Roger Stelljes. Smashwords Edition

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Now we’re cooking with gas.”

3:08 PM

Mac ran the scenario round and round in his head as he and Lich drove north on County Road 81 into the northwestern suburb of Osseo. They were on to it now, finally. Smith and the Muellers were behind this. The motives were perverted, but if Mac could not understand them, he could at least see where they were coming from.

For Brown, it was the chief.

Charlie Flanagan hated dirty cops more than almost anything. In Brown’s case, he caught the DEA agent putting coke back onto the street to pay off gambling debts. It might have only been a one-time thing, but Brown was guilty and admitted it to Detective Flanagan. Peters told Mac that Brown had pleaded – flat-out begged – the chief to let it go. Brown was in counseling for his gambling and hadn’t placed a bet in ten months. Faced with the wrath of his bookie and his bookie’s muscle, he stole the coke to retire the debt. Brown told Flanagan he’d leave the bureau and law enforcement if he let it go. Brown also had a seriously ill daughter and was worried about what would happen to her.

Smith Brown simply didn’t know Charlie Flanagan. If you were dirty, you had to pay the price. Peters recalled Flanagan ruminating about what to do with Brown at the time, saying, “It would be one thing if he stole a couple of watches, a fur coat, maybe a TV from the evidence room, something like that. I wouldn’t condone it, but I would at least understand it. I could let that kind of thing slide. But stealing drugs, coke, and putting it back on our streets and all that comes with that? That I can’t look past.”

As Peters said, “You know the chief. It was a principle thing.”

Mac didn’t know what to think of it. He understood the chief’s position. But he doubted the chief thought Brown would end up with fifteen years in Leavenworth Federal Pen either. Life had to have been miserable in there, and the information they were finding said that was indeed the case. Fifteen years in prison is a long time to think. Especially after they also learned Brown’s daughter died after he went in, at least in part because his wife and child lost medical insurance. That only added fuel to the fire.

He blames the chief for all of that, I’m sure,” Peters said. “I suppose I see how he gets there, but he’s wrong.”

Smith might be wrong about the chief’s choices, Captain,” Mac answered. “But at the moment, he’s sitting with two aces in the hole.”

For the Muellers, it was Lyman Hisle, the man who killed their father.

The whole conspiracy was simple and made sense once you had the pieces. All of which made Mac more concerned about the ransom.

This ransom call is about more than money,” Mac told his captain. “There’s a trap door here that we’re not seeing, and the chief and Lyman are going to fall right through it.”

What’s the trap door?” Peters asked.

I don’t know,” Mac answered. “But the ransom will not be some simple money drop. You’re not going to be dropping it into a garbage can somewhere. These boys want blood. The chief and Lyman are going to be involved in the drop somehow, and we need to stay close.”

Mac hung up his phone and retreated into his thoughts as they passed the Osseo city limits sign. Mac hadn’t been to Osseo for years. As a kid he came up this way to play hockey a couple of times every winter at the Osseo Arena, a rink that looked like a big beige utility shed and felt like the inside of a freezer. It had the hardest and fastest ice around. Back in those days, the town sat by itself among fields, looking like the small farm town you now had to drive out much farther to find. Today, Osseo was a little piece of small-town America completely surrounded by the suburbs of Maple Grove and Brooklyn Park, complete with three-car-garage mini-mansions, big-box retailers, chain restaurants, Lexuses, BMWs, and exploding populations.

Mac turned right off the highway and onto tree-lined Central Avenue, the town’s main drag. Osseo didn’t seem a natural choice for the Muellers, who were born and raised in Chisago Lakes, an equally small bedroom community fifty miles northeast of St. Paul. But it started to make some sense when Sally told him that they’d been working for a nearby lumberyard, based on wage records.

Of course,” Sally said, “the Mueller brothers had checking accounts, but they were cleaned out a few weeks ago.”

