THE MISSING SNIPER

By Earl Staggs

Adam Kingston stood at his kitchen window looking out over his backyard, sipping his second cup of coffee of the day and waiting for the phone to ring.

He had slept restlessly the night before and awoke knowing a call would come.

He didn't know who would call, only that there would be a call, that someone had died who shouldn't have, and that he would be taking another trip.

Waiting.

The part he hated most about the whole business.

He drained his cup, stepped to the counter to pour another one and returned to the window. The lawn needed mowing and Caroline's azalea bushes needed a good trim. He sipped his coffee, sighed, and waited.

The phone rang ten minutes later. When Adam said hello, the caller asked in a strong southern drawl, "Mr. Kingston? Adam Kingston?"

"Yes."

"Mr. Kingston, this is, uh, Sheriff Corbin from Mendes County, Florida?"

Adam loved the way the English language was practiced in the deep South. They ended almost every sentence on a high note so that it sounded like a question. "What can I do for you, Sheriff Corbin?"

"Well, Sir, I got your name off a list of Law Enforcement Consultants. It's a list put out by the state?"

He's young, Adam decided. Mid-thirties. And somewhat nervous. "Yes, I'm familiar with that list," he said. He was on the same list in twenty-four states now. "Please go on, Sheriff."

"Well, Sir, according to this list, you help law enforcement agencies solve difficult cases, and it says you, uh, can visit crime scenes, touch pieces of evidence and you...see things and...and you can, uh..."

Adam interrupted. He had to put the stammering young man at ease if this conversation was going anywhere. "Let me ask you something, Sheriff. Have you ever had the phone ring and you knew who it was before you answered it?"

"Yes, I guess that's happened to me."

"And have you ever had someone start to say something, and you knew what they were going to say before they finished saying it?"

"I'd have to say yes, that's happened to me too."

"It's a proven fact, Sheriff, that everyone has a little bit of extra-sensory perception. Sometimes it's called a sixth sense. Some people, like me, just have more than others. That's about all there is to it."

He was lying. There was a lot more to it. A hell of a lot more. For more than twenty years he'd made a decent living as a consultant to law enforcement agencies, but he'd learned that a simple explanation helped get past the awkwardness people felt when they talked to him the first time. Using first names also made people more comfortable.

"What's your first name, Sheriff?"

"It's Dillon, Sir," the caller replied, sounding confused at the change in the conversation.

"Dillon. And why don't you call me Adam?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Now, Dillon, why don't you tell me why you called?"

"Well, Sir, we've got a case down here that's really got us stumped, and we were hoping you could give us a hand."

"What kind of case?"

"Someone tried to assassinate a state senator. They held a big campaign rally, and just as he started to speak a sniper opened fire. We know the shots came from a rooftop, but that's all we know. It happened three weeks ago, and so far we don't even have a suspect. If we don't stop him, we could have a dead senator on our hands."

Good. The young sheriff seemed more relaxed, which meant Adam might be able to pick up something. It didn't always work over the phone, but he thought he'd give it a try. He closed his eyes and concentrated. Fuzzy, vague images formed in his mind.

...an office...a desk...young man, blond hair, tan uniform...shelves on the wall behind him...books, pictures...bright sunshine now...a crowd, running, screaming...a man falling, his head covered in blood...water now, all around...someone swimming under water...

The images grew faint and faded away. Adam realized his caller was still speaking.

"...You might have seen it the papers or maybe on the news, Mr. Kingston."

"It's Adam, Dillon."

"Sorry. Adam. But it made a lot of papers, even up north."

"Yes, I remember seeing something in the paper. A politician speaking in front of a large crowd, some people injured when the crowd panicked and, I believe, someone was killed. I can't recall the senator's name.

"Thornton. William P. Thornton"

"The name sounds familiar," Adam said, suddenly struck by a change in the voice -- and emotions -- of the man on the other end of the line. Strong personal emotions suddenly coming through. What was it? He couldn't put his finger on it.

The sheriff interrupted his thoughts. "Would you consider coming down here to help us on this?"

There was nothing to consider. Adam had known he would be taking a trip from first light. "I'm willing to give it a try."

They talked a few minutes more. First, Adam's fee. No problem. The sheriff had even checked airline schedules for the next day. They agreed on the flight Adam would take and to meet at the airport in Jacksonville. When the Sheriff asked how they would recognize each other, Adam assured him that would not be a problem.

Adam called his travel agent to make his reservation, then called his daughters to let them know where he would be for the next few days. He was lucky enough to catch Chris, the elder, between meetings at work, then called Cindi, a stay-at-home mom. They told him to be careful. They always said that, just as their mother had always done when he went on a trip. He threw on a tank top and an old pair of shorts and went out to mow the lawn. Then he trimmed Caroline's azaleas. He still called them that even though she had planted them twelve years ago, the year before he lost her to cancer.

He came in, showered, took a short nap, and packed for his trip.

As he made his way up the ramp from the plane in Jacksonville, Adam easily spotted the young sheriff standing almost at attention behind a small crowd, his straw-colored hair cropped short around a round boyish face, his sharply pressed tan uniform accenting a solid athletic frame.

Adam walked up to him. "You must be Dillon Corbin."

"Yes, Sir," the sheriff said with a wide smile. "That'd make you Adam Kingston." Then he asked what people are required to ask in airports. "How was your flight?"

"The flight was fine," Adam replied, "but the coffee was terrible." He made a face to show how bad it had been.

Dillon Corbin laughed. It was a clean, wholesome laugh, and Adam decided he liked the young man already.

"I'm really sorry about the coffee," Dillon said. "We'll do better when we get to my office. If you're ready, we'll get your bags and be on our way."

