Authors: Jonathon King
Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Political, #Psychological, #Journalists, #Mystery fiction, #Murder - Investigation, #Florida, #Single fathers
Eye of Vengeance
This is in memory of Will Williams, my first editor, a crusty newsman with a velvet heart
e’d had the hooded binoculars up to his face for forty-five minutes, but still his eyes were not tired. His eyes had never been tired. He could hold this position, prone on the roof, forever if he had to, because if that’s what had to be done, he would do it. He was looking south, the direction they would come from. Only when another filthy pigeon lighted on the fourth-floor ledge and pecked at a loose piece of gravel, or when yet another journalist with a camera or a notepad in her hands arrived below, would he move his eyes away from the lenses. Shitbirds and reporters, he thought. Couldn’t always predict when they’d arrive, only that they always would.
Everyone else was in their place. The jail guards across the street were uniformed and waiting. The detention sergeant was at the gray intake door, a cigarette butt in his mouth, his thick arms crossed over his chest, waiting. The transport team, he knew, was en route, their man shackled in the back of the van. Everyone was in place for the eight
transfer of the prisoner.
He checked the shadow pattern one more time. He was sweating lightly in his black cargo pants and long-sleeved shirt. The heat was already rising in the early Florida sun. He registered it, gave the humidity and heat ripple a second thought in his calculations of the shot, but dismissed it. At this range it would not be a factor. He readjusted his baseball cap, worn backward, like the punk kids, but for reasons they would never get. He and Collie had been the first ones to sew black terry cloth on the inside of the band to capture the sweat and keep it out of their eyes. Collie was one of the few men he liked to talk to. Collie would understand.
At seven forty-five he spotted the white van six blocks away, waited for it to catch one more stoplight. He used the binoculars to confirm the decal on the front, and then moved back to his weapon. For the tenth time that morning, he sighted the scope on a spot six feet above the second step of the staircase leading to the gray door. The magnification was so sharp he could see a wisp of smoke from the sergeant’s Marlboro drift through the crosshairs. He shifted his right sighting eye to survey the approach of the van. Then he closed it and opened his left to check his flank. It was one of the odd physiological advantages he’d had as a sniper in Iraq and on the SWAT teams he’d been with. He not only had great focus sight, but also excellent peripheral vision. Most guys sighted with one dominant eye, leaving them blind to the field on their closed, weak-side eye. It was OK when you had a spotter next to you, but when you were alone, it made you vulnerable. He could spot with one eye and check the field with his other. He was a switch-hitter. And he could work alone.
In the street sixty feet below, the van slowed and he heard the clanking sound of the automatic gate as it rolled back. The reporters crowded toward the entrance and were kept back by a jail guard, who corralled them with outstretched arms. The shitbirds just love the perp walk, he thought. They’d always yell out to the prisoner for some kind of statement. Like what? He’s going to confess right out there on the sidewalk? Shit.
The van passed through the gate and pulled to a stop next to the staircase and he went back to the scope. Red brake lights flashed in the lens. The sun glinted off razor wire as the gate closed. The uniformed driver got out and went to the back, joined by his partner. They opened the van’s rear double doors and out stepped the man. He was dressed in jailhouse orange. Only his wrists were cuffed, so he climbed out easily. He was a big man, over six feet tall, but stood with his back slightly bowed, his thick shoulders rolled forward like a yoke.
He followed the man’s bald head in the crosshairs. All three men disappeared between the van and the staircase, but he kept the scope moving in the anticipated time of their steps. When the white patch of Steven Ferris’s scalp slid into the sight, one hundred and fifty yards away, the shooter took a measured breath. Eight inches up the first step. Eight inches up the second step. The crosshairs were on Ferris’s profile, matching each rise. The shooter heard nothing and felt only the pressure of his index finger on the cold metal of the trigger. When Ferris reached the top step, the jail sergeant took a final drag on his cigarette and flipped it away. He opened the gray door and appeared to look into Ferris’s face and say something. The shooter’s crosshairs were on the prisoner’s right sideburn and Ferris seemed to peer up at the sergeant and mouth the last words he would ever speak.
