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Iron Angels: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Friday, July 14, 2017 20:15 EDT



    In the full light of day, the Euclid Hotel looked just like all the other abandoned buildings in the northwestern part of Indiana. Not crumbling — they were mostly made of brick and solidly built — but forlorn; the brick faded, and black lines streaking from letters in the masonry.

    Crime scene tape had been placed across all the obvious entrance points. They went around to the rear, where they had entered the night before. Jasper pulled back at the sight of two East Chicago police standing guard.

    “There’re still people in there going over the crime scene?” Jasper asked. They stared back at him blankly.

    “Guys,” Pete said, appearing through the trees, weeds and bushes, “answer the man. He’s not exactly one of us, but he’s Bureau.”

    “Oh, sorry, sir,” one of the young policemen said to Pete. They looked so impossibly young, reminding Jasper of the young Marine guards at Quantico where the FBI Academy was housed. He’d been one of those Marines once, but had he ever looked so young and green?

    “Don’t call me ‘sir.’ Just tell us what’s going on here.”

    “We’re the ones who rescued that girl last night,” Jasper said.

    “Down there.” Pete glanced at the ground, as if the girl had been in hell, and perhaps she had.

    Their radios clicked as one of the police opened his mouth:

    “Abandoned vehicle on Gary Avenue near Cline, possibly stolen. Requesting one unit to investigate the scene. Vehicle is an SUV parked along the south side of the road near the animal control facility. Dark-colored, late model, exact make unspecified.”

    “Hey,” Pete said, “want to check that out? It’s close by.”

    Jasper shrugged. “Sure.”

    “Advise dispatch we’re checking it out.”

    Both policemen nodded.

    Jasper and Pete rolled to the scene of the abandoned SUV in their respective vehicles in less than five minutes. They passed by the tank farm and most of a nearby asphalt plant before they reached it. The SUV was on the opposite side of Gary Avenue from the asphalt plant and just before the entrance to the animal control center. The center was down a driveway, across a railroad track and behind a screen of trees and tall grass. It was barely visible from the road.

    The abandoned vehicle was a dark green 2012 Chevy Equinox bearing Illinois tags sitting off the road and well onto the shoulder. The driver’s side door was open.

    Jasper got out of his bucar and approached Pete’s driver’s side window, which was already down by the time Jasper reached the door.

    “Just called in the tags,” Pete said.

    “Think it was stolen? Joy ride perhaps?”


    The radio clicked, and dispatch reported the vehicle was not stolen and the owner of the vehicle had not yet been reported missing.

    “Let’s check out the vehicle first,” Pete said, scratching his chin. “Maybe the owner or driver got sick and wandered into the woods over there.” He nodded toward the animal control facility.

    Jasper didn’t have high hopes for finding the owner of the vehicle nearby. He figured the vehicle had probably been stolen, just not reported yet. He and Pete approached the vehicle, each with their hands resting on their service weapons. That was somewhat unusual, but the previous night had left them both jumpy.

    They peered into the vehicle and saw nothing outwardly suspicious or any sign of foul play. A sport coat lay draped across the passenger seat, folded in half lengthwise. The keys were still in the ignition. A few miscellaneous CDs were in the console along with a few pens, lip balm, a pack of tissues, and curiously, an MP3 player. The vehicle had obviously not been stolen. Neither the coat nor the MP3 player would have remained if that had been the case.

    In fact, Jasper was a little surprised, given the proximity to the rougher areas not too far away, that some random passerby hadn’t stopped and looted the vehicle. Gary Avenue didn’t get a lot of traffic, especially on weekends. He didn’t think the animal control center had anyone working today, either. The gate leading into the facility was closed. He wasn’t sure if that was true of the asphalt plant, but if there was anyone over there they weren’t visible outside.

    Whatever had happened here, in other words, it was quite likely there’d been no witnesses — or if there were, it would have been someone driving by who didn’t pay much attention to a vehicle on the side of the road. The SUV had obviously sat here for some time. The engine was cold, and there were no rattles, ticks, or taps emanating from the mechanical systems cooling. The ground beneath was dry — any drips from the air conditioning system had disappeared.

