As part of shameless self-promotion week I have decided to invite my Facebook friends to critique the first two chapters of Winner Takes All. Here's how it works: read the excerpt posted below and leave a comment. If the book is published, all commenters will receive a complimentary copy of the book and will be mentioned in the acknowledgments. How easy is that?
Winner Takes All
The man who called himself Wolf got out of bed before sunrise. He put on the dead man’s shirt and pants and shaved with the dead man’s razor. He made a pot of coffee and drank half of it. He stepped over the body for the last time. The eyes were open, blue with a film like lake ice in November. Wolf put out the Do Not Disturb sign. It would keep the maid away for a couple of hours. He had stayed overnight because hiking in the dark was crazy. The trek in yesterday it had taken two hours. Wolf always took precautions. He wouldn’t make the mistake of driving the dead man’s car, even for a few miles.
The motel was a relic. Nobody built them this way anymore. The units were laid out in a semi-circle with a pool in the center. Each unit had a room air conditioner that ran 24 hours a day this time of year. The highway carried little traffic thanks to the Interstate. Wolf closed the door and walked past the pool. The air conditioner compressor masked his footfalls. He crossed the highway and found the trail up to the ridge. He didn’t expect to meet anyone this early. Ten minutes later he stopped and looked back. The motel was invisible. An orange glow marked the eastern rim of the valley. The sound of a lugging truck transmission echoed across the valley. Wolf resumed walking. He had to hurry in order to beat the heat.
At 11:30, Maria Nueva pushed the cleaning cart down the sidewalk away from the motel office and checked her list. She had cleaned two rooms with two to go. If they weren’t messy she’d be done in time to pick up her daughter at day care by 1:00. She noticed the Do Not Disturb sign on room 5, frowned, and continued on. Most travelers were in a hurry and rarely stayed past checkout time. The boss had told her to be respectful of people. That was her nature anyway. She stopped at room 9 and dried her face with a hand towel. This place wasn’t as hot as Guatemala but working made her sweat. She decided to take a break, clean room 9 and then return to room 5.
Wolf saw the convenience store and decided to stop. He pulled up to a pump and left the car running for the air conditioning. Black cars got hot faster than light ones, but he had been in a hurry when he stole it. The pumps were equipped with credit card readers but he only had cash. Besides, using a card meant leaving a trail. He left his sunglasses on and put on the gray baseball cap with the extra long bill. He hadn’t noticed surveillance cameras. Drive offs were probably rare in such a rural area. He could see the clerk through the window: female, probably no older than twenty. Perfect.
After he filled the tank he went into the store and shopped for some snacks: a Coke, some chips and candy bars. “How you doing?” he said to the clerk.
She had coal black hair pulled back to a single braid and skin severely scarred by acne. Native American, probably Yakama tribe. “Good. Will this do it for you?”
“Give me a pack. Wait a second. Two packs of Marlboros. Got a long trip ahead. Say, how come you aren’t working at the casino in Toppenish?”
The girl dropped the cigarettes on the counter and began to ring up the sale. “I’m on a waiting list to go to dealer school. They’ve got a hiring freeze. Gas is 44.80, snacks and smokes add up to 57.30.”
He gave her three twenties and waited for her to make change. Two other customers got in line behind him: an overweight guy wearing a Seahawks jersey and a suburban soccer mom type talking on a cell phone. Better still. As he took the 2.70, he hesitated and said, “Say, I’ve got an awful lot of singles that I’d like to get rid of. Can you make change? Say a ten for ten ones?”
“Sure.” She kept the till open and Wolf handed her a stack of ones and she gave him a ten which he slipped in his pocket.
“Better count those to be sure,” he said.
“Jeeze, you had a ten in there,” she said, handing it over.
“You’d better double check,” he said.
“No, this belongs to you.” She put down the ten and began to count the singles. “Six. Seven. Eight. Nine.”
“I’m short by one, I guess,” he said, and produced a single. “Look, why don’t I give you another one and just give me a twenty?”
Her brow furrowed slightly and then she said, “Sure.”
