Homicide Division had moved some years ago from the maze of offices in downtown Houston to the Southeast Service Center on Mykawa Road. The idea was to spread out, thereby easing the tension that surfaces under crowded working conditions. Dixie had known Benjamin Rashly as an overworked homicide sergeant sharing a desk and chewing Tums as if he owned stock in the company. Now, as a lieutenant of Accident Division, he didn’t belong in his old office, but he hadn’t broken the habit of dropping by.
When she popped in at eight o’clock Monday morning, he sat scowling down at an arrest report in a thick folder.
“Hey, Rash. Got time to talk?”
He held up a hand for silence.
Now that she was no longer with the DA’s office, getting Rashly to part with information on a police case was like trying to sweet-talk water from a well. On the drive over, she’d racked her brain for something she could trade for a look at the Keyes file. Official reports were public record. What she wanted were the bits and pieces that never made it to the official reports.
Rashly’s white hair was thinning on top, revealing a pink spot about the size of a silver dollar. He’d gained a few lines in his square face over the years and some extra padding around his middle. Not bad at all, though, for his age, which she guessed at mid to late fifties, same as Carla Jean’s. What a world of difference between this vital, active man and her wasted mother. Knowing it did no good to rush him, Dixie poured a cup of coffee from a pot on a table outside the door, then settled into a gray plastic side chair. His office walls had been recently painted, sky blue, a nice change from dingy beige. The smell of solvent evaporating from the uncured paint made her coffee taste worse than usual. When he finished reading, he leaned on a fist and peered at her over his gold-rimmed glasses.
“What do yo make of this?” He turned the file so she could see a yellow arrest sheet on a Hermie Valdez. “Three priors. One for accessory to felony theft, for which Valdez served six months, and two for harboring a know felon — her boyfriend, Alton Sikes. Both times, the cases were acquitted.
Dixie felt uncomfortable discussing anyone harboring a criminal when Parker Dann was probably showering at that very moment in her guest bathroom.
Rashly pushed the arrest sheet aside to show her a memorandum from the DA’s office.
“Twice Sikes is arrested and breaks loose. Twice Valdez hides him out — “
“Your men have a little trouble holding on to this guy?”
“Give me a break, Flannigan. We’re talking three years apart here, and Sikes is damn good with that jujitsu crap. Anyway, he serves nine months on the first burglary theft, gets out, goes back to his old ways, only he’s moved up to robbery, knocks off three Kroger grocery stores. This time he serves eighteen months, and learns how easy it is to pick up fifty, sixty bucks at an automatic teller. Must’ve robbed thirty people first week out. Waits till a customer gets cash from the ATM, then waltzes up with a .38 Special and takes the money. Half the time, the victims don’t file a report because the fifty they lost isn’t worth the hassle.
“This last time, though, Sikes picks a guy who just took three hundred dollars from the machine so he and his wife could drive to Austin. Their daughter’s working on a doctorate at UT, and she’d taken sick. Sikes steps out with his .38. Eichorn, that’s the victim’s name, knows he can’t get any more money from the machine because three hundred’s the limit for twenty-four hours. Sikes must’ve been hopped up on something, because he doesn’t hesitate, pumps four shots into the man’s belly, nearly cuts him in half. Mrs. Eichorn, who’s been sitting in the car out of sight, hears the shots and comes screaming around the corner. Sikes shoots her, too.”
“Both hanging on. He won’t make it. She will. Her testimony will convict Sikes–hell, it’ll bury the bastard–but first we have to find him. We know Valdez is hiding Sikes. It’s what she always does. I say, convince her she’s going down with him this time and she might talk.” Rashly stabbed the memorandum with a short, blunt finger, the nail surprisingly well manicured. As a homicide sergeant, he had chewed his nails, Dixie recalled. “How do we convince Valdez to roll over when the DA won’t use her priors in court?”
“Not won’t, Rash, can’t. Valdez’s lawyer apparently got the judge to disallow any reference to previous convictions. Not as easy as it sounds, actually. Nevertheless, the DA has to prove guilt in this case, regardless of past behavior.”
“Same kind of chickenshit you used to pull on me, Flannigan.”
She knew better than to take that bait. Rashly had never believed they were on the same side. Dixie refused to prosecute until she was personally convinced a suspect was guilty–then she wanted every piece of ammunition she could find to get a maximum sentence. While she never violated the disclosure rules, she danced plenty close at times, holding key bits of evidence to present at the last moment, when the defense felt confident and had dropped their guard. She hated plea bargaining. The guilty belonged behind bars, so the rest of the world could sleep easier.
“What are you doing here, Rash? This isn’t your case anymore.”
