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RogueAn Ike Schwartz Mystery
By Frederick Ramsay
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2011 Frederick Ramsay
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Chapter OneCold rain pelted the windows as the first of October's storms powered across the nation's capitol, leaving fallen tree limbs and electrical outages in its wake. Inside, away from the cold and wind, the room brightened periodically as lightning struck somewhere, close or far. The rumble of thunder followed at varying intervals, its volume muted by triple glazing. Inside, except for the lightning flashes, the hospital room remained dark and eerily quiet. In this antiseptic cave, only the soft rhythmic beeping from the monitor in the corner, the wheeze and gurgle from the ventilator, and an irregular, soft clack from the IV regulator broke the near silence. Soft light illuminated a single bed and its occupant. With her shattered left leg elevated, her mouth obscured by the ventilator, a neck brace, and her head swathed in bandages, Ruth Harris would be recognizable only by those who knew her well enough to recognize her eyes.
But they were closed.
Charlie Garland shuffled his feet and did his best to ignore the pervading odor of disinfectant. He disliked hospitals and everything they represented—pain, fear, and death. He had but rarely visited one during a happy occasion, the birth of a child, the recovery from a serious illness. As a bachelor with no immediate family, those moments did not often fall to him. But this night he was oblivious to the sounds in the room and those outside. His concerns were focused on his friends: the deathly pale woman in the bed and a perfectly healthy Ike Schwartz.
Ike stood at the foot of the bed, as if carved from gray New England granite, eyes red-rimmed, weary, and fixed on Ruth. Charlie shifted his gaze away from the green lines that snaked hypnotically across the monitor's screen and directed it toward Ike. He reached out and touched his raincoat sleeve, still damp after four hours indoors.
"Ike? You should get some rest. There is nothing more we can do here tonight. You need sleep."
Ike did not move or speak. Charlie didn't really expect that he would. He could only imagine the pain Ike felt. Five years previously, Eloise, Ike's wife of a hundred days, had died in his arms, a victim of an errant assassin's bullet. It had taken him three years to begin to put that behind him. The woman who now lay deathly still in the bed had been in large part responsible for his recovery, for his reentry into life, as it were. Charlie feared this could end as very bad déjà vu.
"She can't die, Charlie," Ike said, his voice husky, uncertain.
"No, Ike, she can't."
They spoke as if somehow they could, by sheer exercise of their will, assume control of the physiological events taking place in Ruth's broken body. Charlie realized that, indeed, if he could, he would. The IV drip clacked as if to disabuse him of this presumption.
It is bad enough to lose one person you love to mindless violence, but two? Ike, he feared, may have had enough. And Ike said it, she can't die. God only knows what Ike must be thinking.
"Ike, we should go."
Again, Ike did not move.
A tired looking nurse wearing rumpled purple scrubs and sporting a disordered blonde-going-to-gray ponytail slipped into the room.
"Gentlemen, I have to ask you to leave. I have to change some dressings and check the patient's catheter." She paused and peered at Ike. "It is past two a.m. and time to shut this down for now. You can come back in the morning."
Ike did not budge.
"We have your contact information, sir. I promise I will call you if there is any change in Ms. Harris' condition." She spoke in a voice worn smooth from saying those words many, perhaps too many times. "Now you really must leave."
"Ike," Charlie took him by the arm and turned him so that he faced away from the bed, "Ike, we have to go. Let me buy you a cup of coffee and then we'll eat something, rest up and be back first thing in the morning."
"She can't die, Charlie."
"No, Ike, she can't and she won't. Come on. Nurse ..." Charlie squinted in the dim light to read the nurse's name tag, "... Nurse Annie Struthers will call you if there's any change."
The nurse graced him with a ghost of a smile and nodded, then stepped to the bed. She reached for the draw drapes and proceeded to close them, blocking their view. That seemed to break the spell that had Ike frozen in place. He nodded and allowed Charlie to lead him out into the hall and to the elevators.
"Coffee and breakfast," Charlie said.
"Okay, but first we go to the precinct station and ask for a copy of the accident report. If Ruth lost control of the car, I want to know where, when, and how. She had a lead foot, Charlie, but she drove like she might have taught Driver's Ed. Accidents did not happen to her."
"Okay, accident report, then food, then sleep."
* * *
The beefy desk sergeant seemed singularly unresponsive to Ike's request.
"Who are you, and why should I give you a copy of an accident report? It's official police business. You a lawyer or something?"
Charlie saw the muscles in Ike's jaw flicker and hoped he wouldn't pop off to this thick Metro cop. He wouldn't blame him—enough was enough. Ike's jaw muscles flexed and then relaxed.
"As it happens I am, but that is not why I'm asking. It concerns my fiancée. I want to know what happened."
"You think that's going to work? Look, trust us to do our job, okay? And if you're thinking about lawsuits, you'll have to go through channels to get the report."
Ike drew in a breath and let it out slowly. One ... two ... three ... four ... "Okay, Sarge, how about you give it to me as an act of professional courtesy." Ike slid his badge across the scarred desk surface.
