The whole time Claxton was watching the newcomer. To some extent he was still sore about having to ask anybody for help, especially somebody at the state level. This was his county, populated with his people. His way of thinking said it should have been him and his department getting this new offender.
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On the other hand, this Slater guy was sharp. From what few words they’d exchanged to this point, Claxton had decided he’d probably handle himself pretty good in a fight. How much collateral damage he would cause was another matter altogether. That super-gun of his was liable to punch through anything he aimed for, including thin brick walls.
Barring the fact they’d been acquainted only a few minutes, Claxton found himself inwardly despising the man. He was equally disappointed in the State Police in general. He’d expected a man with some kind of formal investigating skill. Instead they’d sent him some kind of slicked-up beat cop; decent to look at but useful for little else. His county had plenty of warm bodies in uniforms. One more would only get in the way. Or that was how he saw things.
The only time he wasn’t overly minding Slater was the ride to find the newest body. Even then he was tracking him in the mirror. Claxton was only half-interested, though. Most of his conscious thought was reserved for pondering what he’d find when they got there. Hopefully something less jarring than the last time, preferably with the body more or less intact.
Upon arrival, Slater and his Cadillac became the center of attention. Naturally. Yes, he had a nicer, cleaner uniform and a heavier arsenal than the entire sheriff’s department, but that wasn’t the point. This was Claxton’s investigation by God, and he fully intended to keep the state police from forgetting the fact. He was working on something to say, something that would establish him as being in charge, when Slater passed him by and walked to the largest of the congregations.
“That’s a mess,” the sheriff commented.
“Move aside,” Slater ordered, trying to get a better look. Already trying to take over. Damn, but that rubbed Claxton the wrong way.
The new one was lying in the bar ditch, as sprawled out as the tight quarters would allow. His car, a two-door Ford, looked to have been run off the road. It had high-centered on the edge of the ditch, the driver’s side liberally peppered with bullet holes. You’d have to lay hands on some respectable firepower to deal that kind of damage.
“Find anything?” Claxton inquired of the crowd.
“Nothing, Sheriff,” one said. None of the others had anything to add. Meanwhile, Slater was crouched on the roadside, silently eyeballing the wreck. Another place and time he’d seen these before, shot-up wrecks wrapped around light posts or careened off a dusty backroad after a running gun battle. Oh, Prohibition, he thought. How you won’t be missed. This wasn’t like the old days, though.
Slater could comfortably say this hadn’t been a running battle. If that had been the case the bullet holes would have run from front to back, or back to front, depending on the direction of travel of the shooter’s vehicle. He ran the tips of his fingers across the impact marks. No, these were too close together. Almost like the killer had stood alongside the road, stopped the car, and hosed down the side. Maybe just slowed it down, seeing as the machine had swerved off to the ditch.
“Something isn’t right here.”
“Ah,” Claxton turned. “I see our friendly Highway Patrolman has a suggestion. Well go on, Kurt. Spill it.”
Looking at the sheriff, Slater saw very little that agreed with him. The man was clearly unfit as a cop—his stance and demeanor told him that much. Maybe he was a nice guy and maybe he’d be a good drinking companion, but drop the term ‘professional’ and he wasn’t the type that jumped to mind. Nevertheless, he ignored the less than subtle dig.
“You saw the holes that Ford? All of you?”
A general murmur of agreement rose from those assembled.
“Anybody think to look for brass? For shell casings? There’s fifty-odd holes in that thing and I personally haven’t seen a single one. Doesn’t that strike you fine folks as just a little bit odd?”
“You got any idea where we might find these magical shells, Mr. Slater?”
Jesus, Slater thought. This was less a sheriff’s department than a circus on wheels. Hadn’t they learned even basic tenets of police work? This was their county—not his. He wasn’t going to have the answers after being here less than a full day. Next thing you know, Claxton would pin the failure to get this guy on Slater. Of course, he was also beginning to understand how a killer like this could knock off three people in relatively short span of time.