"Ready if you are," Adam said. He fell in step beside him but quickly found it easier to walk a step behind. He always thought of people coming the opposite way in airports as a stampeding herd willing to trample anyone between them and their gate. Dillon did a good job of clearing a path. It may have been his badge. Or it may have been the fast pace he set that parted the herd. The young sheriff seemed to be in a great hurry.

Whatever spurred Dillon through the crowd so aggressively filtered back to Adam as images, flashing in his mind like clips from a movie.

.....a stream...trees overhead...two people walking...tall man, gray hair...a towheaded boy...talking, laughing...something in their hands...sticks?...no, fishing rods...the boy, under water now...clawing at the water but not moving...

The images faded as quickly as they came. Adam concentrated, trying to get more, but nothing came. It was the second time strong emotions from Dillon had triggered images. On the phone the day before and now here. It was also the second time he'd seen someone swimming under water.

Thirty minutes later, they had collected Adam's suitcase, had left the airport behind, and were cruising along Interstate 95. Adam had to squint to look out the car window. He'd forgotten how much brighter the sun was in Florida.

They chatted for a while, mostly about the weather. Adam studied Dillon Corbin as they talked. The sheriff seemed friendly enough but also quite tense. His fingers gripped the steering wheel tightly and a muscle in his jaw twitched when he wasn't talking. His face seemed drawn and darkness under his eyes spoke of restless sleep or little at all. Adam finally turned the conversation to his reason for being there. "Tell me, Dillon, why would someone want to kill Senator Thornton?"

Dillon snorted. "I could give you a couple dozen reasons. Political enemies, business rivals, people he's run roughshod over. Then there are the husbands of the women he's gone after, or the ones who've gone after him. But those things go with the territory if you're Willy Thornton."

"So he's a tough man to go up against and a ladies man too."

"That's for sure. He's cracked a few heads in his day and left a few broken hearts along the road. But the voters still love him."

"Any of his enemies serious enough to be considered suspects?"

"Some, but...," Dillon paused and leaned to his window, craning to see if he could pass the truck he'd just driven up behind. Obviously not. He gave the steering wheel a slap. "...we've checked them all out. A few were in the crowd running for their lives when the shooting started. The others all have solid verification of their whereabouts at the time."

"Have there been any more attempts on his life?"

"None so far, but it could happen anytime, anywhere if we don't catch him first."

Dillon saw his chance and veered the car into the next lane to pass the truck. Adam waited until they were settled back in the right lane to ask, "Is he still making public appearances?"

"Oh, yeah," Dillon said with a roll of his eyes. "He's out there bigger and bolder than ever, almost daring someone to take another potshot at him. When he spoke in Tallahassee last week he actually had a target painted on his shirt. Can you believe it? The media love it, though. They're covering his campaign like bees on a hive, just waiting for the sniper to try again."

"What about threats? Letters? Phone calls?"

"Phone calls. About every other day. Very short. All they say is he'll never live to see election day." Dillon turned to look out his window. When he turned back to Adam, he raised his shoulders in a shrug. His handsome but tired-looking young face held a look of frustration and futility. "I'm sorry, Adam, but we can't give you much to go on. We've tried everything, but keep coming up empty."

They rode in silence for another ten minutes before Dillon pulled into the parking lot of the Mendes County Sheriff's Department building.

Adam followed him into a one-story brick building nestled beneath oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. Just inside, a round-faced, heavy-set woman with black hair pulled straight back greeted them. She slid a glass window back and tossed a "Hey, Dillon," but her eyes were on the visitor from up north. Adam always felt awkward when they stared, and they always seemed disappointed that he looked normal. Once, in a silly moment, he'd considered wearing a Merlin the Magician robe and a pointed hat to fit the image people held of psychics.

After Adam pinned on a visitor's badge, Dillon led the way through a security door into a large area filled with cubicles. Half the cubicles were occupied by men and women in uniform. Heads turned for a first look at Merlin.

Dillon led the way to an office in the far left corner. "I thought you'd want to go through our file on the shooting," he said back over his shoulder as they entered the office. "I have it all ready for you."

"Good idea," Adam replied as he looked around. He recognized the office as the one from which Dillon had called the day before. The top of the desk held the usual: telephone, stapler, little pink message slips, and, in the middle, a stack of file folders nearly a foot high.

Dillon nodded at the highback leather chair behind the desk. "Make yourself comfortable and take all the time you need. I have some things to do, but if you need me just pick up the phone and tell Doris. She'll find me."

Adam looked at the large pile of reading material on the desk. "I'll need that coffee you promised me."

"How do you take it?"

"Black and hot."

Adam spent more than an hour going through the files. He started with reports of the shooting.

The sniper had fired three shots. The first two missed. The third shot hit and killed a security guard. A woman reported seeing a man running across a nearby rooftop and gave the usual vague description. Medium height, medium build, dressed in beige or tan, brown hair, carrying a briefcase or small suitcase.

That was followed by reports of interviews with possible suspects. Hundreds of them. None were substantial, but it was obvious that the sheriff's department had devoted a great number of manhours to the investigation.

Another file contained photographs of Senator Thornton and the security guard who had been killed and pictures taken at the scene. There were also news releases and articles about Senator Thornton. From these Adam gleaned a profile of the flamboyant and popular politician. At the age of 63 he was seeking re-election to a fourth term. His campaign style was outlandish to say the least. At one outdoor convention he had made his appearance by skydiving right onto the platform. At another, he had arrived carrying a live alligator across his shoulders.

After the shooting, Thornton expressed his deep regrets over the unfortunate death of the security guard, identified as Melvin W. Parsons, a retired state police officer, but vowed to continue his campaign in spite of continuing threats on his life.

