With my last post, I was deep in the heart of writing the ninth Captain Arlon Stoddard novel, Dead Ringers, and as I write this, I’m deep in the heart of writing the seventh Cole Wright novel (as yet untitled), which shows that I go too long between posts here.
With “Cold Highway” the first Cole Wright novella out on November 20th, and the sixth novel Zero Kills out on December 20th, it’s a busy time for my little thriller series. I figure why not make it a little busier with another Cole Wright story free to read here for a few days.
Stay tuned for more news – another free story in December, and plans for Cole Wright and other series next year.
“Cold Highway” is available for pre-order now. $3.99 ebook / $10.99 print.
Cardinals – blurb
Lieutenant Ione Anders of the Spokane Police Department stares at a blade jutting from one of the tires on her new issue vehicle.
Looks like the start of another one of those days.
A day that proves full of surprises.
A Cole Wright story with a difference, putting him right there in the action as he tags along.
Cover illustration © Constantin Opris | Dreamstime.
“Cardinals” will also be out as an ebook and in print, usual thing of $2.99 and $5.99, since it’s just a short story.
But in the meantime, free to read below.
Lieutenant Ione Anders of the Spokane Police Department stared at the blade sticking from the rear tire on her new issue Tahoe.
It was a hunting knife, with a black leather grip and a short cross guard at the base of the hilt. A steel butt.
Buried in the rubber to halfway along the blade.
The tire was flat, the rim crushing it to the tarmac at the curb.
The day was bright and cool. One of those fall mornings that are enlivening and refreshing. The street was in Willow Heights, one of the mid to low end suburbs. The plain clapboard houses were separated by wire fences, with the occasional white picket. Kids left their bicycles in the front yards and leaves were everywhere.
Old, fat-trunked plane trees lined the street, their roots pushing up the grass on the verge. From a block or so away came the drone and crackle of a lawnmower.
Closer, the whistling chirp of a bird. Anders glimpsed red feathers.
Old Ford Tauruses and Toyota Corollas and similar vehicles were parked along the curb, both sides, ahead and behind Anders’s vehicle. Some were well-looked after, but others had rust points and peeling laminate and cracked windshields.
A newer vehicle swept by. A Lexus. Moving a little fast for a suburban street. Anders noted the plate number. Force of habit.
She had two takeout coffees in a cardboard carrier, and she set it on the Tahoe’s roof. Two blocks away some enterprising college kids had set up a coffee spot in an old food cart. Espresso Willow. They staffed it on rotation, only open early in the morning. Their trade was roaring, between locals walking to the bus and their friends. The area was popular for less expensive accommodation for students.
Anders glanced up at the house facing the Tahoe. A two-story place with a tiny front stoop. The ageing carport on one side was empty, save for a couple of local recycling and trash wheelie bins and a stack of firewood. The occupant, Cole Wright, didn’t currently own a car.
The upstairs windows on his room were still drawn, so he was still in bed. Ah, the life of the idle.
Another couple of minutes she was going to have to wake him. He might even help with changing the tire.
The Tahoe was only a couple of months old. Black police livery, with the Spokane decals on the sides, light pack across the roof and crash bars at the front.
When she was behind the wheel, the thing purred and drove like it was riding on air. She’d gotten lucky to have the use of it. The department’s vehicle renewal plan was falling behind, because money.
Now she was going to have to call this in. She was on late starts right now, working eleven AM to seven PM. It took some getting used to, but shifts were part and parcel of being a cop.
She photographed the blade with her phone, using several angles. There was a manufacturer’s mark on the butt. Two stamped in letters. ST. Probably no use in helping to figure out who’d done the deed.
Could be tough to get a decent set of prints off that leather hilt too.
It wasn’t like a planned and pre-meditated thing. Plenty of people around here didn’t have much love for cops, despite the work the police did in the community to try to have a helpful and friendly profile.