“Hard to say, Sheriff.”
“What? You mean the glorious Highway Patrol can’t tell me a simple little thing like that? I’m disappointed.”
As soon as the words left Claxton’s lips he saw something change in Slater, like a dark shadow passing over the face. He was getting the distinct impression that the State Police didn’t think too much of him right now. Just as well. They needed to learn their place.
“Leaving so soon, Mr. Slater?”
“Well Sheriff,” Slater stood and dusted off his pants, “looks like your boys have everything under control. No need for the State Police to be here.”
That was the best Slater could do without throwing insults and acting like a spoiled child. So long as he kept is temper and his fists in check the problem wasn’t his. All he had to do was call Herot, say Claxton had changed his mind, and go home—it made no difference to him.
”You wait just a damn minute, Slater! I called all the way up to get help sent down here. Don’t you turn your back”—
“Better watch your hand there, Sheriff,” Slater nodded at the .38 on Claxton’s belt. The sheriff’s hand was wrapped loosely around the grip. “You do that, it makes you look like you’re getting ready to draw, cowboy.”
“Now you wouldn’t shoot me. Not in the back, anyway. The ankles, maybe.”
The changing expression on Claxton’s face was worth ten thousand words, maybe even a million. Slater had read the man’s history before he came down here. He knew every slip, screw-up, and poor judgment call in Claxton’s history behind the badge. The reference to shooting for the ankles was the worst he could recall on short notice and would cut the deepest.
From his vantage point, Slater could the see muscles working in Claxton’s jaw. He wanted to. Oh, how he wanted to. Another thing was the tic that started under the man’s left eye. He wanted to, but something was missing. Maybe the guts to actually go through with it, maybe the concern over the backlash . . . something. Whatever it was, it told Slater any kind of fight was going to be one-sided at best.
“Sheriff, if and when you decide you want the state police involved, you come and tell me. Until then, you know where I am.”
Everything stayed quiet until the departing Cadillac was lost in its own dust cloud. After that Morton Blackwell—the mayor of Planters, if the town could claim to have a mayor—took a long, slow look at Claxton.
“Yeah, Mort?” Claxton asked, knowing this wasn’t going to be pretty.
“Ike, can you tell me what in the hell just happened?”
Blackwell was easily the most reserved man in town, short of the preacher. For him to make any kind of four-letter addition to his conversations was presumably a sign of the onset of the apocalypse.
Claxton said nothing.
“Then you’d best think quick. I want you in my office as soon as you finish cleaning up this mess. From what I hear there’s a few things needs discussing.”
Slater didn’t go back to his motel room when he left. Instead he took a little tour of the scenic Planters area. In considering himself a lawman, he had no problems working with other lawmen—as long as they acted the part. Like his instructors had made clear, it took a significant amount of pride to be a highway patrolman. And, in the spirit of that, he would work alongside anybody else up until they started mouthing off. Even then he had enough control of his temper to walk away. Those occasions when he made an ass of the opposition was a bonus.
On top of that, the state police were stretched so thin they’d be happy to have another man who could be put to work elsewhere. Commissioner Platt wasn’t just a cop; he was a businessman who had brains enough to know when he was wasting his resources. On the day he was elected he cut half the bureaucrats and their expenses, temporarily shut down training, and dumped what extra funding was available into better equipment. Until things were in better shape, he put everybody on temporary leave, something that made him popular with the vast majority of his new command.
Four days later he’d trimmed the agency more to his liking and put things back in motion. Desk jockeys came back to work first. Clearly, he had some kind of disdain for bureaucrats. Once they had the logistical matters up and running he called back the patrolmen. The old equipment—outdated vehicles with lousy maintenance records and guns that had gone up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt—was dumped. Where exactly the lot was dumped was never made clear, but it became fairly obvious to the interested observer that the outdoor and sporting goods stores in Herot were suddenly awash in Spanish-American War surplus.