Tired of reading and needing a break, Adam stood, stretched and walked out into the cubicled area. He spotted an alcove across the room where a table held a coffee urn and sleeves of Styrofoam cups. Four uniformed officers, three male and one female, stood by the table with cups in their hands.

As Adam approached them, the tallest of the men turned to greet him. He was about forty and spoke with no trace of a southern accent. "Ted Jackson, Mr. Kingston. It's a real pleasure to meet you. We're all looking forward to working with you on this sniper thing. We've been going at it night and day and getting nowhere."

Adam thanked him and accepted his offered handshake.

The youngest of the group, a gangly redheaded young man, burst in with enough accent for all four of them. "I'm Jimmy Gallagher. From Pensacola?" Without giving Adam a chance to reply he continued with enthusiasm. "My Aunt Virginia's in the same business you are. She reads palms? Just blows my mind, some of the things she comes up with. I remember once -- I was only fifteen? -- she read my palm and told me...."

Jackson interrupted him. "I'm sure Mr. Kingston is very interested in your aunt's talents, Jimmy, but we have to get on the road."

Adam gave Jackson a thank-you look. Jackson nodded and led his exuberant young partner away.

Adam turned to the female officer. She had short brown hair, a slender build and a pleasant oval face. "Sounds like the whole department's been looking for the sniper," he said.

"That's for sure," she said. "Dillon's really pushing everybody on this one. Especially himself." She turned her eyes away for a second when she spoke of Dillon, and something in her tone grabbed Adam's curiosity. He sensed more than a professional relationship here. She looked back to him immediately and gave him a beaming smile that revealed perfect teeth and turned her face from pleasant to pretty. "I'm Judy Wilson, by the way. Welcome to Mendes County."

"Thank you, Deputy Wilson." He returned her smile and her handshake. "I hope you don't mind if I get a cup of coffee. One of my many weaknesses, I'm afraid." He held her hand a few seconds longer than he should have and saw Dillon and Judy Wilson out of uniform -- and everything else -- under circumstances which satisfied his curiosity about their relationship. He released her hand and gave himself a mental slap on the wrist. He was being naughty.

Judy handed him a Styrofoam cup. "Here you go." She was still smiling and getting prettier by the second.

Adam thanked her and turned to look at the other officer standing there. Middle-aged, bald on top, overweight and ruddy faced, he blocked access to the coffee urn. Adam extended his hand. "Adam Kingston."

"Sergeant Cooley," the man said as though his rank was more important than his given first name. Adam shook his hand and found it as weak as the half-smile the man offered.

"Excuse me," Adam said politely, looking at the coffee urn and reaching his cup toward it, hoping Cooley would take the hint and move aside.

The sergeant took his time. He looked at Adam's cup, then slowly turned his head toward the coffee urn. Next he looked down at his own feet. Finally, he took two short steps backward.

"Thank you," Adam said as he stepped up to the table.

"So you're the swami, huh?" Cooley said, stirring his own coffee and intently watching it go around.

Adam sighed. There always seemed to be at least one. The local cop who resented an outsider coming in. He looked at Cooley with a tight smile. "I beg your pardon?"

"So you're the swami come down here to pull a sniper out of a hat for us."

"Well, Sergeant Cooley," Adam said, turning back to watch his cup fill. "The truth is, I left my swami hat at home. I brought my Orioles baseball cap, though. I'll just have to give it my best shot with that."

Cooley seemed oblivious to Adam's humor, but Judy Wilson wasn't. She grinned. Adam gave her a quick wink.

A voice from three cubicles away called out, "Hey, Cooley. Phone call." The sergeant gave Adam a smirk that said he was quite pleased with himself and walked away.

Judy Wilson touched Adam's arm. "Don't mind him," she said with a hint of embarrassment at her colleague's behavior. "He runs off at the mouth just to hear his own voice."

"Don't give it a second thought, Deputy. I've seen too many of his kind to let it bother me."

"I'm glad," she said. "You'll find we're not all like him. And please call me Judy. We're pretty informal around here."

Adam said, "I like informal. And I'm Adam."

She favored him with the bright smile again. "I have to run now, but I'm really glad I had a chance to meet you. If there's anything I can do while you're here, just let me know."

Adam watched her disappear into a cubicle on the other side of the room before he returned to Dillon's office with his fresh coffee. He looked at the files on the desk and decided he'd read enough for now. He'd spend more time on them later. He already had the facts about the shooting and knew the ground Dillon and his force had covered. He needed to visit the scene.

He also needed to spend more time with Dillon Corbin. Something was eating at the young sheriff apart from an attempt on the life of a politician. He thought maybe he could pick up something here in Dillon's office. He walked slowly around the desk, letting his fingers slide across its surface. Nothing came to him. He did the same with Dillon's chair. Still nothing.

He turned his attention to the wall shelves behind the desk. On the lower shelf he noted the typical books on police procedures and the law, a dozen or so copies of Marksman Monthly and several other magazines on firearms, hunting and fishing.

The top shelf held two framed pictures. In one, a large group of uniformed young men stood in tightly packed rows. Graduation day at the academy. Dillon was undoubtedly in there somewhere.

The other was a small snapshot of a man and a boy by a body of water. The boy needed both arms to support the fish he held across his chest. Despite his heavy load, the very young Dillon Corbin looked ready to explode with excitement. Adam read the scrawled handwriting across the bottom:

"Congratulations on your first big one. Uncle Bill."

Adam looked at the picture again. The man's face, partially hidden by the shadow of his floppy yellow hat, looked familiar. He leaned closer for a better look.

"Adam, there you are."

Dillon's voice from the open doorway surprised him. Adam turned and smiled. "Just looking around a little. Hope you don't mind."

Dillon didn't respond. He went straight to his chair behind the desk and all but threw himself into it. Adam walked around the desk and sat in another chair. It didn't take psychic ability to see that Dillon was upset and on the verge of exploding.

