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The Gauntlet by Michael A. Hobren (Futuristic Mystery)

The Gauntlet by Michael A. Hobren (Futuristic Mystery)
 
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When Russell Williams - an unwitting pawn in a high-stakes power game - is forced to kill several Florida vacationers, a master plan is set in motion, and the only person who can save Williams from death row has no notion of the forces pitted against him, or just how high up the pyramid the conspiracy goes. Set against a backdrop stretching from scenic Daytona Beach to the halls of power of Washington, D.C., The Gauntlet is a story of greed and corruption, of serpentine trouble in paradise.

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Michael Hobren
"The Gauntlet" is a cautionary tale of a change in our society, in our daily lives, that will soon be upon us. It is more than action, intrigue, mystery and even espionage. It is all those things, for those who cherish entertainment in the form of a "good read." But it is also an "Orwellian-like" look at the shape of things to soon come. A story that poses the questions of what determines our behavior, and why we do the things that we do.
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Sample Chapter

Chapter One
Planting the Seed

Russell Williams raced down Daytona Beach's main strip, Highway A1A, with all the windows down, doing about 85 mph. The wind on his face, cooled by the ocean breeze, felt good. Williams loved cruising the strip in his signature orange Ford Crown Victoria with its blue detailing, the colors of the University of Florida, his old alma mater. The big Ford's engine could propel the heavy vehicle at a fast clip with just the slightest pressure on the gas pedal.

Everything was a blur. The neon signs that lined the A1A like some cheap, beachfront Vegas whizzed by one after the other, merging together in Williams' peripheral vision in a stream of unbroken, multi-colored light. But Williams was used to driving while under the influence, so he just stared straight ahead with tunneled vision, aiming the car at the center white line as the big Ford straddled both lanes. Several drivers blew their horns and yelled at him as he went streaking by, nearly side swiping several vehicles. But Williams only laughed. "Hey, this is Daytona Beach, man," yelled Williams. "Everybody drives fast in Daytona!"

Williams' was so fixated on the road ahead that he hadn't noticed the dark sedan closing in from behind him. Just then a loud crash sent his head slamming backwards against the headrest.

"What in the hell?!" Williams yelled.

Williams looked in his rear-view mirror to see the sedan closing in again. His first thought was that one of the drivers he had blown past was playing a game of tag with him, a little high-speed chicken down the strip. The sedan slammed into the Ford a second time.

"All right, hot shot. Come on. You want to play? Let's get it on!" Williams stomped on the gas pedal. The sudden acceleration pinned him against the driver's seat as the big Ford lunged forward like a wild bull rushing out of its pen. The car's speedometer quickly inched up to 105 mph and the tachometer needle spiked in the red.

But to Williams' surprise the sedan rammed him once again, this time even harder than before. Williams heard the sound of metal clanging on pavement and glass exploding as his taillights shattered into pieces. It was a game of high-speed poker now. The sedan was not only matching the Ford's speed but was raising the stakes, going faster, bashing Williams harder each time.

"Man, this son of a bitch is determined. All right, pal, let's see what you've got," Williams said as he floored the gas pedal. The speedometer needle spiked at 120 mph and the temperature gauge rose. Williams watched the sedan in the rear-view mirror, paying no attention to the road ahead of him. The neon lights along the strip streaked by in a colorful, fast-moving blur. The wind howled in Williams' ears like a Category 5 hurricane.

Once more the sedan roared into overdrive, slamming into the back of the Ford and jolting Williams backwards. This guy's getting serious, Williams thought. Just then the sedan broke off its pursuit. Slowing down, the sedan pulled off the highway and eased up to the curb. "Can't keep up after all, huh hot shot?" Williams laughed as he returned his gaze forward.

To Williams' horror he hadn't seen the intersection or the red light just yards ahead. Nor had he seen the little blue mini-van with the Ohio plates crossing the intersection on the green light. But it was too late. Williams was suddenly hurled forward into a mass of white as the car's air bag deployed in his face. The whole collision was over in the blink of an eye.

