Shell Game Excerpt

1.

Babe in the Woods

The deputy turned without warning into an uncut thicket. Felix and I stumbled after him, following his bobbing flashlight as best we could, the suckers from the bushes and trees snapping back to whip our faces. When I called to him to slow down, he merely picked up his pace.

The meager light from my phone wasn’t much use; I skidded on a pile of wet leaves, and toppled into a thorny bush. Mud squelched over the tops of my shoes, down into my socks. Felix tried to free me, but he ended up tangling his own scarf in the brambles.

The deputy was well ahead of us by the time we extricated ourselves, but we could still see slices of his light through the trees and beyond those, finally, the glow of arc lamps. I pushed toward them through the undergrowth.

The deputy was standing behind one of the lamps. He looked around in annoyance when we arrived and said, “About time,” then called to someone beyond the light, “Got the kid, boss. He brought someone with him. Claims she’s a lawyer.”

“That’s because I am a lawyer,” I said, my voice bright—I’m here to help, not obstruct.

“Bring them over here.” The boss had a gravelly voice, hoarse.

After twenty minutes in the dark woods, the high-wattage lights were blinding. I blinked, looked aside, and then tried to make out details of the site. Crime scene tape marked off an area of trees and tangled bushes. A number of officers were searching beyond that perimeter while techs collected their discoveries—cigarette butts, condoms, beer and cognac bottles—bagging them and marking the locations with yellow evidence flags.

Felix shoved his hands deep into his pockets and stumbled after me into the clearing. He tripped on a branch and nearly fell, but brushed aside my arm when I tried to steady him.
Felix was usually a lively young man, as easy with my generation as with his peers, but he’d barely spoken since I’d picked him up an hour earlier. Nerves: understandable, but when I’d tried probing—why did the sheriff’s police think Felix could ID a dead person? was one of his friends missing?—Felix snapped at me to be quiet.

The deputy pushed us toward a man of about fifty, jowly, heavy through the waist but not fat. Lieutenant bars were on the shoulders of his uniform jacket.
“Felix Herschel?” the lieutenant grunted, adding to me, “you’re the lawyer?”

“V.I. Warshawski,” I said.

The lieutenant ignored my offered hand. “Why’d the kid need to lawyer up? You got something to hide, son? Innocent people don’t need lawyers.”

“Innocent people need lawyers more than the guilty, Lieutenant”—I squinted at his name badge—“McGivney. They don’t understand the criminal justice system and forceful interrogators can intimidate them into bogus confessions. So let’s talk about what Mr. Herschel can do for you here.”

McGivney studied me, decided not to fight that battle, and jerked his head toward the center of the arc lamps. “Bring your client over, Warshawski. Make sure you both walk in my footsteps: we want to minimize contamination of the crime scene.”

I had to stretch my hamstrings to match his stride, but I pulled up next to him, near a log, where the arc lamps were concentrated. Felix stopped behind me but a deputy prodded him forward.
The log was over three feet high at the base, the remnant of some old oak or ash that had crashed in the woods. The bark had rotted to a rusty brown. A black tarp covered its base and a lump beyond it.

McGivney nodded at a crime scene tech. She pulled the tarp back to display the bruised and swollen body of a man. He’d been stuffed headfirst into the hollow bottom of the log. The body’s original position was outlined in white—only his feet and part of his legs had been visible, but the deputies had pulled him out.

He was dressed in blue jeans and a dirt-crusted hoodie, unzipped to show a badly bruised torso. He’d been beaten so savagely that his head was a pulpy mess. His hair might once have been brown but was too caked now with mud and blood to be sure.

My muscles clenched. Violent death, nauseating death. Next to me, Felix made a feral gurgling sound. His face was pale, glassy, and he was swaying. I put one hand on the small of his back and pulled his head down roughly with the other, pressing his face as close to his knees as I could.

“You have water, Lieutenant?” I asked.

“No, and I’m not carrying smelling salts, either.” McGivney gave a sharklike smile. “Do you recognize the vic—the body, the victim, son?”

