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TUESDAY, JULY 3RD
Just before 7:00 AM, Mac, Lich, Riles, Rock, and Burton slid into a large booth at the Cleveland Grille. Going to the Grille was like going into a time warp back to the late 1960s or early 1970s. It had old mustard and orange vinyl booths, a speckled tile floor, and very Brady striped wallpaper. It also served the best and most filling breakfast around. Everyone was exhausted and needed to fuel up. The Cleveland would do the trick.
Mac loved the place, the food, and the old atmosphere. Lich loved the place because his girl Dot worked his table. Lich and Dot hooked up at the same time as Mac and Sally last winter during the PTA case. Dot was a treat: a wonderfully warm, salt-and-pepper-haired waitress in her late forties who wore a uniform two sizes too small to show off her ample topside. Lich, of course, loved it. He came in each morning, she doted on him, and he’d pat her on the ass. Mac loved her to death and often wondered whether, if the two got married, if he’d have to call her Dot Lick.
“The usual, Hon?” she asked Mac, setting her right hand on his shoulder.
“You bet.” The usual was the CG breakfast burrito; chock full of eggs, sausage, hash browns, peppers, cheese, and salsa. “Get everyone the same,” he directed. “Trust me,” he said, looking to Burton. “You’ll love it. It’ll fill you up, and you’ll thank me for it later.”
While they waited for their food, they began the postmortem on the raid. No evidence of the girls was found at the Northfield house and alibis were checking out. Wiskowski Sr. was still of interest, but it was dying by the minute. Everyone knew, in their hearts and heads, that he was a dead end.
“I thought it was Wiskowski,” Mac groaned, sipping at a large glass of ice water. “I can’t believe how wrong I was about him. It all fit, right down to the house out in the country.”
“It wasn’t just you. We were all wrong,” Burton said. “I thought it was Wiskowski, too. I’d have bet my pension on it.”
“Someone explain the car in Ellsworth to me then,” Riles asked rubbing his eyes. “Were we wrong on that too?”
“If Wiskowski is not involved in this, but one of his cars ends up involved, is it a setup then?” Lich asked.
“These guys have been so careful. And then to get caught with an actual license plate by some old man sitting on a park bench?” Burton said. “I was surprised they would have screwed up like that.”
Dot appeared with five CG Burritos. She added two extra pots of coffee. Hunger took over for a few minutes as everyone inhaled the first few bites of food.
As the initial assault on the burritos slowed, Mac snorted.
“I bet it was a setup. God, the more I think about that car in Ellsworth, the more it seems like it was.”
“What has you so sure now?”
“The driver of the car, whoever it was, sat there for a while, perhaps five minutes according to our witness in Ellsworth,” Mac answered, leaning back against the back of his booth and crossing his arms.
Burton nodded, picking at his plate.
“Why wait around when you want to make the call quick and be done?”
“Right. Why sit at the phone for five minutes, if not more, before making the call, unless….”
“Unless you want to be seen,” Riles finished, scratching the deep stubble on the right side of his face. “Cripes, these guys have thought of everything.”
“So whoever this guy is,” Riles continued, “he sits at the phone until our witness shows up. Once our guy is certain he’s been seen, he makes the call and then leaves.”
“We find the witness, get the plate, start down the Wiskowski path, and lose all this time,” Rock added.
“Well, if it was a setup, they got exactly what they wanted,” Lich said.
“Right, we’re spending all our time looking at Wiskowski and not in the right place,” Burton said, shaking his head. “Shit.”
“It certainly would fit these bastards,” Mac noted. “They wanted to push us in another direction, even if for just a short period of time. All the while, they continue doing what they’re doing and we fall farther behind.”
“It makes sense, when you think about how these guys have operated,” Burton added.
“Maybe we should have seen it sooner,” Mac said, stuffing a fork full of food into his mouth.
“You mean, besides the car angle?” Rock asked, adding some toast to his large helping of butter.
“Yeah. Maybe we should have seen it in the motive,” Mac said.
“How so?” Burton asked.
“The kidnappers have operated as if ransom is their motivation, with a personal element added in. For Wiskowski, maybe, that whole equation doesn’t work. He’s got more money than he could ever spend, so ransom doesn’t make sense, but he’s got motive up the wazoo personally. If he wanted revenge for his son, he could’ve just killed the chief and Lyman. Why go through all this bullshit and phone calls, switching vans, and the whole nine yards?” Mac let it hang in the air for a moment. “We didn’t see it because we’ve been working around the clock to find the girls. It was the first thing that looked good to us. A lot of the parts fit – just not all of them. But you know what really scares me?”