~*~

Williams awoke the next morning to find himself handcuffed to the side rail of a hospital gurney, still not sure of where he was or how he’d gotten there. A policeman was watching him from the far side of the room. It seemed like just an hour ago he'd been sitting in the Trade Winds, his usual watering hole, gulping down Jack Daniels and talking with Sam.

Things had gotten to where Williams didn't much care about anything, except the booze. It wasn't his fault. It was just the way he was, the way he was hard-wired. It was nearing sunset. Sitting in the Trade Winds Lounge, Williams had no interest in the myriad of colors that the setting sun reflected off the ocean. The music from the lounge's house band - a group of Rasta types who banged on steel drums for the vacationers who frequented the place - was drilling into Williams' head like a jackhammer. Even the surf crashing against the coastline irritated him. Unlike the out-of-towners, with their incessant drone of laughing and screeching and yelping and idle chattering, Williams sat alone at the bar, staring blankly into his glass of Jack Daniels. He was on his fifth drink now and it had barely fazed him. He tapped loudly on his glass with his cigarette lighter, signaling the bartender to hit him with another round.

He chuckled to himself as he eyed Sam's Hula shirt and the whole ridiculous Tiki motif of the place. What a dive, he thought. I can't believe people pay good money just to visit this sand bar of a state sticking out in the ocean. But when he read the annoyed expression on Sam's face he realized that he was quickly overstaying his welcome. Williams was a regular at the lounge, but he knew that the management would only cut him so much slack before showing him the exit.

"So, Russell, how many of those JDs do you plan to gulp down tonight?" asked head bartender Sam Richards.

"As many as I damn well please, Sam. Why, you going cut me off?" Williams eyed Sam as if he were about to lunge across the bar at him. "This isn't the only bar in Daytona you know. And the bartenders don't ask so many questions at the other places."

"Hey, take it easy, Russell, keep your voice down. I didn't mean anything. But you know I've got to keep an eye on things around here and make sure everybody can walk and drive when they leave here. Besides, man, you're scaring that little blonde, spring-breaker type at the next table over and she's about to piss her Mai Tai down her leg."

"Yeah okay, Sam," laughed Williams. He appreciated Sam's well-practiced tactic of using humor to defuse a potentially explosive situation before it got out of hand, situations that were usually caused by drunks like him. "I'm all right, Sam. Sorry, I'll keep it down. I wouldn't want the tourists to think your place is a hang-out for Florida yahoos or something."

"So, what's going on with you? You're hitting the JD pretty heavy tonight. Did you find a job yet? Whatever happened with that interview you had?"

"Found a job? Yeah, I've found lots of jobs. Just nobody wants to hire me, that's all."

"So, what happened at the interview? Did they call you back?"

"Oh, yeah, I heard from them, today in fact. they sent me a nice form letter and everything. After three hours of interviews, they sent me a damn one-page form letter!"

"Well so...what did it say?" asked Sam.

"Oh, let me see if I can recall how they worded it...yeah: 'Dear Mr. Williams, while we were impressed with your credentials and background, we have found a candidate whose skills more closely fit the current job description. However, we will keep your application on file for six months and contact you should a position fitting your qualifications becomes available'."

"Oh, well, I'm sorry to hear that, Russell. But, who knows, maybe they'll call you back with something else, something better. You never know."

"Ah, that's a lot of bologna, Sam. The letter had nothing to do with skills or job descriptions. I've got almost seventeen years as a systems analyst, five with Martin Marietta in Orlando alone. I don't know what's going on. If I were the paranoid type I'd think the doors were being deliberately slammed in my face. I just can't figure out what's going on."

"I don't get it either, man."

