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Ira checked the weather as he walked toward his closet. Cloudy, wind from the west at 15 kilometers per hour with rain probable in the afternoon. He'd have to wear his turbines today. Dressing had certainly gotten more complicated because of global warming.
As the long coat settled over his shoulders, Ira hooked the power leads into his IPAD. The coat was heavy, and more constricting than Ira liked. It was made of multiple layers, each embedded with micro-magnets connected by a web of monofilament wire. As the magnets brushed past each other they created a minuscule electric charge. Individually, the charges were less powerful than static cling. But together, the thousands of magnets continuously brushing past each other created enough energy to keep his IPAD at full charge. And if he was tasered, the web of wires would diffuse the shock. His 'PAD might fry from the surge, but that was a sacrifice Ira was willing to make. He'd been tasered before, and not much enjoyed the experience.
Stepping outside, Ira again marveled at the slight spring of the recycled tire sidewalk. He knew the experts claimed you couldn't tell the difference, but Ira had grown up in a neighborhood where concrete sidewalks were the norm, and swore he could feel the bounce.
The smell of french fries told Ira he'd only been just in time. Or that the wind was out of the east. The squeal of brakes as the bus turned the corner proved the former. “That's some great detective work there, Lou,” Ira thought to himself. “If you ever make captain, your nameplate will have to read 'Obvious'”. The bus' meter beeped as it made Bluetooth contact with Ira's IPAD and deducted the fare from his account. As Ira moved to his seat, he dug the 'PAD out of his pocket, activated the PDA, and began to organize his day. He had 20 minutes before the bus reached the EPA office, and Ira liked to hit the ground running.
First thing, as always, was the division meeting with the Chief. Then, prepped on the big picture, Ira would review with his partner their open case notes. Afterward they'd hit the street to try and close those cases. Most days the work was routine, but occasionally they'd solve a case that really made a difference. Those were good days. Ira was working on just such a case now, and was hopeful that today was going to be a good day.
As he stepped off the bus, Ira saw a man at the bus stop take a final drag on a cigarette and grind it out on the sidewalk. Leaving his butt in the circle of ashes, the miscreant moved toward the bus door. Ira sighed and reached for his 'PAD. He was going to be late for the briefing, but a successful bust, even for something so minor, should buy him some slack from the Chief.
“Excuse me, sir,” Ira said in his best 'You want me to stay polite' voice. He reinforced his request by grabbing the perp's collar. “But I believe you dropped something.” If the citizen did the right thing, Ira might still make the briefing on time.
“GLEERP!” The man replied, his face turning red as he jerked to a stop. He turned to face Ira, his features contorted and his nostrils flared. His skin paled when he saw the EPA badge emblazoned on Ira's IPAD, but his face adopted a blustery expression. Ira was going to be late.
“You made me miss my bus, eco-cop!”
This technically was untrue. The bus driver, in the true St. Louis fashion, had paused in her route to watch Ira and the man. St. Louisians loved their street theater. The gathering crowd proved that. And gave Ira an audience. Ira loved an audience.
“Sir, you are in violation of the United States Ecological Penal Code, Chapter 3, Paragraph 6, Section 5[a], Improper Disposal of Controlled Pollutants.” Ira had pulled the chapter and verse out of his ass. People didn't know what the actual law was, and never remembered what they were accused of anyway. But it sounded official and impressed the crowd.
“What are you talking about? It's not illegal to smoke!”
“No, smoking isn't illegal, not yet, but you are expected to dispose of the filter in an authorized hazardous material receptacle.”
“Hazardous material? It's cotton fer Christ sakes!”
Ira sighed, dramatically. “A common misconception, sir. The filter is actually a collection of plastic threads that can take up to a decade to decompose, while leaching toxins into the environment and poisoning animals that eat them. As such they require special handling to prevent their introduction into the ecosystem. Now smile!” He used his IPAD to snap the man's picture and hit the 'ID' button. The IPAD scanned the Radio Frequency ID's of every 'PAD in a twenty foot radius and then sent that information to the central statistics database at the FBI. There the RFIDs were cross-referenced to the picture, and moments later the man's file was visible on the IPAD's screen.
“Let's see, Mr. Hooker T. Love, unfortunate name, that; hmm, this isn't your first offense either, you have a pattern of blatant disregard for the environment and your fellow man. Mr. Love, under Federal sentencing guidelines you face a fine of $1000 dollars for illegal dumping of a dangerous substance.”
“The Hell! There's no way I'm paying that!”
“Oh, it's all electronic and automated nowadays sir. The charge has been registered with the court and the money deducted from your account.”
“What? What happened to my presumption of innocence?”
“The money is being held as a bond against your court appearance. Failure to appear will be considered an admission of guilt and will result in forfeiture of the impounded money. I'd get an attorney if I were you Mr. Love.”
“Okay, okay, I admit, I got a little temperamental there for a minute.” Love artistically hung his head in shame; Ira noticed his hair was thinning on top. “What if I were to dispose of the butt correctly, having learned my lesson?”
“Oh, that might have worked if you had chosen to do so immediately, sir,” Ira replied, shaking his head in mock sadness. If Love wanted to play to the crowd, Ira could go head-to-head with the best. “But charges have been filed and that filter is now evidence.” Rummaging through his hip pouch, Ira pulled out his walkabout evidence kit. Removing the rubber gloves from the ziploc bag, he made sure the 'snap' as he put the gloves on was audible throughout the crowd. He made a show of picking up the cigarette butt and dropping it in the bag, holding it up for everyone to see. Labeling the bag with his pen, he turned to the crestfallen Mr. Love. “You are free to go sir, you will receive an email with the time and date of your hearing.”
The drama over, the crowd began to disperse. The smell of French Fries blossomed as the bus cranked back to life and began to move. Hooker Love rushed toward the door, and with impeccable timing, the bus driver closed it in his face.
“Shit, man, you're in trouble.”
“And a good morning to you too, Albo. How is my favorite partner today?”
“Better than you when the Chief gets a hold of you. You missed muster this morning.”
“I was making a bust on the street outside.”
“We know, we watched from the break room window. You're a showy bastard, aren't you?”
“And you're particularly foul-mouthed today; what's the issue?”
“Velma's been bugging me to have you over for dinner again. You can't avoid it forever you know.”
“Is your sister-in-law married yet?”
“You know she's not.”
“Then I'm still not available.”
“What's wrong with Suzette?”
“Nothing, I'm just not interested in settling down or getting married; I enjoy my job too much.”
“Hey, I'm living proof you can do both. Marriage isn't a full time position, you know.
Ira snorted as he booted up his workstation. The network flashed its connections and a big blinking sign popped up on his desktop. The red letters on the black background consisted of two short words: “SEE ME”. To underscore the urgency, it was accompanied by a soundtrack of a dentist drill at 126 decibels. Curses and exclamations, barely heard, washed over Ira as he fumbled for the speaker cord. With a quick yank the cord came out of the monitor and the sudden silence echoed deafeningly through the room. Irate glares from between covered ears surrounded him as he sheepishly pushed his chair back and stepped away from his desk. The Chief's had deliberately arranged the squadroom so the walk to her door seemed to stretch forever; any condemned penitent would transverse a Gauntlet of angry lashing glances from their coworkers before reaching the questionable harbor of the lioness' den. In an office filled with Type A personalities it was a surprisingly successful motivational strategy. The Chief made it a point to always come out of her office to talk to her team, and if praise was delivered it was done loudly and publicly at the agent's desk. The only time an agent saw the inside of the Chief's office was when they'd screwed up. The Gauntlet made sure that was loud and public too.
Ira crossed himself as he grabbed the doorknob. Religion had undergone a resurgence from a period of apathy earlier in the century. The upsurge was led by the Catholic Church, which declared pollution to be a sin against God. Pope Benedict XVI had made environmental stewardship a cornerstone of his papacy, and in an address before the United Nations had announced a crusade against climate change. His used his homily to urge members of all religions to “join the Church in a jihad against ecological despoilers, who are the Judas Iscariots of our time”. The pope's message found an unlikely ally in the mullah's of Tehran, who shortly after the U.N. address announced they were withdrawing from OPEC and would instead sell electric power from their Bushehr nuclear farm for a fraction of the cost of oil. The sudden undercutting of the petroleum market shook the region to its core, and cracked OPEC's hegemony as countries quickly shifted to align with Iran. The dust from the economic and political upheavals was still settling decades later.
“Stop pussyfooting around! Get in here and be reamed like a man!”
Ira entered the office and started to sit as the door closed behind him.
“Don't sit down! You're up to your ass in alligators, Carson, and you want to put yourself in deeper? Cripes, when have you EVER been allowed to sit in my office?!”
The smell of air freshener was heavy, despite the box fan running full tilt in the window. The Chief must have been smoking her pipe in her office again, despite the mounds of surgeon general warnings and fire codes forbidding it. Phyllis Cormack had not reached her position by playing by the rules, and the wall of framed warnings and write-ups testified to her willingness to buck the system. She'd been considered for EPA head once by a previous administration, but had been passed over when, during her interview with the president, she'd called him a panty-waisted politico and stated proudly she'd voted for his opponent.
The meeting hadn't been a complete waste, as she'd left engaged to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. She'd been ignoring the no smoking signs and he'd been waiting to see the president; he'd doused her with a water pitcher and she'd asked him out to dinner. They were married in the Rose Garden following a whirlwind romance. Rumor was he was proud to have her as his wife and happy to have her half a continent away. She joked she could get anything she wanted ruled unconstitutional by squeezing hard.
