Twice, they nearly came to blows. Frank Tittle, in an obnoxious, self-righteous tone, was presumptuously lecturing the State Attorney on points of law. The State Attorney, for his part, was furious on many levels.
Mike Gonzalez and Henry Wesson mainly sat by the side, letting the two attorneys verbally duke it out. Gonzalez was furious; he’d been sandbagged by Frank Tittle and he knew it.
Frank, in high dudgeon, pointed out yet another legal citation: “I refer you to U.S. vs. Gonzalez, United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, July 31, 1986. In that ruling, the court established clear precedent: when a party withdraws from a conspiracy, all they need to do is make their intent to withdraw known to a co-conspirator. At that moment of withdrawal, the statute of limitations clock begins its count. Rachel and Dirk clearly parted ways in May of 1997, with no further illegal actions to take place between them. There were no further overt acts between them. Dirk acted alone henceforth.”
“What does, and what does not, constitute an overt act regarding furtherance of conspiracy is by law a matter for a jury to determine,” the State Attorney roared.
“Precisely my point. You could drag this through the courts for years. We’d win in the end, but we won’t be handing you the tools to make life hell for my clients and that is final!”
The legal tit for tat continued for the next quarter hour. Finally, the State Attorney turned to ask Gonzalez, “What’s your read: how important is the information Rachel Carlson has?”
Gonzalez chewed on his lip, thinking it through before answering, “It could be vital, but I can’t know for certain until I interview her.”
The State Attorney glared at Frank. “You conned me with that fugitives waiver deal for your clients, and now you want another damn deal? You’ve come damn close to blackmail, Tittle.”
Frank shrugged. “All I’m asking for is a guarantee that what you learn from my clients –who include Rachel Carlson – won’t be used against them, and that State or Federal agencies will not harass my clients. I’ve explained the points of law; the statutes of limitations have expired, and any ongoing overt acts of conspiracy, if they occurred at all, did not occur amongst the original conspirators, and if they occurred, they did so far outside of any U.S. jurisdiction. You could give them legal headaches, but I’d win in the end and you know it. Furthermore, I’ll remind you again that the only thing I actually needed to do to clear my clients was present that postcard from Rachel. There was no need to disclose the rest.”
“The only reason you’ve done so is because of the threat to the son of two of your clients.”
Frank nodded. “Yes, our dastardly motive is to protect an innocent teenager’s life, and bring a murderer and a dirty cop to justice. So sue me,” Frank said, smirking, and then dialing back his abrasiveness to add, “You’ll get Rachel’s full cooperation, in return for forswearing cases you couldn’t win anyway. You can’t compel her to tell you anything; she’s a foreign citizen overseas, and you have no grounds for extradition – assuming you could even find her. At most, you could harass her based on things she tells you. Without a deal, her best option is to remain hidden.”
“Your threat to go public is tantamount to blackmail,” the State Attorney pointed out, at full volume.
Frank gave the State Attorney an apologetic shrug. “It’s not my fault that you’ve got a dirty cop on your force, by whose actions your office tried to have an innocent man executed for a crime he most clearly did not commit, and in so doing closed off prosecuting the real killer. That level of artful bungling is something that I think the public would find most enlightening, and if there’s any threat of ongoing nuisance prosecution of my clients, it’s in their best interests that the entire story comes out. After all, we both know that one reason you’re unwilling to let this case go is the tremendous public notoriety. Fight fire with fire, I always say, and I can stir up far more fire. I’ll also add that you have often granted immunity for actual, prosecutable felonies in return for testimony.” Frank checked his watch. “Okay, let’s quit wasting your time and mine. Unless we have a deal within half an hour, I’m taking this to the press. Given all the previous press coverage of Dirk and Jim, plus the fact that Trevor Carlson is now famous – in part due to an attack orchestrated, you yourself believe, by a police officer – I’ll get all the airtime I can ask for, and I’ll be asking for plenty. You don’t have a valid reason for rejecting this, and if you do reject this, I’ll find it most pleasurable to question your motives for doing so loudly and often on TV. Now, you need to make a decision. I’ll even give you three hours to have this signed by you, a State judge, and a Federal judge.”
“The hell I will,” the State Attorney roared. “You tricked us into the deal on fugitive status, and now you expect another damn deal? For all I know you could be covering up a murder – or several. Just for starters, the only thing you’ve given us is a hairbrush and a postcard, with nothing but your say-so that they have anything to do with Rachel Carlson. I can get a report on the DNA in forty-eight hours, maybe, but no faster, and you damn well know it.”
“That’s not an issue; anything we sign can be contingent on Rachel being alive and cooperating on the investigation. If she’s not alive, then any deal is void and you’re right back where you started,” Frank said, with a dismissive wave of his hand.
The State Attorney scowled, drumming his fingers on his table for a few moments before saying, “No, and that’s final. I’ve given you one deal too many as is.”
Frank let out a disgusted snort. “The fact of the matter is you have no choice. You have no way of finding Rachel Carlson unless I give the okay, and I have you over a barrel because without her, you have exactly nothing to go on. Do you really think I’d even consider a deal limited to solely the already-disclosed actions?”