All that good work of family park barbeques and bouncy castles and arm wrestling got undone the moment you took someone’s uncle away for dealing meth.
This knife in the tire was more spontaneous. A crime of opportunity. Intended as a little retribution inconvenience. Something they knew wouldn’t be worth pursuing.
And still, she had to call it in. It would take ten, maybe fifteen minutes to get the tire changed. Then she’d have to drop the vehicle at the workshop to get the stabbed tire replace.
“Hey,” someone called from behind.
“Wright,” she said, turning. “Nice neighborhood you’ve picked to live in.”
Wright was a former Seattle cop. He’d quit and become semi-itinerant. He’d settle in Spokane for a little while, then get itchy feet, toss in his lease and catch a bus somewhere. Somehow able to stretch his pension and odd jobs into enough cash for it all.
He was taller than her, by a little, which was nice. He always smelled good. Today he had stubble which, though she would never admit it, was kind of attractive. In a swarthy, rugged way.
Kind of guy most women would be pleased to see show up when they had a tire to change.
“They’re all nice neighborhoods,” he said. He was wearing jeans and a white tee shirt, with a dark blue plaid shirt over the top. Tan MacMillan boots on his feet. He needed to dress more warmly.
“Sure,” Anders said. “All nice neighborhoods. Just with a little work to do in some.”
Wright smiled. It was police courtesy to ‘manage your languaging’ around how you referred to certain sections of town. Like that stupid old adage, there are no strangers only friends we haven’t met yet.
“I saw it,” he said. “I saw who put a blade through your tire’s heart.”
Somewhere nearby a dog started barking. Didn’t let up.
“You saw it?” Anders said. “You saw it and you didn’t stop them.”
“No time. I was in the house.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder toward the big downstairs front windows. A leadlight hummingbird hung there, right in the center, blue and green.
“You were in the house?” Anders said.
“Sure. I was having breakfast. Cheerios. With milk. Young woman strolls by. She’s got a Kroger’s bag with maybe some groceries. She looks around. Races off up the street. She’s back a minute later. Wearing a black hoodie. She has another good look around. Doesn’t see me, I guess. Too much reflection from the glass, maybe. She stabs the tire and she flees.”
“Again, you didn’t think to stop her?”
“It all happened so fast.”
“She had time to go fetch the knife.”
Wright smiled. “I thought she’d just left. I didn’t imagine that she would come back with a knife. Besides, I’m retired, remember. You don’t like it when I, and I quote, ‘take the law into my own hands’.”
Anders pursed her lips and nodded.
“So then,” she said, turning and reaching for the coffees. She gave him one.
“So then?” Wright said. He took a sip and licked his lips. “Thanks.”
“So then, you can help in an advisory way.”
“Like advising on changing the tire?”
“Funny,” she said. “That too. First, though, you can tell me where she went.”
Wherever it was, the lawnmower shut off. From farther away came the vague growl of traffic. A gust ran along the street of Tauruses and Corollas, lifting leaves, sending them tumbling and rustling for the curbing.
Anders took out her phone and swiped and called in to the department. She got Casey, the guy who’d been running the front desk for the last couple of weeks. Fresh out of college with a forensics degree. The guy was a chatterbox and would make a dreadful cop, but there was some hope that he might train up well for the coroner’s office.
“Ione!” he said, though it should have been ‘Lieutenant’. He did have a certain enthusiasm.
Anders quickly explained the situation. That she would be in once they’d switched out the tire and gone to check on a suspect.
“You said ‘we’,” Casey said. “Are you with another officer? I thought you weren’t on duty yet.”
“I’m, um, taking an advisor.”
“Is it that Wright guy? You’ve been seeing him haven’t you? Getting serious.”
Anders rolled her eyes. Wright saw it and smiled.
“Please, Casey,” Anders said. “Just make a note that I’ll be in a little late on account of someone vandalizing the Tahoe’s tire.”
“Got that. I’ll do an APB.”
“No, Casey. Just a note on the duty roster, please.”