“Why do you think Mr. Herschel knows him?” I said, before Felix could speak. I had warned him in the car to consult me before he answered questions, but in the shock of death he wouldn’t remember.

McGivney’s mouth bunched in annoyance. “We have a good reason.”

“Perhaps you do, but aside from being pretty sure this is a man, I don’t know how anyone could identify him without DNA or dental records. And if you just found him, you couldn’t have any of that information already.”

“Do you recognize him, Mr. Herschel?” McGivney was keeping control of his temper, but it showed in his clenched jaw muscles.

Felix was looking away from the clearing, away from the body. His color had improved but his expression was still glassy.

McGivney grabbed his shoulder. “Do you know this man?”

Felix blinked. “Who is it?”

“That’s why we asked you out here. We figured you knew.”

Felix shook his head slowly. “I don’t know him. Where is he from?”

“What difference does that make?” McGivney pounced on the odd question. “Is there a missing person in your life?”

I removed the sheriff’s hand from Felix’s arm. “He’s said he doesn’t know the dead man, which means we’re done here, Lieutenant.”

“We’re done when I say we’re done,” McGivney snapped.

“Oh, please. You’ve given us zero reason for hauling Mr. Herschel out here at two in the morning. We’ve looked at a murdered man and felt the horror of his death, which you no doubt intended. Neither of us has seen him before. We can’t help you. Good night, Lieutenant.”

I took Felix’s arm and turned him around, telling him to step in the footprints we’d followed in.

“Why did the guy have Herschel’s name and phone number in his jeans?” McGivney demanded.

Felix looked at me, his dark eyes wide with fear.

I muttered to him, “Don’t say anything,” before calling over my shoulder to McGivney, “I’m not a medium, so unfortunately I can’t answer any questions about this poor dead man’s acts or motives.”

“You’re at a murder site, not Comedy Central, Warshawski,” McGivney snapped. “Your client needs to explain his connection to the dead man.”
I turned around. “My client has told you he has no connection. If your search of the body turned up a phone with Mr. Herschel’s name in it, then you can learn his identity without any help from us.”

“It was on a scrap of paper,” McGivney said.

“If we can look at it, we might be able to help you,” I said, using the soothing voice of a kindergarten teacher.

McGivney frowned, but he was a reasonable cop, just one I’d pushed on harder than he liked. He beckoned one of the techs, who produced a labeled evidence envelope: REMOVED FROM LEFT FRONT JEANS POCKET, 1:17 A.M. Inside was a scrap of paper with Felix’s cell phone number, handwritten with such care that the numbers looked like artwork.
“What do you know about this, Herschel?” McGivney demanded.

Felix looked at me, his face alight with fear. I felt sure he recognized the writing.

“It’s been torn from a bigger sheet of paper,” I said quickly, before he could give himself away. “Good quality, too. Not just a Post-it or notebook.”
“You are Sherlock Holmes,” McGivney growled.

“No monographs on paper stock, Lieutenant, just observation and experience.”

“And how do your observation and experience explain why your client’s number is in the vic’s pocket?”

“Still no crystal ball, Lieutenant.” I moved from the scene, my hand locked on Felix’s forearm.

McGivney followed us. He was phoning orders to underlings, but stopped when we reached the edge of the thicket we’d struggled through on our way in.
“One last question, son,” he said to Felix. “Who were you expecting to see back there?”

“I—no one,” Felix stammered.

“You asked where he was from,” McGivney said. “Where did you think that would be?”

“I don’t know,” Felix said, shifting unhappily from foot to foot.

Before McGivney could push on him further, I said, “Who found the body? It was shoved into that log, right? And there’s no direct path into that clearing.”

McGivney sighed. “High school kids out smoking and drinking. Weed, beer, vodka, cigarettes. Be a while before they do that again.”

“You don’t think they killed him themselves? Some Lord of the Flies fantasy that ran out of control?”

“What, and came back to get stoned on the scene and celebrate the murder?” McGivney curled his lip. “They were scared shitless.”

“Whoever killed him didn’t want him found,” I said.

“You think?” McGivney’s upper lip curled in derision. “Let me know if you have any other insights, Sherlock.”