After a long moment of silence, the sheriff spoke in a clipped, restrained tone. "I just talked to Thornton on the phone. I wanted to set you up with a meeting with him. He said no. He wants me to pull off the security detail, stop the surveillance during the campaign."

"Stop it? Why?"

Dillon turned his chair sideways and stared at a wall. "He said having a heavy guard around him is hindering his campaign, turning away voters. He's also convinced that whoever tried to kill him is gone, that there's no further danger. When I told him you were here, he said to thank you, but your help won't be needed." Dillon suddenly shot out of his chair, pushed it aside and turned to face the window. Adam watched Dillon's hands clench into tight fists at his sides and waited to see if he would punch out the window.

"I'm sorry about this, Adam," Dillon said without turning around. "Looks like I brought you all the way down here for nothing. Without Thornton's cooperation, it'll be practically impossible to track down the shooter. Without close surveillance..." His voice trailed off. He turned from the window and plopped into his chair.

Strange, Adam thought. Law enforcement officers always had more work than they could handle, and anything that lightened their load was a blessing. "What will you do now?" he asked.

Dillon sat without speaking for a few seconds, rubbing his hands together at chest level. Finally, he looked across the desk. "I'll tell you what I'm not going to do. I'm not going to let some sonofabitch kill a good man and get away with it." He slapped the arm of his chair with an open palm. "It just ain't gonna happen."

"In that case," Adam said, "I suggest we get out of here."

Dillon's expression of angry determination changed to a questioning one. "What do you mean?"

"I mean it's time you showed me where the shooting took place."

The questioning expression became one of surprise. "You mean...you're staying? But why?"

Adam grinned. "Because you're stubborn and hardheaded like me. Besides, I'm already here. Let's see what we can do without Thornton's cooperation."

And because, Adam said only to himself, you said "kill" a good man, not "try to kill" a good man. This wasn't about keeping Thornton alive.

Adam rose from his chair and nodded at the files on the desk. "I'd like to borrow those and go over them again later. I know it's against procedures to let them out of the office."

Dillon hesitated only a second before he scooped up the files and tucked them under his arm. "Screw procedures. Let's go."

Thirty minutes later they stood on the roof of a four-story office building, looking over a retaining wall and down at a shopping center parking lot across the street. Dillon described the scene on the day of the shooting. "The speaker's platform was right there," he said, pointing, "in front of the Kmart, and the parking lot was packed with people. Near as we can figure, the sniper got here early, stayed down behind this wall until it

was time, then got away down the stairs."

"You checked the door and the stair railing for prints?"

Dillon nodded. "No prints anywhere. He either wiped them clean or wore gloves."

"Did you find any shell casings?"

"We went over this roof with a fine-toothed comb. Even the street below. None."

"And the slugs? Did you recover all three?"

Dillon nodded again. "Standard thirty caliber, available anywhere."

"Where was the woman who saw the shooter?"

Dillon turned to look at him. "How did you know about her? Are you, uh, getting something from standing here?"

Adam shook his head. "I read it in your file."

"Oh." Dillon pointed to a building down the street. "She was at a window on the fifth floor of the hotel, watching the rally through binoculars. She looked over this way after the shots. Her description wasn't much. Medium height, medium build..."

Adam finished it for him. "Brown hair and carrying a briefcase." He caught Dillon's questioning look and added, "That was in the file too. She was positive he was not carrying a rifle?"

"Dead certain. We figure he dismantled it and had it in the case."

"Makes sense," Adam said. He leaned out over the wall and looked down at the street below. "I suppose no one saw the man leave the building." Dillon leaned and looked with him. "No one. There was so much pandemonium down there, people running in all directions, he could've left the building stark naked and no one would've noticed." Adam looked around the roof once more. "I think we're finished up here."

"Okay. What now?"

"Now, let's go across the street."

Ten minutes later they were in front of the Kmart. At Adam's request,

Dillon stepped off the location of the speaker's platform. Adam then asked to see where the first two slugs -- the ones that missed -- were recovered, and Dillon pointed to two holes in the concrete wall of the store. Adam then wanted to know who was on the platform that day and where they were when the shooting began.

Dillon looked around for a moment, took three steps to the right and stopped. "The podium was just about here. Right behind it was a row of chairs for the County Council, some local business people, Willy Thornton, and the Mayor. Thornton was standing here at the podium when the shots were fired. Everyone else was sitting down. Except the security team, of course. They were standing."

"Where?"

"One at each corner."

"The security guard who was shot, where was he standing?" Adam watched Dillon point to but not look at, what would have been the right front corner of the platform.

"There," Dillon said. "My deputies were at the other corners. As soon as the shooting started, they all ran toward the podium to protect Thornton."

"And where did Melvin Parsons fall?"

Again Dillon pointed - again without looking - to a spot on the concrete. "There."

Adam turned to look where Dillon had pointed. When he looked up, he saw Dillon had walked some twenty feet away and stood with his back turned. Adam walked over and stood beside him. He wanted to ask Dillon why he wouldn't look at the last two places he'd pointed to. Instead, he said, "Dillon, three of the security guards on the platform were uniformed deputies, but the man who was killed was a private security guard. Is that normal procedure?

Three deputies and a private guard?"

Dillon hesitated before answering. "No. It was supposed to be three deputies and me. Private guards are usually scattered in with the crowd."

"Where were you?"

Dillon's response could barely be heard. "On a dive."

"A dive?"

Dillon cleared his throat. Still facing away from Adam, he said, "A scuba dive. I belong to a club. We had a dive scheduled that weekend off Cedar Key. I asked him to fill in for me."