“What the Hell were you playing at this morning?!”
“I was making a bust, right in front of the building. Albo said you guys were watching.”
“I saw what you were doing, you were screwing around and showing off!”
“But Chief, he left a cigarette butt on the sidewalk right in front of the EPA office! What would people think if it looked like we couldn't enforce the law in our own front yard?”
“I'm not arguing with what you did, Carson, just how you did it. You don't need to make a federal case out of every incident! Give the perp a warning, force him to pick up after himself, and make him feel like a little kid caught chewing gum in class! The guy'll learn his lesson, it won't cost the government a cent and it'll only take two minutes!” Leaning over, she pulled a pipe, bag of tobacco and an ashtray out of her desk drawer. Packing the tobacco in the pipe, she continued. “Now tell me, what's going on with this meatrunner?”
“Didn't Albo update you during the...”
“Yes, Pereira told me about it. Now you're going to, too. Talk.”
Ira gathered his thoughts while Cormack blew smoke rings at him. “That's really annoying, you know.”
“Think under pressure. And don't miss the morning briefing. Now talk.”
“For the last several weeks, we've seen an uptick in the number of people busted eating beef,” Ira began. “Lots of people were unhappy when the 'Green or Gone' Act was pushed through Congress, but the largest complaint was easily the sudden restriction on meat, especially beef, for food consumption.”
“I remember lots of ranchers out in Wyoming and Montana suddenly converted to Hinduism so they could keep their cows,” Phyllis laughed. “They figured the ban wouldn't last, and afterwards it would be back to business as usual.”
“Yeah, well, they were wrong. The fact that ungulants produce more methane than cars every year was the death knell for the industry. People switched to pork and chicken because they don't belch like cows and sheep do, and their waste products can be used to create electricity. But some people just couldn't give up their steaks and so a black market quickly developed. Carnotrafficers from Argentina quickly moved into the business, and it was pretty bloody there for a while.” Ira smiled at his own joke; Phyllis ignored it. “Now we know there's a new supplier in the area, we're just trying to figure out how they're getting the goods in.”
“Why do you think it's imported and not domestic?” The mouthpiece of the pipe thrust at him like an accusing finger. “Lot's of land out west is still set up for cattle farming, and small operations get busted all the time. Why assume someone is going to all of the trouble of flying in foreign beef when they could just grow it locally and avoid Border Security?” The pipe stem drilled in toward him. “Or are you just grandstanding for effect again?”
“It's hard to keep a cattle farm secret, and you know it,” Ira retorted. “That's why those operations have to stay small and keep getting busted. The sheer volume of beef we're finding points to an international source, and we think they're coming in on flights that land in Chicago or Milwaukee to avoid the Border Patrol.”
“Customs checks everything that comes in, no matter how deep in the country it offloads. Are you saying our peers are missing large herds of bovines exiting zeppelins? What do the smugglers do, dress them as tourists?”
“I'm sure Albo mentioned...”
“Oh, his contortions to avoid answering were a wonder to behold.”
Ira held his breath. He'd hoped to have more evidence before broaching his theory. “Parachutes.”
His boss stared at him through the cloud of smoke. “Carson, I'm very disappointed in you.” She pulled a plastic cup out of her drawer. “I don't know what you've been smoking, but follow me to the john; you're doing a piss test, and I'll find out. If you want to get recreational on your own time, whatever, but don't you dare come through my door stoned.”
She was bluffing, and he knew she was bluffing; that still didn't stop the sweat glands from opening in a torrent and his stomach from doing flips. He could pass any drug test they cared to invent, he simply didn't have that exciting a life. But Cormack had perfected a soul cracking stare that could make saints feel like they'd been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. The Stare had such a reputation that hardened criminals had been known to crack and confess at the threat of facing Cormack. The moisture in his mouth fled rather than face that glare; Ira forced faint words past his parched throat, desperately trying to remember he had done nothing wrong. At least not in this.
“We have evidence.” The glare hardened; Ira tried not to fidget. “We have an eyewitness that swears he saw cows dangling from parachutes landing in a field in Jefferson County, and several silk parachutes large enough to land cargo containers were sold to a military surplus store. The dirt traces we pulled from the parachutes matched soil samples from the Jefferson County field.”
“He saw cows hanging from parachutes.”
“Yes ma'am.” The urge to revert to childhood forms of address was impossible to resist in that nut-cracking gaze.
“And a parachute in an army surplus store with a dirt stain that matches most of the loam in a tri-state area.”
“And what was your good citizen doing when he saw your flying cows?”
“From?” The Stare gained an edge of Knowing Look.
“And did the hock-shop have any record of who sold them the parachute?”
“A dumpster diving homeless woman who sold it for five bucks cash and no questions.”
“Uh-huh. You know what my biggest problem is Carson?” Cormack tamped and worked to relite her pipe. “My biggest problem with your theory is this: why go to the trouble of flying the cows in live? It would be easier, and make more sense, for the smugglers to slaughter and process the cattle in the country of origin, then load the meat into a refrigerated blimp. Hell, an unrefrigerated one would work if they could get airborne fast enough. An unheated zeppelin gets mighty cold, mighty fast, and would keep the meat from going bad. I think you're on the wrong track.”
“I disagree.” It was easier to argue with The Chief when she was messing with her pipe; being distracted limited her ability to generate a good Stare. Ira's neurons crept out of hiding and went into overdrive. “Refrigerated zeps and trucks get extra scrutiny from Customs because they're so often used by smugglers. But a normal zeppelin? They may run a drug dog through it, but they're more concerned about checking the cargo for contraband than looking for something that by definition isn't there. And most cargo zeps fly low enough that a low velocity airdrop would have a high success rate.”
“Listen to you, with your 'low velocity airdrops' and contradicted contraband, like you have a real theory.” A fresh row of smoke rings assaulted Ira's nasal membranes. “Find me something to makes this a case and not some hackneyed fiction story,” his boss said, leaning back in her chair. “Something better than a stargazing drunk and a drifter looking to score some hooch.”
The office was mostly empty as Ira closed the door to Cormack's office. Pereira sat at his desk, filling out forms on his computer. He took a very theatrical gaze at Ira's backside as Ira passed his desk.
“So, I think I've got you figured out. You're cheap, so every time your pants get tight you get the boss to chew some of your ass off so you don't have to buy new ones.”
“Ha-ha. Nice job of ducking the parachute question.”
“Hey, I just said 'Investigations are continuing', which everybody knows is copspeak for 'I haven't a frickin' clue'. Not my fault you're too honest. How'd she take it?”
“She thinks it's a fairy tale, but she gave the go ahead to check it out. Who do you want to hit first, the eyewitness or the store?”
Albo pulled his gun belt from his desk drawer and headed for the elevator. “The surplus store. I want to see if we can track down the person who found the 'chutes, and find out where. I'm betting the meatrunners didn't toss the apple too far from the tree, ya know what I mean?”
“Wouldn't it be nice if they put them in the corner trash bin?” Ira pushed the button for the garage, and the aged elevator creaked to an alarming start. “You know though, it'd be kind of nice to have someone with some brains behind this, someone who could make this a challenge.”
“So what, you want your own Moriarty?” Albo leaned against the elevator wall and adopted a fake British accent. “I say chap, you and The Chief could sit around and smoke pipes together, old boy.” The elevator pinged as the door opened, the sound of high speed air compressors echoed through the cavernous concrete chamber that greeted them as they exited the elevator. Dropping the accent, Pereira continued. “We don't get paid extra for working harder, you know. Give me a stupid, lazy crook who leaves his 'PAD at the scene of the crime so I can make the bust and go home early, that's what I say.”
“But don't you ever wish for the kind of opponent like you used to read about when you were a kid? You know, the kind that made you want to be a cop in the first place?”
“I didn't read detective stories when I was a kid,” Albo pressed his thumb against the scanner, and a set of car keys dropped into a waiting slot. Checking the tag number, he walked along the row of cars speaking over his shoulder. “I used to read Westerns, and grew up wanting to be a cowboy. Then the environment happened, and Willie Nelson got the first song to become a victim of Global Warming.”
“So why did you become a cop? It's this one,” Ira pointed to the matte black MiniCat Albo had just walked past.
“Huh? Oh. Well, it was a job, ya know? I'd just gotten out of the Coast Guard, Velma was expecting our first and didn't want me to re-up 'cause of the long deployments, and my military service gave me extra points on the entrance exam.”
“That's how you chose your career?” Ira disconnected the air hose from the car's pressure tank. “Because you got extra points? If the ATF had offered you a toaster would you have gone with them?”
“Depends, would the toaster have fit bagels?” Albo squeezing his 6'3” linebacker frame behind the MiniCat's steering column was an origamic ballet that never ceased to amaze. He'd won bets. “No, I chose the EPA because I saw the effects humans were having on the environment up close on the ocean. Our ship was part of the task force that tried to clear that giant mass of plastic that's collected in the Pacific. Remember that? The navy was looking for a mission to stay relevant and the Commander in Chief for the Pacific decided 'greening' his command could help him keep his funding. So he sends out a carrier force, with us Coasties along for support, and we spent six months trawling through the trash so we could collect it and haul it ashore for disposal. Didn't make a dent.”
“And that's why you chose the EPA?”
