The Day of the Gun, Part XXI
This posting features Chapter 42 of my ongoing action novel, The Day of the Gun.
“Scott,” the chief called over his shoulder as he ran from the building. “Keep me up-to-date on the scanner.”
“That’s a big 10-4.”
“He likes saying that — 10-4, I mean,” Dana observed as she slid into the passenger’s seat.
“Buckle up,” the chief ordered as he reached for his lap belt. “He knew a reporter was on hand, so he wanted to sound all professional for you, Dana.”
She smiled as her cellphone erupted. “How sweet.” Into the mouthpiece: “What? Okay — how many? What’s your ETA? Okay.” She pulled the phone from her face. “When will we be there, chief?”
He glanced at his wristwatch as he popped the car into reverse and shot from the parking space. “Put it at two minutes. Maybe less.”
“Same as you, Bob,” she said into her phone. “See you then.”
Chief Hewson flipped a switch and the siren and flashing lights came on. They swung around a Coca-Cola truck and leapt onto a side street racing toward St. Vincent’s Memorial Hospital. Thirty seconds into the journey, the scanner squawked.
“Chief, the U.S. Attorney is on the line for you.”
A sigh. “Go ahead, Scott. Patch him through.”
“10-4 on that.” The reporter and the police chief shared a smile at the computer geek’s expense.
After 10 seconds or so, a familiar voice came on the line, edgy and nervous. “Hewson?” His tone was gruff and hoarse, like a barfly soaked with one too many vodka tonics.
“That’s a big 10-4,” the chief said, still grinning.
“Hewson, where have you been? Get over to St. Vincent’s,” he ordered. “There’s been a shooting. I’m sealing off the building, but I need you here as backup.”
“Already in transit. I’ll be there in 90 seconds,” the chief assured him. “Who got hit?”
Roth sounded as if he were in shock. “It’s FUBAR any way you look at it. Two of my men and seven civilians are confirmed dead — a doctor, a physical therapist, four nurses, and a nurses’ aid. A half dozen more are injured. There may be others. We are still assessing the crime scene.”
“My God! And Harris?”
A pause. “He’s missing. Along with Mary Elizabeth Johnston.”
“I know. Any idea where there are? Could they still be inside the hospital?”
“We’re searching top to bottom right now.”
Dotson could not contain herself. “When you say ‘missing,’ Mr. Roth, do you mean he was kidnapped? Was he kidnapped?”
The U.S. Attorney paused. “Who is that with you, Hewson?”
“We’re here,” Hewson announced as he yanked the steering wheel, hard, to the right, tires squealing. “Roth, I’ll be inside in a minute.” He depressed the button, killing the scanner. The car came to rest beside a series of police sawhorses. A uniformed officer approached the car as Hewson turned off the siren and rolled down the window.
“Howdy, chief,” the young man, Officer Brown, greeted his boss. “Can you believe this bullshit? Roth’s got us on traffic detail.” He leaned forward and his eyes swept through the car. “Oh,” he said in surprise when he saw the reporter.
“It’s okay,” Hewson assured him. “Let me by and I’ll speak to Roth.”
Brown nodded as he pivoted. Lifting a sawhorse, he allowed the chief’s car to slide by before replacing the obstruction.
Inside the parking lot, the patrol car swung past a line of SUVs and stopped, cattycornered, along a row of handicapped parking spaces near the hospital’s side entrance. The U.S. Marshals already were herding onlookers away from the building. Two ambulances and a fire truck were parked at odd angles along the curb. One dark colored sedan, still running, was parked partially on the sidewalk and partially on an azalea bush decorating the front yard.
“But my mother’s in there,” one white-haired woman protested to a Marshal.
“It’s just a precaution,” the Marshal assured her.
“You’ll have to wait outside, Dana. I can’t bend these rules.”