Mac pulled up to a patrol car in the parking lot of the gas station along the main drag. Two uniform cops, one much older than the other, casually leaned against the front bumper of their cruiser, which was parked under the shady canopy of a small group of maple trees. The older of the two, who Mac assumed was the chief, was smoking. Mac powered down his window and stuck his hand out to shake. “Detective McRyan from St. Paul.”

I’m Police Chief Pete Mitchell,” the older cop replied as he took Mac’s hand. “This here is one of my patrol guys. His name’s Bennett.”

Mac thumbed toward the passenger side, “This is Detective Lich. How do you want to do this, Chief?”

I called the landlord,” Mitchell said, taking a drag on his Marlboro and blowing smoke out the side of his mouth. “He says the guys you’re looking for haven’t been around for a week or two, at least as far as he can tell.”

We still should take a look.”

I figured you’d want to. The landlord will let us in,” Mitchell said, stamping out his cigarette and waving them to follow.

The apartment was two blocks away in a rundown 1950s-style apartment building with a water-stained dark beige stucco exterior with brown-trimmed windows. The landlord was sitting on the steps, having a smoke of his own, when they pulled up. The man, dressed in dark brown pants and a white, short-sleeved collar shirt, looked to be in his sixties. His last strands of hair stretched in a brutal comb-over from one ear over to the other. Without saying a word, he turned and led the group up the steps to the second floor and a rear apartment. The landlord knocked on the door, waited fifteen seconds, knocked again, waited, and then slid in the key.

Like I told Ole’ Pistol Pete here,” he said in a gravely, smoke-damaged voice, “they haven’t been around for a week or two.”

Mac and Lich entered to find an apartment evidencing a Spartan existence. To their right was a tiny galley kitchen, straight ahead was a living room, and to the left was a hallway to two small bedrooms and a full bath. The living room had an avocado-colored couch and a harvest-gold-upholstered loveseat perched in front of an old twenty-seven-inch TV that sat on side-by-side milk crates. Down the hallway, there were mattresses on the floor of each bedroom, but no sheets or blankets remained. An old clock radio sat unplugged on the floor in one bedroom. The closets were empty. In the bathroom, there was a half roll of toilet paper but nothing more. In the kitchen, the refrigerator was empty except for a nearly empty carton of spoiled milk, three eggs, and a half stick of butter. Mac sifted through the cupboards and drawers, finding only a single pay stub for Zorn Lumber.

This place is empty,” Lich said, standing in the living room with his hands on his hips.

Abandoned, I’d say,” Mac added.

When’s the rent paid up through?” Lich asked the landlord.

Through June,” he answered. “They haven’t paid for July yet, and I was startin’ to wonder about it.”

I doubt you’re going to get July’s rent,” Mac said. He showed the landlord pictures of the Mueller brothers. “Were these the guys renting the place?”

The landlord nodded, “That’s them, all right.”

Mac dug out pictures of Monica and Brown. “You ever see either of these folks hanging around?”

The landlord scratched the back of his head and peered at the pictures for a moment. “Her, yes,” he said. “You couldn’t miss her. She was a pretty thing. I’m not sure about the guy though. They didn’t have many visitors that I can recall, although people come and go all the time.” He held the picture in his hands for another minute, giving it a good look. “I just can’t say for sure if he was ever around.”

Mac turned to the chief, holding up the pay stub. “Is Zorn Lumber the lumberyard we passed out on County 81 as we drove into town?”

It is. Ol’ Ray Zorn runs the place. You want to talk to him?”

We need to.”

I thought you might. I called Ray and told him we might be stopping by. He lives five blocks from here.”

* * * * *

Jupiter sat next to Hagen as the convict computer genius’s fingers set speed records flying over the keys. Sally was striking out with the pipe company, which was located in Des Moines. There just wasn’t a way to get hold of someone on the holiday. If the FBI and their resources could be trusted, they might have been able to throw some weight around. However, Mac and Riles both said they didn’t want to do that unless they were left with no choice.

Hagen said they had a choice.

