Killer Storm, page 1part #1 of Jo Spence Mystery Series
To Ruby Horn (Grandma Horn)
for loving me unconditionally
when I needed it most
I paddled our canoe through glasslike water. The sun, high in a cloudless sky, felt warm on my face. My best friend, Kathy, had taken her shirt off and was resting her back on her Duluth pack in the bow of the boat, with a huge smile on her face. I let the boat drift toward our remote campsite in the BWCA.
"Hey duffer, slacking off already?" I couldn't resist teasing her.
"I'm working on my technique here, and I think it is nearly as good as yours."
Just as I eased into shore, a discordant sound rang through the air. I jerked awake, my heart pounding in my chest.
"Jo Spence," I said into my cell phone, realizing as I said it that it was how I answered the phone at work, where I am Duluth's Juvenile Probation Supervisor. My eyes were barely focusing, but I could see that it was 2:49 A.M.
"Jo, it's Nate. We have a problem involving Lou and your agency."
"I'm all ears." I tried to sound calm.
"No, I can't go into it on the phone. I mean, aah... can you come in?"
"Of course, where are you?"
"Let's meet at your office. Can you be there in twenty minutes?"
"Twenty-five. But Nate, give me something here. You're calling me in the middle of the night. It's bad, right?"
"I can't say more now, Jo. This isn't a secure line. I'm really sorry."
I changed, kenneled the dogs, took one longing look at my coffeepot, and sped to work. En route, I wondered if this was the situation I had always dreaded. Something really bad had happened to one of my staff.
OK, I thought. Possible scenarios were (1) Lou was injured or killed, (2) another probation officer had done something stupid, and Lou had intervened, or (3) shit, I didn't know what else.
Dealing with the struggles of our troubled youth was stressful enough, but worrying about the safety of my staff sometimes put me right over the edge. I had never quite adjusted to the helpless feeling of overseeing rather than doing.
The drive in seemed endless. Up until that moment, I had not considered my home in the Valley to be anything but an asset. Living just outside the city limits of Duluth fit well with my love of the outdoors and recreational activities. Plus, I had always found the thirty-minute commute to be a nice, relaxing buffer between my distinctly different home and work lives. On this drive, however, it was anything but an asset. When I'm stressed, I need to move. I ski, walk, shovel, build something, or clean like a madwoman. Anything but sit.
I reached into my pocket and retrieved a small, smooth stone that I had picked up on one of my outdoor adventures. I often carry just such a rock and rub it in stressful situations. I touched my rock and felt a little more grounded. I believe I was close to sane when I finally pulled up to our meeting spot.
Nate, a.k.a. Sergeant Jerome Nathan, was waiting in a squad car in the back parking lot behind my building. I quickly got out of my vehicle and approached.
"What, Nate? This is killing me."
"OK. Here in the squad, then." He motioned for me to join him inside. Pausing, he tried to formulate words. "The Toivunen family has been murdered. All four of them are dead mom, dad, and the two kids. They were shot execution style in their living room." He looked at me to see if what he was saying had fully registered.
"Jesus, Nate. How did you hear about it at this time of night? The shots?"
"No, they used silencers. We got an anonymous tip. I should say, you got an anonymous tip. They called your guy Lou at midnight. We went in together. It was pretty gruesome."
"Where is Lou now?"
"At the scene. Let's go."
As we pulled up in front of the Toivunen household, Lou was visible from a distance. I felt a rush of relief from the worry I had experienced on my drive in. I thought about my most senior and if I had to be honest my favorite probation officer, Lou Ornado. Looking at him is like being swept away by a piece of art that is so moving you can't speak. His part-Hispanic, part-Native mix is beautiful and perfect. He stands at a graceful six-foot, four inches tall, with dark wavy hair, deep brown eyes, long eyelashes, and a very fit body.
I took a minute to gather myself. I knew this would be an emotionally charged scene for Lou, and I really wanted to be there for him.
