Hale Tibbot never heard a sound from the man who killed him.
He didn’t even realize what was happening as he was dying.
He’d been lost in thought, sitting in the home office of his four-million-dollar shoreline house, looking out the picture window at the moonlight outlining the mountain crests and tree tops. The lunar glow paved a highway of light on the still waters of Lake Adeline that seemed to lead straight to him. Tibbot knew that hordes of people would pay big money for such a view, soft housing market or not. It was his plan to seize most if not all of that money.
Then he felt the pain in his head.
He’d suffered from migraines since his college days. Other people had described the pain as pulsating or throbbing. For Tibbot, it always felt like a metal band had been looped around his head and was drawing ever tighter. The sense of compression was sometimes bad enough he was sure the top of his skull would pop off.
That was exactly what he felt the night he’d been looking at the alpine paradise outside his window, crushing pressure around the front and sides of his head. Only this time he caught a scent of … cologne? He’d worn the stuff briefly in high school, before the migraines hit. But once he’d started to suffer, forget it.
The smell of just about anything could set off the agony.
He hoped he wasn’t coming down with a new prob —
The last sensation to register in Hale Tibbot’s mind was a slight prick on his neck, less intense than a shaving cut. Almost immediately, the pain in his head eased. The windstorm of thoughts that whirled through his mind every waking minute went still. For just a moment, Hale Tibbot felt a wave of peace ease over him.
Then there was nothing at all.
It was as neat a murder as anyone could ever ask.
Monday, June 3
Chief of Police Ron Ketchum told Deputy Chief Oliver Gosden, “It’s still spring and it’s already a hundred and ten in the shade in Arizona, and there is no shade.”
The temperature at dawn that day in the Sierra Nevada town of Goldstrike, California was a crisp fifty-nine degrees. The sun had just broached the mountaintops. The sky was as blue as heavenly grace. The scent of pine filled the crystalline air.
Oliver said, “I haven’t lived here long enough to see it, but what I’ve read, it’s snowed in this town every single month of the year.”
Ron shrugged. “So you can ski year ’round.”
“I don’t ski and neither do you.”
“Danny does,” Ron said.
Daniel Gosden was the deputy chief’s nine-year-old son. He and his mother, Lauren, were waiting ten feet away in the family’s Mazda CX-9. Mother and son were both bleary eyed from having to rise so early and didn’t relish the thought of enduring the seven-hundred-mile drive to Sedona, Arizona. They wanted to stay in Goldstrike.
Ron continued, “Your son, who’s more the spitting image of you every day, might become our country’s first African-American gold medalist in Olympic downhill skiing.”
Oliver Gosden laughed.
“Man, you’re pitching hard, I’ll give you that. Did both Lauren and Danny get to you or just one of them?”
“The job opening in Sedona is for chief of police. I’ve been your deputy chief for six years now. I’m ready to move up, but I don’t see you moving on.”
“I’m not ready to retire … but, Jesus, you’d really be willing to enforce those damn papers-please laws they’ve got down there in Arizona?”
Oliver said, “You crack me up. You join the ACLU when I wasn’t looking?”
As the respondent in a civil suit, Ron had once been described by his lawyer as a recovering bigot. The label had been both a legal strategy and the truth. Even in the old days, though, when both he and Oliver had worn LAPD blue, Ron had seen his way clear to risk his own ass to save Oliver’s life. He’d been working on attitude adjustment ever since.
He’d even voted for Patti Grant to be president. Not that he’d told anyone.
Still, he was more than a little surprised by how much he was going to miss Oliver.
“I could see making a move,” Ron said, “if you were going someplace cool like Laguna Beach.”
“I like dry heat,” Oliver responded. Then he added, “I think it was your letter of recommendation that made me one of the two finalists.”
“Shit,” Ron said. “I’ll call and say it was all a pack of lies.”
Oliver embraced the man who’d brought him to Goldstrike.
Who’d given him the opportunity that made applying for the job in Sedona possible.
“We’ll keep in touch,” Oliver said, “but if you tell anyone I hugged you, I’ll come back and snap you in two.”
“Yeah, if I don’t shoot you first.”
The two men shook hands. Oliver got behind the wheel of his SUV. Lauren and Danny Gosden looked so forlorn Ron felt a tug at his heart. He held up his hands, telling them he’d done his best. Lauren blew him a kiss. Danny left with tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Shit,” Ron said again.
Brant Sutherland, who a week earlier had successfully completed the third grade with Danny Gosden at Goldstrike Elementary School, was in a far better mood than his former classmate. He was going out for a morning’s adventure with his dad, Roger, on Lake Adeline.
They putt-putted away from the dock at the marina in the family’s twenty-five foot Grady White Sportsman. Dad sat on the left side of the bench seat, his hands on the wheel. Brant sat next to him, already feeling a tingle of excitement. They were polite boaters, obeying the marina’s speed limit and minding the right of way rules, even though they were the first boat out that morning. But when they got out on the lake …
“Dad, we’re going to have a great time, aren’t we?”
“You bet, pal,” Roger said. “Open that cooler and pop a couple bottles for us.”
Brant grinned and followed orders. He snapped the caps off two brown bottles of Buckin’ Root Beer from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Roger was an award-winning director of documentary films that knocked people’s eyes out and taught them things they never knew. As he traveled, he made a point of bringing back local treats. Buckin’ Root Beer was a family favorite.
Roger could have worked without let up, but he made sure to reserve three months each year for his wife, son and now his baby girl.
That morning, though, Brant had Dad all to himself.
That’s what pulling straight A’s on his report card had earned him. Father and son clinked their bottles and drank. Soda was the strongest beverage Dad would allow on the Grady White. He said only fools drank alcohol on boats. Unless you knew how to walk on water, he said, falling out of a boat while drunk could be a fatal accident. Operating a watercraft while drinking was just begging for the Grim Reaper to tap you on the shoulder and say, “Time’s up.”