She had already spied the news truck, expertly piloted by her cameraman, Bob, on the other side of the sawhorses. “No problem, chief,” she said as she opened the car door. “We all have jobs to do. Thanks for the ride. Maybe I can speak to you on camera after you meet with Roth?” It was part question, part statement.
“We’ll see, Dana. We’ll see. No promises.”
“Fair enough.” She stepped from the car, smoothed the wrinkles in her dress, and trotted away from the hospital entrance. He watched her scurry toward her colleague’s van and shook his head. Now, she was a cool customer.
Hewson flashed his badge at the U.S. Marshal and the young fellow stepped aside.
The side and front doors leading to the hospital already were cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape sporting an ominous warning: “Police: Do Not Cross.” The chief lifted the tape, leaned forward, and stepped across the line. His back was still sore from his adventures in the cemetery, and his muscles screamed at him to refrain from such maneuvers. Wincing, he reached for the front door.
The lobby was stuffed with people. Friends and family of the injured and the ill had been herded into a waiting room where they vociferously protested to a bank of mostly unsympathetic U.S. Marshals and FBI agents. Doctors in white lab coats ran frantically back and forth from one room to another. Firemen and uniformed paramedics congregated off to one side. It resembled a scene from The Towering Inferno or some other big budget Hollywood disaster film from the 1970s.
A young Marshal stepped forward to greet him. When the man read the chief’s badge and realized who Hewson was, he motioned and headed for the elevators. “Follow me, Officer Hewson,” he said.
Roth’s right-hand man met them in the main lobby. He was all fake smiles and nervous body language in his expensive blue, pinstriped, tailor-made suit. “Chief Hewson, I’m Mike Cameron,” the earnest young man said as he extended his hand. “I’m the assistant U.S. Attorney. We met at the briefing on Sunday.”
The chief had not recognized the fellow, but the introduction jogged his memory. “Yes, of course,” he muttered as they stepped into an open elevator car. “What’s going on with all these people?”
“I’ve got it now, Rick,” Cameron said to the Marshal, who did not join them in the elevator.
“We’re practicing crowd control and triage,” the young attorney explained. “As you might imagine, the place is a madhouse.”
“So I see. Listen, what can you tell me about the shooting?” the chief asked as the elevator doors closed.
“I’ll let Mr. Roth brief you,” the fellow answered in an abrupt manner. Hewson knew better than to press for more details. Roth valued absolute loyalty and strict obedience above all else. This young man would not reveal anything else without his boss’s express approval.
The chief frowned. Why can’t I inspire that kind of loyalty?
Thirty second later, the elevator sounded and the doors swung open to reveal a group of U.S. Marshals, state policemen, and FBI agents hunched over a body. Flashbulbs ignited as they photographed the corpse. Their voices echoed around the nearly deserted hallway with an eerie resonance. Another plain-clothes agent spoke to a woman, apparently a nurse, if her uniform was any indication, and scribbled on a small notepad, nodding his head furiously as she spoke. She sat on a gurney holding a white cloth, obviously soaked in blood, against her arm. The scene reminded Hewson of the set of a war movie.
The chief paused to inspect the body. Seeing the wounds created by an automatic rifle, Hewson winced. He had worked in law enforcement longer than many of the FBI agents and U.S. Marshals had been alive, and he never got over the damage a metal projectile could do to the human anatomy.
“Here you go,” Cameron said as he pointed to the left. He grasped the chief gently by the elbow and led him away from the crime scene.
Before he could protest, Hewson turned and spotted the diminutive U.S. Attorney pacing the floor in front of the waiting area. He wore a light gray suit and a sky blue tie, slightly askew. His shirttail had pulled loose from his trousers, giving him a rumpled, lived-in kind of look that spoke volumes about this man’s A-type personality.
“There you are,” he said, throwing up his hands. “It’s about time. Who was that with you on the radio?”
Hewson ignored the comment. “Still no sign of Harris or Johnston?”
Roth glared at his assistant. “Will you excuse us, please, Mike?”