“What?” Burton asked.
“What’s really really scary,” Mac replied, “is that they scouted and planned it to the point of finding this McDonald guy and hanging him out to dry as part of this. They have been planning this for a long, long time to get that part right.”
“I can hardly wait to see what comes next,” Lich replied, resignation in his voice. “They’re way ahead of us.”
Dot showed up and asked if anyone needed anything else. Everyone begged off. Dot set the bill down and Burton grabbed it.
“You don’t have to do that,” Riles said.
“Naw. I got this. I usually don’t get asked out for breakfast by the local police. I appreciate the offer.”
“Well, don’t let me stand in your way,” Lich said with a smile.
“So what about other possible?” Rock asked.
“We’re continuing to work through the files,” Burton answered. “We never stopped, but nothing else has popped.”
“And the time is passing quickly,” Riles noted.
“Indeed,” Burton answered. “And I have a feeling we’ll hear from the kidnappers again real soon. So at this point, I’m going to start something else.”
“The ransom. That demand is going to come soon, I think, and we need to be ready. To Mac’s point on how prepared the kidnappers seem to be, there may not be time to find out who these guys are. We may need to wait for the money drop.”
“I don’t like just sitting back,” Mac said with some annoyance.
“We’re not sitting back,” Burton answered calmly. “Just working dual angles is all. We need to be prepared. I don’t have any intention of stopping the hunt for these guys.” The FBI man’s answer seemed to satisfy everyone.
“Back at it then,” Mac said.
“We need a break,” Burton said.
“If the girls don’t get a break…” Rock started.
“I hear ya, I hear ya,” Burton broke in. “But I’ve got my guys, and yours, working the files. Until they get something to work, you guys need a few winks, just a couple of hours. Be back downtown by eleven.”
“He’s right,” Riles, yawning. A couple hours of sleep seemed like a good idea.
Everyone got up to go. Lich asked Mac to hang back. He wanted a few minutes with Dot. Mac stayed in his booth and sipped at the rest of his coffee. He jumped as a hand touched his shoulder. He looked up to see Heather Foxx staring down at him.
“Good morning, Detective,” Heather said. “Can I join you for a moment?”
“Heather, Heather, Heather, you know I can’t tell you anything,” Mac answered.
“Yeah, yeah,” she replied with a dismissive wave, opening a muffin she bought at the counter. She mixed cream and sugar into a to-go coffee. She’d had some sleep and looked good in a white linen coat and blouse with a short black skirt. She looked damn good. And she behaved herself the night before.
“Let me ask you something,” Mac started.
“How come you weren’t up front with the rest of the hyenas last night when Wiskowski was brought in?” Mac asked.
“No comment,” Heather replied with a mischievous smile.
“That’s my line,” Mac replied, smiling back.
“Really, what are we going to find out shouting questions as you guys walk in?” Heather retorted, sitting up. “My producers love that stuff, but I hate it. I’d always just prefer to talk to people, get a one-on-one interview after I’ve earned some trust. But just running around like an idiot?” She shook her head. “That ain’t for me.”
Mac liked that answer. It was the answer of a professional, and Heather Foxx was a good reporter. Maybe she deserved a little break. The Wiskowski raid had yet to hit the media.
“So, where are you at on this Wiskowski thing?” Mac asked.
Heather looked at him quizzically at first, but then her right eyebrow rose just a bit at the hint of an opportunity. “You guys had him in for questioning overnight. I assume that you have something more than just his radio rant a few months ago – maybe something on a car or a truck – but beyond that I have no idea. However, my esteemed colleagues seem to have him convicted already.”
“Yeah, we heard that, too,” Mac answered. “Reporters should really get their facts straight before they hang a man, don’t you think?”
“I take it, it would be wrong to have hung him at this point then?” Heather asked, sensing she was about to get a scoop from the last guy she ever expected to get one from.
“Let’s just say that, if you haven’t been out in front on this, then you’re in a good position.” Mac gave her a little bit on the Northfield raid, just enough for her to check around, particularly with the Rice County sheriff.