“Thank you kindly,” said Wolf. He walked back to his car and sat down, enjoying the icy kiss of the cold air. He pulled away and checked the rear view mirror once to make sure no one was following. At the end of her shift she’d be short ten bucks and likely wouldn’t recall she’d given away thirty for twenty to the stranger in sunglasses and baseball cap.
Maria knocked twice, hard enough to almost bruise her knuckles, and called “Housekeeping!” After waiting for a few seconds with no answer, she rapped with the can of bleach powder. “Anybody there?” Some guests left the Do Not Disturb sign out after departing. She had gotten used to the lack of courtesy. She wanted to be careful. Once she had interrupted a couple having sex. They had registered as Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The man yelled a lot and threatened to turn her into the INS. That made her mad because she had a green card. She used her passkey and entered.
At 4:30 Chief Bob Walton thanked Maria and told her she could leave the police station. He hoped the events hadn’t upset her too much. Had she ever found a dead body before? At least the crime scene wasn’t bloody. Cleaning would be easy. Maria made the sign of the cross and whispered something he couldn’t understand. He watched her get in a waiting car, a boat of an old Pontiac that produced contrails of blue smoke as it drove away. Walton recalled the last murder in Mountain Lakes. Ten years before two friends had gotten drunk and started fighting over a girl. Instead of whacking each other for awhile and passing out, one of them escalated things by pulling a gun.
Walton walked through the small lobby toward his office. Time to close up the place and sign off to Vernon for the night. His poker buddies would be waiting for him at the Legion Club by the time he got Megan fed and tucked in for the sitter.
A man standing in the corner had spoken. Walton hadn’t noticed him before. “You don’t seem to have a dispatcher or anything here.” He said it in a polite way even though it seemed like a criticism. The man was dressed like someone from the big city. Sport coat, blue shirt and matching tie, khaki pants and shoes that didn’t match the rest because they reminded him of work boots. He walked over and extended his hand like they were old friends.
“Parker. Rick Parker,” he said. Walton shook his hand. Strong grip, not overpowering, like the tone in his voice: couldn’t be ignored.
“I was about to lock up and turn things over to the deputy on PM duty,” said Walton.
“I think I’d prefer to talk to you. Aren’t you the chief?” said Parker. He held up a packet of papers in his other hand.
Walton opened the door and showed Parker inside. They sat across from each other at Walton’s big desk. Parker placed the paperwork halfway between them and sat back in his chair. Walton took out his reading glasses and went to work. The first page was a document from King County District Court. A bail forfeiture. There were related statements, couched in the usual legalese he only had to skim, and a few pictures of a man who stared emotionlessly at the camera. Everything appeared to be in order.
Walton looked at Parker. The man didn’t match the stereotype. About forty and fit-looking, maybe a shade less than six feet, that part matched; but he didn’t look used up or scarred in any way. His gaze remained trained on Walton, polite but intent. If he was armed the piece was well concealed.
“I don’t like bounty hunters,” said Walton.
“I prefer the term bail recovery agent,” said Parker. “I’m licensed and bonded. I always identify myself to law enforcement before I make an arrest. I’m not here to win a popularity contest. You’ve got the body of a man who jumped bail in Seattle and I’m here to verify that so my company can collect its commission. This will be easier than you or I could have hoped.”
“If you say so,” said Walton. “You’ve already eaten up some time I planned to use on other things. What makes you so sure the stiff is the guy you are looking for?”
Parker organized the papers in a neat pile and attached a large clip to the top edge. “It wasn’t very hard. He misses a court date and forfeits bail. I get the call from the bonding company. Somebody steals a car in Seattle. 2007 Mercury Sable. Later on a Sable appears on a surveillance video at a convenience store about a hundred miles from here. Driver tries to pull some kind of confidence scam on the clerk. Description matches my runner. He’s pretty good at that sort of thing, although why he would waste his time on penny ante stuff is beyond me. I continued driving this way, stopping in every town. There really aren’t too many on this stretch of highway.” Parker flashed a hint of a smile. “All due respect, Chief,” he added.
