Five years ago, Detective Mike Conner had made his spurs by catching a budding serial killer targeting coeds at Springfield University. Jack Yarlboro was hardly a mastermind. In fact, he was a pathetic psycho. Conner caught an easy break in the case when the dumb ass snatched a victim under a security camera. His reputation as the resident homicide genius was set. He had caught all of the most difficult cases ever since. If ever there was a proof to the old axiom that no good deed goes unpunished, Mike Conner was it.
Conner sat alone at his kitchen table drinking scotch, smoking camels and looking at case files until long after midnight like he did every night. It helps for a good homicide detective to be an obsessive-compulsive. The drawback is that it wrecks the rest of your life.
His wife Holly couldn’t take it. She had split with Little Mikie a few years ago and lives on the East side. Holly said that Homicide changed him. She had said that she married a man with a badge. Now all that is left, is the badge. Women say a lot of stupid shit but if there wasn’t some truth to it, it wouldn’t sting nearly as much.
Conner earned his desk in the Robbery/Homicide Division of the Springfield Police Department. He had the respect. He was a cop’s cop. He was the biggest fish in a small pond with a caseload that left him glowering in frustration. The duty board in the squad room showed eleven open cases. Five of them were his.
Orlando Jones was set for trial in the murder of Mrs. Jones. The District Attorney’s Office would probably plead it down to Murder 2. That one was in the bag.
The other cases were a real mess. He would have to get really lucky to have any shot at making any of them pan out.
Two years ago last October, Janine Sanders, a 24 year old grad student, never returned home from a laundry-mat. Her nude decomposing body was found the following February under a rural bridge four miles out of town. No leads, no clues, no suspects and nothing to go on.
A year and nine months ago, Travis Hardy, 19 year old suburban teen, was found dead in his car in a grimy West side alley with a 9mm slug in the head. He had been robbed in what looked like a drug deal gone sour. No leads, no clues, no suspects and nothing to go on.
Nine months ago, Heather Sommers, a pretty 15 year old, had been found dead in a ditch, raped with her throat slit. No leads, no clues, no suspects and nothing to go on.
A month ago the Usher/Yates file had landed on his desk. At first it looked like a dead bang case of vehicular homicide. It looked like Usher had been in the Yates kid’s car and Yates had been raising hell. Yates is 20; Usher is 22— happens all the time, another sad statistic.
There was always pressure from the seventh floor to close the case. However, given the evidence, it just didn’t add up.
Conner had visited Usher’s apartment early on. It was a sparsely furnished one bedroom in the community that catered to University students. The only remarkable thing about the place was how unremarkable it was. There was nothing there to give him any insight into just who this Usher fellow was- no pictures, no old high school yearbooks, and no letters from home. It struck him that Usher’s apartment was almost unnaturally clean for a 22-year-old male.
The accident investigators discovered that another vehicle had been involved. The second vehicle, a truck, had belonged to Usher. The accident scene was so complex that the lab guys wouldn’t sign off on the report and shipped what they had off to the State Crime Lab. They in turn bumped it up to Quantico to let the Feds take a look-see.
Once Usher’s truck was found, things got a lot more interesting. The lab reported finding residue from Pot, X and cocaine in various locations in the truck. Conner asked the guys in Vice and Narcotics about Usher. They said that Usher had been seen around some interesting people but they had never gotten a line on him.
A .380 Beretta automatic was also found in the truck. The serial number matched a shipment from Beretta International to the Brazilian Policies in 1994. It was complete with the pre-Brady 14-round clip. This aroused Conner’s curiosity as one of the ways that “the Mob” and some of the more sophisticated and organized gangs got their hands on weapons was to buy or steal them abroad and then smuggle them back into the country. How did a punk like Usher get his hands on a cold gun? A nice piece like Usher’s Beretta would run an easy $1500 after it had been imported under the table.
Usher and Yates were seen arguing the night of the accident. Who were those two putzs from that gay bar- Steve and Mark? They said that Yates was furious at Usher for selling weed to one of his college buddies. Something about their story reeked but there was one thing that stood out: Yates retreated and Usher followed.
Like any good detective, Conner could read people very well. His gut told him that the Yates kid just wasn’t a killer. Yates had no priors and everybody that he had interviewed spoke well of him. As far as he could tell, there was no link between Usher and Yates at all.
So the whole range of options was open: negligence, malice or self-defense. It was all clear as mud. The pieces were there but Conner just couldn’t make any of them fit.