The State Attorney, every bit as angry as Frank wanted him to be, slammed his fist on the table. “I’m not giving you carte blanche on this, damn the consequences. You give me specifics and I’ll consider it, but until you do, the only thing I’ll agree to is the disclosed events.”
Frank’s abrasive, arrogant demeanor vanished in the blink of an eye. “So, you’d consider undisclosed felonies, as long as they aren’t severe ones?” he asked, in a hopeful tone.
“Provisionally, yes, but if we’re talking major crimes of violence, I’d take a plea deal for sentence reduction, maybe, but nobody’s walking.”
Frank smiled. “Then you’ll be delighted to know that I am asking precisely nothing in that regard, in spite of you offering it. There is no need. I never said I wanted a blanket deal, you did. I never said I wouldn’t take a limited-to-disclosed deal, I asked if you thought I would. To put it bluntly, my clients don’t know who they can trust – George Alfred’s role gives them ample reason, because you and Gonzalez here still don’t know who else in law enforcement is tied up in this – so I needed to sound you out. Had you agreed to anything I demanded, I’d have advised them to run like hell because you might be in cahoots with the other side. I’ve dealt with you in the past and I think you’re honest, but I couldn’t stake my clients' lives on that.”
The State Attorney calmed down somewhat, but he was suspicious of Frank. “So what exactly are you asking, Tittle?”
“On the legalities, only what you’ve already offered: a deal for my clients – including Rachel – limited solely to offenses that have already been disclosed to you, barring any prosecution of them for said offenses due to challenging the statutes of limitations. You will, in brief, be simply agreeing to the stipulated fact: the statutes of limitations have expired, and thus my clients are immune from all disclosed actions. Furthermore, anything Rachel freely discloses to you in furtherance of your investigation cannot be used against her – barring any crimes of violence, of course. On the Federal side, no recovery actions by the IRS against my clients, including Trevor Carlson – who was, as you know, unaware of all this. I am asking nothing more related to any charges. However, when it comes to my clients' personal safety, that’s another matter. There have already been two attempts on Trevor Carlson’s life – attacks that demonstrated a very long reach, as well as involvement by law enforcement. Therefore, we feel that my clients may be at risk and need to come up with a way to keep them safe. I also believe we need to keep the charges on the books, to avoid spooking the suspects – any police officers involved would have an easy time finding out if the warrants were dropped. That, however, is not my area of expertise so I’ll leave it up to you.”
The State Attorney studied Frank for a few moments, “What, exactly, are you asking regarding your client’s safety?”
Frank shrugged. “I can’t give specifics because I don’t know; I’m not competent in that area, but I know you are. Our main worry, if they remain actually on the run, is them being shot while ‘resisting arrest’ if Officer Alfred or his cohorts find out where they are. I do have some ideas, such as the state witness protection program, but the ball is in your court, sir, and I’d like to hear what you have in mind. The only non-negotiable point is that it cannot be anything that George Alfred, or anyone he may be connected with, might be able to find out about.”
“Very well, I can get them into the witness protection program. I can go to the top, and make sure that only a few people know.”
Frank smiled. “Good, they’ll agree to that, provided they can remain together. Hopefully their stay will be brief. I can also offer ongoing help: Dirk will continue to fund, at his own expense, the services of myself and Henry Wesson in the matter of bringing those behind the attacks on Trevor to justice. Now, for Trevor Carlson: if he returns and this isn’t resolved, we’ll need to put him into protection as well, as there have been two attempts on his life. Furthermore, you tried to send him to Egypt regarding the bombing. Therefore, so stipulated, you’re not sending him to Egypt.”
“Of course,” the State Attorney replied.
“Lastly, my clients want Lisa Whitaker and Joel Stiles kept away from Bridget Bellevue. We realize this may be problematic, but the safety of two minors may be at stake. My clients are quite adamant on this point.”
“I concur on that matter,” the State Attorney instantly replied, glancing at Gonzalez before adding, “Immediately, Gonzalez.” The State Attorney left unsaid that both he and Gonzalez had already decided to do precisely that.
Frank was quite satisfied with that. “Then, sir, we have a deal. I do apologize for the theatrics, but I had to know, without any doubt, that my clients would be safe,” Frank said.
The State Attorney sighed. “Okay, then we’re done. Draft the agreement on those lines – void unless Rachel Carlson is actually alive and cooperates – and let me look it over.”
Frank snapped open his briefcase and withdrew a single-spaced typed document. “Already done before I arrived, including the proviso about Rachel, and the exclusion for crimes of violence.” He handled it over, taking care not to smirk.
The State Attorney read it through before replying, “I’ll sign, and I’ll get on the phone right now and see if we can find some judges. You’re coming with us, in case they have any questions – which they sure as hell will.”
Within minutes, they had their very unusual appointments, and two long and contentious hours later, they had the document signed, complete with a gravy stain from a Federal judge’s Sunday lunch.