“Pretty tedious work for you, then.”
“This case is a little different. Most bail skippers go to ground where they have friends to help them hide. It seemed odd he would head in this direction. He’s never been here before. I think a stranger would stick out like a sore thumb. When I drove into Mountain Lakes I passed the motel with all the crime tape, saw a Sable parked in front. Two and two make four.”
Walton cleared his throat and spat into the brass spittoon under his desk. “I’m still waiting for the state medical examiner to arrive and perform the autopsy. Until then the guy is a John Doe with a toe tag. His papers may match, but he’s nobody until the doc says he is.”
“I want to see the body before the M.E. gets started. He’s going to be a little surprised by something,” said Parker.
Walton sat up straight. What was this about? Parker had a pair of balls on him to talk like that. “I can’t let you view it on your own. I’ll send a deputy with you, OK?”
“Fair enough,” said Parker. He got up. “I’m staying at the Pioneer Motel, room 311. Here’s my card. Have the deputy give me a call when it’s time.”
Walton started thinking about Parker. He might be a bounty hunter, but he hadn’t started in law enforcement. There was something different about him. He was used to giving orders and having them obeyed. Not military though. Walton was a veteran and Parker didn’t give off the right vibes. Walton did something out of character: he walked Parker to the door. Parker got into a white Mazda 6 and drove away. The Pioneer Motel was one of two motels in town. The dead man had stayed at the MarJo, the other one. The Pioneer was newer, had HBO, central air conditioning and a pool that didn’t have lots of dead bugs in it.
Parker started unpacking when he got back to the Pioneer. The motel was at the south end of the town; the MarJo, where the body had been found, was at the north end. He had driven past it on his way in and immediately decided he wouldn’t stay there. It wasn’t the crime scene tape that did it. Staying at the last stop of the fugitive would have been more convenient and cheaper. Parker had his standards, and the 1950s look of the MarJo promised sagging mattresses, carpeting that smelled of smoke and lousy TV reception. The Pioneer was no Hilton, but the shower produced unlimited quantities of super heated water, there was free Wi-Fi and the King sized bed looked like it could support the combined weight of the offensive tackles of the Seahawks.
He plugged in his laptop and it quickly identified the wireless internet access. He navigated to the Rainier Bail Recovery website and logged in. The design of the pages looked so professional no one would guess the architect was a thirteen year old autistic girl from Redmond. He checked his email, found nothing of importance and then opened the case file that had brought him to Mountain Lakes.
Case number 2389
Derek Grant. D.O.B. 2/4/1975
Bonding Company: AAAA Bail Bonds of Tacoma
Case Reference: People of the State of Washington vs Derek Grant/CRF 9770
Date of Forfeiture: 5/24/2011
Date of Final Forfeiture: 180 days
The case against Grant had been theft by swindle. When Parker had asked his office manager Molly Lindsay why bail was so high, she provided information about Grant’s criminal history. At age 36 he had an impressive—if that was the right word—record of criminal acts. Grant’s juvenile files weren’t available but beginning at age 18 he had been arrested 11 times and convicted eight out of those. The crimes were non-violent but involved confidence scams, forgery and identity theft. He had already spent 12 years total in prison, mainly in Washington, although he did a two year term in California in 1999. Doing the math meant Grant had been on the street for six years since his eighteenth birthday. He averaged one arrest every six months.
Grant started off with relatively simple schemes: change raising, pigeon drops, Spanish prisoner; most recently had gone on the internet with a phishing scheme that produced his biggest score ever and also the attention of the FBI. The district attorney asked for and got his request for the half million bail. Grant didn’t have that much cash, but quickly found 50 grand for the bail bond and missed his first court appearance. Media reports placed him half a dozen locations within the first 48 hours: Rio, Nassau, Monte Carlo, Dubai, Zurich and Hong Kong. Anyone who had read a couple of paragraphs of Grant’s biography would have laughed at those assertions.
He was the adopted only child of a couple in Dallas. They moved to Seattle when Grant was an infant, citing unspecified health concerns. Their present whereabouts were unknown, since Grant’s notoriety had sullied their reputations to a remarkable degree after they agreed to appear on a national TV talk show.