“Part of it. Our Senior Chief used to tell us stories of being on an icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean and fighting his way through the ice pack. Now it's clear pretty much year 'round. But it was the whales that made me care. When the Japanese government decided to ignore the ban on whaling the U.N. passed, that C-in-C who sent us to the plastic sargasso convinced the president she should take the high road and use the navy and coast guard to enforce it. On one of my last deployments, our UAV spots this Japanese whaling vessel off of San Diego, it was hunting Greys I think, and we pull up close and tell it to heave to. Somebody on board panicked and put a harpoon in our hull, the exploding kind. The ship tried to make a run for it, and the Captain, he's pissed about the fact that someone put a hole in his boat. So he uses the USV...”
“Okay, I know a UAV is an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, like a robot plane, but what's a USV?”
“Unmanned Submersible Vehicle, a robot submarine. Very useful for going places we couldn't or wouldn't put a human. Plus it was a lot sneakier than the boat. But like I was saying, the Cap, he's spitting nails, so he has the USV put a net torpedo around the whaler's propellers, and has the .50 cal put some bullets through the bastard's radio mast over the conning tower. That took the fight and flight out of 'em right quick. We boarded the ship, arrested the crew, and discovered about 200 tons of whale oil and dolphin meat on board. You ever see a whale up close? I don't know about their intelligence, but when you look in their eyes it looks like they have an old soul. Biologists say whales can live for a hundred years or more, and they have brains like we do, only larger, so it's easy to humanize 'em, ya know?” His eyes grew distant as they swiveled to track traffic. “The ocean is the first place you see a lot of the affects humanity is having on the environment. I left the C-G thinking maybe I wanted to do something to help the ocean, and the EPA offered a chance.” He snorted in amusement. “So now I'm here in the middle of the continent about as far away from the ocean as I can get.”
“Yeah, well, if the global warming gets bad you may end up with a beach house yet.”
“Huh. If we get to that point, I think I'm building an ark.” He pulled the car into a parking spot and engaged the security brake. “So, who's the good cop and who's the bad cop?”
“You must be joking.” Ira walked around the car while Albo unfolded himself and looked up the five inches to his partner's eyes. “I look like a lollipop and you look like a brick shithouse. Who do you think is the bad cop?”
“Right.” Pereira hit a button on the key fob and the car's onboard air compressor started to hum, refilling the tank. “We'll take turns then.”
“The $1.25 Master Surplus. God, that's horrible.”
Ira squinted at the sign. “I don't get it.”
“In the Army, the Quartermaster is the person in charge of food and equipment.”
“So, the .25¢ Master is a reference to the military position and the $1 is a play off of a dollar store idea.”
“Forget it, either you get it or you don't. Civilian.” Pereira shook his head and pushed open the door, holding it for Ira to enter. “Showtime.”
Ira's whole demeanor changed as he walked through the door. Never a tall man, with more scrawn than brawn, Ira compensated for a small build with a large personality. Assuming a jaunty step, and with his head held high, Ira became the undisputed cock-of-the-walk and master-of-all-he-surveyed. His presence expanded to fill the store, and his aura demanded respect and obedience.
Albo followed Ira in, falling into his role of silent menace. Arms rigid and unswinging at his sides, back ramrod straight, Pereira rejected looming in favor of a closed, unwelcoming countenance. Standing still and silent, suspects had been known to forget Albo was even present.
“Over hill, over dale, we will hit the dusty trail...” The Field Artillery Song thundered from loudspeakers throughout the store, cutting off suddenly as the door swung to a close. Albo, who had been waving his fingers through the air in time, frowned and half moved back toward the door. Seeing Ira's perplexed look, he said “Ya gotta love John Phillips Sousa music. It just makes you want to jump too and salute.”
Ira was saved the need to respond by the appearance of an older black gentleman with a crew cut and a motorized leg. Stepping forward in precise 30 inch strides, he strode toward them, hand extended.
“Good morning, sirs! How can the Buck and a Quartermaster help you today?!”
Ira took the man's hand and returned his hearty shake. Turning toward Albo, “See, I get the sign now. Why couldn't you have explained it like he did?”
Albo shot Ira a Look as he took the proprietor's hand in turn. “Detective Albo Pereira, EPA, sir. This is my partner, Ira Carson. We have some questions about the parachutes you bought recently.”
“Buck, Buck Flipper, US Army, retired, and owner of this fine establishment! Come in!”
“Mr. Flipper, we just have some questions...”
“I understand that, Detective, and I'm happy to answer them, but there's no reason not to do this in a civilized manner! Come back to my office and we'll sit down!” The whine of servos from his leg drifted faintly thorough the air as he walked behind the counter. “Besides, I left my hearing aids back here! Let me put them in and I'll stop yelling at you!”
Over the years the pair had developed a routine when conducting investigations. Ira, with his extroverted manner and slight frame, would be the voice of reason and good will. Albo would remain in the background, silent and unforgiving. As the questioning progressed, Ira's demeanor would darken, his smile would disappear, and his words and tone would sharpen. Following Ira's cues, Pereira would soften and become progressively friendlier, assuming Ira's recently relinquished role. Then, once the subject had adjusted to the new dynamic, they would reverse roles again. It was a routine that threw the most recalcitrant suspects off balance. Mr. Flipper's cheery optimism and determined helpfulness, especially at volume, stripped control of the interview from their hands, and they meekly followed the whir from the gyros into a back room.
“Testing, testing...one of you say something, will you?”
“Mr. Flipper, we don't want to take up...”
“Naw, that's not quite right.” Buck stuck his finger in his ear and wiggled it around, looking to the world like he was trying to clear an annoying blockage. “Keep talking.”
“Sir, we were wondering if you could give us more information about the young woman who sold you the parachutes.” Ira looked askance of Albo as Mr. Flipper switched fingers and ears. “The uniformed officer who took your statement said you purchased them from a woman for five dollars.”
“Yeah, the woman who runs the shelter.”
Albo's head popped up. “Shelter? The investigating officer's report said you said she was homeless. Do you mean she lives in a shelter?”
“No, I mean she runs a no-kill animal shelter over in St. Charles. That officer who took my statement was more interested in mumping some 'samples' than in getting the information. Seemed to think the whole thing was a waste of time, really.”
“Do you have her name?”
“No, we've talked the couple of times she's been in, but I try to get her out of here as quick as I politely can. She's been rummaging through dumpsters, remember.”
“Mr. Flipper, how did the police find out about the parachutes?” Ira scanned the police file on his IPAD. “The report is kind of vague.”
“Well, I called them, didn't I?” Buck reached down to scratch where his calf fused to his cyberlimb. “Those were low velocity Spider 'chutes, brand new, that she brought in. I couldn't think of a reason they would have been found in a dumpster, so I called the cops in 'cause I figured someone might be misappropriating military gear.”
Albo was typing madly on his 'Pad's keyboard, trying to keep up. “And you recognized these parachutes straight off?”
“I spent most of the last 30 years as a quartermaster, son, and a lot of that for the 173rd Airborne's field artillery. I know my parachutes, especially for dropping bulk items.”
“So that's definitely what these are for? Dropping large items?”
“Large items that couldn't take a hard jolt. You have to get lower, 1500 feet or less is best, but we dropped everything from cannon to cargo containers with these things. The landing is soft, comparatively, so as long as you're not dropping eggs or your grandmother's china it should be okay.”
Ira shot Albo a triumphant look. “Could you drop an animal?”
“What, like that Disney movie?”
“I was thinking more like a cow.”
“Well, you'd run a decent chance of breaking its leg, but if you don't mind that, it'd work. And if they had an airbag cushioning system platform, then you may not even need to worry about that.”
“Airbags? For parachutes?”
“Yes, airbrakes would help too.” Buck smiled at their blank looks. “Old joke. The airbags are devices placed on the bottom of pallets being parachuted. The inflate automatically while the load is dropping and have a venting system to release the air in a controlled fashion to cushion the pallet's landing.”
Ira noted all of this in his 'PAD. “You know, you learn something new everyday.”
“If you don't mind my asking sir, how did you lose your leg?” Albo asked, shaking Buck's hand. “EFP in Iraq?”
“Armadillo in Arkansas.”
“I was riding my hog in Arkansas at night and hit an armadillo that was crossing the road. Lost control and by the time I got to the hospital the docs decided they couldn't save the lower half of my leg. I got cyborged and given a medical discharge to go with my pension. I wasn't ready to take up fishing so I bought this building and used my contacts in the service to get surplus cheap. It lets me stay busy and occasionally do good deeds like help people think they can save the world.”
Ira shook Mr. Flipper's hand as he stood up. “You don't think people can save the world?”
“I think people need to think they can save the world, so they'll keep trying. Who knows? Maybe somebody'll succeed by accident.”
“Well, the uniforms have done another outstanding job,” Ira said as he watched Albo shoehorn himself into the car.
“Look at it from the cop's viewpoint. He's called to a big toy store to take a report on something that wasn't reported stolen. How interested do you think he'd be?”
“It's still sloppy paperwork.”
“We haven't used paper in years.”
“You know what I mean. He should have at least gotten the details right on who found the 'chutes. There's a order of magnitude in credibility between a homeless woman and an animal activist.”
Ira stared at his partner, flummoxed. “Because we go from a probable sot to a respectable business owner and concerned citizen.”