One matter remained to be dealt with. “I’ll need time to make arrangements with the Feds. Are your clients safe until tomorrow morning?” the State Attorney asked.
“I think so. I’ll be staying in Ft. Pierce overnight, so give me a call when you have instructions for them.”
“I’ll call you in the morning,” The State Attorney replied, as they returned to his house to drop him off.
Gonzalez, now in the passenger seat of Henry’s car, waited until after they were out of sight of the State Attorney to turn and glare at Frank, who was slouched in the back seat. “You set me up; you used me to get that meeting and verify that we needed Rachel, you used information from me about George to blackmail us with the threat to go public, and then you pulled that bullshit about needing to piss off the State Attorney to see if he could be trusted.”
“Yes, I did. However, we told you no lies and those security concerns are valid, unless you can assure me that you know who George Alfred might be working with in your department or other law enforcement entities?” Gonzalez scowled but didn’t answer, so Frank continued, “As for what went down back there, I was doing my job: protecting my clients. I know a great deal more about the politics of high-level cases than you do, Officer, and I know damn well that in a case like this, the State Attorney would be under political pressure to keep going after my clients. He could, and likely would, have dragged them through years of legal wrangling, trying to find ways to pierce the statutes of limitations on technicalities. He’d want to do that, even though the chances of winning are slim, because what’s happened in a very high profile case makes him and his political bosses look like utter fools on several levels. There’s also a liability issue for a civil tort against the city by victims of George Alfred, which they’d prefer to try to defuse via clouding the issue of fault. So, I had to make certain that they couldn’t drag this out and put my clients through the wringer. I had to change the equation and show him that the least-bad option was to accede to our very modest demands. I now have what I need, so the issue is over. What that means is that from here on in, you and I are on the same side, because my goal now is the same as yours: to see Bridget Bellevue and George Alfred prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. That’s not normally part of my purview as a criminal attorney, but it is part of what my clients are paying me to do on this case.”
Gonzalez didn’t reply, and the drive continued in icy silence. When they reached the motel parking lot, Frank started to get out, and then paused to say softly, “Think of me what you will, Officer, but we are on the same side now, and I’ll do all that I can to help.”
Gonzalez watched Frank walk towards the hotel entrance, and as Henry pulled way, Gonzalez shot him a withering glare. “I trusted you, and you set me up. I’ll bet any amount of money Ainsworth and Carlson are still in that damn hotel room, so the security issue is bullshit too.”
“Actually, they’re probably in the room next door to it, but yeah, sorta. We do trust you, but we couldn’t be sure of anyone else. As for what Frank did with the State Attorney, he blindsided me too. I had no idea he’d pull that, but I should have guessed; that’s his way. He’ll do anything to win. He’s both my boss and my friend, but he’s a manipulative asshole a lot of the time – which he freely admits.” Henry took a deep breath, and added, “I know I lied to you about Jim and Dirk, and them being out of state. I’m sorry, but I had to. If you’d interviewed them before today, they’d have had to lie, and that would have screwed up the case.”
“Am I the only one here who cares that these delays could have, and likely did, slow us down and may have put Trevor’s life at greater risk?” Gonzalez asked, in a neutral tone.
“We worried about that too – well, Dirk, Jim, and I did. I don’t know for sure, but I think Dirk has been so fixated on running out the clock, and was so close he could taste it, that he wasn’t willing to throw it all away on a chance. He had his son’s future to think of as well; the IRS would have wiped them out, including taking Trevor’s boat, had they known before today. Add to that the concern over getting the case dropped; we know there are people beyond George and Bridget involved, because neither one of them could have personally planted the bomb, and probably didn’t personally instigate that pirate attack. So, we need to get not just them but whoever else is involved, otherwise it might not end with their arrest. Dirk also didn’t think he knew anything that could have helped, but yeah, I see your point, especially as it looks like you were right all along; he knows some things he didn’t know were important,” Henry said, hoping that he could repair the damage to their friendship.
“I figured Frank was probably manipulating the State Attorney once he started lecturing him on the law. I’ve never seen the State Attorney so furious. I couldn’t say a thing, because I wasn’t sure and it’d be a cop telling the State Attorney that he was probably being played, and that’d imply he wasn’t competent. I’d also helped put the State Attorney at a disadvantage by sharing info with you. So, I had to keep my mouth shut, and I’ll bet Frank knew that too. He’s the most manipulative bastard I’ve ever met,” Gonzalez said.
Henry nodded. “That he is, and yeah, he probably did know. When I realized what he was up to, I wanted to be anywhere but there.”
Gonzalez drummed his fingers on the car door. “Henry, there’s one big, fat, glaring flaw in this whole scheme. Frank fucked up. That deal is predicated, basically, on having honestly disclosed the crimes, but guess what, you guys lied and I know it. That means the deal is voidable if the lies relate to anything criminal.”
Henry glanced at Gonzalez in honest puzzlement. “You probably won’t believe me, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah? Then what’s the situation between Ainsworth and Carlson? Are they really a couple?” Gonzalez asked.