“Sure. Will do. And, by the way, I was kidding about the APB.”
Anders hung up.
“New recruit?” Wright took another sip of his coffee.
“Office guy. Now. Come show me where she went when she got the blade.”
“You’re leaving it here?” Wright said. “At least bag it.”
“I know procedure.” In her waist satchels she had gloves and an evidence bag. But that bag was too small for this blade. Assuming that half of it was hidden within the tire.
Still, she got the bag and shook it out. She put on a glove and crouched to the blade.
“You got that?” Wright said, still standing back from the curb.
“You bet.” She put her gloved hand on the grip and tugged on it. The blade didn’t budge. She tugged again, putting more force into it.
She put her free hand onto the Tahoe’s body, right above the tire. Tugged again. Gritted her teeth.
It felt like Wright’s eyes were boring into her back. She worked the knife back and forth. It came out a little.
She turned, about to say you want to have a try, buster? almost ready to give in.
But he wasn’t even looking at her.
He’d taken a step away from the car and was staring up the street.
“Be back in a second,” he said. He stepped around her and put the coffee on the Tahoe’s roof, right where it had been when he’d come out of the house.
“What?” she said.
But he was gone, heading away at a fast walk. He disappeared around the Tahoe’s hood.
Anders cursed. She grabbed the blade again.
She twisted it. Worked it back and forth.
Once it started moving, it got easier. In moments she had it out.
She put it hilt-first into the bag. Opened the Tahoe’s door. Tossed the bag in.
Slammed the door. Locked it.
She went after Wright, peeling the glove off as she went.
A guy in athletic clothes was running along the opposite sidewalk. Loose shorts, Nikes without socks on his feet, gray Rangers tee shirt. Phone in his hand and buds in his ears.
He glanced Anders’s way, but didn’t slow. His feet set up a constant rhythm on the sidewalk.
She’d lost track of Wright for the moment. Somewhere ahead. Across the street from her Tahoe.
She crossed the verge and reached the sidewalk. It was uneven and cracked. Old, tired concrete.
There was Wright, three houses up. Walking right on the roadside edge of the sidewalk. Walking fast.
“Wright,” Anders said. “Hold up.”
But he didn’t turn. He stopped at the gate to the next house along. Called out to someone.
Wright wasn’t at the front walk, he was at the far corner of the property. Whoever he’d called to was hidden by the house.
Wright inclined his head. Listening.
Anders was still two houses back. Walking fast herself. No need to run.
You ran when the threat was imminent. Walked most other times. She had friends who were paramedics who explained some of that. Walk from the ambulance to the patient. It might be urgent, but you have to ensure you don’t get hurt yourself. If whatever injured the patient is still a threat, you need to avoid that. And if not, if you’re hurrying you might turn an ankle. Then you have more patients.
Wright took a step closer to the property. Another step.
Came right up against the low wire fence. Called out something again.
Then he moved.
Dropped his coffee.
Vaulted the fence. Sprinted across the front yard.
Vanished behind the house.
Anders started running.
Dead leaves crunched underfoot as Anders ran. Farther along the street, someone retrieving groceries from their car stared at her. Paper sacks under each arm. Eyes wide.
This wasn’t a great neighborhood, but it was still a surprise to see a cop running.
Anders didn’t vault the fence as Wright had done. She went through the open gate. Missing gate. The square of steel tubing with cyclone wire lay on the ground with grass growing through.
There were more leaves strewn across the lawn. And a fallen tricycle. A baseball bat and ball. A catcher’s mitt on the house’s front step.
It was a single story place. Gray-white. Not too run down, but in need of a paint job.
Anders reached the corner.
Where Wright had gone.
She slowed. Looked around.
She ran on. There was a narrow strip of half-dead grass along the side, with more of the wire fencing, then the neighbor’s rough concrete driveway. An old Ford pickup parked in the carport there.
Anders reached the back of the house. Slowed again.
