Under cover of darkness, p.1

Under Cover of Darkness, page 1

 

Under Cover of Darkness
 



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Under Cover of Darkness


  James Grippando

  Under Cover of Darkness

  This one’s for Tiffany. Surprise!

  Contents

  Prologue

  The noose was prepared with exceptional care. Too large a…

  Part One

  Fourteen Years Later

  One

  The rain was a sign of good luck and happiness.

  Two

  Sundays were Gus Wheatley’s favorite workday. Monday to Friday was…

  Three

  Gus and his daughter sat up watching The Lion King…

  Four

  The Meany Science, Math and Arts Academy let out at…

  Five

  The police weren’t the help Gus had hoped they would…

  Six

  Andie watched from behind as Gus headed for the door.

  Seven

  Gus was home by ten o’clock. He paid the baby-sitter,…

  Eight

  Morgan was dressed in her plaid jumper and knee socks,…

  Nine

  Gus went back to work after Morgan left, but he…

  Ten

  The first meeting of task force leaders took place in…

  Eleven

  Gus skipped the beauty pageant. It surprised his partners. Gus…

  Twelve

  The personal phone calls were beginning to take their toll.

  Thirteen

  Andie didn’t normally fret over what people thought about her,…

  Fourteen

  Even the rain looked cold. Tiny droplets sprinkled the windshield,…

  Part Two

  Fifteen

  Gus had been up most of the night trying to…

  Sixteen

  Andie allowed herself a mid-morning refill. She needed the caffeine,…

  Seventeen

  Waterfront Park was on the eastern edge of downtown, hugging…

  Eighteen

  Gus spent the balance of Wednesday afternoon posting more flyers.

  Nineteen

  A shrill scream woke him.

  Twenty

  Andie parked in the lot and walked toward the squad…

  Twenty-One

  Gus was alone in the waiting room. He wanted to…

  Twenty-Two

  By seven A.M. Gus was dressed and ready to leave…

  Twenty-Three

  He was dressed entirely in black, a sleek silhouette in…

  Twenty-Four

  Gus returned home after dinnertime. Morgan was in her room…

  Twenty-Five

  The profile arrived by fax. Six typed pages, double spaced.

  Twenty-Six

  She was alive. He could feel it. With two latex-covered…

  Part Three

  Twenty-Seven

  Andie finished her Monday morning run in record time. The…

  Twenty-Eight

  In seconds Gus was in his daughter’s bedroom. Andie and…

  Twenty-Nine

  Andie drove alone to the northernmost nub of western Oregon.

  Thirty

  Late Monday afternoon Andie drove to the airport Hilton to…

  Thirty-One

  Gus met his private investigator at Café René. Despite the…

  Thirty-Two

  Half of Andie’s brain was still fried from the meeting…

  Thirty-Three

  On Wednesday Andie decided to start at the very beginning: …

  Thirty-Four

  It was a J-shaped drive from Seattle to the Washington…

  Thirty-Five

  Early Thursday morning Andie and her supervisor were in Isaac…

  Thirty-Six

  His general direction was south, but it had been a…

  Part Four

  Thirty-Seven

  Early Friday morning found Andie at Goodwill shopping for secondhand…

  Thirty-Eight

  Andie ate dinner at a fast-food joint, then walked around…

  Thirty-Nine

  The FBI had set up a trap and trace on…

  Forty

  Andie was alone outside the shop when Mrs. Rankin arrived…

  Forty-One

  Gus didn’t have to persuade her. Maybe she thought it…

  Forty-Two

  Andie had hoped to hear that a deal with Shirley…

  Forty-Three

  There was no panic at midnight, no missing glass slipper.

