When another high school pupil's dead body is discovered, Lucinda is convinced she is pursuing the right path in uncovering the motivations for the bomber. However, will the competing agencies ever acknowledge her conviction and allow her to solve the case?
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By Diane Fanning
Severn House Publishers Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Diane Fanning
All rights reserved.
Routine. Ordinary. Typical. Just what Bob and Elsie Cornwall did every Sunday morning. They pulled out their walking shoes, snapped the leash on the harness of their sable Sheltie, Herman, and went on their regular walk. Two blocks east, two blocks south, a circumnavigation of the high school, then back the way they came.
All was quiet and peaceful in the neighborhood as they strolled through on the way to the campus. Walking past the east side of the building, approaching the front of the school, they startled at an unexpected sound. With a rumble, a jacked-up, red pick-up truck tore away from the front, spraying dirt and clumps of grass.
Bob and Elsie stopped where they stood. If they had been ten feet further along, Elsie wondered, would the vehicle have run them down in its rush to flee? Herman barked loud and high, frightened and disturbed by the interruption of the morning's quiet peace.
Still parked by the entrance, a large flatbed with wooden plank sides held containers partially filled with bins of grass clippings and leaves. On the steps leading inside, a man in a red flannel shirt, blue jeans and a ball cap stood abruptly. In one hand, he held a big, browned biscuit. A slice of ham slid out of his partially eaten breakfast and fell on the ground.
Blaring horns and squealing brakes drew their attention back to the red truck that had just run a stoplight as it pulled into the highway. It all happened so fast that Bob and Elsie didn't have enough time to process their surroundings before the fury roared outward from inside of the school.
Bricks fell off the facade. The pillars at the entrance crumpled, burying the man on his lunch break. The shock knocked the two walkers to the ground. Bob dropped the leash as he fell and Herman ran off as fast as he could, his tail tucked between his legs.
For a moment, neither Bob nor Elsie could hear as the explosion reverberated in their ears. They looked at each other and blinked, then gingerly pushed up from the ground. Elsie screamed for Herman but the Sheltie was focused on his escape and could not hear the sound of her voice. He seemed to be heading in the direction of their home. She could only hope she'd find him there later. She rushed over to the rubble where the man had once stood.
Blood spattered over the busted bricks. The man's legs, pinned under the fallen pillars, twisted at unnatural angles. His face was battered and his eyes wide open as they stared, visionless, into space. Elsie felt her head spin and a surge of bile rising in her throat. She threw her hand over her mouth and staggered away at a fast clip. She disgorged the contents of her stomach on the asphalt parking lot.
Bob rushed to her side and wrapped an arm around her as she continued to heave even after there was nothing left. 'He's dead?' Bob whispered.
Elsie nodded her head. As a retired emergency room nurse, she'd seen a lot of gruesome injuries in the past but somehow, outside of the hospital environment, it felt more shocking and had a much greater emotional impact. She could smell the primitive scent of blood mingled with the construction-site scent of concrete, mortar and brick dust. Her eyes stung from the particles in the air. The sounds around her echoed in her ears, creating an internal roar that seemed louder than the blast itself.
In the apartment building across the exit road, windows flew open, people ran outside. Blocked from coming any closer by the tall chainlink fence that separated the building from the school, they wrapped their fingers through the holes as they stared in disbelief. Approaching sirens wailed, drowning out the sound of shouted questions from the spectators. By the time Elsie was erect again, marked and unmarked vehicles were screeching to a halt around her. An ambulance pulled up to the front of the school. And EMTs quick-stepped out of it, carrying bags of equipment and supplies.
Police officers asked Bob and Elsie for their names and then placed them in the back of separate cars. Elsie objected loudly to being parted from her husband. A young, freckled officer apologized, telling her it was necessary to keep them from talking together until they had been interviewed separately. Elsie knew it was senseless to argue but she resented her isolation just the same.
The wait felt interminable to Elsie. Her mind wandered to worries about Herman, making her oblivious to the approaching detective. She shouted out involuntarily when the front door of the vehicle jerked open and a woman with a face that bore subtle traces of old scars slid into the seat and leaned back towards her. Holding out her identification, she said, 'I'm Lieutenant Pierce, Mrs Cornwall. I need to ask you a few questions.'
Elsie nodded mutely. Lucinda blew out a frustrated puff of air when Elsie said that she had not noticed the license plate number of the fleeing pick-up.
'Was there anyone else in the area?' Lucinda asked.
'Herman,' Elsie said.
'Herman who? And where did he go?'
'I wish I knew. He's our dog. He ran off. He was frightened by the loud noises.'
Lucinda blew out another puff of air.
Elsie felt like an ass – an unhelpful ass. And now that Herman's name was mentioned, she felt irresponsible for not grabbing his leash immediately, before he could run off down the street. What if he got lost? What if he were run over by a car? He had never run off before. Would he know how to find home? Would he know to wait for us?
'Ma'am. Ma'am. Please focus over here. Please answer my questions. The sooner you do, the sooner you can go home.'
'Please answer the question, ma'am.'
'I'm sorry. What question?'
