The Finders by Jeffrey B. Burton: New Excerpt
Christine Dack was hung over.
It had been a crazy Chicago wedding weekend all right. How could it not be with her old sorority mates? Sure, even though she and Sierra had been besties from back in their AOII days at dear old Ski-U-Mah, Christine hadn’t been selected as one of Sierra’s bridesmaids. And everyone knew the reason why. After all, Christine had dated Brad for nearly half of college—their sophomore and junior years—and she knew Sierra remained a bit touchy on the subject. Evidently, when it came to marriage, it’s not necessarily sisters before misters or whatever the female equivalent of bros before hoes was these days.
But it didn’t matter. Being left out of the bridesmaid parade gave Christine more time to visit with old friends, get caught up on their lives, and, especially, to drink champagne . . . and, more especially, to dance the night away.
Christine now found herself on her early-Sunday-morning trek back to Minneapolis, cruising at seventy miles per hour down I-90 in her white pearl Miata—she had a training seminar to present with her boss and her boss’s boss first thing Monday—when the nausea washed over her. Christine jerked the Miata into the right lane, thanking God there was no traffic, no one to piss off. She’d just missed the exit ramp for Egg River and figured she needed to get to the shoulder—publically puking on I-90, not the greatest of ways to start the day—but then spotted the blue sign signaling wayside rest and goosed the Miata. She was able to glide the ragtop into the first parking spot in front of the facility.
In retrospect, Christine should have caught more z’s last night, but she wanted to get home with a chunk of her Sunday afternoon to spare. Christine had prep work for Monday’s dog and pony show—a final review of the slide deck—plus laundry to do. Then she wanted to spend the remainder of the day vegged out in front of the TV, eating ice cream, and resting up from the crazy-festive Windy City weekend.
Christine never slept well when she’d been drinking . . . and Christine had certainly been drinking.
Toward the end of the evening, the champagne had gone down like water.
Thank God it was early and no other cars were at the rest stop. Christine didn’t need the added humiliation of fellow drivers bearing witness if she couldn’t make the restroom in time.
Champagne going down looks far more attractive than when it comes up.
Christine made herself throw up in the women’s room. Actually, she only had to picture herself putting a finger down her throat when her mostly liquid wedding feast came gushing up like an uncapped oil well. Afterward, when Christine was done washing her hands and face and neck, she forced herself to take a long drink from the fountain to hydrate and get her body fluids back in whack.
She hoped the H2O would stay down.
Oh God, Christine thought, am I still drunk?
Could I get a DUI even after six hours of choppy sleep?
Christine bought a 7UP out of the vending machine, twisted the cap off, and sipped as much as she could handle, which was maybe a quarter of a cup. Perhaps she could burp her way back to sobriety. She went outside and noticed a black van that had pulled in next to her Miata was now backing up to depart. Christine figured she must have been indisposed for quite awhile if the black van guy had arrived after her, done his business, and was now exiting the facility.
The driver caught sight of Christine standing in front of the entrance and waved a hand.
Sometimes she got that from guys, but today Christine felt anything but attractive.
Then she spotted a tow truck parked at the far end of the lot. A lone figure sat behind the wheel. Christine couldn’t make out the driver’s features at this distance, but could tell he was staring at his smartphone, probably trying to pinpoint exactly where some stranded motorist was calling in from.
She took another hit off the 7UP and watched as an oldtime station wagon pulled into the spot just vacated by black van guy. Four doors opened and a family popped out—a young couple and two kids that screamed early grade school.
Christine stepped off to the side of the walkway—out of smelling distance, although she hoped the 7UP had altered the aroma and fragrance of her breath. She also hoped the air had cleared in the women’s restroom.
She’d been fortunate that there’d been no other vehicles, especially cars full of females, when she’d pulled into the Egg River rest stop. And that none had arrived right on her heels. Christine knew that for a fact as when she’d knelt in her stall before the toilet—between long bouts of disposing of what appeared to be everything she’d ever drunk in her life—she’d peeked under the stall.
No other feet.
