The Investigator by John Sandford
ackside of an old brick-and-stucco building on the edge of downtown Tallahassee, Florida, ten o’clock on a muggy evening in early September, a couple weeks before the autumn equinox. The cleaning crew had left, rattling their equipment carts and trash bins across the blacktop to their vans. A few people remained in the building; two cars sat in the parking lot, and there were lighted offices on the second and third floors.
A young woman with crystalline blue eyes and a short brown ponytail sat behind a ragged boxwood hedge, her back against the building’s concrete foundation, a rucksack between her knees. Dressed in black jeans, a black long-sleeved blouse, with a reversible red-black jacket, black side out, she was no more than an undifferentiated dark lump behind the hedge. She could turn the jacket to the red side, if needed, so she wouldn’t appear so obviously camouflaged for the night. A noisome mosquito buzzed her face, looking for an opening; to her left, a vent pooped vaguely fecal odors out of the building.
Piece by piece, one distraction at a time, the young woman cleared her mind; no more odors, no more bugs. She’d hunted for food as a child and she’d learned that a predator created a vibration that other animals could sense. She’d been in every sense a predator, but if she’d put her back against a tree and cleared her mind, the vibration would fade, she’d become part of the landscape, and the prey animals would go back to whatever they were doing before she arrived. She’d had rabbits hop within six feet of her, unalarmed before they died.
Now, with an empty mind, she’d gone from being a lump to invisible.
The woman was wearing one thin leather glove, and the fingers of that hand were wrapped in hundred-pound test monofilament fishing line. The other end of the transparent line was tied to the loop handle of the building’s back door. She waited patiently, unmoving, in the dappled moonlight that filtered through the Chickasaw plum trees on the edge of the parking lot.
At ten minutes after ten, the lights went out in the third-floor office and the young woman brought her mind back to the world, shouldered her pack, and took a switchblade from her hip pocket. Two minutes after that, a middle-aged woman carrying a heavy lawyer’s briefcase pushed through the back door, looked both ways, then scurried out to a compact BMW. The building’s door, on an automatic door-closer hinge, swung shut behind her. As it was about to lock, the young woman put pressure on the fishing line and held it. The door appeared to be closed, but hadn’t latched.
When the departing BMW turned the corner, the young woman eased out from behind the hedge, listening, watching, keeping a steady pressure on the fishing line. She walked to the door, pulled it open, blocked it for a second with a foot, and used the blade to cut the fishing line off the door handle.
She slipped inside, balling the fishing line in her gloved hand, pressed the back of the knife blade against her leg to close it, dropped it into her pocket. Adrenaline beginning to kick in, heart rate picking up.
The target office had been vacant since six o’clock. The young woman turned left, to the fire stairs, and ran rapidly upward on silent, soft-cushioned athletic soles. At the fifth and top floor, she listened for a moment behind the fire door, then opened the door and checked the hallway. The only light came from street-side windows. She hurried down the hall to 504, removed her jacket, and took the battery-powered lock rake from her pack.
She couldn’t use the rake on the outer door, because that door had a good security lock, and she would have been standing beneath a light where she couldn’t be sure she was unobserved.
This lock was not very good—there was nothing obviously valuable inside except some well-used office equipment. She wrapped the rake in her jacket and pulled the trigger. The pick made a chattering noise, muffled by the jacket. The young woman kept pressure on the rake, felt the lock begin to give, and then turn. She pushed the door open and stepped inside, closed the door, and sat on the floor, listening.
She heard nothing but the creaks and cracks of an aging building, and the low hum of the air-conditioning. Satisfied that she was alone and hadn’t raised an alarm, she opened the pack, took out a headlamp, and pulled the elastic bands over her head, centering the light on her forehead. She’d already set it on the lowest power, but she didn’t need it yet. She stood and looked around, threw the fishing line in an empty wastebasket.