'Did you see anyone else in the vicinity before or after the explosion?'
'No. Not until the police cars pulled up. Well, except for the people on the other side of the fence by the apartments.'
'Did you see the deceased before the building blew?'
'Yes. When the truck pulled away, he jolted to his feet. He was holding a biscuit. There was a bite out of it. He looked confused.'
'Did he say anything?'
'No. I don't think so.'
'Did you speak to him after the explosion?'
'No. I didn't really understand what was happening. It all happened so quickly. The truck squealed out and then the loud noise. I didn't even realize it was an explosion at first. It was odd seeing the bricks blow off the side of the building and the pillars start to tilt. Then I was on the ground. I don't remember falling. I remember feeling off balance and then I was down. And my dog was running away. He wouldn't stop. You have to let me go. I don't know where he is. He's frightened. He needs me. I need to see if he got home. I really need to go,' she said, twisting at the door handle. It wouldn't budge. She pounded on the glass and shouted, 'Let me out of here!'
'Ma'am, don't panic. I just need to ask you a few more questions—'
'No. I'm not answering anything – nothing more. I'm done until I know Herman is OK. I'm not saying another word until then.'
'Ma'am, please be patient. We'll get you home soon.'
'No. Now.' Elsie's eyes flashed with anger and she jerked her head away, refusing to look at the lieutenant.
Lucinda sighed and stepped out of the car, closing the door behind her. Elsie checked the door handle again then watched as the detective went over to the vehicle where Bob sat being questioned. As Lucinda approached, another plainclothes officer stepped out of that sedan.
She watched the two women talk together and then heard Lucinda calling over to a uniformed officer, 'Please give Mr and Mrs Cornwall a ride home, Collins.'
Lucinda returned to the vehicle where Elsie sat waiting and opened the rear door. 'You sure you're not injured, ma'am? That's a nasty scrape on your left arm.'
Elsie raised the limb in question and looked at it, stunned. She hadn't noticed it before. 'Oh, that must have happened when I fell.'
'There's still an ambulance here. Do you want the paramedic to patch it up?'
'No, no,' Elsie said, shaking her head. 'I just want to get home.'
'Are you sure?'
'Don't worry; I'm a nurse. I know how to care for this. It's nothing, really.'
'OK, if you're certain. Come on over to the car where your husband is. Officer Collins will give you a ride home. I'm sure I'll need to talk to you later. And here's my card if you think of anything that you don't recall right now.'
As Elsie stepped out, she heard an alarmed yell from a distant entrance to the school. 'Lieutenant! Lieutenant! We need you in here now!' the voice shouted.
Elsie watched as the detective took long, rapid steps, almost running, across the grass. She marveled at Lucinda's sense of balance and ability to move so quickly over rough terrain in a straight skirt and higher heels than Elsie ever felt comfortable wearing, even when she was standing still.CHAPTER 2
'This way,' a male forensic evidence tech said to Lucinda. 'Ms Spellman needs you.' He spun around and went back through the door.
Inside of the building, the dust was so thick that Lucinda coughed and choked on it as she followed the retreating back. As they neared the internal side of the entrance where the pillars had fallen and crushed the man eating his breakfast, the hallway obstructions multiplied. Lockers that used to be fastened to the inside wall were down, their contents sprawled across the floor. The concrete blocks of the exterior wall were pitted, stripped of paint, and here and there a combination lock had embedded into the hard surface from the force of the explosion.
The tech picked his way through rubble and into the remains of an office. Venetian blinds hung crooked and bent over busted windows facing an enclosed courtyard. An avalanche of papers had fallen like snow over every surface. Acting like shrapnel, pieces of metal from file cabinets stuck out of walls, furniture and demolished countertops. Most of the broken glass had been forced outward and now decorated the grass lawn like shiny slivers of ice.
Marguerite Spellman stood over a mutilated body in the middle of the space. The male corpse was missing the lower half of one leg as well as one arm. His neck twisted to the left, the right side of his head was cratered and the pieces of bloodied bone were unrecognizable as human. Virtually nothing remained of the facial features on his right profile.
Marguerite and Lucinda exchanged a glance. Lucinda asked, 'Innocent victim or participant in the crime?'
Marguerite shrugged. 'It's hard to tell, Lieutenant. Maybe I'll find a clue in this mess. Maybe there will be an indication in the post-mortem. At this point, it appears as if that might be a question you'll have to answer on your own.'
Lucinda grunted in acceptance and said, 'If we ever find an answer.'
Marguerite sniffed the air. 'Do you smell that?'
The lieutenant drew a deep breath in through her nose, picking up the scent of dust and blood but nothing more. 'What?'
'Ammonia, I think.'
Lucinda inhaled again. 'No, I don't.'
'Maybe it's just my imagination; I thought I picked up a faint trace of that acrid odor but I can't smell it now.'
'If your first impression was right, what would that mean?' Lucinda asked.
'Perhaps an ammonium nitrate bomb – a fertilizer bomb – like the one that took down the federal building in Oklahoma.'
'People can still get that stuff?'