A customer at the opposite end of the bar signaled Sam for the check. Sam nodded he'd be with him in a moment then poured Williams another Jack Daniels before walking off to cash out the customer. Williams went back to staring into his glass, but now he was feeling the liquor kick in. Blurry-eyed, he stared with delight as the cabana lights hanging from the lounge's thatched ceiling reflected off the ice cubes. He toyed with his glass, turning it from side to side, noting how the cubes acted like a prism, changing the colors and causing them to dance in different directions. A neon Corona sign, reflecting a sparkling yellow off all the cubes at once, transfixed Williams. When Sam finally returned, his voice sounded to Williams as if he were speaking from far off somewhere.

"RUSSELL!"

"Oh...sorry, Sam. I was lost in my thoughts."

"Yeah, you looked lost, brother. Here, have another one on the house," laughed the bartender as he poured Williams another round.

"Thanks, Sam, you're a pal. You're about the only person I can talk to since Linda and the kids left. Did I tell you that bitch took the dog with her? I don't even have the damn dog to talk to any more. I get laid off from Martin, have a few drinks, and the next thing I know she and that bitch lawyer of hers are dragging me into court, sucking me dry for everything they can get their hands on. And that good-for-nothing job counselor down at the state employment office is totally useless. She gets this disgusted look on her face whenever she sees me walk through the door, as if I was wearing the mark of Cain on my forehead."

"Perhaps you are," spoke a man suddenly, sitting at the bar, two stools down from Williams.

Williams turned sharply and looked directly at the man with a half-drunk, half-annoyed expression on his face. But there was something oddly engaging about the stranger. He wore a dark gray suit and he seemed stone cold sober, which made Williams wonder what the man was doing in the Trade Winds in the first place. He spoke with a vaguely European accent that Williams couldn't quite place. By his dress Williams guessed that he was a professional man of some sort, an MD maybe.

"Forgive me for intruding," said the man. "I know it's none of my business but I couldn't help overhearing your conversation just now. My name is Schmidt."

"Williams, Russell Williams, Mr. Schmidt, and you're right: it isn't your business! But what did you mean just now?"

"Well, you just said you wear the mark of Cain," replied Schmidt.

"Yeah, so what of it?" said Williams, still annoyed by Schmidt's eavesdropping.

"Well, Mr. Williams, perhaps you are a marked man. You just don't know it. I believe you said you're in the computer business, a systems analyst. Have you ever heard of CODIS?"

"Yeah, I am in the computer business, or was. Code what did you call it?"

"C.O.D.I.S. It stands for Combined DNA Index System."

"Seems to ring a bell. Yeah so what is this cold ass?" said Williams.

"It's an FBI computer database. You know what DNA is, don't you?"

"Of course I do. I may be unemployed but I'm not stupid. So what about DNA?"

"Come on, Russell, take it easy," said Sam, lightening up the situation, "the man's just making conversation, that's all. Mr. Schmidt, can I get you something?"

"No, thank you, son, nothing for me. But can I buy you another drink, Mr. Williams?"

"Sure, why not," said Williams, softening his tone a bit. Williams didn't know who this Schmidt was or what he was all about but he never turned down an offer of a free drink. "Hit me again, Sam. And so, Schmidt, DNA, CODIS - what about them?"

"Russell," interjected Sam, "you've had already enough. Are you sure you..."

"Hey, a free drink's a free drink. Just pour it, Sam, okay?" As Sam poured Williams another glass of Jack Daniels, Williams returned his attention to Schmidt. "So Mr. Schmidt, you were saying?"

"Well, the FBI maintains DNA samples of known offenders on its CODIS database that they match against DNA they find at crime scenes. It's more accurate than fingerprints. If your DNA's in the CODIS database, and they find it at the scene of a crime, then they have a suspect."

"That's really interesting, Schmidt. So what does that have to do with me and the mark of Cain?"

"It's rather obvious. Have you ever been genotyped? Your genotype may reside on a database somewhere...something similar to CODIS...where anyone could access it."

Williams took a long gulp from his glass. "Genotyped! You know something, Schmidt, it sounds to me like you've been reading too many science fiction books. Is that what you are, Schmidt? Some sort of sci-fi nut...alien abductions, little green men?"