He stuffed the files in his briefcase and slammed it in disgust. If this case was a dog, he would shave its ass and teach it to walk backwards.
But not until after he had another drink.
Springfield University’s Gay-Straight Alliance met every other Tuesday night at 7:00 in the back room of a popular coffee shop in the University District. Despite the liberal nature of the academics that ran Springfield U, the alumni were rather conservative about such matters. Every spring the GSA applied for a charter from the University President and every year he came up with a different and nebulous excuse not to grant them one.
Despite lacking Springfield U’s official stamp of approval, the GSA was kept alive in an ex officio capacity off campus with the support of friendly faculty members, a hand full of gay-friendly business sponsors, a small but dedicated group of students and a webmaster.
Blake had easily discovered the GSA’s web site. It was a very professional site that discussed the organizations community service projects and mission to promote diversity and tolerance. If they were going to find Mark and Steve, a visit to the GSA was their best bet in the short run.
Kelly, Blake and Marcus made plans to attend the next meeting. Marcus groaned loudly but relented and agreed to go. Hiro couldn’t make it because he had a lab Tuesday nights. He was devastated that he would miss a golden opportunity to torment Marcus.
The Counter Culture was a very nice coffee shop that had once been a defunct restaurant a few blocks from the University campus. The new owner had done a very nice job fixing the place up. It had a nice, relaxed atmosphere with comfortable furnishings, good music and even a wireless hot spot for nerds. There was a variety of activities hosted at the Coffee Shop: poetry readings, live music, private parties and meetings for various liberal activists.
The three of them arrived a few minutes before seven. The GSA met in the back in a banquet room that was used for the gatherings hosted by the coffee shop. They took seats in the back of the room. Marcus was noticeably anxious while Blake looked like he might nod off at any moment.
Over the next few minutes, an eclectic group of people arrived: in pairs or groups but a few as individuals. The thought that struck Kelly: these people look so normal. If he didn’t know any better, the meeting could be the Chess Club or the Debate Team.
Once about twenty people had arrived, a pretty young lady with unnatural exuberance and a clipboard sat on the edge of the conference table with her feet dangling. She cleared her throat to call the meeting to order.
“Hi everyone! I’m Tiffany Rogers, Springfield GSA’s Chairperson and I’m calling this meeting to order. First, I want to welcome our guests and thank you for coming.”
The group acknowledged Kelly and his friends and Tiffany continued, “Getting down to business, I want to ask our charter petition committee how we are doing.”
A studious looking guy with glasses said, “We’ve got over four hundred signatures. The school requires five hundred but I’m shooting for seven-fifty to make our point. We should be able to file it before the end of the term so we have a shot at a charter by next fall.”
Tiffany smiled and said, “Thanks Craig. Amy, how is our food drive going for the Westside Homeless Shelter?”
A cute girl in glasses and curls answered, “We delivered 12 boxes of canned goods and 14 boxes of dry goods this month. Remember guys, they really need our support and we can’t slack off.”
“Thank you Amy. Is there any new business?”
A tall guy wearing a Tool t-shirt spoke up. “Tiffany, I think we should look at helping the Springfield Animal Shelter. They need volunteers to help out and donations of dog and cat food. If we could come up with two people to help out twice a week and 40 pounds of dry food, we could really help them out.”
Tiffany looked around the room and then replied, “That is a good idea Kirk. The more community service projects we put on our resume the better our chances of getting our charter but I’m a little concerned that we might be spreading ourselves too thin. What do you guys think?”
There was a general murmuring and nodding of heads around the room. A guy with long blond hair and a goatee said, “I move that we put it to a vote.”
Someone seconded the motion. Tiffany called for a vote,”All those in favor of taking on the Springfield Animal shelter as one of our projects say aye.” There were a number of “ayes”. Then Tiffany said, “All opposed, say nay.” There was none.
Tiffany said, “The motion carries. Kirk, would you mind heading up the project?”
The tall guy in the Tool t-shirt beamed and said, “Sure. No problem Tiff. I was planning on putting in some volunteer hours there anyway.”
The meeting continued for another twenty minutes or so. Kelly and his friends were a little mystified. Blake whispered to Kelly and Marcus, “These people don’t have time to be gay. They are hyper-active do-gooders.”
By 7:30, the formal part of the meeting was winding down and a Scott Baio look-a-like with a dazzling smile carrying a stack of pizzas under one arm and a case of soft drinks under the other.