The rifle recoiled into his shoulder like a firm but playful punch, and he did not have to watch as Ferris sank like a bag of water suddenly cut loose from above. The sniper knew that there was now a hole the size of a dime burrowed into the man’s brain, the bullet killing him before he could even blink at its impact.
“Smoke check,” he whispered.
don’t know why I always have to open my big mouth,” Nick whispered to himself.
It wasn’t because he didn’t know better. He’d been in the newspaper business for a dozen years, had read the same old stuff a thousand times, let it get under his skin and then popped off to some senior editor and gotten his own ass in trouble again. It wasn’t that he forgot the lessons, just that he was too foolish to heed them.
“Good morning, Nick,” Deirdre Smith, the city editor, said as she slid past him to get into her own office door. She did not make eye contact. She knew better than to make eye contact. It was one of the lessons
never forgot. Instead she stowed her purse, tapped the spacer key on her computer, which was always booted up, and avoided him even though he filled up her doorway, standing there with the metro page in his fist, leaning into the frame. After tapping a few keys to see how many e-mails she had to answer and probably wishing to God he would just go away, she finally sat down in her chair, elbows on the desk, hands clasped under her chin. “How can I help you, Nick?”
Management training, he thought:
Ask if you may assist the employee in some manner. Let them know that you are a partner and that you are there to help them.
She smiled her fake smile. He reflected it back with one of his own.
“Man, I hope it wasn’t you who changed the lead paragraph in my story last night, Deirdre,” Nick said and then laid—didn’t toss, but laid—the front page of the section down in front of her. In retrospect, it wasn’t the best way to start. But he was proud of himself for the not-tossing part.
She picked up the paper as if she didn’t know which story he was talking about and pretended to read it for a few seconds.
“Well, first of all, it was a great story, Nick. And it got lots of raves in the morning editors’ meeting,” she said from behind the page. “We all really liked that detail you put in about the number of cigarette butts in his ashtray by the BarcaLounger. You’ve got such a great eye, Nick.”
More management training.
If possible, compliment the employee on a task well done before addressing problems with job performance.
“But yes, I did do some tinkering. I thought you missed a major point, which you mentioned much deeper in the story, about this guy’s military past,” she said, looking into his face with that cardboard smile. “I thought it belonged in the lead.”
Nick took a breath and looked at the bulletin board behind her desk and then quoted from memory the deadline story he’d filed the night before:
“ ‘Despondent over the loss of his job as a longtime city park manager, a Dania man killed his wife and two teenage children Wednesday and then patiently waited, chain-smoking cigarettes, until police arrived before firing a shotgun under his own chin, authorities said.’ ”
The city editor glanced up at him with an obvious look of mock confusion wrinkled into her brow. It only pissed him off more, and she knew it. He took the paper from her desk, rattled it as he read.
“‘In a grisly display of firepower, a former Vietnam commando killed his wife and children with a pistol Tuesday and then as police arrived fired a shotgun into his own face, officials said.’ ”
The editor laced her fingers and cocked her head, just so.
“I think this version is a bit punchier, Nick.”
“Punchy? Christ, Deirdre,” he said, losing it again. “This was a domestic murder-suicide. The guy used an old Colt revolver and a shotgun for bird hunting, not an AR16.
“He fought in Vietnam thirty goddamn years ago! You think I didn’t look it up? He was honorably discharged. The guys down at the VA clinic never heard of him. None of the VFW support groups did. His neighbors had known him forever. The city employed him for the last dozen years and then fired his entire department. He wasn’t some psycho dressed in camouflage creeping the suburban hedges for North Vietnamese regulars. He got downsized and lost it. Why put in that veteran of Vietnam stuff? You guys love that knee-jerk shit. This had nothing to do with Vietnam or his military record.”
This time he flipped the paper back onto her desk.
The city editor just looked over her folded hands at him, eyes still bright, eyebrows still high like they’d been painted on in the happy department at Mattel. She never argued with reporters. The newsroom was not for arguing anymore.