"Say, I've heard about that," said Sam. "That's the blood test they give you to tell if you carry the genes for certain kinds of diseases like cancer, diabetes, stuff like that."

"That's right, Sam, but genotyping isn't used just for medical purposes. It can also be used to determine if someone is prone to certain behaviors, like aggression or even schizophrenia. Mr. Williams, you said that woman at the state's employment office looked disgusted whenever you walked through the door. Why would she act that way? Maybe because she has access to genetic information about you and knows that she can't place someone with your profile. Government agencies often share information with each other."

Suddenly Williams realized that Schmidt was making some sense. He remembered how the IRS had garnished his wages for back child support when Linda had run to the court to squeeze every last cent she could out of him. The divorce court and the IRS - they had an open com-line to each other. And maybe, just maybe, the state employment office's computer was talking to some other computer somewhere else. It was possible.

"My genotype, on somebody's D-base? Schmidt, if what you're saying is true then I've been blacklisted! All those interviews were for state government positions, the ones that the job counselor sent me out on. But if she knew no one would hire me, then why did she bother sending me on all those interviews in the first place?"

"Because she had to, Mr. Williams. That's her job. She had to be able to log in somewhere that she sent you on a certain number of interviews and that you were subsequently turned down. She did her job and she's off the hook. But do you know what's even stranger?"

"This CODIS thing and genotyping aren't strange enough?" replied Williams.

"If certain government agencies do have your genotype on their databases, just how do you suppose they obtained it? How did they come by that information about you?"

Williams felt a chill run down his spine as Schmidt's questions struck home.

"You said you once worked for Martin Marietta, a government contractor that routinely requires security clearances and background checks of its employees. Did they ever take a blood sample from you?"

"As a matter of fact they did," replied Williams. It had been years ago, but Williams recalled that the Martin nurse had once drawn his blood, although he hadn't thought much of it at the time.

"Mr. Williams, they may have drawn your blood so they could determine your genotype. They wanted to find out if you had a behavioral genetic predisposition that might interfere with your work, such as the alcoholism gene. I notice that you have a certain fondness for Jack Daniels."

Now Williams' curiosity turned to annoyance. "Schmidt, are you calling me an alcoholic? I have a few drinks every now and then, so what the hell business is it of yours? You're beginning to sound just like my damn wife!"

"Hey, chill, Russell!" said Sam. "You know damn well that you and old JD are bosom buddies. I watch the two of you sitting in here every night."

Once again Sam had skillfully defused the situation. Williams had to admit that Sam was right about his drinking. Linda had been right. Her lawyer had been right. Even the nosey SOB Schmidt was right.

"I apologize, Mr. Williams. It wasn't my intention to insult you. I was just trying to make a larger point, not to accuse you of anything."

"That's all right, Schmidt. You're probably right anyway. So, you were talking about Martin and the blood sample...and the alcoholism gene."

"Have you ever wondered what Martin did with your test results, who they may have shared it with? Like I said, maybe you are a marked man."

"But Schmidt, wouldn't that sort of information be confidential, like your medical history?"

"Confidential? You tell me, Mr. Williams, just what does confidential mean any more? You're in the computer business. Just look at the GlobalNet. You've heard the stories: people's bank accounts getting hacked into, even the government getting tapped from the outside. You tell me. Just what do confidential and privacy mean any more? Most people don't even know what's on their credit record and would probably be shocked if they did. But employers routinely access that information when they consider hiring someone. They know more about you than you know about yourself. People don't realize it but they unwittingly surrender their right of privacy as a condition of their employment. You know, George Orwell wasn't that far off base with his predictions about Big Brother, just a little early, that's all. But it doesn't stop there."

"What do you mean?" asked Williams, who was becoming increasingly paranoid as he listened to Schmidt.

"Not only can employers use genetic information, but almost anyone can. Advances in genetics technology have helped lower the cost of DNA tests to the point where just about anyone can perform one. Insurance companies, for instance, can require people to submit to a blood test as a condition of obtaining coverage, even to determine the premium that they'll pay."