The Toivunen house was in the Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth, a cluster of houses built into the hill just north of the downtown area. Recent census data had placed it among the top five most impoverished areas per capita in the country. The neighborhood includes mostly low-rent apartments with a few houses trying to maintain some dignity. The Toivunens lived in one of those houses. It was a narrow, three-story affair that was probably built at the turn of the century. Many of the homes had been handed down from the first immigrant generation, with homeowners trying to hang on, hoping that the Hillside would become gentrified. City planners had not addressed problems in the area, even with the recent declaration of poverty.
The first snow of the season had begun to fall. The house looked surreal. Oscillating red lights from the squads struggled to penetrate through the snow. Lou was standing out front smoking. He had quit the year before. I found myself craving my own favorite addiction, coffee. His face was stonelike and unreadable. To my knowledge, Lou had never been first on the scene of a murder.
"Lou. How are you?"
He nodded and looked at the house. "Hell of a thing that was." He took a drag, and the end of his cigarette turned red, then white, from his effort.
"If this is Nichols, he is one sick bastard. What does he think, this is going to get him a ticket out of detention? A fucking free pass?" He took another drag, dropped the butt, and stepped on it, grinding it hard into the sidewalk.
"Maybe he plans to go out with a bang. We've got to get him moved to the jail. The thought of him in the same building with fourteen-year-old kids in there for a school fight disturbs the hell out of me. This guy needs to be in isolation. Now!"
"Wait a minute Nichols?" I put my hand up to stop him. "Slow down here. You mean the kid up in detention for John Toivunen's murder?"
He gave me a look that I could only interpret to mean Duh.
"This was his house," I said softly. He nodded slowly.
"I'm on it."
I used my cell to wake up Superintendent Lynn Carter of the Detention Center at home. She assured me that she would have Nichols put on administrative segregation with all meals served in his room and one hour per day of isolated recreation under guard. She promised to arrange a hearing to have him transferred to the jail at the earliest opportunity.
When I informed Lou, he said, "I can handle the hearing, Jo."
"First tell me why they called you. Why do you think you got the tip?"
"I have no idea! It was weird. The caller said, 'Go see what you caused.' Like this was somehow my fault."
"It's not your fault, Lou, and I have no doubt you can handle this, but we have to be careful here. We can't have the public defenders claiming you have some vendetta against this kid because he targeted you. I still need you on the streets in case this is a gang thing. Even if Nichols is pulling strings, we need to find out who the puppets are. Who is carrying this out? This was one horrific act. Whoever did this is responsible for four murders." I caught myself in the rant and gave Lou a closer look. He looked solemn and glossy eyed. "Lou, what do you need right now? Can you go home and get some sleep?"
"No. Can we go somewhere and just talk this thing through?"
"Joyce's is open all night. I'll drive you in your car."
"I can drive." He must have thought I was treating him with kid gloves
"OK, OK, but I need a ride. My Rover is at the office. I need to wake up Probation Chief Long with this. He'll need to be briefed for the media statement."
"Don't invite him!" Lou was adamant.
"I know, all right. He does see the good you do, you know."
"That's not my worry."
Joyce's is a converted 7-11 with little or no charm, reliant upon the after-hours crowd for the majority of its business. The place was nearly empty, and the coffee was dark and old. I put a five on the table and asked the waitress for a fresh pot.
"Lou, I need you to fill me in on the Toivunen murder. What was behind that?"
"Well, I think it was over a girl. Toivunen was a decent kid, you know. Played football, B student, wasn't into drugs or drinking that I knew about. He worked at Lakes Ten Theatres. Seventeen, in the prime of his youth, and a nice guy, too. He was the kind of kid I would've liked my daughter to date." Lou stared at his hands.