No one in the back yard.
Three cars parked there. Non-descript twenty-year old Japanese things. Only one looked like it was in running order.
The back of the property was overgrown with what looked like brambles. A trampoline with half of its springs hanging down. Crates and gas cylinders. Someone at least had mown the grass out here, even if it had been without a catcher.
Where had gone?
Anders crouched to peer under the cars. No one. She moved on, heading for the trampoline.
“Come on Wright,” she whispered. “It’s just slashed tire. These things happen. It’s not worth it.”
She edged on past the trampoline. The air was thick with the scent of the grass and tangle of vegetation. It was bracken, with blackberry all twisted within. Still some of the glistening berries hanging on the spikey vines.
Real easy to let that get out of hand. You could cut it back to the ground and by next year it would have sprouted back from the roots and be almost as big.
Anders looked side to side, along and across the other properties. Better maintain. On the left, there was a clipped pine hedge, and on the other, a six foot wooden fence, gray with age.
Where had he gone?
Anders turned back to the house.
She sighed. He hadn’t gone inside had he?
Nice guy. Smart. Rugged.
But he could be impetuous. Not thinking things through.
As she started back toward the house, starting to think through the next step, the back door burst open.
A kid ran out.
In a black hoodie.
The girl came to a stop. Staring at Anders.
A tawny cat appeared from hiding. It leapt onto the hood of one of the parked cars in the back yard. The cat began licking its paw.
On the grass, just out from the house’s back door, the girl faced Anders. Couldn’t have been more than fourteen. Black hair and brown eyes. A mole on her left cheek. Her hoodie was a size too big.
“Hold up,” Anders said.
“He’s going to kill everyone,” the girl said. She took off again. Running around the other side of the house from where Anders had come. Along the driveway.
Anders headed after her, but slowed near the back door.
It was open.
Someone was shouting from inside.
And with that, a calmer voice.
Anders cursed again.
She unclipped her holster. Put her right hand on the grip of her standard issue Glock.
She stepped right up to the open back door.
“Hey guy,” someone said. Male. Sounded young. “C’mon. This none your biz anyhow.”
“It’s my business,” Wright said, “if I say it’s my business.”
Another curse slipped from Anders’s lips.
The guy just had to go ahead and do his own thing.
Anders stepped right up to the top hardwood of the door frame. The door itself was a simple thing. Three glass panels with a chromed handle and a brass deadlock below.
“Don’t make trouble you can’t end,” the unidentified male said.
There was silence for a moment. Easy to imagine the guy sloped on an old sofa, Wright standing over him.
The doorway led to a hallway through the house. Two rooms at the back, a laundry on the left, with a door that led through to a kitchen. On the right, what could have been someone’s bedroom. Anders couldn’t see well enough. Not from outside.
“I’m just the middle guy.” The guy was kind of whiny. I don’t do anything.”
Whiny could make sense. Wright could be intimidating.
“You don’t do anything?” Wright said. “So what’s all this?”
“It’s not anything. Here. Take this. Walk out. All of this is forgotten. Easy.”
Something thumped quietly.
Anders saw it. A small package. White. Taped up.
The hallway opened into the living room, halfway along the house. Or the dining room. The carpet was a dark maroon. Threadbare in places.
The package lay there on the rough carpet.
“C’mon man,” the whiny guy said. “Someone’s going to get real mad over what you did to Sammy.”
Drugs. Anders took a breath. Reasonable suspicion.
“Sammy,” Wright said, “did that to himself.”
Anders took her weapon from the holster. Right hand on the grip. Finger on the trigger guard. Left hand on top. Steadying.
She stepped into the house.
The house smelled of baking. As if someone was running a bread maker, or had just come back from the bakery with baguettes and cob loaves. The place hardly felt like a baguette and cob loaf place.
More like discount sliced white bread.