Rashly had worked himself to a wrath telling his story. He was flushed and short of breath, his head thrust forward in a familiar belligerent cant.
“I opened this case. I’ll see it closed.”
“You really want this guy,” Dixie said.
“I hate creeps who prey on weakness. This couple, they’re knocking on sixty-five. Woman’s barely able to talk but still worried about her daughter–“
“What do you think would happen if you let Valdez go?”
“Let her go?”
“Who is it you really want, her or Sikes?”
“Sikes, of course, the shooter. I don’t give a damn about Valdez.” He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “We let her go, she’ll be bustin’ a gut to contact Sikes and tell him what a fine ruse she pulled on the HPD. But she’s not stupid enough to lead us right to him.”
“You can’t use the kind of surveillance devices that’re needed.”
“Meaning you can.”
“I’m a private citizen. What I hear and pass along is fair game.”
“Not if it’s obtained illegally.”
“When have I ever done anything illegal?” They both knew they were dancing dangerously close to violating Valdez’s right to privacy. In Texas, evidence gained illegally, even by a private citizen, was inadmissible. But Dixie wouldn’t be gathering evidence. “Remember the Balsam case?”
As a young ADA with limited surveillance funds, Dixie had frequently used local talent. Take a kid fresh from his first juvenile arrest, get him to help out on a case. He wouldn’t turn on his friends, naturally, but adults and outsiders were fair game, and he could usually round up a few buddies to help out–cheap. Balsam, a reluctant key witness, had disappeared. Patrol units were cruising his usual haunts, but he hadn’t surfaced; yet Dixie felt certain he hadn’t left town. Then she remembered Balsam’s obsession with fitness. She obtained some passes to local health clubs and gave them to a recently paroled kid she’d pegged as salvageable. He and his buddies were beginning to develop some impressive pecs when they spotted Balsam on the bench press. A few years later the kid asked Dixie to write a letter of recommendation when he applied to the Police Academy.
“Valdez won’t make a move to contact Sikes,” Dixie told Rashly, “unless she’s convinced you aren’t sitting on her doorstep.”
“Hell, we don’t have the man power to sit on her doorstep.”
“I’ve got real keen ears, Rash.” As well as some new electronic bugs she’d been dying to try out.”
“Let me get this straight. We release Valdez, after much moaning and complaining so she won’t glom it’s a trap. Then we back off until we get an anonymous tip to Sikes’ whereabouts.” Rashly stroked his smooth-shaven chin in contemplation. “He’s not out on bail, so there’s no bounty. Why would you do it?”
“Would you believe I think bad guys should be locked up?” When he rolled his eyes, she amended, “Would you believe I’d trade it for something I want?”
“Sounds more like it. What’s the trade?”
“Information. A hit-and-run case last May, just after you moved over to Accident Division. Victim was a child, Elizabeth Keyes. I want to know what’s in the file that wasn’t put out for public awareness.”
He scowled. “You thinking to get a private dick’s license now?”
“Just something I’m looking into for a friend.”
“Must be a damn good friend.”
“It’s a closed case,” he said. “I’d have to get the file from Records. Might take a while?”
“Did you work on it?”
“Not personally, you know how it is around here once you get promoted to a desk job. But I was cognizant.”
Dixie smiled at his unlikely jargon. “Then let me pick your brain. You can get the file for me later.”
“Pick my brain? Jeez, Flannigan, I hate that expression. Sounds ghoulish.” He scooped up their empty coffee cups and headed out the door.
While she waited, Dixie flipped through her recollection of Belle’s case file on Dann. Betsy had walked to school alone that morning because her two sisters were ill. The investigating officer sketched a map of the route the girls walked every day, which took them within a block of Dann’s house and three blocks of the Green Hornet. Spring Branch was an old neighborhood. Fast-food chains, small office buildings, and retail stores lined the main streets, with residential areas tucked in behind. The girl’s parents, Rebecca and Travis Payne, owned the Payne Cafe and Payne Hardware. Rebecca had been employed as head chef at one of the city’s elite restaurants before she married Payne and opened her own place next door to her husband’s business.
Rashly returned with two cups of steaming coffee. An aroma of Middleton’s Cherry Blend pipe tobacco followed him into the room. Went out for a smoke, Dixie figured, to think over her offer.
“What do you want to know?” He handed her the coffee, then stood over her, one elbow resting on a tall gray file cabinet. Dixie eyed the drawers. The Keyes report wouldn’t be here at Homicide, but downtown, in a cabinet just like this one.