    “Not stolen,” Pete said.

    “At least not the typical stolen vehicle,” Jasper said. “But yeah, now I’m thinking this wasn’t stolen. Maybe you’re right, the owner or driver got sick.”

    Pete shrugged. “And maybe it broke down and he had a friend pick him up. There are a lot of possibilities.”

    Jasper sat behind the wheel and turned the ignition. The vehicle started without hesitation. “It runs nicely. Any flats?”

    Pete walked around the van. “Nope.”

    While he checked the tires, Jasper opened the sport coat and checked the pockets. A wallet, pen, more lip balm, and another set of keys. “Our friend is a busy guy,” Jasper said. “Or maybe just an optimist.” He tossed a pair of unopened condoms he’d found in a small inside pocket at Pete, who stepped back reflexively allowing them to hit the ground.

    “What’s wrong with you?”

    “They’re not used.”

    “I don’t care.” Pete scrunched up his face. “What’s in the wallet?”

    Jasper opened the black faux leather wallet. “Typical credit and debit cards. A few rewards cards, all bearing the registered owner’s name. There’s a couple hundred in cash.” He checked the slot where pictures would be kept and pulled out a driver’s license. “Great photo,” he said and shook his head. He handed it to Pete.

    “It’s like a villain from that old detective comic strip.”

    “Dick Tracy?”

    “Yeah, that one. This guy would be rubber man or something.”

    “I’m surprised you know those books, Pete. Shoot, I’m surprised I know.”

    “I came across a stack of old papers one time, and snuck them whenever I could.” Pete laughed.

    Jasper had been examining the photo while they bantered. “You’re right about the picture. He is sort of rubbery looking. What they call ‘non-descript,’ too.” He frowned. “He look familiar to you, Pete?”

    “Should he? The answer’s no — never seen him before.”

    “I can’t place it, but there’s a familiarity there.”

    “He could be anyone. We’ve arrested how many people over the years?”

    Jasper sighed. “Doesn’t matter, I suppose.” He tilted his head back, and ran the image through his memory. But Pete was right, they’d arrested hundreds of people and interviewed hundreds more. After a while, names and faces ran together. But this man was so average, and so bland that now he stood out to Jasper.

    The sun had climbed higher into the open sky, which was a dingy blue today. The morning heat threatened misery in the afternoon. Two turkey vultures appeared, or perhaps they’d been up there all along, their black wings forming a shallow vee as they circled a spot closer to the animal control center.

    “You see that?” Jasper asked. “Something is dead or dying over at animal control.”

    “Yeah, maybe the driver is close by after all. Start looking. I’ll call this in and get a squad car over here to assist. Perhaps an ambulance.”



    Jasper got out of the van and walked along the road, scanning the tall grass for any signs of activity and making his way toward the driveway leading into the animal control center. That would be the only way to reach the spot the vultures were circling that didn’t involving fighting his way through the grass — which in some places would be over his head. The buzzing and chattering of insects filled his ears for a moment when the sounds of man disappeared briefly, reminding him of where he grew up, Tennessee, and what people referred to as the country.

    Northwest Indiana was odd, that way. It was basically a heavily populated residential area, with lots of industry and commerce in the mix. Part of the great Chicago metropolis, artificially divided by the state line between Illinois and Indiana. But there were country patches scattered all through it, some of them operating farms and others just stretches of wild prairie and woodlands.

    The weeds and brush gave way to the long driveway leading to the animal control center, and he started down it. After a few yards, he came to a dirt road branching to his right. It was still a little soggy and muddy from the rain a couple of days earlier. He glanced up once more at the vultures and rather than continuing toward the animal control center went down the dirt road.

    The back of his neck itched and a chill shook his body, raising the hair on his arms. Two days in a row.