“Or we go from an honest citizen down on their luck to an Earth First! wingnut,” Albo shot back. “You should know better than to draw conclusions without collecting evidence. That's the press' job.” He typed the shelter's address into his 'PAD's GPS system and backed out of the parking space. “Your 'respectable citizen' has to dig through the trash to find cast offs and junk to sell to keep this place going. We're going to find some shoe-string operation run by either an old stoner hippie or some Mother Earth crystal waver who's just as credible as your alky, mark my words.”
“You know, we should hire whoever runs this place; they have much nicer shoe-strings than we do.”
The building before them gleamed in the weak sunlight. The large yard was subdivided by chain link fencing into several large play areas as well as individual kennels. Dogs of various sizes romped through the yards, while cats lined the window overlooking the play area, lazing in the sun as they watched the commotion below.
“We'll have to be careful how we report this, Ira, or The Chief will have us out digging through garbage too to finance the Agency.”
“So, you sticking by your 'crystal waving hippie' theory?”
“No, I'm reverting to my 'don't draw conclusions without evidence' dictum.”
“Just an FYI, I'm feeling pretty comfortable with my 'respectable citizen' theorem.”
“Ah, you just got lucky this time that's all. Besides, whack jobs can have nice buildings too. Let's wait till we actually meet this person.”
The double doors slid open automatically as the detectives approached them. There was a moment's delay as an inner set of doors waited for the outer to close before opening.
The front desk and lobby were gently illuminated by gravity driven lamps, and soft muzak competed with the yips of the playing dogs outside. A stunning lady of indeterminate age looked up as the inner doors closed.
“So, which one of you is turning the other one in? I want to warn you, the first thing we do is neuter new arrivals.”
“It's too late for him,” Ira gestured at Albo. “He's already married.”
The woman snorted genteelly, then stood and extended her hand. “My name is Laura, how may I help you? From the suits and lack of animals, I'm guessing this is an official visit of some sort, but I'm not sure why. We were inspected last month, and all of our permits are in order.”
“No ma'am,” Albo replied. “We're with the EPA, and we're actually here with questions for the owner of this facility. Could you let her know that Detectives Pereira and Carson are here?”
“You just did, what can I do for you?”
“You're the owner? And you do your own receptioning?”
Laura chuckled. “I've never heard it described that way before. And actually, this is my office. I like to greet all of our new guests personally. It makes them feel better.”
Albo stared with borderline rudeness. “Excuse me ma'am, but you look familiar; have we met before?”
“Not that I remember, detective, but I don't pay a lot of attention unless you have feather, fur or scales. Multiple legs are also a plus. Were you a K-9 officer before you made detective?”
“No ma'am, Coast Guard.”
“I did some USO tours, but they never let us mingle long with the troops, and you look a little young to have been overseas while I was touring.”
“That's it! You're Laura Sevenson, the actress! They do marathons of your films on the Turner Classic Movie Channel! I didn't know you lived in St. Louis!”
“I was born and raised here, so when I retired it seemed the place to go. Besides, I discovered I missed living here, and wanted to give something back.”
“Ms. Sevenson, we have a few questions about the parachutes you sold to the $1.25 Master surplus store a couple of weeks ago,” Ira broke in. “We believe they're tied to a larger case were working. Do you remember where you found them?”
“Those things? Yeah, I found them in a dumpster in an apartment complex in North County. They looked salvageable, so I took them to the military store where the guy gave me five bucks for them.” She shot them a calculating look. “I've checked with my lawyers, and they assure me what I'm doing is perfectly legal.”
“And what are you doing, ma'am?” Pereiara's fandom was overridden by his innate copness at the inkling of guilt.
“Looking for recyclables people throw out,” she replied. “Even with the mandatory bins and incentives people still can't seem to be bothered to sort their soda cans or bottles out of their trash. So on weekends I go out and root through as many garbage bins as I can to pull them out before they end up in landfills. You'd be amazed at the amount of money I can make every weekend just because other people are lazy. The parachutes were unexpected, but I recognize an opportunity when it gets dropped in my lap.”
Ira waved his arm at his surroundings. “What I'm amazed about is you can do all this with the proceeds from your guerrilla recycling.”
Laura smiled as she looked around the lobby. “This? No, this is paid for by Hollywood, and the government's stupidity.”
“I don't get it.” Albo lowered his IPAD. “You mean you don't go through the trash to help support this place?”
“No, I started this shelter with my acting money. Those movie marathons on TCM, plus the reruns of my tv shows generate enough residuals to subsidize this place and my large animal farm out in Montana. The money I get from the recyclables goes to support drama classes in the local schools; the government keeps cutting support for the arts in public education, and I lead a group dedicated to keeping theater alive for the students.”
“You have a large animal farm?”
“Oh yes. When the government decided cattle were a threat to the environment and decided to kill them all, they offered the ranchers a ridiculously small amount of money per head for compensation. I didn't think it was fair for all those animals to be murdered so I talked to some of my fellow actors and we got enough money together to make a better offer. I knew about a large animal sanctuary in Montana and we partnered with them to have a place to send the animals we were saving.”
“How did you get around the culling?”
“Hmmph. Culling. Sounds enough like 'killing' that we all know what we're talking about, but not so much that we need to think about what it really means. You should call it was it was, a slaughter, a mass-murder. The only reason there were so many cows in the first place is because Americans loved their cheap meat so much. But then we discover all that hamburger-on-the-hoof is inconvenient, so whoops!” She threw her hands in the air. “Off you go to be massacred for the good of humanity!” Laura looked at Ira. “I'm sorry, what was your actual question?”
“How did you get around the uh...government's plans?”
Laura smirked. “We teamed up with Montana State University to create a 'science' facility dedicated to studying how to reduce the amount of methane cows produce so someday beef could be reintroduced for large scale production. The state's congressmen were so desperate to show their constituents they were doing something to save Montana's beef industry they shoved through an exemption for us to the 'Green or Gone' bill. Didn't work, they were still voted out at the next election. But nobody's dared mess with us yet.”
“Isn't all this expensive?” Albo looked out the window overlooking the kennels. “I know your movies are very popular, but it seems all this would burn through a lot of money really quick.”
“Oh, trust me, it does. But one of the side effects of getting rid of all those cows so quickly was no one thought about the longer term effects. Everybody was so scared the Ozone Layer was going to suddenly break up that the culling law made no differentiation between beef cattle and dairy cows. The price of milk skyrocketed because of the sudden lack of supply, and by the time the politicians got over blaming each other and fixed it most of the milk producing cows were gone. Except for our 'science' facility in Montana that worked with the 4-H club to save a bunch of kids' cows. Now we're one of the largest milk producers in the US, and that funds a lot of our other programs.”
Ira shook his head. “You would think the government would have thought out the milk thing before passing the law.”
“They should have. But the government has a poor track record of considering the long term consequences of their actions. Remember in the early 2000s when the government first passed that law mandating a certain amount of gas be made from ethanol? It ended up causing food shortages around the world as farmers started selling their corn to oil companies instead of grocery stores.” Laura sat on the edge of her desk, her eyes drifting back in time. “There were other factors for the crisis, sure, and it was passed with good intentions, but it caused untold misery and brought down the Mexican government, with all the anarchy that ensued. And instead of taking those lessons to heart, the next generation of politicians were just as short-sighted.”
“Well ma'am, as much as I would like to discuss the failings of the government, we are currently on that government's clock. Do you remember which apartment complex you found the parachutes in?”
“Yes, Detective Pereiara, I do. It was the Northwest Plaza complex.”
“The old shopping mall? Isn't that a bit dangerous?”
“Not really. When you're rooting through a dumpster people presume you don't have anything worth stealing, and they don't want to get close enough to find out.”
“Whoever dumped the 'chutes chose a good location; no working security cameras and the people there don't talk to outsiders.” Ira finished typing the notes into his 'PAD and added. “Is there anything else you can remember that might seem relevant Ms. Sevenson?”
“No, but I'd really like to know what this is about. What do you think is happening?”
“I'm afraid we can't discuss the details of an open investigation, ma'am,” Albo interjected smoothly. “But after we turn our case in to the District Attorney, we can fill in the details.”
“That makes sense, I suppose,” Laura said. “Would either of you like a dog?”
Albo looked down and shifted nervously in place. “I don't need a dog, but if it wouldn't be too much trouble, may I have your autograph?”
“Tell you what, you take home a dog, and I'll sign the adoption papers for you.”
“That was completely unprofessional! What were you thinking, asking for her autograph?”
“Hey, she was one of the great lusts of my teenage life, ya know? It's not often someone like us gets to meet a mega-star.”
“You can meet her now whenever you want, you doofus, you know where she works. And I would like to point out she is still a potential suspect in a meat smuggling ring until we can eliminate her.”
Albo flipped on the left turn signal, then looked over his shoulder to check his blind spot as he merged onto the highway. “What, Laura? Ira, did you hear her talk about the culling program? She was livid with anger at the animals being killed.”
“Or, she's a trained actress who was projecting exactly the reaction we would expect in order to throw us off her trail,” Ira replied sharply. “Think about it. She, a famous actress, goes digging through other people's trash? In one of the most dangerous locations in the county? There's enough inconsistencies there that I'm not ready to discount her yet.”
“You don't remember her from the '10s, do you?”
“No, I was never much of a movie goer, and I didn't follow the tabloids.”
“Laura has been an animal activist and vegetarian advocate since before she was famous, you know? She did nude ads for PETA and used to get arrested on a regular basis protesting animal testing. In college I had this poster on my wall of her leading a march against the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.”