“As far as I know, yes, or they lied to Frank and me… or they and Frank lied to me. I’ve seen them together a few times, and they do act like a couple. Nothing too obvious, but yeah, I think they really are. Why?”
Gonzalez stared at Henry, and after a few moments of silence, decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. “You gave me your word that ANY question I have today, your clients would answer, or you would. So, I’m holding you to that; somebody’s lying, and if it’s your clients, their deal might be history. The thing is, in one of my first conversations with Trevor, he told me that one of the reasons he fled Florida is his father had serious issues with him being gay. Does that sound just a little odd to you, if his father was actually in a gay relationship?”
Henry blinked and quickly pulled over, braking sharply to a halt and turning to gape at Gonzalez. “What? Are you sure? Mike, I swear, so far as I know, they’re a couple. Dirk told me more than once that Trevor is homophobic, and that’s a big part of why they were fighting and Trevor left.”
Gonzalez studied Henry for a few moments, and then nodded once. “I’ll take your word on that – that you were told that and believe it, not that it’s true – but we do have a problem here. If your clients are covering up something illegal with lies, their deal’s probably dead. However… the one thing in their favor is Frank and Jim are both sneaky lawyers, and I can’t see them volunteering a lie I might know the truth about and then use it to hang them. Jim Ainsworth could have just said he and Dirk are close friends, which wouldn’t have been a lie even if they’re a couple. Or hell, he could have just said he’s doing all he can to defend a client. On the flip side, Trevor was asking me about what it would take to become emancipated, so maybe he lied, thinking a claim of a homophobic parent would help. But… that makes no sense, if he knew his father was in a gay relationship, as it’d be too easy for his father to show the claim was bunk. Damn, this case is giving me a migraine.”
Henry pondered the issue, and then replied, “Just a guess, but maybe Trevor didn’t think it through? He’s seventeen and was running scared – he suspected his father of killing his mother, in part because he found their preliminary divorce papers and Dirk refused to discuss them. I don’t know, but… we do know who gave Trevor some legal advice before he took off: Bridget Bellevue. That fact alone makes me suspicious.”
“Her, again. And we know she’s been manipulating Joel and Lisa too, so that sure as hell fits. I might have to take it back about Frank Tittle being the most manipulative bastard I’ve ever met, because Bridget might knock him into second place. I think we need to find out what’s really going on.” Gonzalez paused thoughtfully, and then added, “I’m still not convinced on the gay issue. Frank and Jim are sneaky as hell, and seem to work well as a team, so who knows what they cooked up.”
Henry couldn’t help it, he began to chuckle. “This isn’t relevant to the case, but… Frank and Jim a team? They hate each other’s guts is more like it. They used to work at the same firm, then had a fight over a fender-bender in the parking lot. The long and the short of it is Jim decked Frank, and then Frank took him for fifty grand. They still hate each other, but Jim insisted on having Frank as their lawyer on the criminal side, because he knows he’s one of the best in the business.”
Gonzalez gaped for a moment, and then began to chuckle, only to be overcome by gales of laughter. “Lawyers! That could only happen between lawyers,” he gasped, still laughing.
“Yeah, that thought occurred to me as well,” Henry replied, chuckling, before adding in a reticent tone, “Ah, I don’t know if it has any bearing on this or not, but I need to tell you about it anyway, even though I know you probably won’t be happy about it: I set up a meeting at a restaurant between Jim and Dirk and Lisa and Joel. It was just before your meeting with them and Frank. I was hoping Joel had some info, but apparently not. One thing though: Lisa and Joel seemed really interested in figuring out if Dirk was guilty or not. Dirk assured them he wasn’t, but didn’t say anything more than that. They were unaware that Dirk and Jim are a couple and said Trevor does not know, and that Trevor would absolutely not have a problem with that. They sounded very certain.”
“You set up a meeting between two minors and two subjects of a well-publicized manhunt in a restaurant?” Gonzalez asked, in an incredulous tone.
“Yeah, well, Jim and Dirk were in drag, so not exactly recognizable. That kinda shocked Lisa and Joel, I think,” Henry said.
“Yeah, I can sure see how, and I’m starting to see how they’ve given us the slip for so long. So, they’re into drag, I guess that fits – and fits for them being gay, as well.”
Henry shook his head. “Actually, as far as I know they aren’t into it, it’s just been for disguise.”
They arrived at Gonzalez’s house, and once they were inside, an awkward silence descended. Henry cleared his throat. “Mike, I really am sorry I lied – though I tried hard to avoid any lies. I hated misleading you, but it’s my job – I have a fiduciary duty to my clients. I also legally couldn’t tell you – the things I was told fall under attorney-client privilege, because my employment by them is via Frank.”
Gonzalez sat down, and with a sigh and a nod, motioned for Henry to take a seat opposite. “Thanks. I won’t say I’m not steamed, but I’ll get over it. What I’m pissed about is Frank Tittle’s damn head games.”