    A thrumming invaded the stillness that had overcome the road, as if he was nearing a nest of bees. But when he got closer he saw that it was a mass of flies, not bees, making that noise. About twenty-five feet ahead, lying in what appeared to be a puddle, was a large lump of something. At this distance, the thing was hard to make out. A dead animal of some kind, he figured. Big, but certainly not human. The shape was all wrong.

    Jasper came forward slowly. After a couple of steps his hand moved reflexively to his gun’s grip, his thumb on the break, ready to free the weapon from the holster.

    Something wrong was up ahead. Terribly wrong.

    A mound of flesh lay in a puddle of light pink, as if blood had been mixed with water and mud. Bits of white poked through the flesh — pieces of bone, clearly. A horde of insects swarmed over the mound. Jasper swallowed and took a step back, but then two forward, attempting to overcome the fear and the repulsion of the scene. His heart thumped, and his chest felt hollow. Even the two men burning themselves into nothing the previous night didn’t match this horror. Sure, he’d watched them die, but it’d been swift and he doubted they suffered more than a few seconds. This, however — whatever it was — looked like a pile of uncooked, shredded meat. It was more pink than red, laced with bones, and permeated with shriveled organs.

    The pulse magnified in Jasper’s ears, and his vision narrowed. He leaned over, placed his hands on his knees and took a few deep breaths. He’d seen horrible crime scenes over the years, but nothing quite like this.

    He didn’t even understand what he was looking at. An animal? An animal killed by another animal? But if so, what kind? No animal he knew of had a shape like this. More than anything else he could think of, the bloody lump on the ground looked like a slab of halibut he’d once seen in a photograph hanging on the wall of a fishery — but it didn’t really look like that, either.

    A curved piece of bone caught his eye. It took a couple of seconds before his brain could make sense of what he was seeing.

    That was part of a human skull. The front half of one, missing the lower jaw. The edge was sharp, as if somebody — something — had cut straight down with a huge razor, separating the facial bones — what he was looking at — from the back of the skull.

    He retched, but managed not to lose his breakfast.

    A female voice spoke behind him. “Agent Wilde? Zeke Wilde?”

    His heart raced and he jumped, nearly falling over. He swallowed and took a deep breath, then straightened and turned around.

    A smartly dressed black woman stood about twenty feet from him. She was about five and a half feet tall, maybe a little less, judging from the low heels of her shoes. Solidly built; somewhere in her early-to-mid forties, at a guess. Her hair was closely cropped, and he could see a shock of white in the tight curls on both temples. Her skin was quite dark, as were her eyes. Her nose was broad and her lips were full; clearly African-American. She was attractive in appearance, if not exactly pretty. The Navy blue suit she wore matched her looks — well-made if not flashy; sober; businesslike.

    Jasper moved a little, to block her view of the remains. She placed her hands on her hips and cocked her head.

    “Agent Wilde, we need to speak.”

    “What?” Jasper asked, nonplussed by the intrusion. “Zeke? No one calls me that, not even –”

    “You received our phone call, did you not?” she asked. “Special Agent Ravel rang you earlier and informed you we’d be arriving today.”

    Jasper remembered the phone call at his home. “Oh. Right.” He shook his head. “You mean that wasn’t a practical joke? You’re for real, then?”

    “For real?” She had a rather ferocious frown. “Of course I’m for real. I’m Supervisory Special Agent Temple Black.” She stepped forward and offered her hand, but stopped when she got within five feet of Jasper. She’d finally spotted what was lying on the road.

    “I’m not sure, but I think that’s the driver of the vehicle on the side of the road,” Jasper said.

    She spun away and her hands flew to her mouth.

    “And yes, I’m Jasper Wilde. Not Zeke. Now, what are you doing here exactly?”

    A man appeared behind Black, carrying a large case. This would be Agent Ravel, he assumed, the owner of what Jasper had thought was one of the guys at the office doing an Indian impression when he had received the phone call late in the night. But Ravel was obviously of south Asian ancestry. Probably a first generation immigrant, from the trace of accent Jasper had detected.