The ceiling were paneled, with a couple of panels askew. Anders peered into the bedroom, as she went by. Unmade bed–mattress without a base–with a rumpled quilt and pillow fallen onto the floor. Pringles and Doritos packs, empty, lying around. A poster on the wall of Thirty Seconds of Summer, the boy band looking shiny and young.
The laundry had a machine with the lid up. A box of laundry powder on the windowsill, sagging at the bottom as if it had become waterlogged.
Anders continued along. She kept the gun down. Aimed at the floor.
“Police,” she said. “Put your hands up. Set down any weapons.”
There was another door on the right, before the hallway opened out into the living room.
Ahead of her, in the living room, Wright stepped back into view. He had his hands up.
“They’re unarmed,” he said. “But come take a look.”
Anders relaxed. She kept the gun in hand, but lowered it even more. She dropped her left hand to her side.
“What’s going on?” she said, continuing on.
“You’ll see,” he said, with a vague smile.
As Wright turned away someone burst from the next room in the hallway.
Another kid. In a black hoodie.
He barreled straight at Anders. Shoulders down.
He was bigger than she was. He grabbed her around the waist.
Like a linebacker sacking the quarterback.
Anders twisted back. Turned with the tackle.
Most important thing was to keep hold of the gun.
She slapped the wall with her left hand. Dropped her right shoulder.
As they went down, she brought her right knee up.
Right between the kid’s legs.
She didn’t connect.
He was a weight on top of her. Couldn’t have been more than sixteen, but he must have weighed somewhere north of one eighty.
She was closer to one twenty. He had half again her mass.
“Hey!” Wright called from somewhere.
Then, his loud footsteps.
But Anders had this.
She squirmed. Jerked her shoulder around. Pushed off the wall with her left foot.
Flipped the guy over.
It wasn’t so much a matter of body weight. More about leverage.
The kid struggled. Lying face down now, with Anders on top.
Holstered the gun. Whipped out her cuffs. Grabbed his left hand with hers. Flicked the cuffs into place.
Yanked the arm up his back.
The kid squealed.
“Take it easy,” she said. “Relax. This won’t go so bad.”
He tried to roll over. Anders moved her right knee onto his back.
“You’re under arrest,” she said. “Assaulting a police officer.”
She grabbed his right arm. Brought it around. Cuffed the wrist.
Stepped away from him.
He rolled then, wincing as he came onto his cuffed hands.
And it wasn’t a male at all.
She squinted hard at Anders. Dark hair and eyes. Had to be the other one’s sister.
Wright came up beside them.
“She’s the one I saw,” he said. “Sticking the knife into your tire.”
Anders followed Wright along the hallway. The second room, where the linebacker girl had come from, was another bedroom. Smaller than the other. Bed with no base, Oreos wrappers on the floor, with MacDonald’s boxes and shake cups.
The drapes were drawn.
“I came in through the front room window,” Wright said. “I saw the sister clambering through. She was quick. Raced on out the back.”
“I saw her go.”
“Sorry about the other one,” he said. “I should have checked all the rooms before you came in.”
“You didn’t know I was coming. What have we got here?” Anders had her gun out again. One-handed. Down at her side.
Opposite the door was another poster. The Grand Canyon, standing stark and deep, the layered brown rocks carved away, with the blue twist of the Colorado River below. The top right pin had popped out and that corner was rolled down.
In the living room, there were two men.
One, in jeans and a torn tee shirt, lying back on the sofa, legs out under a wooden coffee table. Slouched any more and her would have been lying down.
Windows above his head faced out across the driveway to the house next door.
The other man was sprawled out too, but on the floor. Face down. Limbs akimbo.
The guy on the sofa stared at Anders.
On the table were more packages. Taped up. There were addresses written on them. Sacramento, Yuma, Jacksonville.
“Sheesh,” Anders said as she crouched to the guy on the floor. She reached for her phone. “We really need backup.”
“Hold on,” Wright said.
“Hey cop,” the guy on the sofa said. “You going to–“
“Quiet,” Anders said. “You have the right to remain silent. I’m sure you know that.”