Christine, a minor hiking enthusiast, noticed a sign boasting of a half-mile nature walk that encircled the facility. Perfect. She could sip the rest of the twenty-ounce 7UP, breathe in some fresh air—if the air off I-90 could be considered fresh—and belch like a prize sow. No one would hear her and, if her unsettled stomach went into round two, she could always add her biodegradable two-cents to the foliage and shrubbery of this particular area of Illinois. This strolling detour might also help Christine sober up, keep her from being pulled over, and keep her from having to call in from some northern Illinois detox center, absenting herself from her Monday-morning presentation.
Christine bypassed the sidewalk, cut across the lawn to where the trail began, when the memory of what happened at the end of last night struck her with the impact of a freight train.
Oh Christ. Oh Christ. Oh Christ.
Christine cringed. Her heart caught in her throat. She almost threw up again, more from her recollection than from nausea. Christine remembered sneaking out of the Ritz-Carlton banquet room in order to use the ladies’ restroom down one of the hotel’s hallways. On her way out, she’d caught Brad’s eye.
They both smiled as though in on a shared secret.
And when she came out of the ladies’ room, there stood Brad, waiting for her.
“I’ve missed you,” he said.
Without saying a word Christine walked over, placed fingertips on his cheek, leaned up, and kissed him on the lips. Their tongues touched. She felt his breath in her mouth.
After several seconds of quiet intimacy Christine had left Brad standing there, stuttering in her wake, and headed back down the Ritz-Carlton hallway—at the end of which stood her old sorority bestie . . . Sierra . . . dressed in white, hands on hips, tears in her eyes.
She had walked past her old friend without so much as blinking or any other hint of recognition, as though Sierra wasn’t even there, and strode quickly toward the elevator atrium, and on up to her room.
Christine felt sick in more ways than one as she began her nature hike. So horrified at the remembrance she didn’t look back, and she didn’t notice the driver step out from the tow truck and follow in a direct line behind her.
Had she, Christine may have noticed a few simple details. The man was Caucasian. Middle-aged. Five-foot-nine or -ten. Maybe a hundred and sixty or seventy pounds. Brown hair, receding hairline. A minor paunch if any.
Average in every aspect of the word, Christine may have observed.
Hell, Christine may have said, as far as I know, he could be everyman.
Christine Dack never made her training presentation Monday morning in Minneapolis.
Two weeks later her Mazda Miata showed up in Milwaukee.
Dispatch called out a suicide.
Technically, Officer Kippy Gimm and her partner, Officer Dave Wabiszewski, were being sent to a townhome in Forest Glen to conduct a welfare check, but Gimm read between the lines as the police dispatcher relayed additional information from the 911 caller. The owner of the townhome in question was one Scott Granger—Caucasian male, age forty-two, five-foot-eleven, a hundred and eighty pounds—and, Gimm noted, Granger had two DUIs on his record, the latest one recently put to rest. Drunk driving aside, Officer Gimm knew the stats on suicides—how the rate among men is nearly four times that of women and that, in recent years, middle-aged males had raced ahead of their younger counterparts to rack up the highest rates.
But it wasn’t statistics or a potential drinking problem or Granger not answering his landline that tilted it away from being a straightforward welfare check, from her and Wabs checking in on some forlorn chap sipping pinot noir at midnight—pondering the one that got away, brooding about the roads not traveled—and firing off texts on shedding mortal coils to the handful of friends he’d yet to alienate.
No, what tilted the scale toward Officers Gimm and Wabiszewski dealing with the genuine article was what Granger’s next-door neighbor, Mencken, phoned in. An insomniac in the adjoining town house, Mencken had gotten up to raid his icebox and click through late-night TV when he’d heard some kind of humming-vibration sound coming from what he
believed to be his garage. Thinking he’d been dim enough to leave his car idling when he’d hustled his bag of burgers in for dinner—so excited to eat that he’d left his car running—Mencken had rushed out to verify, but it wasn’t Mencken’s Regal Sportback that’d been left running. He’d not been such a dipshit after all. Nevertheless, the humming-vibration din was louder now and most definitely coming from the townhome unit next door. Mencken hit the button to slide up his garage door and jogged outside. He had stepped onto Granger’s driveway and placed an ear against Granger’s garage door.
Yup, a vehicle was running inside, and it had been for God knows how long.
And that meant combustion fumes. Carbon monoxide.