'It's pretty common,' Marguerite said. 'But there are inert markers in most of the product sold since Oklahoma. If that's what was used, we may be able to trace the source through that. Hopefully, gas chromatography will identify the fuel used to initiate the combustion as well.'
Doctor Sam grumbled as he stepped into the room, 'Geez, Lieutenant, do you try to make things difficult for me? I'm past retirement age and way too old to be climbing over mountains of rubble like some young billy goat. Why can't you be more considerate about where you leave your victims?'
'Hey, Doc Sam, sorry. It is what it is,' Lucinda said with a shrug.
'You can do better than that, Pierce.' He crouched down by the body. 'You could have left me a little more to work with here. Identifying this body is going to be nigh near impossible unless you come up with a name that we can match with DNA.'
'Give me something to work with, Doc.'
'I'm not a miracle worker, Pierce.'
'Yes you are, you old codger. Give me an age, a height, something to narrow the identification process.'
'Has anyone ever told you that you are one demanding woman?'
'Almost every day, Doc – what's your point?'
'You are exasperating,' Doc said. He huffed and puffed his displeasure as he examined the body.
Lucinda exchanged a glance with Marguerite over Doc Sam's head, folded her arms across her chest and waited for a pronouncement from below. Marguerite stifled a laugh and walked off to check on the progress the techs were making with evidence collection.
With a loud grunt, Doc Sam pushed himself up off of the floor. 'It's a male. Might be high school age. Could be a bit past that but I'd guess we have a student here. Average height. The one eye that remains is blue; hair brown.'
'Victim or bomber?'
Doc Sam spread his hands wide. 'Why do you even ask a question like that? You think the answer is tattooed on his chest?'
'No, sir, Doc. I was just hoping you'd seen something I'd missed.'
'Of course I have. I always do. But, in answer to your question, no. I'll look for it at autopsy but doubt I'll find it. You're gonna have to identify him first and figure it out from there.' He turned away from Lucinda and shouted to the two white-coated men standing in the doorway. 'Bag the body, load it up and get it to the morgue, post-haste.' Turning back to Lucinda, he said, 'Yes, Lieutenant, it's a priority for me. I'd like to get the post-mortem done before the damn Feds barge in.'
'The Feds?' Lucinda asked.
'C'mon, Pierce. An explosion? An act of terrorism? You think the Feebs are going to let you handle this?'
'There's no proof, at this time, that this is a terrorist act.'
'Go ahead. Anchor your boat in the sea of denial. Isn't going to change the situation one little bit,' he said.
Lucinda knew he was right. The thought had already crossed her mind. But she didn't want to accept it. If she called Special Agent in Charge Jake Lovett, maybe she could work out a compromise that would still keep her on the case. She knew he could call some of the shots with the FBI involved in the case, but would Jake be able to keep ATF and Homeland Security at bay? She punched in his cell number.
'Lovett. Oh, is this you, Lucin— uh, Lieutenant Pierce?'
Obviously, he was not alone. 'Yes, Special Agent Lovett. I have a situation here—'
'Wish I could lend a hand, Lieutenant, but I'm on the way to a possible terrorist incident with an explosives expert from the ATF. And the State Secretary of Veteran Affairs and Homeland Security is sending someone over there to meet us at the scene.'
'Are you going to Woodrow Wilson High School, Special Agent Lovett?'
'Oh, you've heard about it?' Jake asked.
'You might say that,' Lucinda answered.
'Oh. Don't tell me. You're already there?'
'Yes, Special Agent Lovett, this is my case. Is that understood?'
'Uh, listen, Lucy ... uh, Lieutenant Pierce. We'll be there in ten minutes or less and we'll talk then.'
Then a click, silence and a dial tone. He'd hung up on her. He's going to pay for that one way or another, she vowed. And I will continue to work this case no matter what Mr Special Agent Lovett or the AFT goon or the Homeland Security bureaucrat thinks about that. She stomped outside to check the progress at the exterior of the blasted-out entrance.CHAPTER 3
Lucinda was outside observing the techs as they worked around the collapsed entryway when Jake Lovett pulled up with a toot of his horn. Lucinda used her hand to shield her eyes from the sun and watched Jake stretch his long legs out of the car. She wanted to deny the flutter in her chest that his presence induced but it was a useless effort.
Another person emerged from the right side of the vehicle wearing an ATF ball cap and windbreaker. His face bore the indicators of a lifetime out in the sun: dark, leathery skin, deep creases from his cheekbones to his mouth, harsh, permanent furrows on his brow, and his eyes squeezed in a perpetual squint. He was a bit shorter than Jake but his stride was longer and more purposeful. She imagined that he always appeared as if he was in a rush to get somewhere.
Approaching her, Jake said, 'Lieutenant Pierce, ATF Resident Agent in Charge Connelly.'
Lucinda stuck out a hand and shook Connelly's firmly. 'Agent Connelly,' she acknowledged with a nod. Then she turned to Jake. 'I thought you were bringing an explosives expert.'
Excerpted from Chain Reaction by Diane Fanning. Copyright © 2013 Diane Fanning. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
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