"He was dating a girl by the name of Felicia Green who was enrolled at Central. She was biracial, smart, and a looker. She used to date Nichols, but she wanted out. Nichols tried to buy her with expensive gifts, and he downplayed the gang stuff, but she was scared of him. When she tried to break it off, he got really controlling. He bought her a cell phone and called her at all hours in an attempt to track her every movement. I suspect he threatened to kill her, or got violent. I'm betting she went to Toivunen because he was different from Nichols, and probably because she thought he would protect her."
"Where is she now?"
"I don't know. As soon as she gave her statement to the police, she was gone. She and her parents disappeared. The police think they just moved away. There are enough corroborating witnesses to the relationship that they won't need her for trial."
"You don't think something happened to her whole family, do you?"
"No. I think I remember someone seeing a moving van. Let's hope not. Jesus. I can talk to Nate about that."
Lou leaned back in his chair and in a nearly flat monotone described John Toivunen's murder. "Here is how his murder went down. Nichols walked up to the house on a Sunday morning at 9 A.M. Mrs. Toivunen came to the door, and Nichols asked for John. When John came to the door, Nichols shot him in the chest and walked away. As Mrs. Toivunen was trying to rouse John, she looked up to see that Nichols had come back. He was just standing there with wild eyes. He looked straight at her, flashed his stupid little gang sign, and told her that if she talked to anyone he would kill her. Then he walked slowly to his car and drove away. She reported it to the police; he was picked up; end of story."
"Which gang is he with, Lou?"
"They call themselves the Gangster Mob. They're new, but vicious." He shrugged. "Can you believe that shit? The police didn't have the Toivunen house under surveillance tonight because Nichols was in lockup."
Lou's eyes glossed over for a couple of seconds, and I wondered if he was seeing that whole family again. He blinked, seemed to shake off the thought, and went on.
"I can remember when Duluth had only gang wanna be's. That wasn't so long ago, remember Jo?" I nodded. "The first real gang moved in about five years ago. We had an increase in crime, and it took us a full six months to identify it as gang related. Then we got the gang strike force. Half the cops who are not strike force members still don't think the gangs are that bad. This will certainly change all that."
"Lou, I want you to make this your focus. Find out who killed that family. How would you feel about being pulled out of the intensive unit to work on this full time with the gang strike force?"
I saw a spark in his eyes, and I felt a little fear about sending him smack dab into the middle of such a big case. I sensed he really needed it, though.
"I want to see a list of the known associates of Nichols. I'm guessing it's slim at this point. Get together with the strike force, and put out the word that you're looking. You are the best PO we've got when it comes to gangs, and they need you, but please be careful. I'll arrange it with the Police Department under two conditions: Keep me informed, and play by the rules. This case is too important to get thrown out. Don't be a cowboy. Don't risk your life." I caught myself, realized that my list of rules could go on and on, and just kept going. "Review the policy and procedures on assisting the police. Get a bulletproof vest, and wear it in the shower, to bed, whatever."
"You won't regret this, Jo."
I looked at my favorite PO and thought, I certainly hope not.
* * * *
By the time we had finished, it was 6:30 A.M., and I was wide awake from the coffee.
I had Lou drop me at the office, and I called Chief Long at home, informing him of the murders. He had just heard it on the news and told me that it was being played up as gang violence. He predicted that this would put the whole city in fear. We discussed how to deal with the media. If we sent the news stations copies of the Gangster Mob symbols, we could more quickly identify suspects but would run the risk of inciting vigilante justice. We agreed that this decision really needed to come from the Police Department, and Long asked me to call Chief of Police Knight as soon as his office opened.
The press release was aired on all four of Duluth's local channels throughout the day. Knight respected my request to downplay Lou's involvement for his safety. The news described the horrific event and went on to say that the Probation Office and the Police Department were working around the clock to round up this gang. Knight was shown expressing his intent that the streets of Duluth would soon be safe. He came off as strong and confident, while sensitive to the extended Toivunen family.