Unable to lift Granger’s garage door—it wouldn’t budge—and after banging on Granger’s front door a short eternity, Mencken had run back to his town house and dialed 911.
It was the last day of Officer Kippy Gimm’s rookie year with CPD—the Chicago Police Department—so of course she’d been looking forward to a minor celebration at shift’s end; perhaps a couple of cheap beers at Gamblers to get in the mood. Maybe she’d even con Wabs into tossing some darts. Gimm and Wabiszewski worked out of the 17th District—Albany Park—on North Pulaski, so when the call came in with a nearby address, she and Wabs hit the lightbar and sped toward the Forest Glen location.
When their squad car stopped at the townhome address, a round man in gray sweats and flip-flops was out front, frantically waving with one hand, his other pointing at Granger’s garage door. After a brief huddle with the man in the flip-flops, Wabs rushed to the front door while Gimm slipped around the squad car to grab the Halligan bar from the trunk.
“I’m worried about the woman and boy who live there,” Mencken said.
Gimm froze. “Granger was married?”
“I don’t know—girlfriend or something. Her and her son have been staying there the last month or so.” Mencken pointed at the single vehicle in the double-car driveway. “That’s Granger’s Mercedes CLA, so I think he’s got an old Chevy C/K running in the garage, which explains the loud idle. Them older trucks with no catalytic converters make the carbon monoxide poison more deadly.”
Gimm figured neighbor Mencken to be some kind of gearhead hobbyist like her father. “What’s the girlfriend drive?”
“A blue Ford Fiesta,” Mencken replied. “And I hope to God it’s not in the garage with the C/K.”
By the time Gimm ran the forcible-entry tool to the front door, it had become obsolete. Officer Wabiszewski had gone macho man and breached the town house with two kicks to the doorframe.
Inside, both cops jogged a half-circle around the family room, past the steps leading to the upper floor, and into an empty kitchen. A nearly drained fifth of Jack Daniel’s sat atop the center island. The sink was an elephant’s graveyard where spent Corona bottles went to die. It turned out the kitchen wasn’t empty, as once they passed the island they discovered the owner—Scott Granger—spread-eagled on the floor, next to an overturned stool.
“I’ve got the garage,” Gimm said, thinking about the woman and her son. She stepped over Granger while Wabs squatted to check on the prone figure.
Gimm yanked open the door, banged her fingertips against the garage door opener, flipped up light switches, and dashed toward the running pickup truck—fortunately the Chevy C/K was the solitary vehicle in the garage. It was then Gimm spotted the golden retriever puppy lying atop a bundle of old blankets against the near wall, not moving, with what she took to be vomit on the garage floor near the pup’s open mouth.
Gimm turned away, kept her focus on the pickup as the garage door wound upward. She jerked open the door to the Chevy, reached in, and twisted the keys, shutting down the
engine. A quick glance told her the vehicle was empty. It was then she turned around and stood over the cream-and-gold-colored puppy, looped and intertwined with the blanket, as though clinging to it for deliverance.
Asleep . . . like a limp towel.
In Gimm’s 365 days on the force, she’d witnessed the aftermath of drive-by shootings—this was Chicago, after all—and had once applied a tourniquet to the arm of a five-year-old girl whose only mistake had been sitting in the backseat of a car at a red light just as some gangbangers pulled up in the next lane. Gimm had also seen a man burn to death inside the cab of his own crashed auto when the heat became too intense for the firefighters to bring the Jaws of Life into play. And that time when Gimm and Wabs had once been dispatched to a retirement complex where a peculiar odor emanating from one of the units had seeped into the hallway and become impossible for immediate neighbors to ignore, and was thus brought to the manager’s attention. It was the apartment unit of an elderly woman, a widow who’d not been seen in at least a week and wasn’t answering her door, obviously, nor her phone, and all of the aged residents involved, the manager included, understood what that signaled.
But Kippy Gimm had been a dog lover from way back, since her father let her name the bulldog puppy—she’d gone with Rocko—he’d brought home for Kippy and her older sister one Christmas Eve. A cop’s hours made it tough on pets, but Gimm figured, in the off-chance that she’d have a family someday, then there’d be one or two four-leggers as part of the clan. And Gimm loved taking care of Zsa Zsa and Eva, her sister’s twin Pomeranians, whenever their family went on vacation.