"You know what gets me?" said Sam, who had been quietly listening. "How can they force people to submit to blood tests in the first place? I mean, I remember when they first started screening people for drugs - people in certain kind of jobs, like pilots. But after awhile everybody was pissing into cups for any sort of job...even tending a bar. Now it's getting the same with these blood tests. Everybody's got to go along with it. But how do they get away with it? You'd think somebody would have raised hell by now."

"I can give you one good reason why the tests have never been challenged," said Williams, "because people have to work. It was the same when they first started screening for drugs. Companies made it a condition of being hired: if you wanted the job, you had to piss."

"It goes ever deeper than that," added Schmidt. "No Federal laws have ever been passed prohibiting discrimination by employers or insurance companies on the basis of a person's genetic profile. Several bills were introduced during the last decade by a few congressional subcommittees. The Clinton White House even issued an executive order. Committee recommendations and policies were proposed but without the weight of law behind them. Some of the bills attempted to amend existing civil rights and labor laws. But in the end nothing ever came of it. Just a lot of talk from a bunch of well-meaning politicians, that's all. So while the science of genetics has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last few years, the government has done practically nothing about the burden it's placed on people...and the loss of one of our most basic freedoms."

"Schmidt," said Williams, "you seem to know a lot about genetics. How so?"

"I've had my blood tested and genotyped by my health-insurance carrier. They said I have a genetic predisposition to high blood pressure that makes me a health risk. I could have a stroke or a heart attack at any minute, even though my BP's as steady as a rock. But the company raised my premiums through the roof to offset what, they said, could cost them big in the future."

"Mr. Williams," Schmidt continued, "you were talking before about the confidentiality of a person's medical history. Have of you ever heard of HIPAA?"

"Oh, now it's HIPPOS, uh?" Williams slurred, getting drunker with each sip of his Jack Daniels. "You're just full of alphabet soup aren't you, Schmidt? So what is this hippo thing?"

"Back in the nineties, the Congress passed HIPAA: the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It was supposed to protect people's medical records and other personal health information that's maintained by healthcare providers, hospitals and insurance companies. Still, there are loopholes in HIPAA that allow medical privacy invasion to go on, thanks in no small part to the vast amounts of patient information that's easily accessible from numerous computer databases. So I ask you again, Mr. Williams, just what do confidential and privacy mean any more? If the healthcare industry can still obtain personal information about you in spite of Federal law, how great a leap would it be in this day and age for that same information, even your genotype, to end up on some employment agency's database? I think Big Brother's more pervasive than even George Orwell could have imagined. So can I buy you another drink, Mr. Williams? If we can't change what's in our blood at least we can try and dilute it, hey?"

"I think Russell's had enough for one night," interjected Sam.

Williams glared at the bartender, about to protest, but instead backed down without a word. He realized that Sam was just looking out for him, making sure that he got home all right.

"Okay, Sam, I guess that's my cue to leave," said Williams. "I'll just go find another watering hole somewhere else."

"Damn it, Russell, you can barely walk. If you don't promise to go straight home, I'm taking your car keys away and throwing your ass in a cab."

Williams laughed. "I'm just kidding, Sam. I know when I've had enough. I'll be all right. I'll see you tomorrow night, same time, same channel." He stumbled, and nearly fell, as he rose from his barstool, catching himself on the bar railing.

"Russell, are you sure you don't want me to call you a cab just the same? Just to be on the safe side?" asked Sam.

"I'm okay, Sam. How many times have you seen me walk out of here three sheets to the wind...or is it seven sheets...ah, hell, you know what I mean. I'll be fine. Later, pal."

"I guess I'll be shoving off, too," said Schmidt, rising from his stool. "Got a big day tomorrow."

"You too, Mr. Schmidt? And just when things were getting interesting," said Sam.

Both men tossed ten dollars on the bar and headed for the door together.

"Duty calls, but I'll drop in again soon. Take it easy, Sam."