He rolled his eyes when Sally asked him if he could crack into the company’s system. Hacking was a skill one never really lost, he said, “like riding a bike.” Peters had already promised protection if anyone caught him.

It took him about twenty minutes, but now he was into the company’s electronic shipping records for the kind of pipe shown in the video. “So where do they ship the pipe to?” Hagen asked, staring at the computer screen with a perplexed look on his face.

You’re in, right? Jupiter quizzed. “But can you find the information you need?”

I’ve never been much of an end-user. I’ll find what we need, but….”

It’ll take you some time,” Jones filled in. “I have a little expertise in this area. May I?”

Be my guest,” Hagen replied, scooting over.

Jupiter wasn’t a hacker. He was originally a programmer who had since moved to video. He liked to use technology as a tool to develop information, whether it was business intelligence software, where he had made his initial fortune, or in video, where he was making his next one. Hagen, on the other hand, knew programming and he liked to use technology as a tool as well, but more like a sword to access the information of others – that was where the thrill, and utility, lay for him. It was a different mindset. But Hagen had used his sword, and now, Jupe thought, it was time for the toolbox.

While I was looking over your shoulder I thought I saw a previous page where I could…” Jones’s voice trailed off as he exited the shipping records and moused through menus. He clicked on an icon for a program named Customer Choice. “Here we go,” he said. “This is business intelligence software. This is the kind of stuff I used to make. It should let me search for what we need.”

Now Hagen was the interested one as Jupiter set up a search, entered the kind of pipe, the letter H in the company name profile, Minnesota and Wisconsin in the state field, and then clicked search. The program quickly turned out thirty-nine hits. “Now we’re cooking with gas,” Jupiter said. “I’m going to see if we can’t narrow this down a little more.”

* * * * *

Ray Zorn lived on a quiet corner in a blue two-story with a white picket fence. Zorn was sitting with his wife at a picnic table under the shade of a large maple tree. He was dressed in an old, yellow Munsingwear golf shirt, Bermuda shorts, and dark socks, along with a John Deere ball cap. Prepared for company, a white tray with a pitcher of lemonade and six glasses rested on the table.

Hiya, Chief,” Zorn welcomed, waving the group over.

Ray.” Mitchell introduced Mac and Lich, who both declined refreshment.

Mac wasted no time, “Mr. Zorn, David and Dean Mueller worked for you?”

Yes they did.”

They still work for you?”

I don’t think they do.”

Don’t think?” Lich queried.

Well, they stopped showing up a few weeks ago and I haven’t heard from them since. So if those boys ever show up, it’ll only be for me to tell ’em not to come back. Must say, though I’m kind of disappointed in those boys.”

Why’s that?”

I knew their father. Tom Mueller was a friend of mine years ago. Those boys came to me, just out of prison, looking for work. I had my doubts, but I liked their father and thought I’d give them a chance.” Zorn went on to explain that they had been good workers who showed up on time, did whatever he asked, were respectful, caused no problems. “I was surprised when they just stopped showing up. Figured, if they got a better offer somewhere, they’d do me the courtesy of tellin’ me, ya know?”

Did they ever have any visitors when they worked for you?”

Just their sister. She showed up once, maybe a week or two before the boys up and scooted on me.”

Mac paused, then asked, “Did the Muellers ever purchase any lumber from you?”

I don’t right know,” Zorn replied. “Employees can purchase from us at a pretty good discount, and they may well have done so. I can check if you need.”

We do,” Mac said. “You said their sister stopped by. Would that be this woman?” He placed a picture of Monica on the picnic table.

That’s her,” Zorn said. “Pretty girl, I always thought.”

Have you ever seen this man?” Mac asked, sliding a picture of Smith across the table.

Zorn stared at the picture, as did Mitchell. Mitchell spoke first.

These boys showed me this picture a few minutes ago and it didn’t hit me, but now for some reason it does. I think I’ve seen that guy before. Doesn’t he look familiar to you, Ray?”