In their place came brand new toys, things like new-model revolvers—the old ones came off the production line before the turn of the century—new cars with radios—the state police could now outrun horses—and the big novelty: airplanes. Platt had procured two for spotting purposes. Both were unarmed, but they were invaluable for drawn-out car chases.
Among other new services, he also brought in two more armorers for the express purpose of upgrading some of the old guns that didn’t get liquidated in the opening blowout sale. Oddly, he frowned on the use of submachine guns in most cases. His reasoning was the inherent inaccuracy of burning through a fifty-round drum with the selector switch on FULL AUTO. He found shotguns slightly better, having one in every patrol car, but wanted them reserved for situations with little or no civilians around.
Policy changed, most notably in the area of promotions. Whereas the preceding commissioner had handed out extra stripes like penny candy, Platt was going to make sure you were eligible for promotion at least six months before it happened. This made some of the lieutenants and captains on the fast track to precinct boss noticeably less happy. Platt responded but cutting a few pieces of brass and pointing them in the general direction of the Herot Police Department.
Platt’s favorite new idea was the one shot-one kill philosophy. According to him, any bullet that wound up lodged in the chest of a miscreant was one bullet that couldn’t wind up lodged in a bystander. To put this idea into practice, mandatory range time went up. Ammo consumption went up. The training budget went up. The end result was that accuracy went up. Morale followed.
And for this relatively new force came new uniforms. If Rory Platt was going to run any kind of agency his people had better look nicer than the competition. He considered the H.P.D. to be competition and made every effort to avoid anything remotely similar to any actions, up to and including uniforms. There were old and expected requirements on uniform type and color and new regulations regarding appearance of motor vehicles, firearms, and horses. His bunch wasn’t going out patrolling astride nags. Oh God, no. Better to have a patrolman walk than ride a mangy horse.
Having found nothing on his aimless drive, Slater went back to the motel. A quick consultation of his pocket watch showed it as being close to lunchtime and he had no great desire to wait on food. Not if he could help it, he wasn’t. Cheap food was bound to dry up someday, but until then Slater was going to put away as much of it as humanly possible.
Fortunately the mid-day crowd at Gillespie’s motel and diner didn’t seem any greater than what he guessed would be normal. He counted four other vehicles, among them a beat-up International Harvester truck with a large crane mounted on the back. Claxton had told him a little about some of the locals and explained that one—Wells or Wills or something along those lines—had the only tow truck in the county.
He parked a few steps from the door to his rented room and dragged the leather case from the back seat. That case he always kept under lock and key, in addition to the lock on the case itself. He slipped it under the bed and pulled the sheet off to where it draped over the edge and hid the miniature leather crate. On the way out he checked the door lock twice.
Slater went out and the first thing he saw was a boy or perhaps twelve or thirteen taking a look at the Cadillac. What bothered him was the familiar shape tied to the boy’s back.
“Just out of curiosity, where’d you come by that?”
The boy seemed surprised to be interrupted.
“Are you with the highway police, mister?”
“I’m either with the Highway Patrol or the State Police. They haven’t told me which one. About that coffee-grinder on your back there—”
“Oh, this,” the boy unslung the burlap sack and held it out to Slater. “It’s a tommygun. My pa said so. We found it out in the field this morning, abandoned like. Pa said he couldn’t figure why somebody’d throw away a perfectly good machine gun.”
“Beats me. You had lunch?”
“I ain’t et yet. Pa let me bring the tommygun to town, but I missed lunch.” The boy shrugged and Slater got the impression that, in the boy’s opinion, missing lunch was a small price to pay for getting to tote the twenty pounds of steel and wood to the law in Planters.
“How far off you live?” Slater asked.
“Thirty or forty minutes over yonder,” the boy pointed down the road. “I guess I’d better go so as I can get some table scraps.”
Slater considered that momentarily. Thirty-five minutes by foot with a couple of extra pounds, under the baking noonday sun. He did some quick number work and decided he could make it out and back before Gillespie quit cooking until dinner. Of course, the owner would cook anytime if he had to, but during his designated breakfast, lunch, and supper schedule the prices were lower. And nobody wanted to spend a dime they could hold on to.