"You too, Mr. Schmidt...and Russell, be careful, you hear me?"

"Yes, mother, whatever you say."

Williams stepped out into the night air. The cool breeze coming off the ocean felt good upon his face. The Trade Winds' neon sign flickered out on the A1A. With the exception of the waves lashing at the coastline, it was still and quiet. A light gray mist was slowly settling over the jet-black asphalt parking lot.

"Well, Mr. Schmidt, have a nice night," said Williams. "It was...interesting talking with you."

"You, too, Mr. Williams. I hope we run into each other again soon."

"Same here, Schmidt. Drive safe."

Williams watched for a moment as Schmidt headed toward his car: a dark sedan parked on the opposite side of the lot. CODIS, DNA, genotypes, Williams thought, that Schmidt's one strange character. As he reached his car, Williams fumbled with his keys, trying to find the right one to open the door. Eventually, he managed to unlock the door and slip behind the wheel. Williams eased the big Ford slowly, uncertainly onto the A1A and took a right turn, heading north toward Ormond Beach.

~*~

Williams propped himself up on the gurney and looked around the hospital room. The policeman was still sitting across the room, expressionless, glaring at him. His head and neck still ached and his face stung from the hot Nitrogen gas of the air bag bursting in his face the night before. He knew he'd been unconscious for a while but had no notion of just how long. He remembered the red and blue emergency lights flashing all around him and the glare of a flashlight illuminating his face, coming from somewhere outside the car, and how the bright light had caused him to squint and shade his eyes with his arm. Then he'd heard the voices. The voices had sounded to Williams as if they were coming from somewhere far off, though they were only a few feet away from where he sat pinned inside the Crown Victoria.

"Captain, over here," someone had yelled. "He's coming to, and, man, can you smell it."

"Yeah, tell me about it, Harris. I could smell this drunken bum the moment I pulled up. This one's a .16 or .17 at least. Harris, you and Armando get the jaws and wrench the son of a bitch out of there. And, Harris, tell the EMTs that I want a blood alcohol test done the moment they get him to the hospital," said the fire captain. "I want this to go by the numbers."

Before Williams could utter a word, a gas-driven motor roared to life and the sound of metal grinding against metal rang in his ears as the firemen cut him out of the Ford, or what was left of it. It took the firemen a few minutes to pry open the driver's side door. Immediately another voice said, "Don't move him yet," as someone carefully placed a hard cervical-spine brace around Williams' neck. Then the others moved in and gently pulled Williams out of the wreckage and placed him on a waiting gurney.

"What happened?" Williams asked. "Where are you taking me?"

"We're taking you to East Central Florida Hospital," said one the EMTs. "Then after that you're going to jail, pal."

"What happened?" asked Williams. "What did I hit?"

"I'll tell you what you hit. You hit a van, a family. You killed two kids, and their parents are in critical condition. We're still trying to pry what's left of them out of the mangled mess this tank of yours made out of their van."

"But I don't even remember," Williams stuttered. "I was just driving and somebody...somebody in another car pushed me from behind. They pushed me."

"Yeah, I bet you don't remember. Guys like you never do," replied the unsympathetic EMT.

Williams began to shake. I killed someone. But it wasn't my fault, Williams thought, it wasn't my fault. I was pushed. I know I was.

The firemen and the EMTs were gruff with Williams as they talked to him, pumping him for information and badgering him for what he'd done. Obviously, having seen far too many spring-breakers killed on Daytona's streets, or fall drunk and stupefied from motel balconies, the emergency personnel were more than a little jaded from the senseless loss of life that they witnessed all too often. At last a cool, controlled voice imposed itself on the situation.

"Miller, Costello, have you got the collar on him and the IV going?" said the voice.

"Yes, Chief," replied the EMTs. "We're all set."

"All right, then no more questions. This is a criminal matter and the police will want to talk to him. He doesn't have to talk to either one of you, you understand me? Just get him to the hospital. If he's ready for transport let's move him out of here, right now."

