Sebastian Creek’s shift was going long, involving an interview with a bottle-cut victim at the Spartanville emergency room and now a stop-by at Smitty’s Sportsbar where the ﬁght had gone down. The bar had formerly been the TrimTease, a just-out-of-town strip joint on the oﬀ-limits sheet at the Marine base. The new owner, Chuck Handley, was worried about getting his own black mark with the provost marshal and also downhearted because it was fairly early on Saturday night, and his bar had cleared when his customers learned the cops were coming.
Handley tossed a credit card onto the bar. He said, “His name is Carl Peener, which I know because here’s his credit card, which he left on the bar when he ran oﬀ.”
Kate Jersey, the crime tech, a middle-aged woman with a sheriﬀ’s cap jammed over a pile of silver hair, was dusting Peener’s section of the bar. She shook out a zip bag and ﬁngertipped the card into it. She said, “You might have told me you had that, Mr. Handley. I would have said, great, but don’t touch it.”
Handley said, “I guess I was waiting for Seb.”
Seb pressed the plastic over the name, Carl Peener, and shrugged at Kate. He and the bartender had gotten connected a month ago when Handley’s testimony to internal aﬀairs backed Seb on a bribery charge.
Seb, who had spoken to the victim in the hospital, said, “They were arguing about politics?”
“Yeah, but it was the other two guys that were arguing. Peener just butted in, told them they were fools for being on any side, everything’s rigged, that type of deal. Next thing I know, I’m down at the other end, a bottle breaks, and he stabs the guy and takes oﬀ. I ran out and saw his van. It was white and had something about furniture on the side. Now look here—this is extraordinary for us. This is way out of the ordinary.”
After Seb got the description—big guy, ponytail, mustache and sideburns, gray sweatshirt, little bit bald, maybe a biker—Kate, who had been on the phone with the card company, said, “He’s from Atlanta.”
Seb used a booth to write it up on his laptop, then sent it to the incidents section of the sheriﬀ’s oﬃce. A moment later his phone dinged—the night magistrate had issued a warrant, and it had been forwarded to the state police. Seb called Fernando, the shift lieutenant, to alert him about the warrant and the advisability of a few motel checks, and also that Peener had probably ﬂed for home. The victim had been cut only on the palm of his hand, so the DA would likely not press for extradition, which Peener, who impressed as a felon, would likely know. Kate had packed up and left, dismissing the deputy at the entrance.
Handley had his cleanup guy in early and was arranging chairs with him. Seb, talking fast because he had formed a daring, ardent plan for the rest of the evening, and because a storm was forecast, assured the bartender that the incident would probably not provoke an oﬀ-limits black mark since it was not part of an atmosphere of badness, and he, a sheriﬀ’s detective and former Marine MP, would testify to that if the provost marshal inquired. He began to leave, then impatiently remembered he should make a courtesy call to the Georgia state police, in case they wanted to notate the scoﬄaw’s sheet, if he had one. He did, they informed him, for minor possession, motorcycle theft, and punching out a female, and they thanked him.
Then he was done. His daring plan was to drop by the Fairchild pottery studio on the way home and ask Mia Fairchild for a get-acquainted coﬀee date, hopefully the next morning at the Inlet Café, if she could make it by eight. Seb had met her six months before when he picked up his then-girlfriend, Charlene, from a pottery class. The studio was at the end of Willow Road in patrol section two, and two weeks ago, when it was burglarized, the lieutenant had assigned the case to Marty Jerrold, the section-two detective. In the hallway after the brieﬁng, Seb had asked Marty for the case, and Marty had said, sure, but look, how about take these motorcycle thefts too, three of them, diﬀerent houses but deﬁnitely-probably connected, so really one case. Which Seb had done, despite Marty’s smirk-hiding straight face.
As Seb left the bar and entered the parking lot, he received a double jolt. The ﬁrst jolt was from a neon-lit pile of trash ﬂickering in a wind eddy beside the bar’s dumpster, a perfect IED hide, except this wasn’t a street in Iraq where trash piles sometimes exploded. That kind of jitter hadn’t happened in a while, a year maybe, and he ﬂashed that it was his coming Mia gamble, his keyed-up wanting, which killed calm and left him exposed. He closed his eyes and stood, took some breaths.
When he opened them, he got his second jolt, Squint Cooper, exiting his SUV and coming toward him with a computer tablet. He was a man in his sixties, broad-shouldered and lanky, with a bald top and crown of silky gray hair hanging to his collar. He wore a white T-shirt and a denim jacket and stood three inches taller than Seb’s six-two. Seb exhaled slowly, steeling himself for a session with Squint, a man known for contempt, rough humor, and a bullying brilliance.
Squint stopped in front of him, wearing his customary slant smile which said, everything’s a joke and so are you. He said, “I called your dispatch, and she told me you were out here on a call. Somebody got stabbed?”
“Cut with a bottle. Is this important? Because I’ve got to—”
“Well, you got a minute, don’t you?” He held the tablet between them and woke the screen.
