Thursday, August 26, 2010

Friday Fiction for August 27, 2010

You’ll find Friday Fiction hosted this week at A Work in Progress, by none other than Catrina. Be sure to visit for Catrina’s story this week, and to find the Linky tool with the list of all our participants.

This week’s chapter from “Precocious by Consent” is a bit long, but it was fun to refine the chapter after visiting the actual location last week. The biggest detail that I was not able to determine from using Google Earth to scout the locale, was how rocky the ground is. The details now reflect the actual conditions at the site. The photo below shows the area referred to towards the end of this chapter.

Chapter 22

Wednesday afternoon

Chiriaco Summit was even smaller than Sid had imagined it. The town, if he could call it that, was comprised of a single gas station, a café, and a museum dedicated to General Patton and the tank soldiers that had trained in the area during World War Two. The promised airport was only a single strip of pavement, suitable for little more than small private aircraft. The Summit did a moderate amount of business for a midweek afternoon, apparently attracting those whose fuel tanks, stomachs, or bladders could not wait for either Indio to the west, or Blythe to the east.

The agents and field techs on this excursion availed themselves of the facilities before making the final drive to the map location. Many walked out of the gas station’s mini-mart with cold beverages to combat the warm desert temperature. Standing in the direct sun, Sid expected they’d all sweat out more than enough to stave off repeated bathroom trips.

Two Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies came out of the café, having arrived well before the FBI crew, while a California Highway Patrol officer walked into the eatery for a break. Sid chuckled, despite the seriousness of the trip, wondering if the town had ever before hosted such a gathering of law enforcement officials. There might have been more MP’s when Patton’s troops had trained in the area, but even that was questionable.

The deputies were directed to him by one of his associates, and crossed the parking area to speak with him. “Agent Powell?” the one said. “I’m Deputy Gordon, and this is Deputy Zito. We’re here to extend whatever assistance you need from our department.”

“We appreciate the cooperation,” Sid said.

“What have we got out here that interests the FBI?” Deputy Zito asked.

“We have a map left for us by a serial killer.”

“A map to what?” Gordon asked.

Sid let out a slow exhale before answering. “It could be a grave, or it could be a taunting clue to something else, or it could just be his way of playing games with us, getting us to chase out here after nothing. We won’t know until we search the location.”

“This would be a good area to hide something like that. We have an awful lot of open desert out here. You’re sure this map is from your killer, though?”

He nodded. “He left the map buried with another of his victims.”

“That’s weird. I didn’t think killers would go to all the work of hiding a body, and then do something to make it easier for us to find it.”

“It’s a form of bragging to him. He’s not just boasting about the murders, but also about how many we don’t know about yet.”

“One sick puppy, huh?”

“Yeah, that about sums it up.” He looked over at Weiderman, who gestured that everyone was ready to go. “You two follow us, and with any luck, we won’t keep you out here too long.”

“Yes, sir,” they both replied, and headed towards their vehicle.

Sid climbed into the driver’s seat of the full-sized SUV, and checked the map one more time. One of the computer techs had done an overlay of the map onto a computer map, and extracted the GPS coordinates for the indicated location. While it might not be exact, it would give them a better starting point for the search than trying to approximate the location the old-fashioned way.

They drove back over the freeway to an old road, and turned left. The pavement ended maybe three hundred feet after the turn, giving way to a dirt road. Almost immediately, they turned right onto another dirt road, heading south away from the freeway. The road gradually curved off towards south by southwest, until it reached the base of some hills. Just a little further, and they made a sharp left onto a smaller dirt road leading them southeast into a small valley, until the road led up the side of the hill to their left.

He kept his speed slow, creeping up the hill to both watch for hazards in the road, and to minimize the dust on the vehicles following him. When he felt his rear wheels slipping on the rocky surface, he engaged his four-wheel drive and continued up the moderately steep incline. The road leveled out and ended in a wide spot that hosted a tall, metal high voltage power line tower.

Sid parked and shut off the engine, and then waited until the other vehicles had done likewise. When all the traffic had stopped, he got out of the SUV and surveyed the area. The Interstate was visible through a gap to the northeast, but most of the clearing was surrounded by drop-offs. A small stone ring close beside his SUV contained the remnants of a campfire, and assorted spent shot shells scattered on the ground marked the location of a wildcat shooting range. Hunters wouldn’t have left so many shells, he reasoned, and he couldn’t imagine much in the area that would be game-worthy. So far, he hadn’t seen so much as a single crow or vulture, let alone quail or doves.