  Forty-Four

  Andie arrived at the Eagle Trace Motel in Yakima just…

  Forty-Five

  Gus met his investigator for an early Wednesday breakfast. Dex…

  Forty-Six

  Andie caught an overnight bus back to Seattle and was…

  Forty-Seven

  Gus had been awake since three A.M. That was when…

  Forty-Eight

  Andie was reasonably patient, but by mid-Thursday afternoon she could…

  Part Five

  Forty-Nine

  The bus left Yakima at ten A.M. It was an…

  Fifty

  They were somewhere in north-central Washington, exactly where Andie didn’t…

  Fifty-One

  Gus called his investigator at home early Saturday morning. Dex…

  Fifty-Two

  The bus returned to Yakima early Sunday morning. Of the…

  Fifty-Three

  The farm was on twelve acres that looked like a…

  Fifty-Four

  Gus had waited outside Mrs. Borge’s house for only ninety…

  Fifty-Five

  The chill of night had covered the valley, yet Andie…

  Fifty-Six

  Gus had his investigator tail him to the meeting with…

  Fifty-Seven

  The old farmhouse was quiet by day, still as death…

  Fifty-Eight

  It wasn’t yet sunrise, and Gus was in Beth’s side…

  Fifty-Nine

  Beth lay alone in the darkness. It was a helpless…

  Sixty

  Monday was slipping away, and Gus had yet to hear…

  Sixty-One

  Gus reached the Borge residence in under an hour. Dex…

  Sixty-Two

  Andie hadn’t moved from the bed. In her mind she…

  Sixty-Three

  Andie started at a noise outside her window. She looked…

  Sixty-Four

  The Op Center had erupted in confusion. A half dozen…

  Sixty-Five

  The driveway was empty when Gus arrived home. Carla’s car…

  Sixty-Six

  Ash and burning cinders floated like glowing snowflakes from the…

  Sixty-Seven

  The basement door squeaked on its hinge as it slowly…

  Sixty-Eight

  More than a dozen dead.

  Autumn

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Praise

  Other Books by James Grippando

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  Prologue

  The noose was prepared with exceptional care. Too large a knot, poorly placed, could gouge chunks of flesh from the face and neck. Too much line with a drop too far could mean decapitation.

  A rope around the neck left little room for error.

  He tied the loop in a simple slip knot, rather than the classic noose. The classic version was for swift executions, where the long knot of coiled rope would snap against the back of the head, knocking the victim unconscious like a blow from a blackjack. The cervical vertebrae would crack. Bone fragments would crush the spinal cord, bringing on paralysis and, in theory, a painless death. In theory. For centuries witnesses have said it was never truly painless. They’ve told
of grimacing faces, bodies thrashing violently at the end of the rope, lungs wheezing in futile gasps for air. It was merely a reflex, some contended, like the proverbial headless chicken scampering around the barnyard. Others insisted the pain was real, even in a “clean hanging.”

  This afternoon the old debate was irrelevant. This wasn’t supposed to be a clean one. That wasn’t his plan.

  The yellow synthetic rope was eight feet long and three-quarters of an inch thick. He’d stolen it from a construction site about a mile from his house. Cutting it was almost like sawing through steel cable. Rope this strong could pull five or six water skiers at a time or yank tree stumps from the ground, roots and all.

  It could surely suspend the weight of a fifteen-year-old boy.

  He climbed the stepladder with the rope in hand, nearly tripping on the frayed cuff of his pants leg. The baggy jeans and cotton turtleneck sweatshirt were a daily uniform. He was by far the smartest in his sophomore class, yet his grades were average, and he looked like almost every other boy at school. Thin and gangly. Feet so big he was shaped like an L. Scattered pimples marked the onset of puberty. A few precious facial hairs formed a semblance of a mustache.

  He peered out the foggy garage window. A thermometer mounted on the window frame said forty-nine degrees—warm for the dead of winter, but somehow the garage seemed colder than the outdoors. His gaze drifted up toward the rafters, fixing on a steel pulley bolted to the pine. Gently, he tossed up the rope and looped it around the pulley. Two four-foot lengths dangled from above, draped like pigtails over his simple apparatus. The noose was at one end. The other end was frayed and unknotted. He gave it a tug. The pulley creaked, and the noose rose slowly. All was in working order.

  He drew a deep breath and placed the noose around his neck.

  The surroundings immediately assaulted his senses; he was suddenly aware of everything around him, as if the rope were talismanic. The rain tapped rhythmically on the old roof and garage door. A fluorescent light hummed near the workbench along the wall. Oil stains from his father’s junky old Buick dotted the cracked cement floor. The stepladder had raised him less than two feet above the floor, but it seemed much higher. He was reminded of the bungee jumpers he’d seen on one of those thrill-seeker shows on television, their ankles tethered by a long elastic band, their eyes burning with excitement as they dove off some bridge and into the canyon.

  Let ’em try this, he thought.

  He unfurled the cotton turtleneck and flattened the collar all the way up to his chin. The protective fabric had to be tucked beneath the noose all the way around, so that no part of the rope touched the soft skin of his neck. Bruises were inevitable, but he had learned to prevent rope burns.

  He cinched up the slip knot, drawing it tightly around his neck. His feet instantly felt lighter, though they were still planted firmly on the stepladder. With each swallow the rope pressed against the Adam’s apple. He licked his lips and grasped the unknotted end of the rope with both hands. Slowly, he pulled.

  The pulley creaked. The slack disappeared. The noose gripped his neck and tilted his head back. His heels left the platform. He was standing on his tiptoes.

  Another pull.

  He heard himself groan. His vision blurred. His groaning turned to wheezing. He pulled again, and again, hand over fist. His toes instinctively reached for the floor, but safety was out of reach. He was in midair, hanging by the neck.

  We have liftoff!

  His grip tightened. His legs were kicking. The limbs were at war: The feet wanted back to earth, but the hands wouldn’t release the rope.