    “Agent Wilde,” the man said, moving past Black. “Vance Ravel, pleased to meet –” His cheeks puffed and his free hand flew to his mouth, except he wasn’t successful in tamping down his illness. Fortunately, he was able to turn aside before he vomited. He even had the presence of mind to hold the case well away from his body, so it wouldn’t get splattered.

    “I kind of had the same reaction,” Jasper said sympathetically, after Ravel was done and Black had brought herself under control. “God-awful-looking, isn’t it? Now, will someone tell me why you’re out here? Where did you come from and what are you trying to accomplish? It isn’t often we get headquarters people out here on such short notice.”

    “We…” Temple Black took a deep breath. “We need to speak somewhere else. I can’t be anywhere near that and think clearly.” She nodded stiffly toward the pile of meat, blood and bone.

    “Fine,” Jasper said, “but I didn’t invite you over here to begin with. Did you see my partner, Pete Hernandez?”

    “Is he an East Chicago cop? If so, he’s up on the road talking with his buddies.”

    They moved away from the body and toward the driveway leading into the animal control center. Jasper helped Ravel by taking the case from him after a minor protest. The man was still obviously unsettled. “So, who are you guys?”



    “Scientific Anomalies Group,” Black said, staring straight ahead as if embarrassed by the name, or not wanting to go into detail.

    “SAG?” Jasper asked, pronouncing it as an acronym rather than a string of initials. He couldn’t help but laugh. “Really?”

    Black’s jaw tightened. “Look, I didn’t come up with that one. I had some other ideas.”

    Jasper wasn’t surprised. Government bureaucrats could come up with the silliest acronyms, sometimes, because they didn’t stop to think that the proverbial man-in-the-street wasn’t likely to be properly respectful if the acronym spelled out something stupid or offensive. Probably the all-time champion Idiot Acronym had been before his time, during the Nixon administration — the campaign staff morons who came up with Committee to Re-Elect the President. CREEP. But he’d seen some doozies.

    There was no point in ribbing these two agents over it any further, though. So he just said “never heard of it” in as neutral a tone of voice as he could manage.

    “You wouldn’t have,” Ravel said, wiping his mouth with a handkerchief. “It’s new and… ah, we don’t publicize it.”

    “How did you find me?”

    “The cops over at the Euclid Hotel told us you responded to an abandoned vehicle over here,” Black said. “We need to go back over to the hotel.”

    “The little girl was rescued and the investigation is over,” Jasper said, but that was a lie. He just didn’t want headquarters pukes stomping around the crime scene. “By me and my partner over there.” They’d come within sight of Gary Avenue. He pointed toward Pete, who stood by two uniformed cops and was engaged in an animated discussion.

    Black opened her mouth but Jasper held up a cautioning finger.

    “Pete!” he said loudly. “You need to get over here and take a look at what I found down there. It has to be the driver.” Jasper paused a moment. “I warn you, the body isn’t pretty to look at.”

    Pete broke away from the uniformed police, and walked with purpose toward Jasper and the two headquarters people. “They said they were here looking for you,” Pete said, his eyes registering Jasper’s annoyance, and conveying sorry.

    “It’s okay,” Jasper said. “They were just leaving.”

    “SAC Weber already approved this,” Black said.

    Jasper shot her a look he hoped would shut her up, but she went right on. “And furthermore, the Assistant Director — my boss –”

    “Hold it right there,” Jasper said. He focused on Pete. “Take a peek over there at the body. Follow the sound of the flies, you can’t miss it.”

    Pete frowned, and walked off. Jasper turned back to the woman.

    “SSA Black, we do not squabble like that in front of locals, you got me? You may be a headquarters supervisor, but in the field that doesn’t mean squat. And you said Weber approved this? My Special Agent in Charge? That’s a joke. He’s been checked out for a year now; he’d approve anything. He’s pretty much retired-in-place ever since he got the job.”

