Chris positioned himself in full view as three police cruisers, with their distinctive brown-and-yellow Central Valley emblems, pulled up in front of the house and braked, their car doors opening immediately. Uniformed police officers jogged toward the house.
“I’m Special Agent Curt Abbott, ATF,” Chris shouted, as loudly as possible to be heard over the sirens.
“Copy that! Everybody, stand down!” shouted the police officer who took the lead, and none of the locals drew their weapons, so Chris opened the front door and stepped outside, meeting the lead cop at the front step. He seemed stocky in his brown uniform, in his fifties.
“Hello. Special Agent Curt Abbott, ATF,” Chris said, in case they hadn’t heard him. “I’d shake your hand, but mine are bloody.”
“Officer Mike Dunleavy,” said the lead cop, his expression grim under the patent bill of his cap.
“We have a gunshot victim dead in the living room, name Doug Wheeler. I believe this is his residence. I performed CPR but it’s too late and—”
“A murder?” Officer Dunleavy interrupted, shocked. “I don’t think we have two murders in Central Valley in a year.”
“I also did a cursory walk-through and found no other bodies, dead or alive. Your guys may want to double-check. I didn’t have time to check the backyard.”
“We’ll follow up. But a murder. What’s this about, do you know?”
“Sorry, Officer Dunleavy, I can’t share that with you.”
“You got any suspects?”
“I can’t share that with you, either.”
“Jeez, was it a bomb, guns, or something like that? I figure, since you’re ATF—”
“Sorry, I can’t explain further.”
“I get it, if you tell me you have to kill me.” Office Dunleavy chuckled, without mirth. Behind him, cops were shutting off the sirens, setting up a perimeter with yellow caution tape, and putting on gloves and booties. Lights went on in the other houses on the street, and heads appeared at windows.
“Officer Dunleavy, have your boss call my boss and they’ll fill you in. They’ll complete whatever reports you need.” Chris motioned to Evan’s car. “Before I go, I need to check inside the BMW’s trunk.”
“Let me go back to my cruiser, I got a crowbar.” Officer Dunleavy jogged off, while neighbors began to file out of their houses to watch, their coats draped over their bathrobes and pajamas on the chilly night.
Chris kept his face down and walked over to Evan’s car. He prayed Evan wasn’t dead in the trunk and he bent over and checked underneath to see if anything was dripping, just in case the trunk’s seal wasn’t perfect. The driveway underneath the BMW remained dry.
Chris straightened up, coming eye level with the license plate, then he did a double-take. The license plate read RET-7819, but that wasn’t Evan’s license plate, unless Chris remembered it wrong. He slid out his phone, thumbed to the text function, and scanned through the photos. He found the one of Evan’s BMW that he’d just sent to the Rabbi. The license plate was PZR-4720.
Chris pressed redial to call the Rabbi, who picked up after one ring. “Rabbi, I got good news and bad news.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“Don’t you want the good news first? Everybody wants the good news first.”
“Not Jews. We’re tough. Give it to me straight.”
“I found Courtney Wheeler’s husband, Doug Wheeler, murdered in the house, three gunshot wounds to the chest. I tried to revive him but I couldn’t.”
The Rabbi groaned. “Okay, that’s bad news. What’s the good news?”
“I’m looking at Evan’s black BMW, but it doesn’t have the right tag. Evan’s tag is PZR-4720, as in the picture, but now it’s RET-7819.”
“So they switched the plates.”
“Exactly. You need to find the vehicle with Evan’s old tag. My bet is it’s on a van, and you know what I’m thinking.” Chris didn’t elaborate because a local cop was within earshot, unrolling crime-scene tape.
“The van is a bomb on wheels,” the Rabbi answered, finishing the thought.
“Bingo. If you run the plate I’m looking at, it’ll tell you the make and model of the van.”
“And it’ll turn out to be a stolen vehicle.”
“Agree. I think I’m done here. Where’s my ride?”
“In the air, ten minutes away. Where do you want him?”
“The baseball field at the high school, southeast of the main building. That will jerk Alek’s chain.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“Only a little bit. And tell the pilot not to mess up the clay on the baselines. My boys just raked it.”
The Rabbi chuckled. “Don’t push it.”
“Did you learn anything new? Or do I have to do all the work around here?”
“We’re on our way to the farmstead now. Evidently the Shank family is well-known to the locals. Everybody knows everybody up here.”
“Tell me what you got.”
“The mother died a long time ago, and father about six months ago, heart attack. Two older sons, David and Jim, both barroom brawlers. The Shank brothers, everybody calls them. No neo-Nazi, biker, Christian Identity, or alt-right affiliations. No college degree, no criminal record. Anti-frackers. Write letters to the editor of the local paper. Go to the rallies. Courtney is the only one who graduated college, the youngest of three. She’s the one who got away.”
“Good to know.” Chris noticed Officer Dunleavy returning with a crowbar. “I’m about to break into the BMW to make sure there’s nothing in the trunk.”
“Attaboy. Stay in touch.”
“Will do. Good-bye.” Chris hung up, and Officer Dunleavy reached him, extending the crowbar.
“Special Agent, you want to do the honors?”
“No, have at it. The anti-theft system is going to give you a headache.”
“All in a day’s work.” Officer Dunleavy wedged the crowbar under the lid of the trunk, pressed down, and popped the lid. The car alarm went off instantly, beeping in a night already abuzz with activity. Neighbors lined the sidewalk, watching, talking, and smoking cigarettes.
Officer Dunleavy pulled a flashlight from his utility belt and shined it inside the trunk, and Chris looked. There was nothing inside but a baseball glove and a blue Musketeers ball cap.