Iced (John Wads Crime Novellas Book 1), page 1
To Marge, my wife and first reader.
To the members of my writers groups, Tuesdays with Story and Stateline Night Writers, sharp-eyed readers and writers who demand the very best of me in my storytelling and craft of writing.
To a friend and one-time colleague who prefers to remain unnamed.
Table of Contents
A NOTE FROM JERRY
WHAT PEOPLE SAY ABOUT MY BOOKS
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
THE LEGAL STUFF
JOHN WADKOWSKI SAT at The Library’s bar, his favorite watering place in downtown Jamestown, noodling with his Samsung Galaxy. On the screen the word magistricide, meaning the killing of a teacher or master. He clicked “adopt,” committing himself to saving the word from the scrap heap of vocabulary neglect. Wadkowski turned the phone’s screen around to the bartender, Barb Larson, a redhead in a black mini-skirt and the tightest of rust sweaters.
She read it as she continued polishing a pilsner glass. “So where you gonna use that word?”
“Dunno. Just find it interesting.”
The phone jumped with the University of Wisconsin fight song. Wadkowski clicked off the Save The Words website and the ring tone, glanced at the caller ID, and put the phone to his ear.
“Wads,” came the voice of Howard Zigman, a friend with the Wappello County Sheriff’s Department, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news.”
“I’m sitting down, so go for it.”
“Your Iraqi buddy, Raheem Naseri?”
“What about him?”
“My God, no.”
“Looks like suicide.”
“You’re not going to believe this. Back in the woods on your old farm–Wads?”
“I’ll come out.”
Wads slipped the phone in his pocket as he pushed off his stool. He wagged a finger at the bottle he had been nursing. “Am I good for that?”
“Two bucks seventy, I guess. I don’t know why you drink that stuff. Nobody else does.”
“Muscle Milk. It’s the old dairyman in me, and, hey, bodybuilders love it.”
He shagged on outside where the cold of February slapped him, the afternoon shadows already stretched long. At the curb, with still a half-hour on the parking meter, stood the one thing he had come away from his farm sale with free and clear, his Chevy Silverado dually with the biggest diesel engine in it the company made. He’d bought the truck when milk hit twenty dollars a hundredweight. It had tumbled to half that when the economy went to hell. And his debt, his advisor at the Farm Credit agency said sell out and go do something else.
He did and took an efficiency in town, but there was nothing else to do. The city police, the sheriff’s department, the state police all had hiring freezes, and he had, as a former military police investigator, the credentials for anything they might have. All he could get was manager/night shift at the Main and Bypass Kwik Trip.
Wads fired the engine. He drove out of town, west toward the farm and fields of bad memories. He brought out his cell, pressed “contacts,” and scrolled down to Raheem Naseri–his home phone number. Wads tapped on the number. Shatha should be there, but no answer.
He scrolled to the nursery school where she worked and again tapped on the number. On the third ring: “Cradles to Crayons. Debbie here.”
“Debbie, this is Wads. Shatha there?”
“She didn’t come in today.”
HE SAW THEM from the top of the rise on the county road, the pulsing emergency lights of a flock of patrol cars and one lone ambulance.
Wads drove on. As he got closer, he decided the best place to leave his truck was the ditch, so he pulled off and parked behind a state police cruiser. He rescued his parka from behind the passenger seat and walked into a patch of shagbark hickories. A deputy, with the collar of his winter jacket up around his ears and dragging on a cigarette, stopped him.
“Let him on,” a man further into the woods called out.
Wads stuffed his hands in his pockets and rambled on. “A few more uniforms and you could hold a convention,” he said when he came up beside a plainclothesman hunched against the cold–Howard Zigman, a sheriff’s detective.
“We do turn ’em out for shootings.” Zigman thumbed at the trooper standing nearby. “Know this man?”
Wadkowski stuck out his hand. “John Wadkowski. Most people call me Wads.”
The trooper, a tall man, spade black, neck thickly muscled, clapped onto Wads’s hand and gave it a smart shake. “Sam Dixon. Just transferred to this district.”
“You’ll do well here. So who found him?”
Zigman stamped his feet, to pound some warmth into them. “Marty Walton, your old neighbor. He was driving by and saw the car in the woods. He knew it wasn’t right, so he walked in, saw the mess, and called Nine-One-One. Naseri’s on the other side of the car.”
The car–an old Kia, small and cheap. Wads’s church bought it after Wads told them the new family needed help, a family he had sponsored. He had known Naseri in Iraq. The man had been an interpreter for Wads’s unit, and when he finally got visas for himself, his wife, and their little girl . . .
