealers. If the in-file figures were to be believed, McKnight’s income, combined with his DEA pension, was nearly triple his DEA Agent’s pay.
“Coulda bought two new convertibles,” Maggs said.
A third Homicide Detective, Red Harper, showed up, belatedly dispatched by the lieutenant. Harper was big and tough in old-school mold. He was never seen without a horrible foot-long — some estimates were a foot and a half — cigar polluting the atmosphere or with the stub of one clamped in a corner of his mouth.
Harper’s head, a rim of red hair ringing the rear, was more skin than hair by a factor of five. He had been in Homicide since the Vietnamese War, or so it was rumored.
Harper agreed to stay at the scene and expand the neighborhood inquiry. Maggs warned him that Stephanie McKnight was an ill-tempered barracuda. “Shoulda met my second wife.” Harper grinned and rolled his cigar across his lips. Harper ate tough customers for breakfast.
* * *
McCoy and Maggs paid a perfunctory visit to the morgue to suffer as little of McKnight’s autopsy as the law required. Texas law demanded that investigating officers witness the forensic examination of the deceased but not to wallow on the autopsy table. McCoy and Maggs did not hang around long. They drove to west Dallas
Skyview Marine was surrounded by an eight-foot, barbed-wire topped fence. An entry gate was manned by three unarmed, uniformed guards. All looked mean enough to eat at least one live chicken.
After ten minutes of confrontation about police business, McCoy and Maggs were seated in a pleasant, second-floor office across a cluttered desk from Clarence Gilderman. He was a slender, balding man of fifty or so. His graying, blond hair had receded about eight inches above the eyebrows.
The nametag on his desk said he was the General Manager. A gangling, awkward-appearing man with chicken-like movements, McCoy half-expected him to answer questions with a squawk.
A picture window at one side of the office overlooked a production line with numerous workers darting about like warring atoms, spraying about thirty large, luxury-class boats with paint guns at the end of hoses attached to overhead lines. Other workers were brush-painting the interiors of some boats with what appeared to be thick paint. All craft were painted in standard military olive green.
In a corner of the production area, several employees were installing engines, seats, and hardware. They used a crane to lift automobile engines into inboard-equipped hulls. Other craft were mounted with large outboard engines. Storage racks for both types of engines stood in a corner. Skyview manufactured some very speedy merchandise.
“Looks like ocean-going craft, all painted the wrong color. Do they get another coat of paint?” McCoy asked.
“Uh... sorry for all the security, Officers. We’re an extensive U.S. government contractor. We make landing craft and specialty boats for all branches of the U.S. military... and also for a couple of initials-only government agencies.”
He peered over his glasses. “Finish about a dozen boats a day... Goal is sixty a week.” Clarence had a nervous habit of punching upwards with the back of his hand the gold-rimmed half-glasses perched on his nose.
McCoy shrugged, palms up. “No public sales?”
“No. Government only. Everyone in the plant has a Top Secret Clearance.”
“Boats are just super-plastic paint jobs?” McCoy stood to better see the production floor.
“We spray and hand-brush fiberglass and resin combination coats on the inside of a plywood mold. Several coats of laminate and you have a boat. Then pop it out of the mold and hope it floats.” He smiled thinly at his semi-joke, still strangely resembling a red rooster.
He gestured toward the windows. “That other line over there is building up the decks, to be attached to the hulls you’re seeing, or installing engines and steering systems.”
“What do they cost?” McCoy studied the production operation.
“Uh... these have some highly sensitive electronic and other gadgets imbedded in the hulls. With all gadgets installed, we bill the government, uh... you sure this is relevant?”
“McCoy and Maggs focused on Clarence without comment. McCoy nodded. “About fifty large per copy, wholesale,” he said. His reluctance was obvious, and he punched his glasses.
“I’m sure you’ve heard Don McKnight was murdered this morning... Bomb in his car. Any idea who?” McCoy leaned forward.
Clarence gave the glasses an extra-sharp punch. “Jeez, he’d spent years sending dope dealers away. I just figured—”
“He have a Top-Secret clearance?” Maggs asked. She crossed her long legs and shifted in the cheap, plastic chair.
“Had a clearance when he came here. And he was a contractor, not an employee.”
“What did he do here?” McCoy asked.
“Well, we do our own in-house background investigations, sort of a double-check to the security clearance work-ups the government does. And he was also into loss prevention, gate and electronic security... whatever came up. Don was an outstanding guy: smart, worked hard.” The glasses got a perfunctory punch.
“His investigation or whatever get anybody fired lately?” Maggs looked up from her notebook.
“We had two employees fired last month for stealing a pair of boats off the back lot. They jiggered the security system on the back gate and just drove away. On camera, for God’s sake. Don was on top of that.”
He dug in a desk drawer and tossed two manila folders across the desk. “We hadn’t decided to file charges yet, which would bring in the Feds because of the security thing.”
“Any others?” Maggs asked.
“Uh... well, I’ve met that young chick he’s married to. Got bedroom eyes. I heard she used to be a topless dancer. That don’t make her a killer, I guess.” He punched up the glasses. “But she’s been rode over a lotta hard road, I’d bet.”
“We’ll copy and return these asap.” McCoy thumbed the folders. “Ivan Klaster and Darrel Dwyer.” he looked up. “These addresses good?”
“Dunno, really. Neither guy worked here more than six, seven weeks.”
As Maggs drove past the stern-faced bruiser-guards on the gate, McCoy remarked idly, “Lotta boat trailers stacked outback.” A semi-truck was backed in a rear gate, closely monitored by one of the uniformed guards. The trucker was offloading boat-trailers with a swinging hoist built onto his flatbed trailer. Heat simmered off the asphalt as they pulled into traffic.
McCoy thumbed his notebook. “That firefighter said McKnight mumbled, ‘Stef kay tee’ as he died. Suppose he was trying to finger his wife? Clarence suspects her, and she’s got issues. We saw she has a sharp edge.”
Maggs shrugged. “She probably woulda needed help making and attaching the bomb. And I don’t see a motive beyond the arguing sessions.”
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Gary Clifton