“Was Mr. Madison,” she said, looking at the paper, “a Vietnam veteran?”
Nick said nothing.
“Was he armed with two guns?”
He stayed silent, knew what was coming.
“Did the authorities attribute the killings to him?”
This time she waited.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Then we printed the truth, Nick. You can ask the staff attorney upstairs. That’s our obligation.”
He bit the inside of his cheek, working to keep his mouth shut, when one of the assistant news editors stuck his head inside the door and said, “Excuse me for intruding. Uh, Nick, we got a shooting over at the jail. We gotta get you out there. Somebody said it might have been some kind of escape attempt.”
Nick nodded and looked back to the city editor.
“Death calls,” he said, turning to go.
“Nick,” she said, stopping him as he started through the door.
“Larry Keller called me this morning from over at the courthouse,” she said, lowering her eyes, her voice going quiet. She wasn’t good at being emotional. “He told me that Robert Walker was released early from the Lee County road prison last week.”
When she looked up it was Nick who turned his face away.
There was a tightening of lips, a clench in jaw muscle that he knew could transform his face into a portrait of anger, frustration and guilt all at once. He’d seen it in the mirror after Keller had called him first with the news as a courtesy.
“I’m sorry, Nicky,” Deirdre said.
Nick took a couple of deep breaths, through his nose, not wanting her to notice. He knew sympathy was not her strong suit, and it wasn’t in him anymore to accept it. People in the newsroom knew about the deaths of his wife and daughter. They knew that he had been sent as a breaking news reporter to cover yet another fatal car wreck, only to arrive at the scene and recognize his own family van. They never brought it up. He never brought it up.
“Do you need some time off?” she said. “A couple of days?”
“I had a year off, Deirdre,” Nick said, sounding sharper than he meant to. “I need to get back to work.”
“That’s what I thought,” she said and then turned back to her screen, dismissing him with her shoulder.
Nick stopped at the open door, shook his head and let a grin pull at the side of his mouth. He turned back, unwilling to let her get a leg up on him.
“That lead change still sucked,” he said. The city editor just raised her hand and flicked at him with her extended fingers.
South Florida Daily News
city room is a huge expanse of open space divided only by waist-high partitions. From above it must look like one of those rat mazes. Nick figured the idea of offices without walls was to elicit both a sense of personal space and open communication and camaraderie. Shared goals and all that. The designers probably didn’t figure in the nascent e-mail culture. Now most of the gossip and innuendo and communication happened on the wires that ran through the ceiling and connected to every computer. Reporters never massed at the coffee machine or at one guy’s desk to discuss strategy or to make fun of some management decision to create a “shopping mall reporter” position. Now everyone kept their heads down and whispered through the wire. Scorn to the guy who stood up and voiced an opinion out loud. The heads were particularly low as he left the city editor’s office, a sure sign the others had heard his voice bombing the boss, some with embarrassment, a couple with pride and a few more hoping he’d get canned so they could apply for his crime beat. By the time he made it back to his pod, an assignment editor was already waiting for him.
“Nick, you probably ought to get over to the jail. They’re saying a guard was shot by some inmates trying to break out.”
“Yeah, I heard,” he said, sitting down at his desk and picking up the phone. When the guy nodded and walked away, Nick waited until he was gone and then put the phone down. He pushed his chair back and pulled his wallet from his pocket and flipped it open to the photograph. His girls. The twins when they were still in elementary school, ribbons of different colors in their hair. His wife, smiling, like only she could, long ago, before that look of pure happiness in their marriage began to fade. His eyes blurred, only for a second. Deirdre knew Walker was the man driving the car that killed Nick’s family, and the visage of the man strolling free in the streets rose in his head and Nick snapped the wallet shut. “You won’t just walk away,” he whispered and took out his own cell phone.
Nick punched in the cell number of the sheriff’s communications desk sergeant, whom he had known for years. They always spoke cell to cell, both of them wary, and both of them knowing that their organizations could easily track their calls in and out of their respective buildings. Nick never wanted to put his sources at risk, or let his own people know what he knew until it was time.