Bits and pieces came together for Adam: Dillon away on a scuba dive while the man filling in for him lay dying; Dillon's obsession with finding the sniper; the pictures he'd seen in Dillon's office of two men, one lying in a parking lot with a bullet wound in his head, the other standing behind young Dillon in an old snapshot.

"Dillon," he asked quietly, "was Melvin Parsons the man you knew as Uncle Bill?"

Dillon gave a small nod.

"And you blame yourself for his death?"

Again Dillon hesitated. When he finally spoke, his voice was that of someone close to tears. "If I hadn't gone on that dive..." "We need to talk," Adam said. "Let's go somewhere."

Patti, according to the name on her KrispyKreme shirt, was short and cute with dimples and a little girl's voice. "Two coffees?"

"Please," Adam replied.

"How about a couple of doughnuts with that?" Patti suggested as sweetly as anyone could.

Adam glanced at the clock above the counter. It was past four, and he remembered he hadn't had lunch. He was sorry they hadn't gone to Dunkin' Donuts, where they could have gotten sandwiches. "I'll have a couple of chocolate glazed. How about you, Dillon?"

Dillon shook his head.

Patti was back in less than a minute with their order. Adam waited until Dillon felt like talking and he was nearly finished his first doughnut when that time came.

"Melvin Parsons and my dad started out together on the state police force," Dillon began. "Over the years, they got to be as close as brothers. He hated the name Melvin and used his middle name, William. To me, he was always Uncle Bill."

Dillon paused to add creamer to his coffee, then turned his head to gaze out the window. "My dad died when I was nine, and Uncle Bill took me under his wing. He never married or had kids of his own. He took me places, taught me all about hunting, fishing, everything. As much as I missed my dad, it was like I still had one." He looked at Adam now with moist eyes. "Can you understand that?"

Adam nodded that he could. His mouth was full.

Dillon picked up a spoon and stirred his coffee in a slow circular motion. "As soon as I was old enough, I knew all I wanted to do was join the state police like them. But the state wasn't hiring, so I came with the county. Uncle Bill helped me get in, helped me study, coached me. I'm not sure I would've made it if it hadn't been for his help."

Adam watched a smile grow on Dillon's face, the soft smile people get when they recall fond memories. Patti suddenly appeared with a pot of coffee and refilled Adam's cup. She moved toward Dillon's cup, but he waved his hand over it. He hadn't touched it.

Dillon turned back to the window. "He retired five years ago. Said he was fed up with what he called the politickin' and pocket-pickin'. He kept busy, though. Set himself up as a private investigator, worked on divorce cases, sometimes for the state tracking down tax dodgers, crooked businesses, things like that. And whenever we needed outside help we always called on him. He was the best."

Adam washed down a mouthful. "I'm sure he was. Why didn't you tell me any of this before?"

Dillon shrugged, then turned his head to meet Adam's eyes with his own. "I saw no reason to. I thought it best to keep my personal feelings out of it, not let it get in the way of doing my job. I'm sorry if you thought I was keeping something from you."

It was Adam's turn to shrug. "Forget it. But tell me something. Were you aware that Thornton was receiving threats before the rally?"

"No. He said he didn't take them seriously and never said anything about the threats until after the shooting."

"Then you had no reason not to go on that dive, Dillon. You have to stop beating yourself up over this. You can't be sure what would have happened if you'd been there."

"Maybe that's what makes it so hard. Not knowing. But I don't want you to think I'm on some kind of Charles Bronson revenge trip. Sure, I want to get the man who killed Uncle Bill, even though it was accidental. I owe him that and much more. But I'm still sheriff of Mendes County, and there's a man out there trying to kill a public official. I have a job to do, and I don't think he's just gone away like Thornton said, do you?"

Adam took his time swallowing his last bite. He didn't want to tell Dillon what he suspected about the sniper at this point. He wanted to be sure.

"We can't be certain of anything just yet."

"But you're still willing to stay and help me?"

Adam smiled. "I can't guarantee anything, but we'll give it our best shot."

"Can't ask for any more than that," Dillon said, smiling back. "What do we do now? What do you want me to do?"

Adam raised his cup and drained it. "First, you can pay for my coffee and doughnuts, then you can tell me where I sleep. I want to go over the files again before I call it a day."

"That sounds fair," Dillon said, reaching in his pocket. "I made arrangements for you at the Ramada, if that's okay."

The room at the Ramada Inn was okay. Dillon gave Adam his office phone number, his beeper number, and his home number. "Just in case," he said. "You call, I'll come running."

Adam watched from the window of his room until Dillon drove away. Then he went to the motel office, found a map of the town, and went for a walk. Twenty minutes later, he stood in the Kmart parking lot, looking up at the holes in the wall from the sniper's first two shots. He estimated them to be three inches apart and seven feet above the pavement. Looking across the street to the rooftop where he and Dillon had stood earlier, he drew an imaginary line between the two points.

Satisfied with that, he walked out into the parking lot and found what he had seen earlier -- a faint brownish stain where Melvin Parsons had fallen from the platform. He knelt down on one knee, touched the faded bloodstain with his fingertips and concentrated. The images came quickly.

....blue sky, puffs of clouds...voices, screaming in panic...faces directly above, horrified, frantic faces...deputies, Thornton, others, staring down...something moving among them...thin, black, ribbon-like, swirling, circling...Thornton's face again...now a cloth or towel, old, ragged, dark green...the long, flat ribbon shape curling around it...music...a voice, singing...very faint...Dillon as a boy with Uncle Bill...the two of them in a boat, fishing, laughing...Dillon riding a pony...throwing a football...in uniform, hands pinning a badge on him...Dillon in scuba gear, swimming under water...fading...everything gray, growing darker...blackness.