The cop peered myopically at it and smirked. "Wee-hah, a sheriff. Where's your posse, Sheriff? Listen, this ain't the Wild West, Bunky. Go through channels."
Charlie had, in the not too distant past, witnessed his friend at work in the field. So, before Ike could reach across the desk and land the punch that he knew could cause some serious dental mayhem, he stepped between both men and dropped his CIA ID on the table next to Ike's badge.
"How about we try this," he said. "You make a copy of that report right now, this minute, or I make a call. I do that and this house goes into twenty-four/seven lockdown until our friends from the Hoover Building discover which of your compadres is leaking information to a local terrorist cell about the routes the president's car takes."
"What the hell. You can't do that. There's nobody in this precinct that has any access to that kind of information."
"There, you see? The very fact you know that convinces me that there really is a leak. Now, do I make the call to the FBI, or do you surrender a copy of the accident report to my friend here?"
"Son of a—"
"Tsk, none of that, now, Sergeant. Think of yourself as a dedicated advocate of the Freedom of Information Act who was happy to accommodate Sheriff Schwartz. Who knows, someday he may pull your chestnuts out of the fire and you will be happy he is a friend of yours."
"Yeah, and I'm Matthew McConaughey." Moments later the Sergeant handed
Ike the report. "Okay, on your way, Cowboy."
Ike skimmed the report and fixed the cop with a look that could etch glass.
"What kind of bullshit is this? There are no witness statements. No site analysis—skid marks, speed estimates. Who ran up this piece of crap?"
"Look buddy, we had a slick street, the car was wrapped around a utility pole, it's raining cats and dogs, and it's dark as an outhouse at midnight. What else is there to know? The driver lost control, the car skidded and slammed into the pole, end of story."
"If your guys were working for me, they'd be back out there at that accident scene and wouldn't come in again until they either caught pneumonia and died, or filed a complete report."
"Right. Happy trails, Sheer-if."
The two left and found an open Denny's. Charlie ate breakfast. One of life's absolutes—Denny's might be a major contributor to the nation's dangerously elevated cholesterol levels, but they knew how to do breakfast. Ike sipped his coffee and, when he'd sufficiently cooled down, began to read. At three thirty a.m. Ike slammed the report against the table, stood, and headed for the door.
"I need to see the car."
"Ike, it's too early, the facility where they towed the car will be locked up tight, and you haven't touched your food. Besides what can you see in the dark?"
"They screwed this up, Charlie. Come on. We'll find a way to take a peek."
"No we won't. Sit down. We'll eat, rest a bit, and when they open at eight, go visit your car."
Frustrated, Ike slumped back in the booth, his eye glued to the clock over the order pickup window while a perfectly good Grand Slam cooled and congealed before him.
Chapter TwoCharlie could not hold Ike in place. The manager at Denny's had not minded them occupying a booth for nearly three hours. The place had remained nearly empty the whole time, so it wasn't needed. Charlie drank and regretted the endless cups of coffee he'd imbibed, which now had him simultaneously wired and suffering from a volcanic case of acid reflux. Ike spent the time reading and rereading the accident report silently and then aloud to Charlie.
"Do you hear it, Charlie?" he'd said. Charlie didn't. "Listen ..." and Ike had read the paragraphs which described the rear passenger's side quarter panel and bumper to him again. He punctuated his sentences by thumping the table with the soft side of his fist. "See?"
Charlie nodded but he didn't see anything. Finally, with the sun up and streetlights extinguished, he'd yielded to Ike's impatience and they left for the tow yard. On their way, they stopped at a twenty-four-hour drugstore where Ike bought a box of latex gloves, a box of gallon-sized plastic freezer bags, a prepaid cell phone, and a cheap digital camera. Charlie knew better than to ask him why.
People who knew Ike, depending on whether they were among his admirers or detractors, believed that he moved through life as either paranoid, prescient, plain lucky, or a genius. He seemed to know in advance what he would probably find or need, or who might function in what unlikely roles. His only extant psychological profile, buried in one of Langley's alleged catacombs, rated him extremely high on the scale measuring intuition. When asked why he'd done this or that, Ike would only shrug. "Had a hunch," he'd say and that would cover it as far as he was concerned.
They arrived at Metro Towing and Salvage at seven forty-five. They met the owner at the yard's gate. Ike flashed his badge, which seemed sufficient to gain them entry. They found the crumpled mass of steel and glass that had once been Ike's Buick. He scanned the wreck as if he had a camera implanted in his head and every detail of the car need be recorded to be compared to other, older, perhaps happier, images of it. He circled the car three times. Then he repeated the process, this time with his drugstore camera. He donned the latex gloves and wrenched open one door. He sifted through the miscellany in the car, bagging some, tossing the rest.
"Okay, we're done here. I want to have this thing on a rollback and on the way to a forensic lab ASAP."
The yard owner shook his head. "Sorry, no can do, Bud. This here car sits where it's at because the cops had her towed in. They have to release it first."