Seb said, “A fast minute.”
Squint, intent on the screen, said, “How’s Gretchen? I saw on the web where she’s back in Italy leading her tours.” A sudden wind gust whipped his long hair into a neon-silvered halo.
Seb made a smile. He said, “C’mon, man. I got to move.” The Cooper and Creek families had become oddly intertwined, ﬁrst because when he was a Marine CID sergeant, Seb had arrested Squint’s son, Cody Cooper, for possession with intent. A few years later Squint dated Seb’s mother, Gretchen, and together they arranged a romance between Seb and Squint’s daughter, Charlene. Cody had been locked up for two years, a circumstance which did not daunt the love aﬀairs, neither of which lasted more than a few months anyway.
Squint said, “All right. But kindly tell Gretchen her pal Squint conveys his regards. I hope she enjoys the Colosseum, where she’ll be on Monday. Now look at here.” He held the tablet sideways and touched the start arrow. A video began, a drone’s view, the camera passing over a T-top ﬁshing boat in gray-green water.
“This is from that eco fucker Peter Prince. He was drone-snooping my hogs this afternoon, and he posted it to the web.” The camera swung over an island, then a strip of water, then another island occupied by a solitary tent, an orange octagon bubble.
Squint said, “I had a tent just like that. Or else it’s mine, which it might be.” He stroked the video forward, then let it play again.
The camera showed treetops now, then the long metal-rippled tops of hog barns. It moved down a road, then showed the farm’s dead box, a black metal dumpster overﬂowing with hog carcasses. Squint stroked again, and the camera showed two miniature ﬁgures below, one aiming a riﬂe. “That’s me shooting at it. See how he’s zigzagging?” The camera lolled and waved across the sheds below. He stroked the video forward to a blue van driving along a gravel driveway. “That’s Jorge. I sent him after it in the van, but he lost it over the pine barrens.” Squint tapped the tablet and closed its case. “And yes, I had some misfortune. The fans in my number three shed went down and ﬁfty-three near-ﬁnished hogs asphyxiated from ammonia poisoning. No one’s fault or else God’s. Now there it is for all to see. Fifty carcasses in the dead box. He ﬂew over just around noon. I come to lodge my complaint. I want a deputy on this. Which I have complained before to no avail.”
Seb, who had called Prince several weeks before at Squint’s behest, said, “He doesn’t scare. He knows the law better than we do.” As a tweak, he added, “He’s a fearless crusader.” Then, instead of lecturing Squint once again on the ambiguity of North Carolina’s drone surveillance law—or asking the question that naturally occurred to him—what happened to your backup fans?—he asked, an attempt at diversion, if Squint had listened to the Shaun Davey version of “The Parting Glass” yet.
Hell yes, he had, and he was coming as usual to the Sunday-evening singing practice, but couldn’t the sheriﬀ stake out the farm just temporarily? Seb said, “Squint, we’ve been through all that. The sheriﬀ won’t spend deputies on violations of a vague-ass law. Did you get a drone?” A month ago, Seb had advised a counter-drone strategy, whereby Squint’s drone would follow Prince’s back to Prince’s sneaky launch site, then submit the video to the district court, thus providing enough evidence for a judge, if he was so inclined, to charge Prince with a drone-snooping misdemeanor and impose a $250 slap on his high-minded wrist.
Squint said, “I’m not taking up drone ﬂying, but if one ﬁne day we ﬁnd his LZ, somebody’s going to the emergency room.”
Seb said, “So long, Squint. Tell Cody and Charlene I say hello. Now I got to get home before this storm.”
He patted Squint’s shoulder and walked to his Honda. Behind him, he heard Squint’s SUV start and crunch through the lot onto the road. He opened the trunk, removed his jacket, and shrugged out of his shoulder rig, then stowed it and his nine millimeter in the trunk vault. It was eight thirty now, possibly too late for a drop-by at Mia’s, especially on a Saturday night. He was going to do it though. As Seb got behind the wheel, he felt his heart start and felt the adrenaline ﬂush of female fear. Like high school, he thought, but it was a good true normal fear, way more welcome than an IED ﬂutter. The black plastic was still glinting in the wind beside the dumpster, just a scrap of bag now, an ordinary harmless muteness, but ﬁve minutes ago a portal back to Anbar and the day-to-day staying-alive fury. He breathed. He was going to see this woman. It was selﬁsh, because what did she know of wild war on the other side of the world, but let it be selﬁsh. Sometimes it was brave to be selﬁsh.
As he swung around in the parking lot, he glanced down the alley behind the bar and in the security light above the bar’s rear door saw a white van and a big guy climbing into the driver’s seat. Seb gunned the Honda down the alley, squeezed between the vine-tangled chain link and the van, then angle-parked in front, blocking the van. The guy could have backed up, but in the side mirror Seb saw the door open. The guy got out. He had a mustache and ponytail and heavy sloped shoulders. He came forward.
Seb swung out of his car and held up his hands, hesitating the man’s forward progress. He said, “Carl, did you hurt that bartender?”