The authorization for Lou to work with the police went smoothly. They were grateful for the help. On our end, though, I had to swear on my dogs' lives that Lou would not carry a gun, would only act as a consultant, and would play by the rules. I also had to transfer one of the standard desk PO's into the intensive unit, and that went over like a ton of bricks. The staff wanted time lines. Yeah, right.
I made some calls to the PO's at home and was pleasantly surprised when one of the older officers from the felony unit volunteered. Warren Gott had become less involved with his fellow PO's in recent years, but he still must have felt some remnant of commitment to the agency.
Lou had to go through a critical incident debriefing, which would be conducted by an outside agency later that day. He was first on the scene of a grisly murder. As his immediate supervisor, I was required to attend with him. I was moved by how well he handled it. He talked freely about what it was like to walk up to that family.
"Their bodies were just shells," he said. "The people were gone." He admitted thinking about the fear they must have felt and how it must have been horrible to watch their loved ones killed one by one. Besides acknowledging that he was thinking about the murders from time to time, he also disclosed that he was worried about the safety of his family. I was impressed. I expected him to do some macho "I'm fine" thing. The therapist declared him fit for duty and gave him the name of a confidential counselor to call if he needed to talk more. We both left for home early in hopes of winding down enough to get some much needed sleep.
By then, my poor dogs had been out for twelve hours. I looked forward to the welcome home routine they go through every day when I arrive. They bound out of their matching overstuffed chairs, and then out of their heated shack. They run parallel to my truck along the six-foot fence until they come to the end just west of the garage. They wait sitting up and perfectly still to see if I am going to open the gate. At my first gesture toward the gate, they run, tails wagging, and jump up and down until they are free. The thought of that welcome always makes me smile.
My dogs were a little wound up when I got home, having missed their usual morning trail time, but I allowed myself a moment to let it all sink in before leading the way toward the trail behind my house.
It was a beautiful evening. My dogs were anxious to begin the walk. Cocoa howled a three-word dog sentence that
I started to reflect on the day, caught myself, and focused instead on the smell of the trees, the damp cool earth, and the decay of the fallen leaves under a thin layer of snow. The few leaves that remained on the trees were bright orange and yellow. Those on the ground had begun to dry out, but the new snow made them cling to my hiking shoes as I walked along the trail. I contemplated which smell I loved more the smell of the woods or of coffee. I cleared my mind again and enjoyed the walk.
Back in the house, I eased out of the same outfit that I wear to work virtually every day: permanent-press khaki pants; a white long-sleeved T-shirt; and a sweater. In summer, I substitute a Pendlelton shirt in place of the sweater. The color and variety of sweaters change, but essentially, that is my getup. I have twelve pairs of khakis, twelve sweaters, and twelve Pendletons. When they become worn, I rotate them into my leisure wear. My underwear of choice is a pair of black Jockey bikini briefs. I wear one pair of sensible, comfortable work shoes until they wear out. I have one pair of hiking boots and one pair of cross trainers. I don't own any makeup. I do indulge in liberal Aveda hair and aromatherapy products my only wish is that they sold coffee-scented ones. I buy any earrings that I like and pay little or no attention to matching them with my clothing.
When I interviewed to promote from probation officer to supervisor, I wore a very nice and very expensive suit. I half believe they gave me the job hoping to see a change in my wardrobe. Well, it didn't work. I think my staff finds comfort in my consistency. There is a slight chance I am projecting.
After turning on the gas fireplace in my bedroom, I slid into bed, had to nudge the dogs over to make enough space to get comfortable, and found myself drifting off to sleep.
When I opened my eyes, the big green lights of my alarm clock read 5:58. Why did I always wake up just before my alarm? It was scheduled to go off at six o'clock. I lay there wondering why I couldn't go to bed without setting the damn thing. I knew I wouldn't oversleep, but something about my personality wouldn't let me trust my internal clock.
JEN WRIGHT SERIES:
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