"I'm a cop," Ike said, his gaze still fixed on the right rear panel of the car, "And I authorize its release."
"I'll still need the paperwork."
Ike wheeled back to the lot owner. "You know what? This car is moving today. Since I am the owner and I want it, you don't get a choice. Just tell me what the towing charge is and it's out of here."
"You wrecked this thing and lived?"
"No, someone else did. But that is not the point. It's mine. Check the registration in the glove box and show me where to sign. I am also in possession of the accident report and it is clear that the cops are done with it." He shoved the report under the lot man's nose.
"Whoa. Take it easy." The lot man glanced at the report and Ike's badge again. He didn't appear too sure about what he should do. He squinted at the badge, threw his hands up, and sighed. "Okay, I guess. This won't get me in any trouble, will it? I should call the precinct. I'd hate to lose the business, you know? Times are tough. I depend on city towing to stay open."
"I promise there will be no backlash. Where can I hire a rollback?"
"I have a rollback. Where do you want it delivered?"
"Charlie, do you suppose I could borrow some of your people to go over this for me? There won't be much for them to do. I need some paint samples from the rear quarter panel, bumper, and passenger side door. I will retrieve the GPS tracking device from under the hood and put someone to work on decoding what happened to the car in its last minutes. Then we'll see what comes next."
Charlie noticed, but did not comment on the tracking device. More Ike.
"Sure, no problem. I'll have to tell a few lies. So what's new with that? If they pass muster, we also have people who can unravel your GPS data in a heartbeat." Charlie made two calls and then gave the lot man an address.
"It goes there? Who are you guys?"
"National security," Charlie whispered, "need to know, sorry."
"Right. My driver will be here in an hour. I'll get him on it, mum's the word," the lot owner said, and laid a finger next to his nose.
"One more thing," Ike said. "Whatever you do, do not disturb the rear end or side of that car. It is evidence in a criminal investigation."
"Wow, okay. This is top secret, right?"
"You got it."
The yard man left to retrieve whatever forms he needed to effect the car's release.
"You think the locals will howl when they find out you grabbed your car?" Charlie sometimes felt he played Archie Goodwin to Ike's Nero Wolfe, but more often he felt like Watson to his Sherlock.
"Trust me, the Metro cops are done with this. You heard that side of beef at the desk. The report indicates they have already signed the release. We just don't have it in hand—minor detail."
"That's what I like about working with you, Ike. Things are what you need them to be."
"Don't mock me, Charlie. I'm not in the mood for banter this morning."
"No, of course not. I'm sorry. I am sure there will be ways to mollify the cops if that becomes necessary. But you are right, they are busy, uninterested in this case, and ... You told the guy it is a criminal investigation. Is it?"
"It is now. This car has been smacked from behind."
"Ike, Ruth has had the car for a month. Someone could have banged into it at any time in the last four weeks."
"She would have said something."
"Then maybe last night."
"That is my point, Charlie. Someone hit it last night, in the rear and on the side it. I aim to find out who and why."
"You're not buying accident?"
"Not until I have to."
"Okay, it's your call. What's next?"
"For you, make the calls to set up the car's arrival and inspection of the tracking device. It's on the firewall on the driver's side, by the way. Then go home and sleep. Take my car. It's an official police vehicle, so drive carefully."
"You'll need it, Ike. I'll take a cab."
"No, I insist. Look, after five years, I'm not sure I can find your place anymore. Then, you realize, I am running on adrenaline at the moment. I have a few things left that I must do, pronto. When the adrenaline rush finally wears off, I will crash. I don't want to be behind the wheel and have the metaphor become a reality. One smash-up this weekend is more than enough. Write your address on a piece of paper and stick it in my pocket. I'll see you in an hour or so."
Charlie did as he was asked, took Ike's keys, and drove away.
* * *
Ike waited for the lot owner to assemble the necessary papers. Then he reassured him once again that the release would cause no trouble, signed off on the car's removal, and thanked him. He retreated to the street, paused, and took a moment to study the report. He then flagged a cab and headed to the scene where Ruth had wrapped his Buick around the steel utility pole. He hoped the nervous energy that had sustained him for the last twenty-four hours would hold a bit longer. He needed to avoid being run over by rush hour traffic when he dodged in and out of cars and busses to take pictures of the accident scene, skid marks, and anything else the cops had missed.
Fortunately, the traffic on the street was not as heavy as he expected. He didn't know why. Mondays were usually busy everywhere. He did have a near miss when a woman holding a cell phone in one hand while she manipulated its keyboard, and sipping on a cup of coffee held in other, missed him by inches. She didn't see him before or after she whooshed by. Ike muttered an uncharitable and very sexist comment about females in general and texting while driving in particular. Had Ruth heard him, she would have been provoked to a classic response about his prehistoric ideas regarding the roles of the sexes. He smiled at the thought, but fleetingly.
Excerpted from Rogue by Frederick Ramsay Copyright © 2011 by Frederick Ramsay. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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