Adam walked to the wall of Kmart, leaned back against it and closed his eyes. He felt weak, barely able to stand. He had seen the last things seen by a dying man, felt his last thoughts, his loving remembrances of the boy he'd raised like a son. It was several minutes before he regained himself. He had felt a man die.

On his way back to the Ramada, Adam stopped for dinner and tried to make sense of what he had seen and heard so far. He'd seen the strange ribbon shape again. Was it a rope? A snake? Then there had been some kind of old cloth, dark green and ragged. And the music, the singing voice, vaguely familiar but so swift and faint he couldn't identify it. The images swirled in his mind like pieces of a puzzle in a whirlpool. Nothing made any sense. Not yet anyway. He knew he had a long night ahead.

As soon as he was back in his room, Adam opened his suitcase and took out a small electric coffee maker and a bag of Maxwell House Master Blend. After starting the pot, taking a shower, brushing his teeth and putting on his sweats, he decided he needed a break and called his daughters. Chris was not home. He remembered her telling him she and her husband, Rick, were going to visit his parents for a few days. He left a message saying he would call again on Sunday.

Cindi, his younger daughter, was home but not in a good mood. Five- year-old Cory was in a bit of trouble for talking during quiet time at school. Austin, not yet two, had gotten his busy little hands on several of their video movies and had managed to pull the tape out of the cassettes.

Adam tried not to laugh, but he couldn't help himself. After talking with Cindi for a few minutes he was able to cheer her up a little. They hung up, and he felt better. But now he had to get back to work.

He stacked the files he'd borrowed from Dillon on the little round table motels always provide. He pulled out the pictures of Thornton, Melvin Parsons, and the scene of the shooting and spread them on the table. After he gently wiped his fingertips across them for a moment or two, images flew swiftly across his mind, flowing helter-skelter from the pictures and from corners of his own subconscious.

....Thornton standing at the podium...a gunshot, another one...Thornton crouching behind the podium...the man on the roof aiming, firing again...Dillon under water, struggling to rise...faces now, Thornton, others...the thin black ribbon or rope weaving among them...little Austin, on the floor, surrounded by videotape...beside him, the green cloth, maybe a blanket...there's a metal box, old, rusty...Cindi is there, scolding Cory...another room now...blue carpet, gray walls...the music again, the singing voice...who?...too faint...a window...outside, water, ducks swimming...inside, papers, hundreds of sheets of paper, floating down onto the green cloth...the black ribbon, coiling into a tight circle...the music, growing louder...now it's a siren, getting closer, very loud...

The images disappeared, but the sound of the siren grew louder. Adam looked out the motel window to see an ambulance speed by, lights flashing and siren blasting. "Thanks for the interruption, guys," he called after it.

He hurried to his suitcase, took out a pen, a pad of paper and scissors and began writing down each image and sound, each one on a separate line with a space between them. He wrote down every image he'd had since arriving in Mendes County, no matter how brief, even those of Cindi and the boys. It was the first time that had ever happened. Too soon after his phone call with Cindi, he decided. His thoughts of them were too fresh in his mind and they had become mixed into the jumble of images. He made a mental note to avoid that in the future.

Next he cut the sheets of paper into strips. Each strip contained an image or sound. When that was done, he began arranging them on the table. He had named this his jigsaw puzzle phase. It was tedious and time-consuming, but he would stick with it all night if necessary. He arranged them in groups. First, all those of the ribbon-like object. Then the green cloth, the rusty metal box and the ones of Dillon under water.

Those of Thornton were curious. If what he'd seen was accurate, Thornton was hiding safely behind the podium by the time the third shot was fired. The music and the singing voice still eluded him. He knew the voice but couldn't place it. He had no idea where the room with blue walls and gray carpet fit in any more than he did those of the ducks, but he put them in their own groups. Last, the images of Cindi, Cory, and Austin were pushed aside. With the arrangements done, he studied them again. And again and again.

Hours later, with his second pot of coffee nearly gone, Adam rubbed his eyes and ran his fingers back through his hair, trying to relieve his weariness and frustration. The images still told him nothing. He decided on a new tactic -- a process of elimination.

First he discarded the strips of paper dealing with Cindi and the boys. They were certainly of no value here. Next he tossed the ones of Dillon swimming under water. They had served their purpose and were of no further use. He spread the strangest ones of all, those of the ribbon-like object, in front of him. That's when he noticed something odd. The one of Austin surrounded by videotapes he had pulled from their cartridges had somehow become mixed with them. Adam reached for it to toss it away but stopped suddenly. He stared at it for a few seconds, then sprang out of the chair and pumped his fist in the air.

"Yes! Austin, I love you!"

He paced the floor for several minutes. Now that he had the key piece, the others began to fall in place. He looked at his watch. Nearly two a.m. He dialed Dillon Corbin's home phone number. A sleepy sheriff answered after four rings.

"Dillon. I'm glad you're awake."

"Well, I was asleep until the phone rang. What's up, Adam?"

"When did you arrange for Parsons to fill in for you at the rally?"

"Let me think. Uh, it was a week before the rally. Friday morning. Why?"

"Who knew about it?"

"Everybody in the department, I guess. I posted the assignment sheet the same day."

"Now, Dillon, think hard. A body of water with ducks. Does that ring any bells?"

"Well, there's the lake behind Uncle Bill's house. Lots of ducks. What's this all about, Adam?"

"In Uncle Bill's house, is there a room with blue carpet, gray walls?"

"Yeah, the living room."

"Did he like music?"

"Yeah, he liked music."

"What kind of music?"

"Mostly country and western. The older stuff. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson. And Elvis. He loved Elvis. What does music have to do with..."

"Where is his house? How far is it?"

"Uncle Bill's house? Walkerville, about twenty minutes away. Why all these questions, Adam?"

"I want to go there. Can you take me tomorrow morning?"