    Black’s mouth opened again, but closed as if she’d reconsidered her choice of words.

    Ravel stepped forward. “Jasper,” he said, “may I call you that?”

    “It’s better than the alternative.”

    “That’d be what? Jerk?” Temple Black took another deep breath and turned her head. “I’m sorry, it’s already been a long morning –”

    “– and long night,” both Jasper and Vance said at once. Jasper grinned. “Yeah, you called me at oh dark thirty. I didn’t appreciate that.”

    “My apologies,” Vance said. “Listen, we need to discuss what happened last night. When is a good time? We’d also really like to get into that abandoned hotel. We think there is something else going on here. Based on your preliminary report we think it’s serious.” He lifted the case in his hand a few inches. “There’s some equipment in here… Well. We think we could be of use, let’s leave it at that.”

    Black nodded and faced Jasper again. “We should speak with your boss, your immediate boss. This needs to get worked out, but you should finish up here first. That,” she swallowed, “body was a mess and needs to be processed.”

    Heavy breaths came up behind them as they reached the side of the road and their line of vehicles. Pete jogged past them and signaled to the uniformed men who joined him. They then engaged in a spirited conversation.

    “It’s about to get crowded around here,” Jasper said. “I’ll tell you what, if you can wait until mid-afternoon I’ll take you to the Euclid Hotel. I don’t think evidence recovery is going to happen until Monday at that scene, if at all, especially given this new incident.” He cocked his head toward the dirt road where the mangled corpse lay in a pile. “Afterward, I’ll see if we can meet with my boss. But I can’t promise anything, SSA Black. It is the weekend, you know. Exhausted supervisors need their rest.”

    The moment he made the wisecrack he wondered if he’d gone a little too far. But Black just grinned. The expression transformed her face, turning it from something that had seemed overbearing to something good-natured and quite a bit younger. He wasn’t sure, but he had a feeling that expression came more naturally to her than the one he thought of as Supervisory Special Agent Ramrod Up Her Ass.

    “Yeah, I know how that is with some of this new breed of management,” she said. “And call me Temple, would you?”

    Jasper nodded. “Sure. And I’m Jasper.” They’d come up onto Gary Avenue by then and he could see the entire line of vehicles parked there: a police cruiser, his bucar, Pete’s Crown Vic, and two other vehicles, one a rental and the other clearly belonging to a local.

    He frowned. “You only rented one car, right?”

    Temple nodded.

    “Probably a reporter, then,” Jasper said. The person in the vehicle, a middle-aged white man, noticed Jasper’s gaze. The vehicle lurched forward and then spun in a tight turn to head back toward East Chicago proper.

    “Damn! Too far to get a plate.” For a moment, he was tempted to go in pursuit. But by the time he got into his vehicle, the man would be out of sight beyond a bend in the road. And once he got to the junction of Gary and Parrish, a short distance beyond, there were just too many ways he could go.

    “That was a 2009 Ford Fusion with Indiana tags,” Temple said. “Couldn’t make out even a partial on the tags though, sorry.”

    “Well, there’s an outside chance that was the person responsible for the corpse back there,” Jasper said. “But that would have been pretty bold, even for a serial killer who wants to insert himself into an investigation. It was likely just a nosey citizen who got twitchy when he saw me looking at him.”

    “We could run a search based on the parameters of the make and model and color of the vehicle,” Vance said.

    “You’re right,” Jasper said. “I’ll have Pete run it through his folks, since this homicide is likely their investigation anyway. And it’s got to be a homicide, with the corpse looking like that. I can’t think of any kind of accident that would do that sort of damage. Maybe in the middle of a steel mill, but out here?”

    He reached out and shook their hands. “Okay, I’ll meet you two at the Euclid later on? Say seventeen hundred?”

    “That’ll work,” Temple said.

    “Go take a nap or something, and please don’t poke around anywhere. I don’t want to have to bail you guys out of trouble.”

    Temple smiled. Vance nodded, his head bobbing up and down rapidly.

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