Tiffany exclaimed, “Well, Angel is here with the pizzas guys. I move that we eat. All opposed can have cold pizza.”
Blake tapped Kelly to get his attention and gestured towards Marcus. He was looking right at the pizza guy and he was literally pale.
Kelly asked Marcus, “Hey dude, what’s wrong?”
Marcus didn’t answer and kept staring at the guy Tiffany had called Angel who was laying out the pizza and drinks while the rest of the crowd was preparing to graze.
Kelly gently touched Marcus’s arm and asked, “Marcus, is something wrong.”
Marcus looked at Kelly and Blake and said, “I think I know that guy.”
Blake said, “We know most of these guys, I’ve got classes with half of them.”
Marcus shook his head and said, “No, you don’t understand…”
Angel walked up to Kelly’s group and said, “Hey Marcus, I’m glad to see you here.”
Marcus looked down at the floor and said, “Angel, I’m sorry man, I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry I was such an asshole.”
Angel smiled and said, “Dude, we were 13. I won’t say that I wasn’t hurt but it’s all water under the bridge.”
Kelly and Blake were shocked by Marcus’s reaction. He had tears running down his face. He said haltingly, “Angel, we were best friends for years. I owed you better than what I did.”
Angel’s smile disappeared and he said, “Yeah, I would have to agree with you about that. We were kids and I’ve forgiven you. Maybe you should forgive yourself. Let’s get some food and we can talk.”
Kelly and Blake were mystified about what was going on but they picked up some pizza and the four of them sat in a cluster. Marcus’s two friends were a little concerned. They had never seen anything so completely rattle their friend.
Marcus took a bite of pizza and had a drink. It looked like he was collecting himself. Then he said, “Before I knew you guys, Angel and I were best friends from like second grade. We rode in the same BMX league together, won hell of a lot of trophies. We were like brothers. For a long time, we were inseparable. Then towards the end of seventh grade, Angel came out to me and I freaked. I told him to get lost. Worse than that, I told everybody at school and turned his life into a living hell.”
By now tears were rolling down Marcus’s cheeks. He took a drink and continued. “I… fucked over my best friend and hurt myself as much as I hurt him. It’s like I lost a brother—no worse. I threw him away.”
“Kelly, when I ran into you on that trail a long time ago, I wasn’t being a spaz. I was crying and I couldn’t see. When I saw what the other kids did and said to Angel, it tore me up.” With that Marcus lost it and completely broke down.
Conner showed his badge to Murphy, the Evidence Technician who manning the property room and was buzzed in. The Detective gave Murphy the case number and was led into a room with a large table. In a few minutes, Murphy returned with two boxes marked with the case number and a set of latex gloves.
As was departmental policy, to insure the integrity of evidence, two officers had to be present whenever evidence was viewed. Conner signed the chain of custody document and put the time and date of the viewing. Murphy also signed the document as a witness.
Murphy asked, “Is there anything I can do to help Mike?”
Conner replied while he was putting on the gloves, “I don’t think so. I just want to look at it again to see if there is anything I missed.”
Murphy pulled up a couple of stools. Conner muttered, thanks, as he removed the lid to the first box. He pulled out a plastic bag containing Usher’s Beretta and put it on the table. Then he pulled the notebook with the lab report on the weapon out of the box. There was nothing special about the pistol itself other than its curious and circuitous origin. The lab had fired off a few test shots and compared the slugs to both the state and FBI ballistics database’s to see if they matched any other crimes. Nothing.
A forensic analysis of the gun revealed that it had not been fired very often, certainly not recently and had been lovingly maintained.
He put the gun back into the large zip-lock bag and put it back in the first box.
He opened the second box that contained the clothes that Usher had been wearing. The box contained Levis, a black leather jacket, a black Korn t-shirt and some boots.
Conner removed one of the black combat boots that many college aged kids found so stylish. That amused Conner somewhat. After he had taken off a pair just like these at Fort Bragg, he swore he would never wear them again. Usher kept his boots in decent shape but not nearly good enough to pass muster with a Drill Sergeant.
The boots were shined but scuffed up a bit which was perfectly understandable since Usher had died in them. He noticed bluish scuffs on both the boot and the elbows of the jacket. When he looked at the sole of the boot, he saw an irregular rusty colored powder. While it was all the same material, the granules were everything from dust to small pebbles.
Conner asked, “Murphy, what do you make of the stuff on the soles of these boots?”
The evidence tech answered, “The lab guys were interested in that too. Turns out it is brick dust which makes sense. The guy did work construction.”