“I thought you said you weren't environmental in your youth.”
“I wasn't. I had the poster 'cause she was doing it naked.”
Ira laughed. “Well, that certainly fits in with your character. But if it's all the same to you, I'm going to double check her story. She may have been militant in her youth, but would she stick to those convictions today with the responsibilities she has now? Would she compromise her principles and sell ugly cows to save cute kitties? 'Cause right now what I see is she has the ability and motive.”
“So you think what, that she's shipping in cattle from Montana to sell here? Even if she is, why use zeps? If she's transporting in-country, she could just put 'em in trucks.”
“Semis full of cows might draw a bit of attention anymore, don't you think? You can't use the old open sided trucks because their too noticeable, and the cattle'd suffocate quick in the normal closed tractor-trailers. Using a zep would get the animals to St. Louis overnight, and Jeff. county is in a pretty direct line for a zeppelin coming in for a landing at Lambert Aerodome. Say, just about right for a low altitude drop?”
“Oh I'm not saying don't investigate her; I'm just saying you're not going to find anything.” Albo glanced at his watch. “Speaking of seek and find, do you want to go interview our flying cow witness now, or wait till after lunch?”
“Let's do it now. If the police report is at all accurate, we may need a drink afterward.”
“I only glanced at it. Other than being a bartender who samples too much of his product, he didn't give me any bad vibes.”
“No, it's not him. It's more the area he works. Rural area, lots of former farm folks.”
Albo flinched. “Ooh, isn't this going to be fun. Maybe we should see him at home?”
“Can't. He works at the bar almost 24/7. Seems that when his family's farm went under they were carrying a lot of debt. The Big Ag business that bought them out didn't give them enough to cover it, and he's been working and drinking hard to either try to dig or drown himself free.”
“What, do you know this guy?”
“No I pulled his dossier.”
“When did you have time to do that?”
“Last night. I did it from home.”
“So you go home to work?”
“Yeah, that way I can do it in my underwear."
“Thank you, sir, for that mental image. You know, we need to get you a life outside of this job. You need a girl. Are you sure you don't want to come over for dinner and meet Suzette?”
“Why? So she can see me scan the FBI files in my underwear?”
“Y'all the ones who cost me my daddy's farm.”
The bar was typical for the low cost apartment blocks that dotted what had once been rural America. Heavy mismatched furniture housed quiet, morose drinkers wearing overalls and CAT caps. Old tractor advertisements hung in frames alongside pictures of families and farmhouses. The walls themselves were canvases for murals of fields of corn, wheat and soybeans that faded into the difference. Nowhere was the cost of a Green and Globalized economy more evident than in the row of sun lined faces lost in thought or buried in beer mugs. Like the images of Okies from the Dust Bowl '30s, the urbanized farmer was the icon of an America lost.
Ira and Albo were suit wearing city-slicker weeds in a field of farmer's tans and heavy boots. Upon entering, Albo had leaned over and whispered to Ira: “You know why farmers impress people so much?”
“They're outstanding in their field.”
“You are such an ass.”
The man addressing them from behind the bar was wearing a short sleeved t-shirt and blue jeans. The backs of his hands and tops of his heavily muscled forearms were a dark leathery brown. Cloudy blue eyes peeked out from under a John Deer baseball cap and honey blond eyebrows.
“Excuse me, are you Chuck Townshend?”
“To you, eco-cop, I'm Charles Townshend III, or Sir.”
Ira felt Albo move close on his right side, and sensed him set his shoulders. “Mr. Townsend, we're with the EPA, and we're...”
“I know who you're with. You're with the gov'ment that pushed all of us off of our land with your regulations and rules. Big Agriculture payed some money and pulled some strings and y'all ran off to pass laws saying we have to use chemicals to make the crops grow more, then made us pay to clean those chemicals out of the ground, like there was anywhere else for 'em to go. Y'all are the ones who made it impossible to compete unless a man used genetically modified crops, but then made it illegal for us to own our own seeds from year to year, so we had to always be going back to the masters to beg for more, like sharecroppers. Y'all are the ones who made it too expensive to run a farm and feed a family, so we all had to sell out to Big Ag, who can make money because they can 'leverage' their size into an 'economy of scale' a family farm could never do. I know who you're with. Why are you here?”
“Is there somewhere quiet we can talk?”
“Quiet? This here's quiet as the grave, the grave of all the dreams you bur'crats killed 'cause you thought you knew more from readin' books than the men who learned by doin' their entire lives.”
“Mr. Townshend, have you been drinking?”
“So what if I have? Or are there regulations on that too?”
“Technically I suppose there are, but we're not the folks who care.” Ira pulled his IPAD out and flicked on the screen. “Sir, I have here that you reported seeing cows hanging from parachutes a couple of weeks back. I'd like to get more details if I could.”
“I reckon you would. Is this an official interrogation? If so, I want my lawyer.”
“It's an official investigation, but it doesn't have to be an interrogation by any means,” Ira was working hard to keep his voice level. Albo was shifting from foot to foot behind him; Ira could hear him mentally cracking his knuckles. “You're not a suspect, Mr. Townshend, so if you'd like to have a lawyer present that's your right, but I don't see that one is necessary.” Ira tried modulating his voice to remove any trace of threat or officialness. “We're just trying to do our jobs, sir, same as you. Right now that involves tracking down people who are illegally importing beef cattle. You're our prime witness, and our best lead toward finding and shutting down this carnotrafficing ring.”
“Piss off, e-man.”
Ira recoiled in surprise. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. I'm not going to help you. The government took away our farms, herded us into high-rises, and gave our jobs to robots. We were left with nothin', and now you want my help to imprison someone who's fighting back against the system? I had cows, till you took 'em. If someone is tweaking your nose, e-man, then he has my support. Matter of fact, if I knew who he was, I'd buy him dinner, maybe a big fat steak.”
“If you want to make this an interrogation, we can go downtown and...”
“Skip it Ira,” Pereira pushed past him and went right into Townshend's face. “He's not going to help. He's too busy holding grudges and blaming someone else for his failures.”
Townshend leaned forward so his chest was almost bumping Albo's. “Watch what you say, cop. You don't know dick about what...”
“I know about being a farmer, Chuck,” Ira interrupted. “My family's from North Dakota, and my Great-Grandpappy watched his father's farm blow away in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. He said Great-Great-Granddad didn't shed a tear, he loaded the family in the truck and headed west to Seattle and became a lumberjack to support his family. The government took your farms? Baloney. You lost yours because big companies are more efficient than small ones. That's a basic law of economics. Forced you to move into an apartment building? That's happened to everyone. Suburbia is dead, and has been for years. The era of the 'single-family dwelling' is over; urban communities are much more efficient when it comes to energy use, heating, and reducing peoples' carbon footprint.”
“Excuse me, I wasn't finished. You're whining about robots? Talk to Detroit. Agriculture moved hard into the 21st century, sir, and you evidently didn't. You can complain about how unfair life is, but don't expect a lot of sympathy. Humanity is fighting for survival here, not just ours but of the entire world. I'm sorry if you've been inconvenienced. Why don't you talk to my Granddad who lost his job because of the Spotted Owl? I bet your ancestors faced just as many setbacks as mine and they didn't crawl into a bottle wishing for a life that's long gone.”
“Easy for you to say, with your suit and steady job. What would you have me do?”
“Look at this bar. You have what, hundreds of years worth of experience in running a farm sitting here? Why don't you take some of the money you waste drowning yourself in alcohol and 'leverage' it into a business where you can 'economy of scale' a better deal for the people who learned by doing? Is it because you're not willing to do the hard work, or are you afraid you might not measure up, and find out that those soft-handed college kids who learned to farm from books might be better at it than you?”
Unshed tears glistened in Townshend's eyes. “You're a punk.”
“Yes, sir, and if you tell us about the cows we can go our separate ways.”
“I was driving home and stopped at Old Man Wither's farm 'cause I had to puke. I got woozy and flopped over to sleep off enough of the drunk so I could make it home, and as I lay in the dirt looking at the sky I heard mooing coming from above me. Looking up I saw dark shapes blocking out the stars and then heard giant farts coming from the field. I tried to sit up but when I did I felt like I was going to puke again so I didn't. I heard the sound of trucks and tractors for a while, then heard the trucks drive off.”
“Do you know which direction the trucks headed when they left?”
“No, I never saw them at all, I was too sick to move.”
“Well, do you know how many cows you saw?”
“I di'nt actually see any cows. More like really big dark shapes against the sky. A lot bigger than a cow, 'cause if I could see them at all they must have been huge. I remember things landing in the field, the sound of tractors, and the smell of diesel engines.”
“Did you mention this in your police report?”
Townshend's snort almost rattled the liquor bottles lining the back of the bar. “Police report? I was picked up out of that ditch by a couple of Jeff county sheriffs. I tol' 'em what I saw, they took a couple of pictures with their 'PADS and then they drove me home.”
“You're lucky they didn't toss you in jail.”
“Cop, that proves you don't know nothing about bein' country, we look out for each other here. You got any other questions?” Townshend raised his hand in a placating manner toward a customer who was waving his mug in the air. “'Cause I got a job to do and people to take care of.”
Ira raised a finger. “You said you smelled diesel? Not biofuel?”
“Copper, I worked with diesel tractors most of my life. You don't forget that smell, it gets into your nose. It wasn't than new french fry crap, and they sure as hell weren't electric. It was a bunch of old fashioned diesel big rigs like used to move America. You find those rigs and you'll be closer to finding your damn cows.”
“Well, wasn't that fun.”
The wipers left streaks on the the windshield as Albo and Ira drove along the back country road looking for the Wither's farm. Albo's IPAD chirped directions on turns and distances in a cheery voice at odds with the weather and road conditions.
“Why, again, are we headed out to this farm?” Albo asked, peering through the rain splattered glass. “You know the odds of finding any tracks in this is almost nil, unless you're Davy Crockett's great whatever grandson or something.”
“No, not that I know of. But I used to play a ranger a lot in my D&D days.”
Albo doubled over in laughter so hard he almost knocked his teeth out on the steering wheel. “I didn't think it was possible, but you have just cemented yourself even more firmly as a geek. I used to beat up people like you.”
“And now you're trying to recruit me to be your brother-in-law,” Ira pointed out. “One of us has let our standards slip disgracefully.” He looked out the passenger window, trying to read the mile marker through the condensation fogging the glass. “We're out here doing this now so the Chief doesn't send us back to do it later. We all know the best we're going to find is a bunch of rain filled ruts, but I'd rather not waste more time driving back on another day. We can argue to the Chief this shows our dedication. Besides, we might get lucky; maybe one of the drivers dropped his 'PAD or wallet or something, like you said.”
“That would be nice. I wish we could have seen the scene when it was pristine.”
“Was that deliberate? The rhyming?”
Albo did a quick mental review. “Huh. No, I didn't even notice it until you said something. Unintentional alliteration aside,” he added with a cocky grin, “do you think it's worth talking to the sheriffs who picked our friend Chucky up?”
“I doubt it. I'm impressed they bothered investigating a drunk's story of flying cows at all. We'll requisition any photos they have when we get back to the office and have forensics give them a once over. If there's anything there we can pull their reports and give the sheriffs a call.”
“You have arrived at your destination.”
The sound of the rain rattled off the roof of the car. Ira and Albo looked unenviably out the windows at the field of muck and mud.
“You know Albo, maybe this wasn't such a good idea. It doesn't really look like we'll find anything useful out there. I'm sure the sheriffs' pictures will do fine.”
“Oh, don't be such a baby, this was your idea. Besides, we're showing our 'dedication', remember? A little mud won't hurt you.”
“It's not me, it's my trouser legs I'm worried about. Dry cleaning is expensive!”
Albo cracked open his door, and the interior of the car became a maelstrom of swirling rain and wind. “Look, you're a sweet guy, but I doubt you'll melt. Let's get this over with.”
Ira pulled his trench coat closer around his body and stepped out of the car. The rain immediately soaked his head and began running down the inside of his collar. The wind tugged at his jacket, but the weight of the magnets and wires gave the coat a heft beyond the wind's ability to shift. The mud squelched into his shoes as he left the road and stepped into the ditch. Albo, with considerably more enthusiasm, bounded into the field and began quartering the area.
“Hey, Ira, I think we've hit pay dirt over here!”
Ira slogged through the mud, arching his toes to keep his shoes from disappearing into the primordal muck. Albo stood before a depression in the soil, it's rectangular outline still visible despite time and rain. Excitement stirred in Ira as he paced off the dimensions of the hole, his pantlegs changing color as they intermixed with the dark soil.
“That's, what, about twenty feet by eight feet?”
“Yeah, close enough. Take a look at these tracks.”
Albo was standing at the narrow end of the depression. Water filled ruts sketched an aquatic Rorcharch test. “What do you think?”
“I think we're about to make our friends in the forensics department very unhappy,” Ira replied. “They're going to have to come out and try to get plaster impressions of these, measure the depths of the depressions so we can calculate weight, and take soil samples to see if we can match this field to the residue left on the parachutes.”
“Damn, I didn't go there at all.”
“What did you mean?”
“Chucky's statement that he smelled diesel. It bugged me that someone running an operation as slick as this would risk having it get blown by using such obviously illegal tech as old diesel big rigs.”
“You know, I didn't even register that. But you're right, they would need the pulling power. They're backing the trucks into the fields to pick up the shipping containers filled with cows. The last thing they'd want is for a truck to get stuck in the dirt, and neither the biofuel or electric trucks nowadays have the sheer horsepower or torque of the old gas powered engines.”
“Shipping containers? I figured they use pallets.”
The impact crater in the field is about twenty by eight. That's the size of one of the small shipping containers used to transport stuff around the world. They'll hold 45,000 pounds easily, and they're everywhere, so they're effectively invisible. Figure five to six cows per container, with enough food and water to keep 'em alive for a day or three, and you could ship them from just about anywhere in the western hemisphere.”
“Look, there's more craters.” Albo held his hand over his face to shield it from the rain and peered across the field. It looks like six, maybe. How many containers can each truck hold?”
“A standard truck could hold two, with a little room left over. I don't think they would double stack them because the trucks for that are low slung and would have a much bigger risk of getting stuck in the dirt. What I don't know is how they got the containers on the trucks.”
“I think I can explain that.” Albo had moved to look more closely at smaller ruts that ran alongside the container crater. “I think they used forklifts.”
“Could a forklift lift one of these containers?” Ira asked skeptically. “They'd be pretty heavy.”
“You'd need a class VII forklift to do it, and those are pretty big and noticeable. No I think they used smaller forklifts, but in pairs.”
“How would that work? You could lift the container up, but coordinating the movement of the forklifts would be a pain.” Ira examined the tracks closely. “Hey, these turn at right angles!”
“Yeah, I noticed that,” Albo said, wiping the rain off his face in a futile attempt to clear his eyes. “I think they used Mecanum wheels. They have them for forklifts on Navy ships; they can go in any direction so the forklift doesn't have the restrictions of standard wheels. The coordination would still be tricky, but it's all right angles so with some good forklift operators it could be done. And they'd be small enough to fit on the backs of the rigs behind the containers, so they wouldn't be conspicuous.”
“Are they common?”
“Unfortunately, yes. But our perp gave us one gift. He's using diesel trucks, and there are only a few places to get real gas anymore. And we know the guy who can tell us all we need to know about who's buying gas in this town.”
“Man, do we have to talk to him? I always leave there with a headache.”
“Yes we do. Right now he's our best lead on these trucks.”
“Then let's go see him today. The gas smell gets into clothes, and I have to have this suit cleaned already anyway.”
The steps led downward at a steep angle. Rain slick and short, they seemed designed to facilitate a slip and tumble. The narrow width and absence of light compounded the danger, as did the lack of a handrail on the dark brick walls. Accessible only from a garbage strewn alley and hidden in the dark and the gloom, the stairway was accidentally perfect for its purpose.
“Jesus, I can feel my head swimming already.”
“Just think what it's like on the other side of that door.”
The door at the bottom of the stairs looked like it had been purchased at a prison's surplus sale. Streaks of corrosive yellow mold striped the utilitarian grey paint of the thick steel; leaves and detritus formed a sodden mass in the stairwell, clogging whatever drain may have once prevented the pool of water that was currently oozing the clumps of mud off the EPA Investigators' shoes. A steel shutter covered the Judas slit; careful investigation by Ira's pen revealed it was locked from the inside. A large shiny key operated lock secured the door to the concrete foundation. In contrast to the decrepit condition of the door, the lock was obviously recent and well maintained.
Albo stared at the lock in consternation. “That's new. It's always been an electric keypad before.”
“Maybe he got tired of you continually overriding his code and strolling in unannounced.” Ira felt a vibration that sung of speed through his feet. “I want to say again I'm not really comfortable letting this guy operate, I think we should bring him in and prosecute him.”
“Ira, we've covered this before. J.P. Isn't a bad guy, and he's a font of useful information. We'd never have cracked that gas grilling ring last winter except for him.”
“That's because he sold out one of his competitors. He's breaking the law, Albo, and by rights should be in jail.”
“Pshaw! He's a good snitch, and those don't come easy. Look, we go through this every time. Are you going to tell The Chief I'm running an unlicensed informant?”
“You know I'm not.”
“Then let's go get the info we need to shut down a really bad guy.” Albo flashed a quick grin. “And Ira, thanks for not turning me in.”
Ira stepped back so he was standing on the bottom step; the water had eaten its way through the acre of farmland that had dried on his shoes and had started to seep through the leather. “So, how are we going to get inside? Can you pick the lock?”
Albo's puzzled look spoke volumes. “Why in the world would you think I could do that?”
“I don't know, you're full of surprises. Maybe you had an interesting childhood.”
“I had an Rockwellesque childhood. You've met my parents, they wouldn't have tolerated anything like that. Heck, I didn't even get a traffic ticket until I was twenty-one.”
“I don't know, I thought your dad looked shifty.”
“Shifty? The man was an air traffic controller for forty years. He retired when air travel switched to zeppelins, said they were too slow to be exciting.” The lock sat there, solid and unmoving under their confounded stares. “So, have you thought of anything?”
“We could, in theory, shoot it off. It's not like J.P.'s going to go file a complaint.”
“So, you want to discharge a high powered bullet into a solid metal lock while standing in a constricted stairwell attached to a petroleum refinery? If you're feeling suicidal, you've chosen the right route. If the ricocheting bullet doesn't get you, the exploding gasoline will.”
“Just thinking out loud. I don't have a crowbar, how 'bout you?”
“No, I'm afraid I left it in my other suit,” Ira said with a hint of sarcasm. “Do you really think we could pry that door open? My bank isn't that secure.”
“Yeah, I've got one.” Distastefully Ira stepped into the puddle of water and began pounding on the door with his fist. “J.P., it's Officers Carson and Pereira! Let us in before I get cold and I decide to arrest you!”
A minuscule shift in the movement of the water signaled the cessation of the faint vibration that had been rippling through the ground. The Judas slot slid open and brown eyes flecked with green stared out. Sudden crinkles hinting at a smile creased the olive skin, and with a thunk the door started to swing outwards.
“My friends! You want to step up, yes? There is no space on the stoop when the door is opening. There is no smoking', yes? The ventilation, it is broken, and I have not had chance to fix it yet.”
The apparition behind the door beckoned them into the room. Stepping down from the stairs they'd retreated too so they could avoid the opening door, Ira and Albo crossed the threshold. The air inside the room was bent and hazed, and the dull throb of an migraine planted itself between Ira's eyes. Behind them, the door started to swing closed.
“By all that's Holy, J.P., leave the door open so we can get some fresh air in here!” Ira's voice had a pleading edge slightly tinged with panic.
“That, My Friend Officer, we do not want to do,” J.P. answered respectfully. “The air-gas ratio, it must be 8 percent or higher or a big explosion we could have. Here, please to put these on.” J. P. went over to a wall mounted rack and removed two portable oxygen tanks attached to face masks. The agents noticed he had a similar contraption strapped to his back. “And to how may I help you today?”
Ira looked around the room as he hung the oxygen canister over his shoulder and fitted the mask into place. Disassembled engines sat on blocks or under open car hoods. A brace of dirt bikes sat in the corner, polished to gleaming. J.P.'s current project hulked under a enough floodlights to illuminate a rock concert. Wailing gypsy music drifted softly from an old fashioned cassette player on the workbench.
“Nice Harley, J.P. Is it yours?”
“Alas, to no, but for now I can to dream, yes?” From J.P. the tortured sentence structure was lyrical; Ira wasn't certain if they were having a conversation or a duet. “A referral customer, very impatient, promising more work to come maybe.”
“So J.P.,” Albo broke in, holding the oxygen container in one hand and the mask to his face with the other, “how's the gas business lately?”
J.P.'s face broke into a huge grin. “It goes very very good! A new racing league has been formed for, how do you say, the muscular cars, and they are needing the high octane gasoline and a place to work, yes? Is reason the filter is unoperational, I have been busy doing the conversion of the upper level to a garage so their cars, they can be worked on.”
Ira looked at his partner pleadingly. “Albo, I don't think we can listen to this and not act...”
“Well, Ira, I think that depends on how much help J.P. can give us,” Albo segued smoothly. “Somebody's running a carnotrafficing ring in the STL, J.P., and using old gas semis to do it. What do you know?”
J.P. walked over to his workbench and turned off the floodlights. Turning, he put his wrists together in front of him and presented them to Albo. “In this, I am afraid, I cannot help you,” he said, his smile gone but his eyes clear. “This man, he scares me more than you.”
“J.P., I've never tried to scare you.” Albo stared at J.P.'s hands in shock, his voice defensive. “You've always been straight with us, and we've always been the same.”
“Yes, My Friend, I know. This is why I say he is the much more frightening then you. You are good men, doing good things. His type, I saw in Bosnia. He does bad things, and is not worried to be doing the worse things. I would rather be in jail with you then to be crossing him.”
“It's not like we're going to go announcing where we got our information, J.P.” Ira walked over and pushed J.P.'s outstretched arms to his sides. “We can protect you, even put you in protective custody if you'd like.” He swept his arm to encompass the workshop and refinery. “I never thought I'd be saying this, but we could even try to keep your...livelihood out of discussion so you'd have it to come back too after the trial.”
J.P.'s gentle laugh echoed slightly in his breathing mask. “You are good man, Officer Ira, but you could not protect me from this man, if I were to talk. His fingerings, they reach to many places, and for him, vengeance on me would be a matter of honor. He would not be stopping until I was dead and my shop smoking and ruined.” He offered his wrists again. “It is better, I think, to be enjoying the comforts of an American prison than to be the pig standing for the knife across the throat.”
“Oh, put your arms down,” Albo said. “We're not going to arrest you, and you know it. Besides, you look ridiculous.” He looked earnestly at J.P.'s innocent face. “If this guy is as bad as you think, we need to get him off the street. What can you give us?”
J.P. cast a sideways glance at the Harley. “He likes motorcycles.”
“Does he now?” Ira tapped his lips thoughtfully. “J.P., I wouldn't take on any new projects for the next few days, and see how many of your clients you can get to pick up their items early. Something tells me you're going to be raided in the near future.”
Stakeouts were always boring.
It helped that this was a stakeout by appointment. J.P. had alerted them to the approximate time the mysterious client was scheduled to get his Harley, and Ira and Albo had been able to set up their team in a leisurely, almost lazy fashion. Albo, despite having been out of the Coast Guard for over a decade, insisted on using military terms like 'assault squad' and 'blocking element'. Ira had to admit, as he watched Albo work with the EPA SWAT team, that his partner had a knack for the “kick-in-the-door” aspect of the job.
“You know, it doesn't matter how much you pee before a stake-out, you always have to go again after you get into position.”
“Next time we have to do this, I'll bring you some adult diapers.”
The abandoned apartment they huddled in lay across the street from J.P.'s alley. The window, grimy to the point of opaqueness, gave an unobstructed, if not clear, view of the street and stairs leading to J.P.'s lair. The remnants of Ira's lunch lay at the end of the hall, acting as a beacon to draw the building's rats and cockroaches away from the EPA agents. The darkened lobby downstairs housed a half dozen members of the SWAT team. In deference to J.P.'s softly bubbling vats of petroleum products, they were armed with compressed air powered bean bag guns and orders to use them at the first sign of trouble. The rest of the SWAT team was sardined in their van three blocks away, prepared to block the workshop's exit ramp.
“Those diapers sound like a better idea the longer this goes on.”
Ira peeked around the corner of the window, keeping half an eye on the alley's entrance. “When I was still a rookie, my partner Vince used to tell us how they outfitted one of those old bread trucks into a sweet surveillance unit. It had a periscope, port-a-john, and mini-kitchenette. There were a variety of magnetic signs they could slap on the sides with different business names. Vince said the best one was for a plumbing company. People never got suspicious about a plumber hanging around a building all day.” He scanned the empty street. “Wouldn't do us much good here though, it'd stand out like sore thumb.”
Albo had started shifting from one foot to another. “That does it, I've got to use a corner.”
“Well do it in another room, this one smells bad enough.” Ira stood up and moved back from the window, staring intently across the way. “And you'd best hurry, we have activity.”
As Albo hurried from the room, Ira studied the car that had pulled up to the opposite curb. Bland and nondescript, it would pass unremarked as a standard family sedan, if slightly larger than an average model.
The four men who stepped out of the car were almost as mundane. Their suits were dark and stylish, but not flashy or expensive. No obvious jewelry, at least not from this distance. No one moved to help anyone else out of the car, though the driver did stay by his door and observe the street as the other men emerged. Other than that, there was nothing to indicate they were anything other than businessmen out on a call.
Except, Ira noted wryly, they were in this neighborhood, entering an illegal petroleum refinery.
“Did I miss anything?” Albo zipped his fly as he reentered the room. “Which one is our mark?”
“I don't know,” Ira responded. He keyed the earpiece radio. “We have contact. Four men, three going inside, one by the car.”
“Rodger that, we confirm.” The SWAT captain's melodious voice whispered in Ira's earphone. Melody , petite and demure, was synonymous in the Agency with guns and violence. “Have the other targets gone inside?”
Ira squinted through the accumulated dirt on the window. He didn't dare wipe even a tiny section clean, lest the movement attract the attention of the guard outside. “The targets are gaining entry, the last one is in, the door is closed. Only the guy by the car is left.”
“Is he visibly armed?”
“No, and the distance is too far to see if he has any suspicious bulges under his jacket.”
“A beanbag wouldn't incapacitate him from this range. Form up down here with my team. I'll take out the sentry, then we'll force entry.”
“We're on our way.” Ira followed Albo as he leapt down the stairs. “Be careful, you're going to fall and hurt yourself!”
“I'm trying to get downstairs before she reaches the sentry. I want to see this.”
“You have an unhealthy fascination with violence.”
“No, I have a great appreciation for art. Melody at work is a thing of grace and beauty.”
They hit the lobby at almost a run. “Careful, Albo, you're a married man.”
“And Velma has nothing to worry about. But it doesn't mean I don't like to watch.” Taking the flak jacket and helmet Dale, the SWAT tactical sergeant, handed him, Albo strained to see the mini-tv screen which relayed the feed from the remote camera perched on the building's roof. “Has Melody neutralized the sentry yet?”
“Not yet, sir,” Dale replied while helping Ira strap the flak vest into place. “But you can see her along the wall of the building to his left, moving low.” Moving over to assist Albo, he continued. “We've alerted the blocking element and they are in place. We're ready to go on your order.”
Ira shifted the helmet uncomfortably, trying to find a position where the chin strap didn't feel like it was cutting off feeling to his lower lip. Of everyone in the room, he wore the armor uneasily; the weight and restrictiveness made him feel panicky and claustrophobic. “Are we sure the blockers were able to get set up without being spotted?”