Williams felt himself being wheeled across the highway. Oddly, he could still feel the Jack Daniels: the neon lights along the strip were still a colorful blur, streaking quickly by as the EMTs pushed the gurney toward their rig. Williams heard a voice say, "On three, one-two-three," and unseen hands quickly lifted the gurney into the ambulance. Seconds later the ambulance took off for the hospital with its lights flashing. Williams was in stable condition with only minor contusions and bruises around his head and face, and a lot of alcohol on his breath.

~*~

A crowd of onlookers watched from the sidewalks as the police and firemen went about their work. The scene was ludicrous. A crowd of vacationers wearing swim suits, Jimmy Buffett Parrot Head shirts, sandals, pleated shorts and fanny packs, looked on with grim, stricken expressions on their faces. Several uniformed policemen were busily taking statements from the bystanders who had been near the intersection when the crash occurred.

"So, Louis, what's the story?" said a familiar voice coming from behind patrolman Louis Jordan.

"Cane, what's up?" replied Jordan, looking up from his notepad. "Aren't you off duty now?"

Clad in a cheap Panama Jack hat and a trademark white suit that made him look like a cross between Colonel Sanders and an old-time southern politician, Robbery-Homicide Detective Cane McCoy had just clocked out for the night and was heading home when he heard the call go out from dispatch. Seeing the flashing lights ahead on the A1A, McCoy had pulled over to see if he could lend assistance.

McCoy walked with a slight limp, the result of a bullet that had ripped into his lower back when he was still a rookie patrolman, nearly crippling him. His first name was Ezra but his fellow officers just called him Cane because of the walking cane McCoy used to get around. The nickname wasn't mean-spirited. It was just how cops dealt with things like that. There was no place for self-pity on the police force, the job didn't allow it, and McCoy would never tolerate it.

"I am, but I heard the call on the radio just now," replied McCoy. "So, what happened here?"

"Some drunken SOB in that Ford tank ran the light and plowed into what's left of that van over there," said Jordan, pointing to the mangled remains of the mini-van. "A family of four...on vacation. Killed the two kids on impact. They just airlifted the parents to East Central a few minutes ago."

"What about the driver of the Ford? Did he make it?" asked McCoy.

"Oh, yeah, a little shook up but he came out of it just fine, not a scratch on him. Isn't that always how these damn things go? But that family, they'll never be the same again."

"Who was the driver, Louis? Did anybody get anything out of him?"

"Not much. Like I said, he was pretty shook up. His name was Williams, Russell T. Williams, according to his driver's license. The EMTs took him to East Central, too. He just kept saying it wasn't his fault. He said he was pushed from behind by another car."

"Pushed?" said McCoy.

"Yeah, pretty lame, uh?"

McCoy glanced at the pavement behind the mangled Ford. "I don't see any skid marks on the street."

"Yeah, we noticed that, too. It looks like the SOB didn't even try to stop. He plowed into the van like a missile. Those people never knew what hit them."

"Yeah...maybe," replied McCoy. "Or maybe he couldn't stop. You said the driver, Russell Williams, said he'd been pushed from behind by another car?"

"Are you playing Sherlock Holmes, Cane? That animal smelled like he'd gulped a gallon of rotgut by the time we got to him. Take it from me, if there was ever a clear-cut case of DUI Manslaughter, this is it, buddy."

"Yeah, you're probably right, Louis," said McCoy, reading the irritation in Jordan's voice. "Just another drunken loser. But you know something, Louis, as long as I've been on the force I don't think I've come across a 'clear-cut case' yet. And one other thing, Louis..."

"What's that, Cane?"

"People are still innocent until proven otherwise."

"Yeah, whatever, Cane. So, weren't you on your way home?" Jordan averted his eyes and went back to writing in his notepad. "We've got things under control here."

"Okay, Louis, sorry to get in your way. It doesn't look you need my help."

"Yeah, later, Cane," said Jordan as he walked off to interview another bystander.