There were a couple of digital photos of Grant on the next page. He was clean shaven, had deep blue eyes and rather thin brown hair that he kept pulled back into a mini-pony tail. When Rocco Di Angeles, the owner of Rainier Bail Recovery, saw it he said, “Looks like a Schnauzer’s ass.”
Under identifying marks the document listed: tattoo of an eagle on left shoulder blade, approximately four inches wide, red and blue ink, acquired in 1995. Grant had no teeth, just dentures that he got in prison. Height and weight listed as 5-8 and 145 pounds. He looked like a scrawny runt, but even in the flat light of the police photo studio his face had a homespun, innocent appeal. No doubt he put it to good use as a con man. Now that he was dead and unmourned, at least by his family, the list of his victims wouldn’t grow any longer. The citizens of Washington State wouldn’t be obligated to provide him three squares and a gym, as Angel like to cynically remark.
The next paragraph contained a sentence underlined in red pen. Subject does not have discernable finger prints. Birth defect. Parker’s mind drew a blank, and then he said, “Fuck it. That’s what the internet is for.”
He navigated to a medical website and spent several minutes pursuing the question. He came away dissatisfied. “OK, do what you should have done the first time.” He googled no fingerprints, and in a minute he had the answer. He’d bet a lot of money that most 40 year old internists, even ones who hadn’t had their licenses suspended, would miss the question on a Board of Internal Medicine certification exam. It was the kind of thing you wouldn’t need to know in practice unless you specialized in caring for what used to be called FLKs—funny looking kids. He took a second look at Grant. The picture quality only hinted at skin mottling and the thinning hair would look strange in an adolescent but not an adult. Same for the dentures. He’d seen plenty of methamphetamine users with few remaining teeth. According to the article, normal intelligence was the rule. If Grant was even half as good a bunko artist as his rap sheet suggested, he had to be street smart, if nothing else.
“What did you call it?” asked the medical examiner.
“Naegeli-Franceschetti-Jadassohn syndrome,” said Parker. “NFJ for short. Another term is Dermatopathia pigmentosa reticularis, or DPR.” The deputy sniggered and shook his head. Parker ignored the interruption and continued: “Both are caused by defects in chromosome 17, inherited as an autosomal dominant trait. Affected individuals have an unusual looking skin appearance, brittle nails, thin, sparse hair, and deformed teeth, diminished or absent sweat glands and no fingerprints.”
He realized he hadn’t delivered a clinical rounds presentation since his med student days. The template still existed in his mind. The medical examiner, although old enough to have been one of Parker’s mentors during his residency, didn’t appear interested in having a discussion on rare inherited conditions. “It explains why his parents moved from Dallas to Seattle. No sweat glands means very poor tolerance to heat. The dentures as well. People with NFJ have lousy ectodermal tissue.”
“If you say so on good authority, I’ll include it in my report,” said Dr. Reynolds. “I don’t know if it is relevant to the cause of death however.”
They were standing around the autopsy table in the local funeral home. Mountain Lakes was too small to have a hospital, so the mortician’s facilities were the next option short of shipping the body to Yakima or Walla Walla. The murder victim lay on the table, head supported by a rubber pedestal about four inches tall. The table was stainless steel and canted slightly from head to foot, the sides angled slightly as well to promote drainage of body fluid into a drain that emptied into a catch bucket underneath.
Dr. Reynolds had brought along an assistant, who had yet to be introduced. He stood in the corner, waiting for the order to begin. Were it not for his blue scrubs, mask and overly long gloves he could have been the guy who repairs small engines for the hardware store. He had tanned, well muscled arms and bushy black hair that escaped from underneath the surgical cap in all directions.
Dr. Reynolds switched on a hand held recorder and started to speak. “This is William Reynolds MD dictating necropsy report May XX from the Edgewood Funeral Home, Mountain Lakes, Washington. Case number 2375. John Doe, AKA—.” He looked at Parker. “What name did he use at the motel?”