With a firm tug, Dale pulled the face shield down on Albo's helmet. “The team did a sweep of the area before moving in. One advantage of this location, it's so deserted that anyone in the area really stands out...”
“She's making her move.” Ira felt himself drawn in as Albo and the SWAT team leaned forward in unison to take in the tiny pixelated screen.
Melody crouched by the front bumper of the car, invisible to her target. In one fluid motion she rose to her feet and raised her FN 303, firing a short burst of pepper spray filled paint balls into the side of her target's head.
The watching SWAT team universally flinched. “That's gotta sting,” one said.
Before her target had started to slump, Melody had released her rifle and allowed the automated retracting system to return it to its underarm sling. Catching the stunned, weeping and wheezing man, she rode him to the ground, securing his arms in plastic Quick-Cuffs. A fast frisk followed, finding only a cell phone and car keys.
“He's clean,” Melody's voice drifted from the small speaker on the monitor. “Move.”
The only sound was the 'clack!' of face shields being pulled into place as the SWAT team rushed out the lobby door and ran across the street. Dale and a second SWAT member grabbed the puking sentry and pulled him into the lee of a building and secured the street. The rest of the squad follwed Melody as she rushed down the stairs. Ira and Albo followed, and Ira gave a quick nod to Melody's inquisitive glance as she stood poised with a key by the door lock. With a quick twist, the lock opened and the team rushed into the room. The thud of running feet was overshadowed by the squeal of tires and the panicky voice which thundered through their radios “There was a guy in the car! He just drove off! It's a trap!”
The momentum of adrenaline was too difficult to stop.
Feet thudding and hearts pounding, the SWAT team raced down the stairs through the open door like a night black avalanche. Ira and Albo were drawn inexorably along like swimmers in a rip tide, moved by forces beyond their control. The SWAT team scattered in a well practiced fan pattern as they entered the room with Ira and Albo standing, armored but unarmed, as the base by the door.
The familiar nausea of the gas fumes was quickly washed away by the influx of fresh air flooding down the stairwell. Ira's stomach churned as he caught an errant whiff of raw petroleum, and then plummeted as the deep rumble of an overpowered engine called his attention to the tableau in the room.
To the left J.P. stood on the tips of his toes, a long shafted screwdriver held to his right eye. His captor, the man from the front seat of the car, cupped J.P.'s chin in his other hand, cradling J.P.'s head against his cheek in a crude mockery of a lover's embrace.
To the right the captor's compatriot stood frozen with shock, the dawning of realization moving slowly across his features.
In the center, on the motorcycle, an older man sat. Calmly disconnecting his IPAD, he slipped it into his pocket. His build suggested a bodybuilder having gone slightly to seed, with a slight bulge around his midsection his well cut suit was unable to hide. The slight epicanthic fold in his eyes hinted at Asian genes; the Roman nose and olive skin suggested a Mediterranean ancestry. Ignoring the wide bored beanbag guns pointed at him, he scanned the EPA officers. His brown eyes quickly settled on Ira and Albo, seeming to note their protected posture and lack of weapons.
“Senhors, it seems my newest acquisition has created quite a stir.” Latinish syllabics accented the rich English. “We seem to have attracted more attention than a simple motocicleta would justify.”
“Tell your man to put down the screwdriver and step away from J.P.,” Ira puffed himself up mentally, psychically expanding his personality throughout the room. “Then get off the cycle and all of you kneel on the floor with your hands behind your heads.”
The man gestured slightly, and with a thud the plastic end of the screwdriver hit the floor. The tension in the room eased by a hair. “J.P. So, you know this man. He does not have the discricao they say.” He directed his attention at Ira, as if there was no one else in the room. “And what will the charges be, Policial?” His voice was unconcerned, bored. “For truly you must be very successful in your fighting of delito if you can dedicate resources of this caliber to a simple transaction this banal.”
“We'll start with the illegal importation, distribution and sale of a banned meat,” Ira replied just as blandly. “We'll go from there. I'm sure other charges will present themselves as we investigate.”
“Where's your accent from, buddy?” Albo moved to stand beside Ira in the doorway. “It sounds like Spanish, but I'm not placing many of the words.”
“Spanish. A language suitable for the peasants in the fields, not for someone descended from generals and a god.” His voice was distracted and he tapped his lips. “You swim in deep waters, meu amigos, I don't believe you know how dangerous.” With a lunge he placed his hands on the handlebars and revved the engine. Popping the clutch, he swept the rear of the bike in a large fishtail, slamming the back tire against the table where the cassette player quietly warbled sad music. The table flew sideways, causing the cassette player's power cord to strain against the wall socket. There was a brief pause in time while the laws of physics determined which was greater, inertia or surface tension. The the cassette player flew free. Electricity arced out of the socket, reluctant to release the plug from its ionic embrace.
The “whump” of the exploding gas fumes was more felt than heard. The man de la motocicleta raced ahead of the expanding wall of flame, streaked past the flinching SWAT members, and knocked Ira and Albo into the stairwell. Ira saw Albo go down beneath the bike and then screamed as his right knee was twisted into a pretzel between the engine manifold and the wall. Craning his head up the staircase Ira saw the cycle make the climb and swing out into the alleyway. The rush of flames then filled his vision, and his nose filled with the stench of his burning hair. The clang of the steel door swinging closed was dimly audible as air rushed to fill the vacuum the fireball left in the basement. Ira fought to raise himself onto his arms, struggling to get to where Albo lay like a broken doll, pushed into the corner where the stairwell met the wall.
And then, with a rumble reminiscent of Krakatoa, the building exploded.
“Motherfarkin' Christ on a Motherfarkin' crutch! The Agency bought you a new knee, Carson, why can't you make it in to work on time?”
Ira knew The Chief was blowing smoke. She was leaning against his desk in the wardroom, sucking madly on her unlit pipe. “I was making a bust. We caught the gang that's been dumping asbestos late last night, right in the middle of unloading their truck.”
“I know you did. That was damn good work. But you only busted flunkies. What about the guy running the operation?”
Ira's face darkened. “That's where this gets interesting. I thought the foreman for the dumping crew looked familiar, so I ran his mug through the video database. Guess who popped up?”
“Damn! How did you know?”
Cormack stared for a moment then her eyes narrowed. She pulled out a tobacco pouch and began to savagely stuff the thick brown shreds into the pipe bowl. “Very clever. Your delivery has gotten better, that air of shocked innocence took me in for a moment. Time to act like a grown up. Who did you get?”
“Remember the lookout for that carnotrafficing bust? The one nobody could find after the fire?”
“Crap! We have somebody involved in that debacle?” She walked across the aisle and kicked the closest occupied desk. “You! Anderson! Go to the store and find me some gold stars!”
“Chief, I have court this morning!”
“Well, if you do a good job, I'll give you a gold star too. Now move!”
Anderson lumbered to his feet and began moving for the door, picking up speed as Cormack's pipe prodded him in the back. “About time we got a break in that case.” She looked at Albo's empty desk. “It won't bring Pereira back though. It's a damn shame what happened to him.”
“I thought he was happy being the XO for the SWAT team.”
“He is. I just hate it when a talented detective devolves into a door kicker.”
“I think he'd see it differently.”
“He would, but he'd still be wrong.” Cormack gnawed on her pipe stem as she thought. “So where's your movie star?”
“Down in interrogation. He's playing dumb right now, hasn't even given us his name...” Ira's voice trailed off as his new partner came running down the hall, jacket missing and tie askew. The red splatters on his white shirt set off tiny alarms in the back of Ira's mind.
“Damn it J.P., show some decorum! I didn't get you a pardon and a badge so you could tear through my building like...” Phyllis noticed J.P.'s trademark smile was missing, replaced by a look of horror on a face pale as bleached milk. “What happened? Where's your prisoner?”
“The prisoner, he is dead,” J.P. huffed, putting his hands on his knees and bending over to catch his breath. “I came to you fastly so you could be seeing.”
“Dead? How the Hell did that happen?” Ira's explosion shocked even Cormack. “He was handcuffed in a locked room with you and two officers. What did you do, talk him to death?”
J.P. held his hand to his side as the trio raced down the hall to the interrogation rooms. “He said he wished to be confessing, and so we gave him a pad of paper and a pencil. We didn't unhandcuff his wrists, to being careful. But he took the pencil and he jabs it into his eye through to his brain, then collapses down on the table.” J.P. stopped, pressing both hands against the stitch in his side as he leaned against the wall, gasping for air. “I told you once, my friend, that the man we seek, the one who killed so many of our fellow e-men,” you could still hear the pride in J.P.'s voice, “was willing to do the worse things. Our prisoner, he would have known this better than most.”
“So our guy killed himself rather than betray his boss?” Cormack asked, her voice incredulous. She lit her pipe and took a deep pull, ignoring the pained looks of passerby. “Cripes, that's worse than the Mafia's Omerta.”
“The Mafia was brought down, and exposed as the thugs they were.” Ira's voice had hard edges, his eyes gazed into the future. “It's different crimes and different times, but the real difference is a matter of scale. The Mafia's crimes threatened societies. This guy's crimes threaten the world.” He began to walk slowly back to his desk, his mind already rerunning the known facts. "People don't think of environmental crimes as having victims; they don't realize the people being victimized are themselves." Ira sat at his desk and stared at the fuzzy video still showing the mystery man racing off on his motorcycle. "I'm coming for you, buddy, and there's no where on this good green Earth you can hide from me."