McCoy looked around at the crime scene, taking it all in. To all the other cops it was just another traffic accident or TA; a bad one but just another TA. But McCoy had been an investigator for too long to dismiss things so readily. Jordan's comment that the driver said he'd been pushed from behind by another vehicle kept replaying itself in his head. There are no skid marks trailing the car, McCoy thought, as if Williams had been running from something.

McCoy walked over to the crumpled wreckage that had been the Crown Victoria. While everyone else was focused on the front of the car and the accident scene, McCoy walked around behind the vehicle. The Ford had sustained rear-end damage all right, even though it paled by comparison to the front end that had struck the van. That's probably why nobody's noticed it yet, McCoy thought. Still, the car could have gotten rear-ended any number of ways. This Williams guy could have just backed into his garage door coming home drunk one night. When it came to theories McCoy was his own devil's advocate, a habit he'd honed over the years from being grilled on the witness stand by a long list of belligerent defense lawyers.

McCoy looked down at the pavement behind the car. Then he started walking the A1A in the opposite direction the Ford had been traveling, with his eyes fixed on the highway. He'd walked about half a block from the crash scene when something shiny caught his attention. Leaning heavily on his walking cane, McCoy stooped down and picked up the object: a chunk of orange metal, the same color as the Crown Victoria. Looking around, McCoy saw more orange-colored fragments lying in the street, as well as pieces of red and white glass. The glass could have come from the car's taillights, McCoy thought. But with all the odd vehicles that cruise the strip, the glass and the fragments could have come from almost anything. But McCoy's suspicions were raised just the same.

McCoy reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a plastic bag, gathered up several pieces of the metal and glass, and slipped them into the bag. He then hoisted himself to his feet with his cane and looked around. He knew the fragments alone weren't much to go on, but his instincts told him that he was standing in the middle of a debris field. The sort of debris one would expect to find in a hard rear-end collision.

McCoy tucked the bag in his pocket and headed back toward the accident scene. He decided he would hold onto the fragments but keep things to himself, at least for now. He knew that it was circumstantial evidence at best and would easily be thrown out in court. But there might be some truth to what this Williams fellow said, he thought. He made a mental note to look up Mr. Russell T. Williams at the earliest chance.

~*~

Two blocks away the dark sedan was parked at the curb with its engine still running and the headlights switched off. Schmidt watched the scene with satisfaction. Schmidt knew that Williams would eventually tell the police that he had been pushed into the intersection by a dark-colored sedan, and that the police would discover the rear damage to the Ford and maybe believe some part of Williams' story. Schmidt had fitted the sedan with steel-reinforced ramming brackets that had allowed him to smash up Williams' car without damaging the sedan. But Schmidt would get rid of the sedan long before the police got around to corroborating that part of Williams' story. Schmidt took a cell phone out of his coat pocket and keyed in a number.

"Yes," said a voice on the other end of the phone.

"This is Schmidt. That special case that we discussed..."

"Yes, you have something?"

"Yes," replied Schmidt. "The gauntlet is in play."

Schmidt clicked off the connection and put the phone back in his coat pocket. He then put the sedan in drive and made a slow U-turn, heading away from the accident scene in the opposite direction. As he headed south, Schmidt kept well under the speed limit so as to draw no attention to him. Eventually the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles faded from view.

The operation had gone smoothly as far as Schmidt was concerned. He had achieved his objective and had gotten away clean, undetected.

~*~

Juan Ortiz didn't know why the sedan had pulled up in front of his house with its engine running and the lights out. He could just make out the driver's face in the pale streetlight. He didn't recognize the man sitting behind the wheel, nor did he really care who he was. Ortiz was accustomed to watching all sorts of crazies on the A1A, especially during spring break when the college kids converged on Daytona Beach for their annual ritual of drunken debauchery and mayhem. Ortiz watched as the sedan made the U-turn and headed south toward International Speedway Boulevard. Finally he got up, swung open the screen door, and went inside his house. It was late and he had to be at work early the next morning.

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