“Frank Johnson was the name on the register,” said Parker. “I believe his real name is Derek Grant.”
“Any ID in the room or the vehicle?”
The deputy spoke up. “No, sir.”
“Frank Johnson, AKA Derek Grant.” Reynolds consulted a piece of paper between the dead man’s feet. “The body is of a well developed, well nourished Caucasian male measuring 175 centimeters and weighing 65 kilograms. There is moderate rigor and dependent lividity.” He moved a few steps and laid a small plastic ruler across one of the eyes. “Pupils are fixed and 5 millimeters. Circumferential abrasions are evident around the neck. There are petechial hemorrhages in the skin around the eyes and facial cyanosis. The skin has a mottled appearance generally. The oral cavity is edentulous.” He switched off the recorder and looked at the deputy. “You said you didn’t find his dentures?”
The deputy nodded. “Searched everywhere.”
Reynolds shot Parker a glance which seemed to say what do you expect in a Podunk town? And nodded to his assistant. The deputy dropped his adolescent smirk and took long backward steps until he stood against the wall. The assistant approached the body and picked up a scalpel the way an orchestra conductor picks up the baton. In a moment the music would start.
A knock on the door froze everyone. Dr. Reynolds held up his hand and shook his head at his assistant. Parker could see the annoyance on his face as he opened the door. It was Chief Walton. “Excuse me, Doc. Something’s come up. Can you step outside for a second?”
In the awkward silence that followed, Parker decided to play emcee. “What’s your name?” he asked the assistant.
“Marley,” said the man. “Ted Marley.”
“Do they still call you dieners or is that too archaic a term?” said Parker.
Marley nodded. “Some of the older doctors do. But I haven’t heard the word used in about ten years. You have a medical background? I thought you were a bounty hunter.”
“Bail recovery—never mind,” said Parker. “I have an M.D. Used to practice intensive care medicine over in Seattle. I made some stupid decisions and lost my license. In the meantime, I kind of fell into this job because I knew the owner of the company. I had some good luck last year, solved a big case and decided to stay on. I’m free to apply for re-instatement of my license but I haven’t gotten around to it.”
The deputy stared at him, slack jawed. “You mean you actually like your job?” he said.
“Sure,” said Parker, trying to sound casual. “Like Ted here, it took awhile to really get into it. I mean, the first time he cut open a body that had been in the river for two weeks and he smelled the decay and saw worms coming out of the organs, he might have worried that he made the wrong career choice.”
Parker never got to finish his homily. The deputy turned pale, vomited his lunch across the floor and staggered toward the door. He nearly collided with Chief Walton. “What in hell?” said Walton, as he watched the stricken deputy disappear.
“He said he wasn’t feeling well,” said Parker, dead pan. Ted nodded, and winked.
Walton strode into the room, followed by Dr. Reynolds and a woman who walked over to the corpse and stared at it. She wore casual business attire: a charcoal skirt that showed off toned legs, matching jacket, unbuttoned with a white collarless blouse. She looked tall, even next to the plus-sized Chief, and had brown hair that grazed the top of her shoulders. She bent over the body and pried one of its fingers up to inspect. Parker looked at her face as she touched the corpse. No more reaction than if she was trying to choose the proper cut of steak at the grocery store.
“This is Jessica Monroe, from Los Angeles,” said Walton. “She also is here to identify the body.”
“Is she related to the decedent?” asked Parker. He didn’t recall anything about a spouse or sister in Grant’s file.
“Private Investigator,” said Jessica Monroe. “I just got to town about half an hour ago.”
“She claims to represent a relative,’ said Reynolds. He looked like a man who has just taken a bite of something sour.
Monroe stepped away from the table and held up a picture. Parker looked. Good likeness of the body. “My client’s husband,” said Monroe. “Did you fingerprint the body?”
“Tried, but came up empty. He doesn’t have any,” said Walton.
“Exactly,” said Monroe. She put the picture away. Her eyes had the look of triumph. Someone holding a hand with a royal flush, daring you to raise.
Parker said: “What?”
“This is the body of Gerry Foster.”