While he waited, a photo editor hurried up to his desk. “Nick, you going over to the jail? We got a photographer over there already who was staking out some perp walk. Now we hear they’ve got an officer down and the guards are beating the hell out of the prisoners who are trying to heist a van in the sally port.”
“Yeah,” Nick said, waiting for the sergeant to click on his cell phone. The editor nodded and hustled away. Nick was shaking his head. News was always nothing but gossip until you checked it out, but even the so-called professionals were still human and loved that need to know something first and then go spread it. The chirping in Nick’s ear stopped.
“Yo, Nick. A little slow on the uptake these days, heh?” Sergeant Jim Langford’s voice announced on the other end of the line.
“Hey, Sarge,” Nick said. He’d never blocked the caller I.D. on his cell, wanting his contacts to choose whether to answer or not. It always gave them the option of an unspoken
“What’s jumping? The rumors are flying that one of your own might have been wounded over at the jail.”
“Shit, Nicky. Would I sound so bright and bushy-tailed if it was one of ours? Hell, no. Somebody made a hit on some pervert who was being transferred in for court. Prisoner was dead before he hit the ground, from what I hear.”
“No shit?” Nick said, scratching down Langford’s words on an empty notepad in front of him. “The word rolling through here was that a guard got hit.”
“Ha! Donny Strock was standing right next to the guy and caught a little blood splatter, but according to the boys down there, the shooter got what he wanted, one clean head shot, and that was it.”
“Where was it, Jim?” Nick said, trying to see the scenario in his head. He was familiar with the layout of the jail and the attached courthouse. “This wasn’t some kind of Jack Ruby thing, was it?”
“No. No. It was outside, Nicky. Just as they were walking this asshole up the steps to the rear intake door. The security gate back there was already closed. It was a long-distance shooter is what the guys said.”
Nick knew from covering too many perp walks the layout of the jail’s sally port. They always kept the reporters and photographers out on the sidewalk. The automatic gate was always closed before the bus or van guards even opened the doors and led the prisoners out.
“Any I.D. on the dead guy, Sarge?” he said.
“You ain’t quoting me, right, Nicky?”
“Have I ever?”
“I hear it was that asshole who raped those two little girls a few years ago and then killed them when they threatened to tell,” he said and then went silent, trying to remember the name, just like Nick was.
“Come to think of it, that was probably one of your stories, wasn’t it? The woman was homeless and sleepin’ in the park?”
The communications guys were notorious for scanning the newspapers for crime stories, mostly to laugh at how the department put out the news versus the way they knew it really went down. Since Nick talked to them every day, they especially liked to stick him when he got it wrong. They also paid attention when he got it right.
It didn’t take Nick three seconds to come up with the name of the killer: Steven Ferris.
“Yeah,” Nick said. “He was one of mine.”
“Well, somebody just saved the taxpayers some money. We’ll be toasting the shooter over at Brownie’s tonight.”
“Have one for me, Sarge,” Nick said. “And thanks.”
Nick hung up the phone, stuck a pad into his back pocket and started for the elevators, synapses clicking, trying to set up the scene in his head. One of the most notorious pedophiles and child murderers in area history had been assassinated on the jailhouse steps. How do you play that? It was bound to go out on the front page. He remembered the reaction to his stories three years ago, the fear in the neighborhoods. Schoolgirls swept off the street and killed on their way home. People would remember. Nick was going to have to put Robert Walker aside, shift him into that corner in his head where he had been festering for all these months. Nick had just begun to believe that he could control him, keep him back in that dark spot. But now Walker was out walking the streets and the memory was loose.
He stopped at the assistant city editor’s desk on the way out.
“I’m going over to the scene. It’s a shooting, but my source says that no guards or cops were hurt,” Nick said. “It might have been a prisoner. I’ll call you guys when I find out something definite.”
“No cop-shooting?” the editor said, letting a tinge of disappointment slip into the question.
“No jailbreak?” The guy was hoping at least for plan B.
Nick was walking away.
“I’ll call you guys when I find out something factual.” He thought he was being nice. OK. Maybe he did emphasize the word