Henry nodded. “Me too on that, but that’s how he is. Well, sort of. I think you saw the real Frank on the way back from the meeting: arrogant but forthright. And… I know this whole thing was a mess, but look at it from Dirk’s point of view: the original intent, before everything went to hell when Trevor left, was to just quietly run out the clock, reunite Trevor and his mother, and go on with their lives. Instead, thanks to George Alfred, Dirk ended up the subject of a manhunt and was facing capital murder charges. Plus, he believes as we do – that George is involved in trying to kill his son. None of that made him inclined to be overly trusting of the system. I know he committed crimes long ago, but even then, there was no victim, and he was trying to protect his wife and son too.”
“And himself,” Gonzalez pointed out sourly, and then he sighed. “Okay, I guess I see his side, sort of. I can sure understand when it comes to his concerns about George; the idea that a police officer could do this disgusts me, and I know real goddamn well what it’s like to distrust the department: I’m there every day wondering who is in on this. That bastard George played me too at first. And, between you and me, it sounds to me like Rachel dragged Dirk along on the offenses anyway. As for Rachel, I don’t see her the same way as I do Dirk. She was willfully breaking laws. I see how the first few charters were justified by necessity, but they could have just sold Ares for a profit as soon as she was fixed, like they initially planned. It was Rachel’s choice to keep going for, what, over a decade, getting herself in deeper all the time. I also think it goes beyond charters.” Gonzalez paused, staring at a blank wall for a few moments. “I’ll try to keep an open mind, but that’s my take on it.” After a long silence, a wry smile replaced Gonzalez’s scowl. “This is funny as hell in a perverse way. It’s always said that there’s two things that you can’t beat in life: death and taxes.”
Henry blinked, and then doubled over, laughing. “And Rachel’s beaten both.”
Gonzalez nodded. “Maybe she has. Okay, now the deal is signed, when the hell do I get to speak to Rachel?”
Henry scratched his head. “Last I heard, once everything was settled – and I guess it is, now – Dirk plans to try to get a message to her via e-mail to his sister-in-law, because that’s the only direct contact he has. He’ll include your phone number, as well as ask for Rachel’s. You and the State Attorney get to choose how you want Rachel to prove she’s who she says she is, including going to the consulate in Perth.”
“That’ll work. I might even be able to save her a trip if she’s anywhere near Carnarvon. That customs officer I’m dealing with is based there, so I could get him to check and verify that she’s really Rachel Carlson. I can probably work via Australian law enforcement no matter where she is – where is she, anyway?”
Dirk had never heard of Greg Fowler, and Henry didn’t know Shelly’s last name, so Henry had no idea that Fowler was the husband of Rachel’s sister. Henry shrugged. “We don’t know that for sure. The last Dirk heard was Northampton, where her parents are, which is the next real town south from Carnarvon on the main highway. That’s where Trevor was supposed to go for Christmas, before all this blew up.”
Gonzalez smiled and shook his head. “A couple of weeks ago I looked at maps of that part of Australia; it’s mind-boggling how vast and unpopulated that area is. It makes northern Nevada look downright urban.” Gonzalez stared out the window for a moment and then added, “I do hope she calls soon. I’ve got a hunch she’s like Dirk: knows stuff that she doesn’t know is important.”
“Yeah, good point. Say, how are we doing on the forensic accountant?” Henry asked.
“Already at work. He’s looking into Bridget and George. I meant to tell you, we’ve already had some fruit. Bridget’s brother seems to be existence-challenged: looks like he’s never existed outside of transaction records, and those transactions are one hell of a complex web. The accountant’s guess is that Bridget, through various shells and guises, buys ownership stakes in businesses. The financial accounts in her own name are substantial but largely dormant. So far, the accountant thinks that her holdings in the businesses her non-existent brother is involved in run around ten million.”
Henry grinned. “Hot damn, that means we’ve got her on tax evasion.”
“Nope. According to the accountant, we don’t, not yet and not even close. An ownership stake in a business only becomes taxable when it’s sold and a profit is realized. If she’s just holding an equity stake and not getting income, she’s in the clear until she sells. Even then, she could do what’s called a 10-31 exchange for a similar holding and roll over any gains. If she’s taking money from them, and it’s in the form of repayment of principal on what she loaned them, then that’s not taxable either. Only the interest is, though there’s no sign of that. In fact, the way the filings were done, she may not have broken the law by creating a fictitious brother, either. The thing is, why go to all the effort to hide this if it’s legal? It’s becoming increasingly obvious that it’s an attempt to hide assets due to the source of the funds, which means a source she has to hide.”
“Anything overseas?” Henry asked, wondering about money laundering.
“You’re fast on your feet today, Henry. Nothing on Bridget herself, but it looks like every one of these businesses does extensive purchasing from overseas. Air conditioners, construction material, engines, boats, custom software, you name it. The accountant is still pulling info together, and we don’t have access to a lot, not yet, but if we get some evidence of illegal activity, I can get warrants for the records,” Gonzalez replied, and then added, “We’re already going to get the tax records, and that might be enough on its own, if it shows a clear pattern.”
What they had tumbled into was a segment – those businesses linked to her fictitious brother – of the core of Bridget’s operation. Her drug smuggling was significant to the cartel, but she was far from their only means of sending cocaine into the United States. Her true value was in serving as a conduit for sales proceeds leaving the country. Some – a small percentage – she or her underlings carried in cash on the outbound legs of drug runs, but far more was funneled through her many silent partnerships in the guise of business transactions. Her network handled the majority of the cartel’s cash flow from the southeastern United States. The operation was vital to the cartel, and Sanchez’s role in it had enabled him, five years ago, to parlay his position as a regional kingpin into a seat on the cartel’s inner circle. He was one of the twelve men who controlled the cartel, and his power still rested in large part on Bridget’s operation.
There was one other matter Henry needed to address, something Dirk had insisted on. “Mike, what’s the plan with Lisa and Joel? Dirk was adamant to me about that: he wants them kept away from Bridget. They said they’re leaving on the 20th, which is this Wednesday, so that pretty much leaves just Monday and Tuesday to worry about, but I heard the State Attorney say ‘immediately’.”
“Lisa lied to you: I checked, they are booked to leave on the 21st. However, running out the clock isn’t an answer: Your clients and the State Attorney both want ‘em out of there, and for that matter, so do I. The problem we’ve always faced, though, is that whatever we do in that regard might spook Bridget and George. However, I thought of a possible way out yesterday: get Lisa and Joel to keep away without them knowing that they are being kept away.”
Henry arched an eyebrow. “How?”
“It’d solve everyone’s problem if they had to leave early; their tickets are frequent flyer awards and can be changed. They’d be leaving on Thursday anyway. So, what if they had to leave a few days early? I’ll need to have a word with their parents to make it happen, and if that doesn’t work, have ‘em ground them. If that doesn’t work, I can arrest them. They can be held for up to seventy-two hours with no charges, but that’d be a risk: what if they turned to Bridget for help?”
Henry chuckled. “Just a wild guess, but I think that, if they had the choice, they’d prefer starting their vacation early to going to jail. Uh, just how do you plan to pull off this miracle?”
“Easy, you gave me exactly what I need….” Gonzalez gave Henry a rough outline of the plan, and then made sure he had the needed details right. “There’s no time like the present, and I’d better go in person. I’ll go see Lisa’s father first,” Gonzalez said, and stood up.
Henry followed him out the door. “Good luck.”
“I’ll call you later tonight,” Gonzalez said, as he unlocked his car.
Gonzalez drove past the Whitaker residence, displeased to see that Joel’s Camaro was there, parked next to Lisa’s truck. That complicated things, so Gonzalez kept driving, heading for Joel’s house, thinking it didn’t matter much which parent he spoke to first.
Gonzalez rang the bell at the Stiles’ house, his badge already out. As soon as Charles Stiles opened the door, Gonzalez said, “I’m Officer Mike Gonzalez of the Ft. Pierce police department, and I need a word with you and your wife, Mr. Stiles.”
Charles’ eyes narrowed. “I know who you are. I won’t be answering any questions and neither will my son. You can speak with my lawyer; I’ll be retaining one in the morning.”
Gonzalez blinked, and it occurred to him that there was a reason to expect a hostile reception. “Ah, I think we have a misunderstanding, Mr. Stiles. How about I talk, you listen, and I won’t ask any questions. Just hear me out for a minute, okay?”
Charles hesitated. “I suppose it can’t hurt to listen, but I’m not inviting you inside. My wife is out shopping and Joel’s not here, so… I’ll join you out there,” he said, stepping out into his entryway and closing the door behind him.
“Thanks,” Gonzalez said, with a disarming smile. “I’m guessing you heard that I was suspicious of Joel. I was, past tense, because he stood to gain a very great deal if Trevor Carlson died.”
Charles glared. “Trevor and Joel are best friends, and I think very highly of Trevor. I know about the insurance; it was Trevor’s idea. You’ve no business treating my son or Trevor as suspects. Trevor is the victim. Your time would be far better spent hunting down Trevor’s murdering father, who’s still at large, last I checked.”
“You’re quite right. I know I had it wrong now, but I had to be sure. That’s why I grilled them the way I did. However, I’m not here to ask questions about Joel; I know he’s not who I’m after.” Gonzalez paused, and then got to the point. “Mr. Stiles, the reason I’m here is a safety concern, regarding Joel and Lisa. As you point out, Dirk Carlson is still at large. I can’t say much, but we’re likely to have some major activity on the case shortly. I’m not sure of the scale of any risk and I’m constrained in what I can say, but I’d very much prefer it if Joel and Lisa weren’t around town, for their own sake. I know they are leaving for Australia in a few days, and what I’m asking, sir, is that they leave a few days early. By the time they return, this should all be wrapped up. I need to add that they can’t know of my involvement.”
Charles studied Gonzalez for a few seconds, and then replied, “That’s all you’re after? You just want them to leave early but you won’t say why? Or let me tell them you’re behind it? I have two issues with that; your prior treatment of my son doesn’t lead me to trust your motives, and as a practical matter, they picked their departure date because of needing to take semester finals at school.”
“Well, Mr. Stiles, the second part is the easiest; the school will let a student take a make-up exam, if they miss their test due to a police matter. I’ve had to deal with that issue before, when a student was a witness in a trial. I assure you I can arrange for their exams to be after they return –”
Charles interrupted to say, in a harsh tone, “To put it bluntly, Officer, treating my son as a suspect gives me zero motive to trust you, on this or anything else. I think I’ll have a chat with an attorney tomorrow.”
Gonzalez chewed on his lip, choosing his words with great care. “Okay, I see your point. I’ll go further than I’m supposed to and tell you that I think you son might be putting himself in danger. Dirk Carlson has been seen in Ft. Pierce. That’s why I want Lisa and Joel gone, so they’ll stay out of the way.”
“If that’s so, why not just arrest him? And what do you mean, stay out of the way?”
Gonzalez lowered his voice to whisper. “I’m breaking a lot of rules by telling you this, and I cannot answer any questions regarding our methods or the ongoing case, and I’m only doing it for Joel’s safety: Dirk was seen by an informant in a restaurant here in town this morning. Then someone showed up, for what looked like a pre-arranged meeting. That person was Joel, and they talked for quite a while. Now do you see why I’m concerned for Joel’s safety?”
Charles shook his head and replied angrily, “That’s bullshit. Joel would never have anything to do with Dirk. Dirk tried to kill Joel’s best friend!”
Gonzalez held up his hand. “Sir, I have strong reason to believe Joel was trying to figure out if Carlson is guilty. I do not believe, not anymore, that Joel has done anything wrong other than put himself at risk. However, I understand your skepticism. The thing is, Joel knows for sure whether he met with Carlson this morning. It was at that 1950’s ice cream parlor in town. So, why don’t you ask Joel? Just look him in the eye when you do. If my source is right and Joel did meet with Carlson this morning, then will you agree that he’d be far better off being elsewhere?”
Charles blinked. “If, and I do mean if, Joel met with Dirk, I’d sure as hell agree.”
Gonzalez acknowledged with a nod, and then said quietly, “I’m taking a large risk by passing on this warning. Word cannot be allowed to get out. All I ask – and I have to insist – is that if you find that Joel did meet with Carlson, neither Joel or anyone else can know of my or my department’s involvement until after his return from Australia. When you ask him, just say that someone you know spotted him and also recognized Dirk. Dirk, by the way, was in disguise – in drag. If the meeting didn’t happen, I ask nothing. If the meeting did occur, I ask that you send him to Australia as soon as possible, and in the meantime, ground him.”
“You can sure as hell count on that,” Charles said, feeling goosebumps on his arm as he began to suspect that Gonzalez might be telling the truth.
Gonzalez smiled. “Thank you. I want to reassure you that we don’t think Joel has done anything illegal, nor is he a suspect in anything. Now, the other matter is Lisa Whitaker. I need her kept safe as well. If the meeting occurred and you ground Joel, I don’t want her out and about on her own; she was reportedly at the same meeting. Would you prefer to speak with her father, or should I?”
“Robert would explode… If this is real, I think I’d better handle it. I’ll ask Joel tonight.”
“Thank you, sir. It’s my sincere hope that all this will be behind us by the time they return. Have a good evening, sir,” Gonzalez said, and then strolled back to his car.
A confounded Charles went inside. Half an hour later, he heard the garage door open, and dashed out to meet his wife. “Vikki, you’ll never believe what just happened…” he said, and went on to explain in hushed terms.
Later that night, they were waiting in the living room when they heard Joel’s car pull into the driveway.
Charles checked to make sure Joel’s younger brother was in bed, and then dashed downstairs again, sitting down just as Joel strolled in the door, smiling. Joel’s smile faded when Charles said, “Joel, sit down, right now. We need to talk.” Joel took a seat, and could see that both of his parents were upset about something. Before Joel had time to speculate, Charles said, in a neutral tone, “Joel, did you go to an ice cream parlor this morning?”
Joel swallowed once, and not knowing what else to do, nodded.
Charles knew, right then, that Joel was hiding something. “Okay, Joel, somebody I know saw you at that ice cream parlor. Later, they realized they knew the person in drag you were talking to. Joel, I want a straight answer: Who was it?”
Joel swallowed again. He glanced at his mother, but seeing no shelter there, he looked at his father’s angry face. “Uh, it was Mr. Carlson, but –”
“BUT? What the hell do you think you’re doing? He’s a murderer, and he tried to kill your best friend!”
Joel had never heard his father so furious. Cringing, Joel blurted out, “I’ve been trying to figure out what really happened. I asked for the meeting, via his private investigator…” Joel went on to briefly explain why he thought Dirk might be innocent, and added that he’d gotten the Coast Guard report on Ares from Henry Wesson in return.