"I guess so. Sure. What time?"

"Pick me up at eight-thirty?"

"I'll be there, but I still don't understand..."

"Good. One more thing, Dillon."

"What?"

"Tell Judy I'm sorry I woke her. And why don't you bring her along. Goodnight, Dillon."

Dillon unlocked the front door, stepped inside and immediately stopped short. "What the hell!"

Adam and Judy quickly entered behind him. In the center of the room a sofa and chair had been overturned and slashed apart. Tables, lamps and wall decorations cluttered the floor. In one corner a TV and VCR looked undamaged, but above them wall shelves were stripped bare. Books, videotapes and framed pictures lay in scrambled heaps on the floor. Melvin Parsons' living room had been thoroughly ransacked.

Dillon's alarm was quickly displaced by the instincts of a trained policeman. He drew his sidearm and held it in both hands, pointed at the ceiling. Judy did the same. Dillon stepped cautiously toward a hallway on the right. Judy went left. They would check the other rooms to see if the intruders were still there. Adam was not concerned about anyone being there, only if they had found what they were searching for, what he himself was now there to find. He was also a little concerned that he would look very foolish if he did not find it.

Dillon and Judy returned to the living room within five minutes. The other rooms had been torn apart, but no one else was in the house. Judy said, "This wasn't looters, Dillon. Someone was searching for something."

"No, not looters," Dillon agreed. "There's a radio, jewelry, even cash in the bedroom, and the VCR's still here. What do you think, Adam?"

Adam was kneeling on the floor below the wall shelves, sorting through the piles of items that had once filled them. "They were searching for something, all right. The question is, did they find it?"

Judy and Dillon watched curiously as Adam carefully worked his way through the piles. The books and pictures he laid aside, but each time he found a video cassette, he picked it up, inspected it for a moment, then laid it aside also. After several minutes he stood up, turned to them and shouted,

"No! They didn't find it. They didn't know what to look for. Here it is!" In his hand, he held one of the videocassettes.

Dillon walked over for a closer look. "I gave him that tape a couple of years ago. Willy Nelson's concert, the one he made after he got in trouble with the IRS over taxes."

"Look at this," Adam said, pointing to a small strip of black plastic tape on the back edge of the cassette. "There's a hole under this tape. When you buy a blank cassette, the hole is covered by a plastic tab so you can record on it. When you buy a pre-recorded video like this one, they remove the tab so you can't record over what's on there. Unless you do what Uncle Bill did. He covered the hole with this tape so he could record something. Play the tape, Dillon."

Judy and Adam carried chairs from the kitchen while Dillon got the tape started, and the three of them sat and watched Willy Nelson perform. Adam didn't pay much attention. Instead, he thought about a tiny strip of paper he had almost discarded the night before along with the other family images. The one of little Austin sitting on the floor surrounded by videotape -- long, thin, black, ribbon-like strips of videotape -- coiled around him like a rope or snake. Just like the one that had mystified him in his images.

The TV screen went black for a few seconds before Melvin Parsons appeared, sitting on the sofa that was now reduced to trash. Stacks of papers lined a small table in front of him. Adam and Judy looked at Dillon. He seemed to be all right as his Uncle Bill began to speak.

"Dillon, you know I never beat around the bush, so I'll get right to it. A few months ago I was going through some tax records in Tallahassee and stumbled on something that's going to shock the pants off you. Here it is. Willy Thornton and his crowd are dirty, Dillon, about as dirty as you can get. What I found that day made me sick. You know I supported Willy all these years, but I couldn't ignore what I found. You know how pig-headed I am. The more I looked, the more I found. They've been lining their own pockets for years."

Melvin Parsons went on to cite names, dates, and amounts, holding up different sheets of paper as he did, of bribes, kickbacks, payoffs and rigged bids for construction projects all over the state. Adam was impressed with his thoroughness.

After some thirty minutes of reciting details and showing supporting documents, Parsons' screen image said, "There's more, Dillon, lots more. All the proof, all these copies of tax records, bank statements, phone records and affidavits from people willing to testify, I keep stashed in the boathouse down by the lake. It'll be in that old ammo box of mine, wrapped in my old Army blanket, under the floorboards of the boat house."

Adam took a quick second to give Parsons a nod of thanks. He'd had absolutely no idea where the old green blanket and rusty metal box fit in. Parsons continued. "There's one more thing I guess I should mention here, Dillon, and I hate to be the one to have to tell you. Someone in your department is involved in all this with them. I don't know for sure who it is yet, but I will soon. That's when I'll have it all, and I'll bring it all out in the open.

"Just to make sure you know about all this I'm going to write a letter to you and put it in my safe deposit box. If anything happens to me you'll get that letter, and it'll tell you about this tape. If I can't finish what I started myself, I know you'll do what needs to be done." Melvin Parsons sat silently for a moment with a thoughtful look. Then, "Well, I guess that covers it." He rose from the sofa but stopped halfway and sat down again. This time, he had a devilish grin on his face as he said, "Oh, one more thing, Dillon. You go ahead and enjoy your dive and don't worry about a thing. After I put all this back in the boat house, I'm going to get a good night's sleep so I can take real good care of ol' Willy at his speech tomorrow." He then smiled and gave a small wave with his hand.

Parsons rose from the sofa and moved off the screen. A moment later, the screen went black. He had shut off the camera. Willy Nelson reappeared on stage, bowing to a standing ovation from his adoring fans, and the tape came to an end.

The room was silent for several moments before Judy Wilson, her eyes welled with tears, said quietly, "He made that tape the night before he died.

He didn't have time to write that letter to you, Dillon. If Adam hadn't found the tape, we might never have known about any of this."