“In other words, it may be fair to report, if someone were to do that sort of thing, that questions have arisen with regard to Mr. Wiskowski’s status as a suspect,” Heather said.
“He may not be completely out of the woods yet, but it would be fair to conclude that a few issues have come up that suggest Wiskowski is not involved with the kidnappings,” Mac said, smiling.
“Well, I hate to eat and run,” Heather said.
“Don’t let me stop you,” Mac answered. “I’m going to bed.”
* * * * *
Smith awoke to the tropical humidity of a Minnesota heat wave wafting through the window. He rolled out of bed and pushed the curtains to the side with the intent of viewing a clear sky, but instead found a grayish haze already hanging thick in the air. It was going to be a steamer.
Smith shook his head. People thought Minnesota was some frozen tundra, and that certainly could be the case in January. But in the summer months, Minnesota temperatures routinely hit the nineties, with periods of insufferable sultry air that could last for days on end. They were in such a stretch now, and there was no foreseeable break in the forecast. The afternoon trip to the river would be refreshing, but there was other business to attend to first.
He looked back to the empty right side of the bed. Monica was already up. Through the crack in the bedroom door he could hear her moving around in the kitchen. He also heard the sound of paper bags being unrolled. The unmistakable smell of a greasy drive-through breakfast drifted through the house. He sat up and threw his legs over the side of the bed, looked at his hands and shook his head. He was wearing rubber gloves, even in bed. He and the rest of the crew were doing everything they could to avoid leaving a trace, so in the safe house, everyone wore gloves. It was an odd way to live, but it was only necessary for a few days. He picked up his watch off the nightstand, slid it over his gloved left hand, and checked the time. It was 8:27 AM.
Out of bed, he stepped across the hall to the safe house’s other bedroom and nudged the door open with his left foot. Dean and David lay side by side on olive green inflatable Coleman mattresses on the floor. Smith kicked them awake and then made for the kitchen, where he found Monica laying out a smorgasbord of McDonald’s breakfast options. The smell of grease, egg, sausage, and coffee lifted Smith out of his stupor. He walked up to Monica and kissed her on the lips. He sat down at the metal card table and opened a McGriddle. Taking the plastic top off a white Styrofoam cup, he carefully took a sip of the piping-hot-coffee. He ripped the tops off of two creamers and poured in the contents, along with a pack of sugar to sweeten the cup.
Monica sat down with a separate bag, pulled out a yogurt parfait, and began mixing the fruit and yogurt.
“What time do you plan on leaving?” she asked as she sprinkled in the granola.
“I want to get going by nine o’clock or so and get into position as soon as we can – get a feel for the area for awhile before I move.”
Dean and David came shuffling down the hall, buttoning their shorts and sliding baseball caps onto their heads. The large men yawned as they surveyed the buffet. They each selected several wrapped items, sat down, and immediately commenced gorging. Smith told them he wanted to be on the road by 9:00. The brothers simply nodded as they stuffed their faces full of egg and sausage.
“While you’re gone, I’ll clean everything out of here again,” Monica said. “I’ll meet you in Hudson later.”
Smith, Dean, and David were all in the system, so they needed to be careful, thus everyone wore gloves in the house, but that wasn’t all. For each of the past five days, Monica had cleaned the place like it had never been cleaned before. After cleaning each time, she dumped the garbage, linens, and cleaning materials far from the safe house. The next day, she started with new sponges, mops, and buckets. The vacuum cleaner was used twice a day and, when not being used, was stored in one of the vans. They never made meals or drank water out of the faucet. The only thing they used in the house was the toilet, but only the one upstairs and they flushed three times and cleaned it with every use. Monica also cleaned it twice a day on her rounds. If the house was discovered, Smith didn’t want to chance that even a single print or hair would be left behind.
“What time do you want to make the call?” David asked Smith.
“I want to make it by 11:30,” Smith said. He looked at his watch, “That’ll give ’em just over thirty hours to get everything together.”
“What time will you make it back to the river?” Monica asked. “I don’t want to be too early.”
“Two o’clock, maybe 2:30. We’ll go check on the campsite, set up the ladder, and make sure everything is still in place, especially after the storms last night.”
They ate in silence for a few minutes. When the food was gone and the garbage completely cleared away, Smith grabbed the keys off the counter and Dean asked him.
“They’re not on to us at all?”
“You’re sure?” David pushed.
“Positive,” Smith replied. “We’re clean.”
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