Zigman and Dixon led the way around to where a technician in sheriff’s department coveralls and plastic gloves was swabbing for something–the tech, a woman Wads didn’t know.
Naseri, on the ground, laid back against the driver’s door, his head to the side, a small hole apparent in the right temple but little blood, a pistol to the side of the body.
Zigman motioned at the gun. “Your classic Saturday night special. Know he had it?”
“Yeah. I couldn’t talk him out of it. He said people hassled him when they found out he was a Muslim. I told him if he’d just go by Ray–Ray Naseri, not insist on Raheem–nobody’d be the wiser.”
“There’s no understanding prejudice. Didn’t he attend your church?”
“For me, yes, but his spiritual home is–I’m sorry, was–the As-Sunnah mosque in Madison. Any chance this could be murder?”
“Wads, I don’t see it. Sam and I’ve walked the area. No signs that there’s been anyone else here. But with the ground dry and frozen–”
The technician, kneeling beside the body, held up a pad to Zigman. “I’ve got gunshot residue on his right hand.”
Zigman turned to Wads. “I’d say that cinches it, wouldn’t you?”
Zigman stared at him. “Okay, give, what’s the problem.”
“Raheem was left-handed.”
“Left-handed? You’re sure
Wads rubbed at the back of his scalp. “We were joined at the hip for a year.”
“Damn, this changes things. You’re an old Army investigator, who’d you look at?”
Wads peered through the window of the Kia. “Anything in there?”
“Nothing of interest. I’ll give you an inventory after we’re finished.”
“Sure.” He stepped over to a tree stump. There, before he sat down, he brushed away hickory shells squirrels had shucked. “We’ve got a few knotheads who hang out at that bar on the far side of the lake. I see ’em when they gas up at the Kwik Trip. Foul-mouthed. To hear them talk, they’d castrate anybody who’s not like them.”
Trooper Dixon pitched up an eyebrow. “How’s that?”
“White guys. A suggestion, if you ever go in that bar, don’t go in alone. And carry a baseball bat.”
Zigman scribbled something in his notepad. “A single shot and clean, this doesn’t look like a hate killing to me.”
“Still I’d check it out.”
“So who else?”
“Howard, I don’t know.”
“I got Raheem a job in the auditing department at the Fifth Street Bank. Who’s going to get mad at a man who pushes numbers from nine to five?”
“Somebody at his mosque?”
“You’re thinking they’re running a school for terrorists up there, that they’ve got a Jehadi who hates Ray because he worked for us?”
“We shouldn’t pursue it?”
Wads massaged his face. He’d gotten up too early. “I guess, but, jees, Howard, be careful.”
“Hey, I was in the Guard over in the sandbox. I know the sensitivities, but I also know the hatreds among the sects and the clans. If you don’t like that one, let me try this out on you, could it be that someone wants his wife?”
To Wads, that didn’t calculate either.
Zigman flipped back a couple pages in his notepad. “First things first then. I’ve got a Bratsburgh address for the family–husband, wife, and daughter–daughter age six. We better go see the wife and break the news.”
“I called on the way out. No answer.”
“Maybe she and the girl are home by now.” The detective pulled a portable radio from his coat pocket. He pressed the transmit button. “Connie, Zigman here.”
“I’m going to Bratsburgh, to the home of the deceased. The death notification.”
“Bratsburgh? What’s the address?”
“H Street, Two-Fifteen.”
“Howard, Nine-One-One’s just dispatched fire trucks there. They say the house is burning like the devil’s furnace.”
ZIGMAN AND WADS strode from their vehicles past a television newswoman videotaping the inferno, the stench of the fire drifting their way. They went on to a Bratsburgh VFD fire engine pumping a jet of water up onto the roof, to the fire chief gesturing at her second-in-command. That man ran off toward another fire crew.
Zigman crowded into the chief, Char Kranz, a stout woman in full bunker gear, her glasses streaked by ash. Wads hung off to the side, the three of them shielding themselves from the heat of the blaze by staying on the near side of the truck.
Zigman stabbed a finger at Kranz’s cigar. “Smoking on the job, chief?”
She puffed away. “Keeps me calm.”
“But there’s a fire here.”
“So, you gonna have my boys douse me?”
He shook his head.
Kranz waved Wads over. “I can see why Ziggy’s here, but how about you?”
“I know the family.”
“The Naseris? Damn shame, isn’t it?”
“If there is, they’re done crispy by now. We won’t know ’til we get the fire out an’ get in there.”
Zigman jerked his head toward the blaze. “Cause?”
“Jesus, you ask the impossible.”
“How about a guess then?”