Adam looked at Dillon, who sat hunched forward with his elbows on his knees and his head down. Judy reached over and touched his arm. Dillon said,

"And if I hadn't gone on that dive, he'd still be here to finish what he started."

Adam said, "Dillon, listen to me carefully. You're not responsible for what happened. The shooting was not what you think it was."

Dillon raised his head slowly toward Adam. "What do you mean?"

"Think about the sniper, Dillon," Adam said. "The man who fired those shots was a professional. He chose his spot very carefully and made sure there were no shell casings or fingerprints left behind. The witness who saw him on the rooftop said he was carrying a case of some kind, not a rifle. Only a real pro would have the kind of weapon that could be broken down quickly and hidden in a case. He did everything exactly right -- except one." With a puzzled look now, Dillon asked, "Except one? What was that?"

"He missed his first two shots."

"Anyone can miss, Adam. What're you getting at?"

"Dillon, how far would you say it was from the rooftop to the podium?"

"I'd say sixty, maybe seventy yards."

"Are you a pretty good shot?"

Dillon shrugged. "I guess so. I was second in my class, practice once in a while, hunt a little. Why?"

"Let's say you saw a deer seventy yards away. How many shots would it take you to bring it down?"

"From that distance? Any good hunter would do it with one shot."

"Exactly," said Adam. "And so would any professional shooter. They don't miss."

Dillon looked even more puzzled. "But his first two shots were high."

"He didn't miss, Dillon. The first two shots went where they were supposed to go -- into the wall, two feet above Willy Thornton's head. Thornton was never in any danger. He was safely hidden behind the podium when the third shot was fired. The first two were only to make it look like Thornton was the target."

Dillon stared blankly, his face drained of color. Adam waited for the obvious question.

"Then the third shot...?" Dillon finally asked.

Adam said it slowly. "The third shot also went right where it was supposed to go."

Searching Adams's face with narrowed eyes as if answers to his questions were etched there, Dillon asked, "Are you saying that...Uncle Bill was the target, not Willy Thornton? But...why? It doesn't make any sense."

"It makes sense," Adam said, "if they somehow discovered what he was up to."

Dillon shook his head, "But they didn't expect him to be on the platform that day. It was supposed to be me."

"They could have known about it a week before the rally," Adam said, "when you posted the assignment sheet."

Judy broke in. "And Uncle Bill said someone in the department was tied in with them. That's how they knew."

Adam gave her a nod. "But even if he hadn't been on the platform that day they simply would have set it up for another time and place. His being on the platform just made it an irresistible opportunity."

"What do you mean?" Judy asked.

Adam turned his attention back to Dillon. "In the car after you picked me up at the airport you said the media were covering his campaign like -- what was it? Bees on a hive? -- waiting for the sniper to try again. Thornton saw the opportunity to take care of Melvin Parsons and get a million dollars worth of publicity at the same time. All they had to do was make it look like the accidental death of a man hired to protect him from someone who had threatened his life. It was perfect. Just the kind of thing that would appeal to a man who carries alligators around on his back."

Dillon asked, "But why didn't they mention the phony threats before the rally? It would've made the papers even sooner and would've made their plan more believable."

"My guess is," Adam said, "they knew you would beef up security for the rally if they mentioned the threats. That would have made it harder to pull it off."

Dillon stood and began pacing back and forth. Adam could almost see the wheels turning in the sheriff's head, filling in the rest of the blanks by himself.

"Okay, it makes sense," Dillon said as he paced. "When I brought you in, they got worried. That's why they tried to call off the investigation all of a sudden. They must've thought I would give up and it would all just go away. Well, they don't how pigheaded I am. I'm going to finish what Uncle Bill started, just like he said. You can bet on that. And the first thing I'm going to do is find out who in my department was in it with them."

"Adam, what about the sniper," Judy asked, "do you know who he was?"

Adam shook his head. "No, and I don't think we'll ever know. He could have been brought in from anywhere. Probably in and out the same day. His kind just melts into the woodwork somewhere between jobs."

Dillon agreed. He didn't like it, but he accepted it. He would settle for the ones who paid the sniper. Dillon then looked slowly around Uncle Bill's living room as he walked over to the window. He crossed his arms tightly across his chest and looked out. Judy walked over to him, wrapped both arms around his waist and nestled her head into his shoulder. Adam heard her murmur softly, "Are you okay?" Dillon lowered his head to touch hers.

Adam now knew why he had liked Judy immediately. She reminded him of Caroline. Caroline always knew exactly when he needed a hug. He walked outside to wait and give them a few minutes alone. He needed a cup of coffee. He would ask them to stop at the first place they came to.

A week later, Adam sat at his dinette table leafing through his morning paper. He found it on page seven.

FLORIDA SHERIFF ARRESTS ONE OF HIS OWN MEN

Mendes County Sheriff Dillon M. Corbin announced the arrest of Sergeant Elwood P. Cooley, a 22-year veteran of his own department. Cooley has been charged in connection with the death of Melvin W. Parsons. Parsons was struck and killed by a sniper's bullet during a speech by Florida State Senator William P. Thornton last month. His death, originally ruled accidental when it was believed the senator was the intended victim, has now been ruled an intentional homicide. Sheriff Corbin stated Cooley was cooperating fully and additional arrests are expected as a result of information provided by Cooley. While Sheriff Corbin would not elaborate further, informed sources say this arrest is part of a statewide investigation that could result in the indictment of a long list of elected officials and prominent businessmen on additional charges.

"Good work, Dillon," Adam said aloud.

He looked at the clock above the stove. Nine-fifteen. The mail wouldn't come for another hour. There would be a letter about a little girl who's been missing for some time. A very old woman is involved. And a large vehicle, a bus or truck.

Adam sipped his coffee....and waited.

Waiting.

The part of it he hated most.



Copyright 1999 Earl Staggs