Apparently accustomed to the gruff demeanor, Cameron nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“And let me know if we receive any word on McLean.”
As Cameron walked back toward the elevators, Hewson frowned. “What word on McLean?”
Roth ignored the question. “Do you know what kind of position this fiasco puts me in? Do you have an earthly idea?”
Roth gestured wildly. “This — this — this never-ending series of shootings and murders. This shit-storm.” He was almost rendered inarticulate by his rage.
The chief also felt himself growing angry. Trying to hide his temper, he nodded. “The same position it puts me in — I’m the chief of police around here, Roth. At least your men aren’t stuck on traffic detail while the whole town gets shot up.”
This unexpected barb seemed to jolt the U.S. Attorney. He gazed at Hewson as if he were trying to read the older man’s inner thoughts. “Perhaps we can help each other,” he said in a quiet voice.
Hewson shrugged. “Perhaps we had better. What do you have in mind? I’m willing to listen.”
Roth collapsed into a chair next to the vending machines and wagged his fingers at the police chief. With a sigh, Hewson trundled over to a nearby chair and sat. Roth reached for a half-filled plastic foam cup of coffee sitting on an end table.
“Well?” Hewson said after a moment.
“You want some coffee?”
Roth sipped his coffee. “First of all, who was that on the radio when I spoke to you earlier?”
Hewson saw no point in hiding the truth. “It was Dana Dotson, the local TV investigative reporter.”
Roth slapped his knee and spilled his coffee. “Jesus H. Christ, Hewson, I thought you were smarter than that!” He reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved a handkerchief, wiping the spill from his hand and the arm of his chair.
The chief struggled to control his anger. “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” he said. “What’s the old saying? I’d rather have her inside the tent pissing out rather than outside the tent pissing in.”
The U.S. Attorney stuffed the handkerchief into his pocket and set his coffee cup on the table. “Let me tell you something my friend,” he said as he folded his arms and leaned back in his armchair. “I went to Columbia Law School. Did you know that, Hewson? Columbia Law?”
The chief failed to see the relevance. He sighed. “No, I didn’t know that. What about it?”
Roth leaned forward in his chair. “I had this one law professor — Irving J. Cantwell was his name — and he was very famous back in the day. He was a criminal defense attorney back when they were still writing the book on how to defend criminal offenders through the use of the media.”
“Anyway, Cantwell’s philosophy was that no journalist could ever be trusted. They’re a den of vipers. You think you’re using them, but they’re using you.”
“I hate to end this lectures series early,” Hewson said through clenched teeth, “but can we get back to the matter at hand? What’s going on with McLean?”
“This begins and ends with Marciano. We’re pretty sure he hired McLean’s assistant, Tremblor, to provide them with information on Harris’s identity as Kurt Martin.”
Now it was Hewson’s turn to grow agitated. “Oh, my God. How do you know this?”
Roth shrugged. “I was at Sing Sing prison earlier — in fact, my plane just landed a few hours ago.”
“Why were you at Sing Sing — to visit Marciano?”
“I’m surprised he cooperated.”
“Let’s just say I made it worth his while.”
“So was McLean in on this thing?”
“I doubt it. I called him from Sing Sing and he seemed genuinely surprised when I told him of Tremblor’s involvement.”
“My God.” He paused to take it all in. “Where is McLean now?”
Roth sighed. “Well….”
Mike Cameron loomed over Hewson’s shoulder. “I can answer that question,” he said as he held up his cellphone.
Sensing that something was wrong, Roth cradled his head in his hands. “Yeah?”
“McLean’s dead, along with his office staff. We found their bodies stuffed into an elevator shaft. Tremblor has disappeared.”
Still in shock, Hewson shook his head. “Tremblor’s gone, McLean’s dead, Harris and Johnston are probably on the run. You were right, Mr. Roth. This is a fiasco.”
“Shit,” the U.S. Attorney whispered. “Shit. I need some Tylenol. Or a stiff drink.”