Charles cut Joel off. “No goddamn wonder Gonzalez was looking into you. You’ve been meeting with a guy who works for the guy they’re sure tried to kill Trevor! Do you have any idea the kind of risks you were taking?”
Joel began to fidget. “I was trying to help.” Joel glanced at his father’s angry eyes, and decided that now might not be the best time to mention his growing suspicions of Bridget, seeing as how he’d have to admit he’d been using her guesthouse.
“How hard was it to set up a meeting with Dirk?” Charles asked.
“It took a few weeks, and I kind of baited him into it by telling Henry Wesson – his private investigator – that I thought I knew who put the bomb on Atlantis. Him and Mr. Carlson seemed real eager to try to find out who, so I don’t think it’s Mr. Carlson.”
“Joel, what you should have done is stay out of it. Failing that, you should have told your mother and me so we could phone the police. A murderer is still at large because you didn’t. Does Lisa know you passed up a chance to get him off the street? Him driving by her house had you two in a panic not all that long ago,” Charles asked.
“Lisa went with me. She insisted,” Joel said, very quietly.
“Oh, that’s just great,” Charles replied, rolling his eyes.
“I was only trying to help. I guess I’m in a lot of trouble, huh?” he said, instantly regretting his words.
His mother glared at him. “You met with someone wanted for murder. What do you think? You’re grounded, and don’t even think of asking for how long. Until you have gray hair, if I have my way!” she said.
Charles glanced at his wife, and fished his frequent flyer card out of his wallet before uttering a single word that made Joel’s blood turn to ice. “Australia.”
“No, please, don’t punish Trev and Lisa for what I –”
“JOEL, SHUT UP! Not one fucking word,” his father roared.
Charles picked up the phone, and dialed, as Joel sat in silent horror.
Charles navigated the voice menu to get to international reservations, and gave them his number. Then, he said, in a calm tone, “Earlier this evening I made reservations for Tuesday. Please transfer the reservations on my account for Joel Stiles and Lisa Whitaker from Thursday to the Tuesday reservations, unless any seats have opened up for tomorrow?”
Joel gaped, but his father kept him quiet with a glare, while listening to the agent. He finalized the booking for Tuesday and hung up to glare at Joel again. “You can speak now.”
Joel blinked, still not believing what he’d heard on the phone. “I’m grounded, so I’m going to Australia sooner?” he mumbled.
Charles scowled. “If I were you, I wouldn’t ask any damn questions. The short version is I’m more interested in getting you and Lisa the hell out of the area than punishing you by canceling your trip. I’ll have plenty of time for punishing you after you get back. Don’t give me any reason to reconsider sending you, either. In the meantime, you are grounded. I can take care of any problems with missing tests at school due to leaving early, but now there’s the issue of Lisa and her father. You know how Robert feels about Dirk, and Dirk trying to sue him sure didn’t help… how do you suppose he’ll feel about you taking Lisa to a meeting with him? She needs grounding as well.”
Joel blanched. He could well imagine Robert Whitaker canceling Lisa’s trip if he found out. “Uh, he could make her miss the trip. But if I’m grounded, Lisa would just stay home and basically ground herself. It’s really just for tomorrow, because we’d be leaving Tuesday…”
“Fine. Do you understand me: You are one hundred percent grounded until you leave for the airport – no, make that until your damn plane takes off. You will go to school tomorrow and come directly home. No phone calls, no computer, no TV, no stereo, no iPod, and no video games.”
Joel nodded, and then chewed on his lip. “What about letting Mr. Whitaker know we’ll be leaving early?”
Charles, aware that Robert usually went to bed early, glanced at the clock. “It’s kind of late tonight… Tell Lisa at school tomorrow, and have her talk to him. You will come directly home from school, attend to your packing, and stay put until you pick Lisa up Tuesday. You will stop nowhere on the way to her house, and nowhere until you get to the airport. Also, you will keep your mouth shut at school tomorrow – Lisa excepted. Is that crystal clear?”
His mother stood up and pointed at the stairs. “Now go to your room!”
Joel slinked up the stairs, and as soon as Charles heard his door close, he whispered, “I don’t like this one bit. By rights we should tell Robert, but I bet he’d cancel the trip, because I can’t tell him what Officer Gonzalez told me. Lisa and Joel need to be away from here. I’m still wary about the police though, because of what Gonzalez didn’t ask: he never even suggested having Joel call that PI and ask for another meeting, which I’d think would be a good way to trap Dirk. Maybe they have him under surveillance already, but something just doesn’t feel right.”
“That bothers me too,” Vikki said, taking her husband’s hand. “Dirk has been a guest in this house many times, and we liked him before all this happened. Joel knows him far better than we do; maybe that’s why he doubts his guilt. Joel is stubborn enough to keep digging if he thinks he’s right, so… do you want to come home early to make sure he stays put after school, or should I?”
“I can do it tomorrow,” Charles said, and then added, “There’s a lot of yard work to do, so I’ll keep Joel very, very busy. I’ll make sure to pick stuff he hates.”
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