“Get in the car and I’ll save you the legwork.”
“Sure. You can be back before they even finish.”
The boy whooped and ran around to the passenger door while Slater put the machine gun in his room with the case. When he slid in behind the wheel the passenger was still taking in all the details of this new environment.
“What’s that do?” he pointed at a piece of mesh set into the dashboard.
“That’s a radio.”
“Can you hear music on it?”
“Not on that one,” Slater twisted the control knob. “This is a police-band radio. You can hear the dispatchers in Stokesville. If it’s a clear enough day you can pick up messages from as far off as Herot.”
“Have you ever been there? Herot?”
“That’s where they send me out of whenever I have to go someplace.”
“What it like? I ain’t never been in a city.”
“Lots of people. There’s cars and shops and more hotels than we know what to do with. Up on the north side of town they even got a port where the ships come in.”
“I suppose some of them come from China. Why?”
“My Uncle Toby’s in the Navy and he sends us postcards from China and Sing-poor and Japan and places I cain’t even say right. Are there lots of ships?”
Slater blew out a long breath and watched the passing scrub. “The Port of Herot handles about . . . sixty a day, I’d guess. Most of the shipping traffic goes a little farther to some of the bigger ports up the shoreline a bit.”
“What kind of stores do they got?”
“Stores for everything you can imagine.”
“Could I buy an army tank?” the boy asked.
“If you knew where to look you could get one. I wouldn’t recommend it, though. Uncle Sam don’t really like tanks rolling around in his sandbox unless he’s running the things.”
“Do they have stores for bad things?”
“They have those. That’s why they got so many cops.”
“Do the bad-men ever win?”
“Off and on they win a little bit. But we win in the end. Always have and always will.”
The questions continued for a good ten minutes. On perfect roads Slater could have finished the entire run in three or four minutes, if that. These were hardly perfect roads, however, and he was constantly avoiding potholes, washes, and assorted pieces of highway debris. When he left the main road it was onto a pair of deep-worn ruts that seemed more suited to horses and wagons than motorcars.
When the trail ended it was at a rundown farmhouse at the center of what appeared to be several dozen acres of half-dead and half-dying crops. The passenger bailed and went shouting up to the house. After a minute an older man came out. The napkin tucked into his open collar told Slater they’d arrived in the middle of the mid-day meal.
“The boy shoot somebody?”
“No. Why’d you think that?”
“You brung him, ain’tcha?”
“Said he’d miss the food if he had to walk and I figured it wasn’t any problem driving him back. I do have a few questions about that machine gun, though.”
“Huh,” the farmer chewed on a piece of food he hadn’t quite finished earlier. “Tell you what. You stay an et and when you done I’ll tell you anything you want.”
The farm, as Slater was quick to pick up on, had to be corn. He made his assumption on the heavy presence of the vegetable. There was corn on the cob, corn off the cob, cornbread, a misshapen loaf of bread that wasn’t cornbread but bore the same grainy texture, and a handful of other corn-based items. Not very memorable and not terribly filling. After eating—the whole meal was perhaps a fifth of what he could’ve bought at Sarge’s—the farmer took Slater out to the fields. If it had been up to him to navigate they would have been hopelessly lost. Somehow though, the older man seemed to know exactly where they were.
“The boy found it hereabouts,” the older man swept a hand around a small plot indistinguishable from any other piece of land Slater had seen so far.
“Find anything else, or just the gun?”
“Just the gun. Don’t know if it means nothin’, but we heared a funny noise last night, like corn when it gets throwed in a fahr.”
“Kind of a tat-tat-tat-tat-tat kind of sound?”
“That’s right, it was a tat kind of noise. Whole bunch of ‘em in a long string.”
The farmer paused and mulled over that for a while. “Over yonder, I reckon. Towards the road.”
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