“Could be a grease fire in the kitchen. Electrical maybe. But more likely they couldn’t afford the winter gas bills. Went out an’ got themselves a kerosene heater at the Home Depot, you know, figuring to save a little money, trying to get by ’til spring. Those damn things are house fires waiting to happen. I got me a call into the state fire marshal.”
Wads peered around the end of the truck. “Roof’s about to fall in.”
Kranz, her cigar jammed in the corner of her mouth, waddled around for a look. “Basement in that house, do you remember?”
“Then the floor’s gonna go, too. We’ll have us one big water-soaked ash pit. It’s gonna be a helluva mess to prod through.”
The front wall buckled. With its movement came the squall of nails pulling away, and the roof caved. Ash and sparks billowed out. Wads brought his sleeve up over his mouth and nose, to keep the smoke out.
The floor gave way, and in the wink of a cat’s eye the burning house dropped from sight.
Kranz turned away from the fire, to Wads. She studied the burn on the end of her cigar. “That’s all she wrote.”
A blast threw Kranz to her knees and Wads onto his side, a blast that sent floor joists and timbers high and debris wide. A shower of burning shingles rained down.
Kranz scrambled through the jumble of smoldering trash and grabbed hold of Wads. She beat at his burning hair, he doing his best to fight her off.
“Stop that, Wads! You’re on fire.”
He heard the fire chief, but only barely, as if her voice were dribbling out the end of a garden hose. The blast had been deafening. When what she said registered, he whipped his hands back over his scalp–flailing, rubbing. He smelled it, the singed hair.
Kranz got a good grip on Wads’s ears, made a quick visual of his head. “Man, your barber’s gonna have one helluva time shapin’ you up. You’re just damn lucky your brain didn’t cook.”
“I said–oh never mind.”
“You see my cap?”
Kranz turned him and pointed toward a muddy puddle on which floated a baseball cap.
Zigman rescued it, the cap emblazoned with a Jamestown Ice Hogs logo. He wrung out the dirty water while he strolled back. Zigman handed the cap over, and Wads reshaped it before he slapped it on his head.
“Wet like that, you’re gonna freeze yer dome,” Kranz said.
“I said you’re gonna freeze yer dome!”
“Oh. I’ll risk it.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Zigman stared at Kranz. “The explosion, didn’t you cut off the gas line?”
She parked her knuckles on her ample hips and gave the detective a smoldering look that said what do you think I am, some dumb yahoo?
“First thing we do when we roll up,” she said through gritted teeth, “is cut the damn gas valve at the curb. And if the electric company’s breaker doesn’t cut the juice to the house, we haul down the powerline.”
“Did you do it?”
“’Course, we did.”
“Then what caused the explosion?”
“That’s for the fire marshal to figure out, wouldn’t you say? I gotta go check on my guys.”
Kranz tramped off, leaving Zigman and Wads in the shelter of the pumper. Zigman leaned in. “You all right?”
Wads massaged an ear. “Other than I can’t hear too well.”
“Videotaping the fire, sure.”
“I’m thinking the fire marshal’s going to want her tape–I sure would–to see what happened as it happened.”
“We’d better find her, huh?”
Zigman motioned for Wads to follow him.
They picked their way through the debris, moving back the way they had come, Wads the first to see her. He broke into a run. He leaped across a burning timber and went down on his knees, next to the woman in a parka, twisted, lying on her side, a jagged piece of two-by-four protruding from her chest.
Wads pressed his fingers on the artery in the woman’s neck. His shoulders slumped. “This one’s for the coroner, not the EMTs.”
Zigman whipped out his radio and squeezed the transmit button. “Connie?”
“Call Ben out at the woods. Tell him we need him at the house fire.”
“The whole thing went up in the biggest damn explosion. Killed a TV reporter.”
“Oh Lord, do you know who?”
“Just a minute.” Zigman hunkered down next to Wads. “Is that an ID there?” He nodded at a card on a lanyard by the dead woman’s shoulder.
Wads turned the card over. “Issued by the station. Tamara Donaldson, WISN.”
Zigman brought his radio back up. “A Tamara Donaldson. Must be new. I’ve not seen her before. Madison Channel Three. Call them for me and suggest they send somebody down.”
“Consider it done.”
Zigman slipped his radio back into his coat pocket. “It was such a fine day this morning.”
“Tomorrow’s gotta be better.” Wads pointed away. “Camera’s over there. It’s the new type–all digital. What you want is the memory card.”
“How do you know so much?”
“Eddie Thoms gave me a lesson at The Library. He worked Three’s Jimmytown bureau until he took a job in Iowa last week.”
“So you don’t know this one?”