Conner said, “Thanks. I’m done here. I need to take another look at both vehicles.”
Kelly couldn’t help but like Angel. He was grateful for the way he was treating Marcus. In the state that Marcus was in, Angel could have cut him to pieces if he had wanted to. Instead, he did his best to mend fences despite the damage that Marcus had done. It took a little while for Marcus to get it back together which was a side of his friend that Kelly had never seen.
The four of them had found a nice quiet booth in the coffee shop and sat talking quietly. It turned out that Angel’s family had moved from Springfield to a small town called Fort Charles a couple of hours away the summer that Angel had been outed. Angel had gone to Clark County Junior College his freshman year and had returned to Springfield University in the fall of the previous year.
It was easy to see that Angel and Marcus were old friends. Given a little time to shake off the shock of their abrupt reunion, the two friends were chattering on about old times and asking the inevitable what-ever-happened-to questions.
Given the drama of the moment and his concern about Marcus’s emotional state, Kelly almost forgot their original mission.
When things had abated somewhat, Kelly decided to bring up the subject of Mark and Steve. He took a copy of the picture that he had found on his computer out of his wallet and handed it to Angel. “Do you know any of these guys? It is kind of important.”
Angel looked at the picture and said, “I think that I’ve seen all of them around. I know this one for sure.” He pointed at the guy that was labeled Mark.
Blake perked up and said, “Really? What is his name? We think that he witnessed an accident and we need to get in touch with him.”
Angel replied casually,”This guy’s name is Eric Keys. I met him when I was at Clark County Junior College. He graduated last year with a degree in Criminal Justice. I heard he went to the State Police Academy last summer and is a Cop now.”
Kelly was stunned. Marcus said, “It’s very important Angel. Are you sure?”
Angel laughed and said, “Yeah I’m sure. He was real gung ho about being a Cop. It’s all he ever talked about.”
Kelly looked at Marcus and Blake in bewilderment.
Detective Conner took his maglite out into the police impound yard. It was dark but the Yates kid’s Camaro and Usher’s Ford F-150 were sitting side by side under one of the lights.
First, he looked at the Ford Truck. It had significant front-end damage but was still drivable. He shined his maglite into the bed of the truck and saw small chunks of bricks and lots of red, rusty colored dust.
He walked over and looked at the Yates kid’s Camaro rear end. The Ford had obviously hit the Camaro. The Camaro was such a mess that he had missed the scuff marks on the roof and hood when he first looked at it.
Dammit, he thought. How did I miss that? He jumped up into the bed of Usher’s truck and looked at the chrome roll bar. He didn’t even need a fingerprint kit to see where Usher’s hands had been.
Usher had been in the back of his truck. Yates had braked unexpectedly and the Ford had rear ended him. Usher was thrown over the cab of the truck and landed on the Camaro, which lost control and hit the rail.
Conner asked himself, why did Yates brake?
On a hunch, Conner walked around to the front to the mangled Camaro. He got down on one knee and looked closely at the air dam. There was a black stain like dried blood and some light colored fur in a messy splatter.
It looked like Rocky Raccoon had met a very bad end.
He stood up and dusted himself off. Yates wasn’t his perp after all. He was looking for the driver of the truck.
After hanging out at the Counter Culture until after ten talking, the guys all split up to go home. Marcus asked Angel for a ride home.
On the way, there was an awkward silence and then they both tried to speak at once. Marcus said, “We always used to do that.”
Angel just nodded.
Marcus took the initiative, “Angel, I’m really sorry about what happened. What we were doing and the feelings I was having, they terrified me.”
Angel said, “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry that I pushed you. I thought you enjoyed it as much as I did.”
Marcus sighed, “I did… like it. I liked it a lot. It’s just when I figured out what we were doing, I couldn’t handle it. I freaked. I didn’t want to be...”
Marcus replied meekly, “Yeah. It scares the hell out of me.”
Angel laughed, “That is not the Marcus I remember. He was fearless.”
Marcus shrugged, “I don’t know Angel.”
Angel pulled up in front of Marcus’s house and asked, “What is it that you don’t know.”
Marcus was quiet for a minute. “I don’t know if I’m gay but I am certain of two things. I’ve regretted fucking things up between us for years.”
Angel asked, “What is the other thing?”
Marcus turned to Angel and said, “That I’ve always loved you.”
The two friends embraced, finally reunited and began the process of healing of an old, deep and painful hurt.
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