His crew and the deputies came and stood in a loose circle around him, and he took a moment to meet each set of eyes. “Okay, people,” he finally said. “The map indicates a spot roughly southeast of here, and your GPS units should already have the coordinates marked. Deputies Gordon and Zito, I want you two between some of my people, since you don’t have the GPS receivers we’re using. Just follow their lead. We don’t know how precise the map we found is, or how closely the mark is to what we’re looking for, so we need to spread out and start searching the location, and beyond if necessary. It’s rather steep and rocky right off the side here, so it might be better if a few of you went back down the road, and walked up from the bottom to check out the sides here. Keep in visual contact with each other, and be careful where you step. I don’t want any of you getting on the bad side of a rattlesnake, or twisting your ankle in some animal hole. As before, if you find something suspicious, call it out, but don’t disturb it until we’ve had the dog sniff it over. Our man has proven he’s not against leaving us hazardous surprises, so let’s get through this without any injuries, okay?”

A murmured chorus of agreement sounded in response, and the crew checked their receivers before starting their search. Some made their way down the easiest part of the slope most in line with the map destination, while others walked back down the road to come in from below.

Sid had already been sweating before they started walking, and before he’d taken two dozen steps down the direct route, he removed his cap to wipe his brow with the back of one hand. I should have gotten a drink at the gas station, he thought. It’d sure be embarrassing to give everyone else the safety lecture, only to end up sick from the heat myself because I forgot to hydrate.

His GPS counted down the distance to the marked location, pointing the destination just slightly right of straight ahead. His eyes constantly scanned around him, from the spot where he would place his next step, to just ahead, to left, then to right, and back to the start of the process. So far, he found nothing but normal rock landscape.

This would be a lousy location to try and dig. There’s very little open ground that isn’t covered in large rocks, and I’d bet what smooth dirt is showing, is hiding more rocks just beneath the surface. If he left something in the open, how long would it last?

“Powell,” one of the field techs off to his right yelled. “We’ve got something here.”

“Everybody hold up,” he yelled in response, and then went to investigate the find. “What is it?” he asked when he reached the tech.

The tech pointed. “These rocks look like a recent slide,” he replied. “I’m not certain, but I think I caught a glimpse of something metal under the rocks.”

“It’s worth checking.” Sid gestured behind him. “Bring the metal detector and the bomb dog over here,” he called. “Let’s see if there’s something under this spot.”

The tech with the detector came over and swept the sensor over the area. “There’s something here, all right,” she said. “More than just someone’s old beer cans. I’m guessing some kind of large, metal box.”

The handler walked the dog around the location, and then shook his head. “Dartie’s not alerting on anything. If there’s a bomb in there, it’s too deep for her to smell.”

“Okay,” Sid said. “Get a couple of shovels over here, and let’s see if we can pry these rocks out of the way. Everyone else, continue to search the area. This may not be what we’re looking for, or it may not be the only thing left out here for us.”

It didn’t take long to remove some of the smaller stones that covered the item. A flat, painted surface with just a few spots of rust showing along some scratches and dents was revealed, and checked again by the dog. They then worked to displace the larger stones, until they’d removed enough that the top and several inches down the side were exposed, revealing the handles and latches of a metal box. A bead of black caulking ran around the box, sealing the lid to the base in addition to the latches.

“What do you think, Sid?” Weiderman asked. “Do we want to open it now, or go ahead and finish digging it out before we open it? I’m assuming you don’t want to just see if we can lift it straight out now.”

“No, I want to make sure he didn’t leave a nasty surprise for us underneath it, before we try lifting it. Let’s cut the sealant, have the dog sniff it again, and then see if we can open it before we dig any deeper. I’d hate to spend too much time on this, if it turns out to have nothing to do with our boy.”

“Okay,” Wiederman said, pulling a knife from his pocket. He leaned on the rocks to run the blade through the bead of caulking. When he’d cut a few inches, he sat up and grimaced, blurting an expletive.

“What’s wrong?” Sid asked.

“The box is outgassing,” Weiderman replied. “There’s something rotting in there.” He stood up and stepped away, looking like he was going to be sick.

One of the techs put on a facemask, and took over cutting through the seal. Within a few moments, the smell of decay filled the air around the rock pile, and those watching moved to find a spot upwind from the stench.

The tech looked up at Sid. “The seal is as cut as can be done from here,” he said. “You want the dog to sniff it again before I try the latches?”

“Yeah. At this point, I don’t think there’s any trap on this box, but I don’t want to assume anything right now.”

The tech stood up and moved out of the way, letting the handler bring the dog in again. Dartie showed more interest in the box, but didn’t alert the way she’d been trained to respond to the smell of explosives.

Sid nodded to the tech, who then tried the first latch. It popped up, and the box released the remainder of its pent-up gasses. Cautiously, the tech released the other latch, and stepped back. Taking a shovel from one of the other techs, he put the blade under the lid, and lifted it open.

The corpse faced up, with arms in front of it. Sid turned away, pinching his nose. “Find one of the deputies,” he said, to no one in particular. “Tell them to get the coroner out here.”

1 comment:

Yvonne Blake said...

There's nothing like visiting the setting of a story....on location!
I hope to do that myself in a couple weeks.