Zorn wrinkled his nose and looked at the picture closer. “You know, I think you’re right there, Pete. He looks familiar. It’s the nose I think. That big knot up there on the bridge is what I remember.”

Where did we see him?”

Zorn stared at the photo for a moment more, and then his eyes lit up, “We saw him at the Derby.”

The Derby? What’s The Derby?” Lich asked.

Restaurant out on County 81,” Chief Mitchell replied. “A dingy old greasy-spoon you passed on the left as you drove into town. It’s an old highway joint, few booths and a counter. Ray and I like to eat lunch there a time or two a week.”

Pete’s right,” Zorn added. “We saw this feller in there. He was in a booth, the back booth I think, with the Mueller boys.” He shook his head. “Good memory, Pete.”

When was this?”

Not long ago,” Miller said. “Few, maybe three weeks ago.”

Now that you mention it,” Zorn added. “Probably a few days before the boys up and bailed on me.”

Mac and Lich shared a look. “That pretty much locks it up,” Lich said.

These boys have something to do with that kidnapping in St. Paul?” Miller asked.

Mac nodded.

Anything else we can do to help?’

It would help to find out if the Muellers bought any lumber from you.”

Why would that matter?” Zorn asked, concerned. “I don’t think we did anything wrong.”

You didn’t Mr. Zorn, you didn’t. But trust me,” Lich replied, “it matters for us to know. It just does.”

* * * * *

So that gets us down to three stores with the right letters,” Hagen said.

Hanlin’s in Brainerd, Hankley’s in Grantsburg, up in Wisconsin, or Hanburg’s in Wyoming,” Jupiter replied.

Damn holiday,” Sally said. “It’ll be a nightmare to try to get hold of these people.” She shook her head.

Call Mac,” Riles said. “See what he thinks. Sooner or later we need to bring more resources into this.”

* * * * *

Here we go,” Zorn said as he held up a sheet of paper as they had all crowded into his office at the lumber yard. “Employee purchase form right here. Three weeks ago. They bought heavy plywood, two-by-fours and wood screws.”

How about PVC piping?” Mac asked.

Nope. Just the wood and the screws. We don’t sell PVC pipe.”

But they bought it all about the time Smith met with those boys at the diner,” Lich added.

Mac nodded, but he was getting anxious. He looked at his watch, which now said 4:10 PM. Time was running out and, while they were confirming the players, it wasn’t getting them any closer.

We know who it is now,” Lich said, pulling Mac to a corner. “We know it’s Brown and the Muellers.”

Which is great, we’ve figured out who’s behind it. But where are the girls? We’re no closer to answering that.”

Maybe we tell Burton, a few select others, see if we can spread the word quietly.”

Mac ran that around in his head, thinking about what Dick said, thinking it might be time to broaden their little group in the know. “Maybe…” he started, when his cell phone rang. It was Sally, reporting that Jupiter and Hagen narrowed the source of the pipe. “Okay, so I have Hanlin’s in Brainerd, Hankley’s in Grantsburg, or Hanburg’s in Wyoming, just north of Forest Lake up Interstate 35,” Mac repeated as he wrote down all of the stores on his notepad.

What’s with Hanburg’s?” Zorn asked, overhearing Mac.

Mac pulled the phone away from his ear. He figured anything he said in front of Zorn or Miller was fine. He gave them a quick rundown on the girls being buried alive. Zorn looked sick, probably thinking that wood purchased from his business had been used for that purpose. “There’s PVC piping these guys used. You don’t sell that here. We think it came from one of those three stores.”

Two things,” Zorn said, a dead serious, pissed-off look on his face. The small-town friendly demeanor was long gone. “I know Freddy Hanburg out in Wyoming. He owns that store. He’d be sick about this. I’ll call him for you right now.”

And I’ll call the Wyoming chief,” Mitchell added.

You said there were two things,” Mac said. “What’s the other?”

The Mueller kids are from Chisago Lakes. That’s ten miles up the road from Wyoming. You don’t have much time left from what you boys are telling me. If I were you boys, I’d look there first.”

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