“He hit Sammy! Knocked him out cold.”
Sammy was out cold, that was for sure.
“Wright,” Anders said. “You can’t just go hitting people. Even if they’re drug dealers. And I’m sure you know that.”
“We’re not drug dealers!” the guy on the sofa said.
Anders looked at him. He must think she was an idiot.
“They’re not drug dealers,” Wright said. “And I didn’t hit him. Same as the young woman back there rushed you, Sammy here rushed me. Too bad for him that he hit my elbow.”
Wright tapped his left elbow.
“Went right into his eye,” Wright said. “Jerked his neck back. I say better not move him. He is breathing.”
“Just!” the guy on the sofa said.
“Stay out of it,” Anders said.
The guy muttered some epithet under his breath.
Anders stood. “We need paramedics for him. I need a couple of cruisers here for these guys.”
“Give me your phone,” Wright said. “I’ll call it in. But follow me. You’re in for a treat.”
The smell of baking was stronger as Anders followed Wright out of the living room and along the hallway. It led to the front door, which had multiple locks on it. Two more rooms, one on either side. Light streaming in from one, the other dark.
A Kroger’s bag is by the front door. The end of baguette sticking out. Anders smiled. Clearly she had misjudged the residents.
Wright stepped into the darkened room.
“This is where I came in,” he said. He reached up and turned on the light.
Tables on the front and back walls. Shelves either side of the windows. The curtains were closed but moved in the wind. This would be where Wright had come in. Following the girl who’d stabbed the tire.
The front table was piled with tee shirts. Black, blue, red, white. A few green, and a few in pastels. All very plain. The scent of dye hung in the air.
“Brand new,” she said.
The shirts were unfolded and had that flat, even look of something freshly made.
The shelves had boxes with more. And there were more boxes under the tables. A knife like the one that had gone into her tire lay on top of one of the boxes, clearly used for slitting the tape.
“Here,” Wright said.
At the end was some odd kind of printer. Blocky with handles on the side. A laptop plugged into it. An image on the laptop’s screen.
Cardinals. With the stylized sweep, and the red head of a cardinal bird. Almost cartoonish. Looking serious. Threatening.
“The packages aren’t drugs,” Wright said.
“How much do you pay for a franchise shirt from your favorite team?”
Anders shrugged. “I don’t own any. I don’t have a favorite team.”
Wright smiled. “Forty, fifty bucks, I would guess. Licensed merchandise. All this–” he swept his arm around the room “–is unlicensed merchandise. Someone in Florida wants a Dolphins shirt, but doesn’t want to pay the premium, they order from these guys. They grab an image from the net, use this thing to print onto the shirt. Ship it out.”
“They’re probably getting the shirts at a dollar piece,” Anders said. “Ink’s expensive, but… well, even with shipping, they must be making a tidy profit. Sell the shirt for twenty.”
“In a nutshell.”
Anders shook her head. “That always intrigues me. The money from the licenses supports the team. Those people might earn millions, but, still, if they’re your favorite team, why steal from them, in effect.”
From outside came the sound of a siren.
“How often,” Wright said, “have you been able to fathom the criminal mind?”
Anders closed her eyes and took a breath.
“Never. And every time I see something like this, I get further from being able to fathom it at all.”
“I know it.”
The siren shut off.
“Come on,” Anders said. “Let’s go fill these guys in. Then you and me, we’ve got a coffee date.”
“We do?” he said with a wry smile.
“Sure we do. Remember? I was bringing you coffee.”
“I do remember. So, let’s go do that.” Wright stepped by her.
Anders looked around the room. The ingenuity was impressive.
From the front door came the sound of the locks disengaging.
Anders turned and followed Wright out.
Coffee. And, they still had a tire to change.
Well, that was an all right start to the day.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed “Cardinals”. Feel free to say hi in the comments. Always nice to hear from readers.