If she and Wabs made it to Gamblers in time for last call, Gimm would be in need of something a bit stronger than beer.
Gimm returned to the house, stepped around Wabs as he continued CPR on Granger, and then jogged through the remaining rooms in the split-level, turning the search into an exercise—a cardio workout—to shake free what she’d seen in the garage. She cleared the two bedrooms—master and guest—bathrooms plus the basement family room and laundry in under a minute. No one else was in the house—no woman, no son. The townhome appeared generally tidy, well kept, except for broken glass and hundreds of pennies that littered the hardwood floor of Granger’s home office.
Gimm figured something had occurred in there.
She bypassed the kitchen, exited the town house through the busted front entrance, stepped down the driveway, and headed toward the concerned neighbor. “Did you know they had a dog?”
“The kid came by to show off a puppy the other evening,” Mencken said. “I think they’d just gotten it.”
Gimm thanked him for his efforts, gave him the bad news about the golden retriever, and told him an ambulance was on its way for Granger.
Mencken nodded and began speaking about how Granger was an odd duck—quiet, standoffish, and, as far as he could tell from various post-sunset encounters, a nighttime lush. Mencken prattled on about bad vibes, and how Granger always seemed to have something percolating beneath the surface.
Gimm half listened to Mencken’s ramblings as she scanned about the yard, the driveway, the street, looking everywhere but toward Granger’s open garage. After Mencken paused for a breath, Gimm turned toward him, thanked him again for his help, and warned the man against glancing into Granger’s garage on his way back inside, as it was a most unpleasant scene—a horrible scene—and one that he would not soon forget.
Mencken stood a moment longer; his navel peeking out below his sweatshirt like a bashful groundhog checking for its shadow. He looked a bit gloomy, realizing he’d just been dismissed by the female cop. But Mencken heeded her warning and shuffled back into his unit without a single glimpse.
Gimm hadn’t meant to be curt with Good Samaritan Mencken. He’d been very helpful, but she couldn’t stand to hear another word about Scott Granger.
A minute later, Wabs was at her side. “He’s dead. Nothing I could do. I think Granger was gassing the dog for whatever fucked-up reason, but the carbon monoxide seeped into the kitchen and did him in as well.”
“Fine by me,” Gimm said. “Poetic justice.”
Officer Wabiszewski said nothing.
Gimm turned around and looked back toward Granger’s garage, back toward the motionless mound of blankets and fur. She could now hear the ambulance off in the distance, dopplering closer. She ran a sleeve across her eyes and . . . oh my God . . . there was movement.
“Wabs,” she said, grabbing her partner’s shoulder.
Wabiszewski spun around, spotted what his partner was seeing. “What the hell?”
She thought it could have been a trick of light and shadows at first. The makeshift bed itself appeared to squirm and jostle, and then the scene became clear as the lone puppy wiggled out from the pile of blankets and pillows, tumbled down the side, and meandered erratically toward the driveway, walking on four wobbly legs, heading toward the two police officers.
Gimm’s jaw dropped.
She took quick steps toward the garage and then squatted down as the puppy approached her.
“It’s okay, Honey Bear,” Officer Gimm said, holding out a hand. The little dog licked at the police officer’s finger. Gimm took the puppy into her arms. “It’s okay, Honey Bear,” she said again, scratching behind the dog’s ears. “It’s going to be okay.”
A moment later, the ambulance arrived.
Copyright © Jeffrey B. Burton 2020.
About The Finders by Jeffrey B. Burton:
Mason “Mace” Reid lives on the outskirts of Chicago and specializes in human remains detection. He trains dogs to hunt for the dead. Reid’s coming off a taxing year—mourning the death of a beloved springer spaniel as well as the dissolution of his marriage. He adopts a rescue dog with a mysterious past—a golden retriever named Vira. And when Reid begins training Vira as a cadaver dog, he comes to realize just how special the newest addition to his family truly is…
Suddenly, Reid and his prize pupil find themselves hurled into a taxing murder case, which will push them to their very limits. Paired with determined Chicago Police Officer Kippy Gimm, Mace must put all his trust in Vira’s abilities to thwart a serial killer who has now set his sights on Mace himself.