Brant took his father’s warnings to heart.
Both of the Sutherlands wore orange life preservers. Lake Adeline reached a depth of twelve hundred feet and the water out in the middle was always cold.
“Tough to touch bottom with your toes?” Brant had joked one time.
Roger had laughed but he’d taken his son to a mountain precipice with a drop of five hundred feet and said, “Now imagine falling more than twice this distance. The water would soften the blow, but you’d drown long before you hit bottom.”
Brant never argued about putting on his life preserver after that.
In fact, he insisted upon wearing it.
Clearing the marina and moving a quarter-mile out on the lake, and seeing no sign of the police department’s lake patrol, Roger asked his son, “Ready?”
“Ready,” Brant said. He tightened the grip on his bottle of root beer and clamped his other hand onto the seat next to his right leg. Dad gave the old Grady White the gas and its Yamaha 250-horsepower outboard motor roared and shot the craft forward.
Just because you took sensible precautions didn’t mean you couldn’t have any fun. As the first part of the day’s adventures, Dad was going to run the boat full throttle to the far side of the lake and then bring it back again at top speed.
Brant grinned and enjoyed the sensation of flying across the water and the relentless push of the wind against his face. He made sure to breathe through his nose and not his mouth. When he was little, a couple of years ago, he’d get the hiccups every time the boat went fast because he was always gulping air with his open mouth.
Rays from the rising sun were just reaching the surface of the lake, peeking over the tops of the mountains and the places on the shoreline where the pines stood tall. Thousands of bright jewels gleamed on the water, making way for the swift approach of the boat. Brant glanced around. Everything looked like a picture you’d send to friends who lived somewhere else. He felt Dad put an arm around his shoulders and —
The Grady White slowed, like it had run out of gas all of a sudden.
Only Dad never let the boat, his car or even his lawn mower run out of gas.
The plan had been after they’d crossed the lake twice they would fish the shallows for rainbow trout. Each of them would take his five-fish daily limit. They’d bring their catch home, clean it and grill it for dinner. Wait on Mom, give her the royal treatment. Maybe even let little Gracie gum a morsel or two.
But now the boat had stopped, settled in the water.
Out in the middle of the lake.
Roger Sutherland took his arm off his son.
“What’s wrong, Dad?”
“I need to check something out.”
Roger reached under the seat where their fishing gear and other necessities were stored. He brought out a pair of Nikon binoculars and looked to his left.
Brant squinted and tried to follow his father’s gaze.
“Is that another boat over there?” the boy asked.
“Yes, it is.”
“Looks smaller than ours.”
“Eighteen to twenty feet, maybe.”
“Is anyone on it?”
“Not that I can see.”
Brant asked, “Well, where would they —”
The boy’s mind outpaced his question. Replaced it with another.
“Somebody wasn’t wearing his life vest?”
Roger Sutherland didn’t want to tell his son that some people not only didn’t wear flotation gear, they might, in a moment of despair, weigh themselves down before they went into the deep, cold water one last time.
“Brant, we have to go over there and see if someone needs our help. Thing is, we might find someone who’s beyond being helped.”
Brant paled. “You mean dead?”
“Maybe. We’ll have to see. You’ll be strong?”
The boy nodded, but he started to shiver.
Roger put the binoculars down, returned his arm to its place around his son.
The Grady White approached the smaller power boat at idle speed. Roger Sutherland felt no sense of urgency about the approach. He didn’t expect to find anyone alive. It was possible someone might be scuba diving off the boat, if he were foolish to the point of being suicidal, plumbing the cold, deep water before the sun had risen. But that wasn’t the feeling Roger got. He thought he and Brant were drawing close to a very bad situation.
At the risk of frightening his son, he took his arm from Brant’s shoulders and reached under the seat again. He brought out a Taurus Judge, a short-barreled revolver. Brant’s eyes grew big when he saw the gun.
“Dad?” he said.
“Not now, Brant. Just hold tight. We might have to —”
The Grady White pulled alongside the smaller boat, the Sutherlands’ bow pointed back toward the marina. Roger didn’t find anyone lying below the railing of the other craft, either dead or lying in wait to ambush them. It was worse than that.
What he saw was a time bomb.
A digital display showed 59:23 and counting down. It was attached to a block of gray puttylike substance the size and shape of a hardcover book. Plastic explosive, Roger assumed. The bomb was affixed to a stainless steel container as large as a carryon suitcase. On the near side of the container was a circular symbol with three black pie-shaped wedges and three yellow ones. The design made Roger think of a homicidal clown mask.
But he knew what the symbol meant: radioactive material.
He’d seen it in the hospital where his mother had radiation treatments for the tumor that had killed her.
Roger and Brant had gone out for a day of fun and found a dirty bomb.
Roger slipped the revolver back into his tool box beneath his seat and took out his cell phone. He hit the video record icon and with an instinctive sense of composition framed the smaller boat and the bomb’s position in it. He made sure the six seconds he shot showed the digital display on the timer counting down.
Then he dropped the phone into a hip pocket and told his son, “Hold on, Brant.”
He got the Grady White out of there at full throttle.
It was only when he’d put a half-mile between his boat and the bomb that Roger called 911. The police and fire operator at the Goldstrike Muncipal Complex answered on the first ring. “What’s your emergency, please?”
Roger Sutherland gave his name and told her, “My son and I found a bomb in an abandoned boat on Lake Adeline just now. The bomb is attached to a container that might hold radioactive material. The timer indicates the bomb will explode in about …” He looked at his watch. “Fifty-five minutes.”
He emailed the video clip to the police.
He didn’t want anyone to think he was playing a prank.