  The noose was working perfectly. Arterial flow continued in the head and neck, bringing more blood from the heart. The veins, however, were completely compressed, leaving the blood no escape, building pressure on the brain. His head pounded with congestion, like the worst sinus headache imaginable. The eyes bulged. His face flushed red. He could taste blood in his mouth as small bleeding sites erupted in the moist, soft mucosa of the lips and mouth.

  Then he felt it—the bizarre physiological result of muscle sphincters that spasm and relax uncontrollably. It was one of three known ways to achieve erection, even climax. Sleep. Sex. And hangings.

  His eyes closed. All went black. The death grip was broken. The pulley squealed as the loosened rope raced around its wheel. His limp body plummeted to the floor, toppling the ladder.

  Instinctively, he rose to his knees and untied the noose. He coughed twice, gasping for air. His chest swelled and his skinny shoulders heaved involuntarily. Gradually, the blackness improved to fuzzy vision. He regained his focus.

  “Hey! What the hell is goin’ on out there?”

  It was his father yelling from inside the house. He always yelled. It seemed like the last time they’d actually had a normal conversation in the same room together was sometime before his mother died, before her teenage son found her limp body twirling from the rafters in the attic of their old house.

  “Nothing.” His voice squeaked; it wasn’t from puberty.

  “Break something and you’ll get your ass beat!”

  His old man was spoiling the revelry, so he blocked him out of his mind as he rose to a hunched-over position with his hands on his knees, catching his breath. The feeling was better than any runner’s high, any rush of endorphins. Had he been with a buddy he would have skinned a high-five. But his friends would never have understood. Better to let them believe the bruises on his neck really were hickeys. For the time being, this was an experience unto himself.

  He gathered up the rope and untied the knot. He had used it before. He would use it again. Practice makes perfect, his mother used to say. He was definitely approaching perfection. Someday, he would be the one to show others the way. Because he had been there. Many times.

  And he knew the way back.

  Part One

  FOURTEEN YEARS LATER

  One

  The rain was a sign of good luck and happiness.

  Andrea Henning had heard that old wives’ tale at least thirty times today. She wondered if Mr. Gallup had ever conducted a poll to find out if couples who married on sunny days actually had higher divorce rates than those who waded through puddles on their way to the altar. Not that it really mattered. Rain on this wedding had been a virtual certainty. It was, after all, late winter in Seattle.

  Andie—no one called her “Andrea”—wasn’t bothered by the weather or any of the things a bride typically worried about. Maybe it was her training as an FBI agent, or maybe it was her innate common sense. Whenever something couldn’t be controlled, Andie just dealt with it, and it usually worked out. Her crash diet had been a disaster, but the dress still fit perfectly. The best man was an idiot, yet he’d somehow remembered the marriage license. And the old candlelit church had never looked better. Bouquets of white roses with lace and pink ribbons adorned each pew. A long white runner stretched down the center aisle from the vestibule to the altar. The crowd was spread evenly, left side and right, soothed by a gentle harp as the last of four bridesmaids walked down the aisle. Rain or not, it was the wedding her mother had always told her to dream of.

  Andie moved into the open double doorway in the rear of the church. The wedding consultant helped with the satin train behind her.

  In front, the silver-haired minister waited at the altar, flanked on his right by bridesmaids dressed in red velvet dresses. To his left stood three young groomsmen and Andie’s handsome husband-to-be. Rick looked nervous, even from a distance. His steely blue eyes glistened. They were almost glazed—probably from all the drinking his friends had inflicted on him last night. The rented tuxedo seemed a little tight for his chest and shoulders, but maybe he was just taking deep breaths. He would have been far more at ease in blue jeans. So would have Andie.

  The sound of the harp faded away. The guests fell silent. All heads swiveled toward the back of the church.

  Andie took her father’s arm. Though a half foot shorter than her, he was a pillar of
strength—normally. At the moment she could feel his hands trembling.

  “Ready?” he asked.

  She didn’t reply. The time had come.

  The pipe organ blared. Andie cringed. She had explicitly instructed the organist not to play the traditional “Here Comes the Bride.” Her meddlesome mother had struck again.

  Together, Andie and her father started down the aisle.

  A camera flashed in her face. Then another. It was like staring into a strobe light. At this rate, she’d not only be filing a married couple’s tax return this year, but she’d also have to mark yes in that little box that asks “Are you blind?” Andie focused on the burning candles on the altar as she continued down the aisle.

  Friends and relatives beamed as she passed. They made her feel beautiful, though all of her life she’d been told she was beautiful. She resembled neither of her adoptive parents, of course. She had the prominent cheekbones and raven black hair of the American Indian mother she never knew. The deep green eyes were presumably from an Anglo father. The result was striking, an exotic ancestral mix.

  Halfway down the aisle, Andie slowed the pace. Her nervous father was walking way too fast. His hand was sweating in hers. She squeezed it, then released. Finally, they stopped before the minister, standing side by side. The loud organ ceased abruptly.

 
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