There was enough light from the office equipment’s power LEDs that she could make out a dozen metal desks with standard office chairs, a computer with each desk. Lots of paper on the desks, cardboard boxes stacked in one corner, three corkboards marching down the interior walls, hung with notices, posters, the odd cartoon. She walked down to the left end of the room, to a private office with a closed door. The door was locked, but the rake opened it and she went inside.
Another messy space, more stacks of paper. A big faux-walnut desk, a long library-style table, five metal filing cabinets, a metal side table against the desk, holding a Dell computer and a keyboard. The windows were covered with Venetian blinds, partly open. She closed them, then walked across the room, a thin nylon carpet underfoot, sat in the office chair behind the desk, turned on the headlamp, and pulled out the desk’s unused typing tray. There, written on a piece of notepaper taped to the tray, she found the password for the computer, as her informant had promised.
She brought the computer up and began opening files.
The young woman left the building at six-thirty in the morning, now wearing her jacket red side out, the dawn light filtering through the plum trees as she walked beneath them. Her rental car was a half-block away. She put the backpack in the trunk and transferred the lock rake, switchblade, and a short steel crowbar, which she hadn’t needed, to a FedEx box already labeled and paid for. The pack still held the file folder of printer paper that she’d taken out of the office. She drove carefully to a FedEx curbside station and dropped in the box of burglary tools. It would arrive back at her Arlington, Virginia, apartment in three days, when she would be there to accept it.
That done, she drove back to the DoubleTree hotel where she was staying, put the do not disturb sign on the door, changed into yoga pants and a tank top, put on a sleeping mask, and crawled into bed.
That afternoon, she parked a block from Annette Hart’s house, and waited. At five-thirty, Roscoe Anthem pulled up to the curb. He honked once and Hart trotted out of the house, smiling, piled into the car, gave Anthem a peck on the cheek, and they rolled out to I-10, then three and a half hours west to Mobile, Alabama.
Because while you can sin in Tallahassee, in many different ways, it was much more fun where the casinos were bigger and your friends were less likely to see you rollin’ them bones.
The blue-eyed young woman stayed with them all the way, well back, always behind other cars, shifting lanes from time to time. And she was with them in the casino, at the craps tables, at the blackjack tables, at the slots, always behind a screen of other patrons, talking on her cell phone and pushing the camera button.
Only to be interrupted by a nerdy young card player who eased up behind her to touch her hip and whisper, “You know what? You really overclock my processor.”
Made her laugh, but she blew him off anyway.
Monday morning, the Washington, D.C., office of Senator Christopher Colles (R-Florida), door closed. Colles and his much-hated executive assistant, Claudia Welp, perched on visitor’s chairs, looking across a coffee table at the young woman. Welp pitched her voice down. “Wait: you broke into the office?”
“It wasn’t exactly a break-in, since it’s Senator Colles’s office and you told me to go there and retrieve some of his information,” the young woman said.
“I didn’t mean for you to break in, for God’s sakes,” Welp said. “I sent you down there to talk to that secretary.”
“But to get to the heart of the matter, did you find anything?” Colles asked.
“Yes. The information you got from Messalina Brown is correct,” the young woman said. “Anthem and Hart have stolen about three hundred and forty thousand dollars in campaign funds. I believe they’ve blown most of it in a casino in Mobile, Alabama. In their defense, they’re having a really good time.”
Welp: “Even so, I’m not sure that justifies breaking into . . .”
“Shut up, Welp,” Colles said. “How’d they do it?”
“I wrote a full report yesterday, after I got back to D.C. I’ve attached the relevant documents and a couple of photographs of the happy couple at Harrah’s Gulf Coast casino on Friday night. It’s here.” She took a file out of her backpack and passed it to Colles.
Welp: “Even if it proves to be true, you’ve far transgressed . . .”
“Doesn’t matter what you believe,” Letty Davenport interrupted. “I quit. You guys bore the crap outta me.”
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|Epub||May 14, 2022|
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