“There’s one angle your guys briefly touched on but didn’t follow up,” Dixie said. “The possibility of Dann’s car being stolen–“
“Yeah, we thought about that, especially it being a Cadillac. There’s a bunch we’ve been trying to catch nearly a year now, steals high-profile cars–your Mercedes, your BMW, your Cadillac–sells them in South America, transported in cargo containers booked as carpet shipments. Roll the stolen vehicle to the back of the boxcar, fill the front with carpet. Inspector looks in, everything’s copacetic.”
“Sounds like a good lead. Why didn’t your men take it any further?” From the beginning, the cops had focused their investigation on Parker Dann. His prior arrest for driving while intoxicated hadn’t helped him any.
“What lead? Dann didn’t report his Cadillac stolen. Nobody reported seeing anyone messing around near his car. Nobody’s fingerprints in it besides his own and the boy who cleans and waxes it. And no other vehicles in the neighborhood were stolen that night.”
“Maybe it was an amateur. Stole the car, hit the girl, panicked, and put the car back where it came from.” Might as well see if the idea sounded as weak to Rashly as it did to her.
“You’re reaching, Flannigan. How many amateurs would remember to wear gloves? This was May, not December. Dann’s prints were all over the steering wheel. Anyone wiping their own prints off would’ve wiped his off, too.”
Dixie sighed. The case against Dann was looking tighter and tighter. “I noticed the girl and her parents have different surnames.”
“Mother’s been in and out of divorce court a couple times. Married again last year. Before that she was married to an architect. The youngest kid is his, but he adopted two from the woman’s earlier marriage, then fought her in court for custody of all three kids. Lost, of course. Single male, what the hell did he expect?
That would be Jonathan Keyes. “You check him out?”
“What’s to check? Respectable businessman, partner in a big architectural firm downtown. Like most divorced fathers, he gets the kids every other weekend and alternating holidays. His weekend happened to be the one before Elizabeth Keyes was killed. The girls stayed a few days extra to attend some blowout his firm was having. He dropped them off at home the night before the accident. Get the inflection on that last word, Flannigan? This was not a homicide.”
“Did you know one of Betsy’s sisters was killed in a swimming mishap in August?”
“Not in my jurisdiction.”
“Camp Cade, near Conroe. You didn’t hear about it?”
“No reason I should. An accident, not even in this county. Our case was closed by then. You see a connection?”
Dixie shook her head. “Must be hard on the family, though, losing two children like that.”
“Flannigan, why are you digging into this case? It’s a done deal.”
“Like I said, just–“
“I know, a favor for a friend. Well, tell your friend, Belle Richards, that you’re on a short leash fooling around in police business.” he picked up the Valdez file and quickly copied something on a notepad. “On this other thing, we never discussed it. I might’ve mentioned we’d like to know where Sikes is holed up, but I have no knowledge of any actions you might take on your own.” He ripped off the sheet he’d been scribbling on, folded it, and handed it to Dixie.
“A posted reward would help that story hold up.” Rashly was blowing smoke about not having access to Betsy’s file. He could call up the computer version with a few keystrokes. The HPD had issued computers to every patrol unit and required officers to log their reports daily. But then his name would be logged in. He might have to answer questions about why he was looking into the case at this late date. “You know, Rash, a skip tracer isn’t likely to finger a suspect without something in return.”
“What the hell happened to our deal?” His jaw thrust forward.
Dixie got up to go. “Hey, the deal hasn’t changed. You let me know the minute Valdez is released and I’ll be on her like dirt on a doormat. Your old homicide buddies can make the Sikes collar and get some good press. Only, I may have to work the surveillance in between paying jobs. A reward could hurry the results.”
Rashly heaved an agitated sigh. “I’ll see what I can do. But listen, Flannigan, don’t drop your guard. Valdez is tight with Sikes. It never ceases to amaze me what some women will do for the love of a man.”
“Rash, you’re getting downright romantic.”
Outside his door, Dixie unfolded the scrap of paper with Valdez’s address and telephone number. She stuffed the note in her pocket. In exchange for the time she’d have to spend putting a tracer on Valdez, she hadn’t gained much. But a deal’s a deal. Maybe there’d be more in the case folder.
And Rashly had mentioned something about Jonathan Keyes that set a ref flag waving in Dixie’s mind. The evening before Betsy’s death, Keyes had taken all three girls to a party. The next morning, the younger girls stayed home, conveniently sick, leaving Betsy to walk to school alone.
Join me right here next week for another Bitch Factor chapter, and if you’re just tuning in, you can find chapters 1-26 below.
Meanwhile, grab a Copy of Slice of Life, another Dixie Flannigan thriller. Here’s a quick, fun preview: