Sheriff of the Swamps Chapter 3

in The Ink Well29 days ago

 

Jackals

When you shoot someone in Moreno Island, the cops send everyone.

At least, that was the impression James had when the MISD showed up. A cop car, then two, then four and six and eight and then an ocean of cruisers, lights flashing, sirens screaming, more police than Babylon PD would ever send to a shooting like this. More police than he’d ever seen in Moreno Island.

Kayla and James had turned themselves in quietly. They dropped their guns when the first deputies arrived. They’d allowed them to recover the weapons, cuff them, pat them down, take their initial statements. Clark supported her protectors, vouching for them, verifying their version of events.

Nonetheless, the deputies hauled them back to the station.

The last time he’d been here, he’d fought and shot and killed his way out. Every step he took surfaced memories of combat. As the deputies marched him to the interview room, he found himself looking for signs of damage. For blood, bullet holes, physical reminders of what he’d done here.

Nothing.

The paint was new. The blood long gone. The holes in the wall were filled up.

Of course they had to repair the damage. Even so, his ego refused to believe his senses, hunting for physical signs that matched his memories. As he walked down the hall, he saw himself in another time, marching a cyborg to his cell, then to the interview room. The deputies even retraced the steps he’d taken.

They sat him down inside the room, cuffed him to the table, and bade him to wait. And wait he did, sitting on the chair, staring at the only door. As a youth, he’d learned to wait while hunting in the woods. In the STS, he’d learned to wait even longer. He willed himself to become a rock in the shape of a man, untouched by the passage of time.

At last the door opened to admit a detective. A tall, lanky man, wearing his shield on a loop around his neck, swaggering in as though he owned everything in sight.

Right behind him was John Silverman. The Wood family lawyer, one of the few attorneys who worked in Moreno Island. Shortly after his return, James had engaged him on retainer, hedging against this very eventuality.

The detective called himself Mike Gable. The second he sat down his attitude changed dramatically. Now he saw with his feet planted on the shoulder, hands on his lap, seemingly loose and relaxed, but ready to spring in another direction. A posture not like James’ own. Gable placed his recorder on the table and recited the time, date, and the persons present.

Silverman sat next to James, set his briefcase down on the floor, and smiled.

“How are you doing, Mr. Wood?”

“Can’t complain.”

“You seem remarkably fine for someone who’s just survived a shootout.”

“Not my first time.”

Gable chuckled unpleasantly.

“Your third time in Moreno, right?”

That you know of.

“Yes.”

“Seems like death and destruction follows you everywhere you go, Mr. Wood.”

“Detective, I’d advise you to keep your interactions professional.”

“Just making an observation, Counselor.”

“I’m making observations too.”

Before the detective could retort, James cut in.

“Let’s get this started.”

James walked Gable through the events that led up to the shoot. He had nothing to fear, nothing to hide. Silverman watched everything, saying little. Gable kept his questions on topic, exhaustive without crossing the line into exhausting.

“You’ve got any idea who might try to make a run at your client?” Gable asked.

“No. I was hoping you do.”

“We’re working on identifying the suspects. We’ll let you and Ms. Clark know the results.”

Ms. Clark. Not Detective Sergeant Clark.

“Doesn’t she work here?”

“She’s on no-pay leave.”

“Doesn’t mean she stopped being a cop.”

Gable shrugged, looking away from James.

“Yeah, well, she’s not active duty right now. And anyway that’s not important.”

As if to cover himself, Gable revisited a few more topics, trying to draw out more answers, then probed deeper into the backstory. What was James doing here, why he was working for Clark, what he’d been up to since his return from Babylon. James answered with complete frankness.

That is, he answered only the questions that were asked, and volunteered no extra information.

Finally, Gable put his recorder away.

“Thank you for your cooperation.”

“Is my client free to go?”

“He’s done nothing wrong and his firearms license checks out. I see no reason to press charges.”

“Thank you,” Silverman said.

“What about Kayla?” James asked.

“We’ll let you know when we’re done with her.”

As he spoke, his eyes gleamed unpleasantly.

#

What were you doing in Moreno Island?” Detective Crow demanded.

“I was hired to protect Detective Sergeant Janet Clark during her electoral campaign,” Kayla replied evenly.

“You barely got off the ferry before you were attacked.”

“Detective Clark seems to be real popular in some circles.”

“What do you know about the shooters?”

“I already told you all the nothing I know about them.”

“Are you licensed to carry a firearm?”

“Of course.”

Crow grinned like a wolf.

“I mean licensed to carry a firearm here, in Moreno Island. Your permit is only for the city of Babylon.”

“I’m former federal law enforcement. I can carry a weapon anywhere I please.”

“The STS was disbanded.”

“She is still covered under the Military and Law Enforcement Safety Act,” the public defender said.

Crow wagged his finger.

“Nope, you’re wrong there, Counselor. Ms. Fox did not retire from the STS. The organization was disbanded.”

“It doesn’t matter. The law says I’m qualified. Run my name against the Federal databases and you’ll see,” she said.

The first thing she did after her discharge was to hire a high-priced lawyer to fight for her firearms rights. Five months and tens of thousands of dollars later, the lawyer cordially informed her that she was indeed covered under MLESA and enjoyed all the rights and privileges of any law enforcement officer.

“You’re not licensed to carry in Moreno. Your weapon is illegal.”

The public defender fell silent. Kayla fought down a twitch of irritation.

“Federal law trumps state law. It’s written explicitly in MLESA.”

“It may be so in Babylon. But this here is Moreno Island.”

“So what? Is Moreno telling Babylon what to do?”

“We have rules here. One of them is that you cannot carry a firearm without a permit issued by the Sheriff.”

“For civilians, maybe. I ain’t.”

“No, no, that’s where you’re wrong, Ms. Fox. You’re a civilian now. That means we’ve got you dead to rights on unlawful possession, carrying and concealment of a firearm.”

She turned to the public defender.

“Detective Crow here just proposed to violate federal law.”

The alleged attorney cleared his throat.

“He is right that no one may carry a firearm here without a permit…”

Crow beamed.

“And you can be sentenced to up to five years of prison, and a fine of thirty thousand dollars.”

“My MLESA status is my permit,” Kayla said.

“However…” the defender continued.

Kayla glared at him.

He was a painfully young man, probably fresh from law school. With his huge ground glasses and weak chin, he looked like a puppet instead of a man. His Adam’s apple bobbed, betraying a massive swallow.

“‘However’?” Crow probed.

“Ms. Fox is correct in her statement that MLESA trumps local law. The question I must ask is: is she in fact a qualified law enforcement officer?”

Kayla relaxed, and grinned.

“The STS was abolished. The agents were disciplined and terminated with prejudice from government service,” Crow replied.

“Have you, in fact, verified her status?”

Crow shifted.

“I sent in the request. I’m still waiting for a response.”

The attorney crossed his arms.

“Then let us wait until it arrives. Unless you have any more questions?”

There were none.

The cops marched Kayla back to her cell. It reeked of desperate sweat and old vomit, but at least the mattress appeared clean and there were no other inmates with her.

She’d seen firsthand the tension between local police and federal law enforcement. Especially the Public Security Bureau. The Peebs framed themselves as a world-class law enforcement agency, bringing the most scientific investigation techniques and the most modern gear to bear on critical cases. The locals appreciated the assistance but resented the way the Bureau claimed all the credit for themselves. Their ire spilled over to taint even former Peebs.

And after what the STS had done here, it was a small wonder the locals hadn’t roughed her up even more.

James had briefed her about the local terrain during his call. She’d expected hostility and noncooperation. She hadn’t seen herself being arrested within the first day, the first hour, of arrival.

On the other hand, James had juice here. He’d use it to get her out. She was already legally covered. All it would take was to whisper in a few ears and fill out the right paperwork. She’d seen in happen more than enough times in her ill-fated law enforcement career. Until Crow saw the error of his ways, there was only one thing she could do.

Wait.

#

Hours passed.

The cops were taking their own sweet time, drawing out the process, inflicting one last cut. She knew it shouldn’t take this long to verify her status. Back when she was a newbie Peeb fresh from the Academy, she’d run more than her fair share of background checks. It wouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes. Even five minutes was stretching it.

This was just petty vindictiveness.

But, as Yuri Yamamoto had taught her once, if she allowed herself to feel angry, she was only giving them what they wanted.

She passed the time doing everything she could in such a small space. Stretches. Light calisthenics. Planning her next move. And she grew sick of that, she meditated.

Such a simple task. Sit and breathe and nothing more.

But it was so damn difficult.

She sat on the mattress, feet planted firmly on the floor, hands on her lap, veiled her eyes and stared at a point on the wall. She turned her attention to her inner world, to the inhale and exhale, to the tensions held within her. She adjusted her posture, raising her spine and neck, opening her chest, releasing and relaxing her muscles.

And breathed.

Almost immediately, thoughts flooded her head. What were the locals going to do to her? Who were the shooters and the shot-caller? What did they want? Were the New Gods involved, or was this strictly local? What should she do when she got out?

They buzzed around her brain like mosquitoes. She relaxed, watching the thoughts rise and fall, letting them pass away of their own accord. She didn’t have the answers, but she knew she would find them, and that was all the energy she needed to spend on these distractions. Yet every time she felt a thought dissolve, a fresh one appeared.

She knew she was comfortable with stillness. Always had been, even as a little girl. But this was a different, deeper kind of stillness. She wondered how Yuri handled it.

Practice, no doubt. Constant, relentless, unending practice until it became second nature.

It was his way. And hers.

They served her lunch in her cell. A scoop of overcooked beans and franks, a serving of tasteless sliced potatoes and another of unidentifiable vegetables, three slices of bread with no-brand margarine, an overripe apple and a glass of water. She had worse in her time in the Box, but not much worse than this.

More time passed.

She spent it in meditation, in stillness, or at least as close to it as she could.

At last, a pair of cops marched up to her cell. The older of the pair jangled a set of heavy keys as he walked.

“Ms. Fox?”

She rose to her feet.

“That’s me.”

“Time to get you out of here.”

“I’m being released?”

“Not yet. But soon.”

They escorted her from her cell, leading her past Booking and deeper into the station itself. But they didn’t cuff her. Always a good sign.

The deputies brought her into a conference room. At one end of a long table, James Wood and Janet Clark sat, arms crossed. His face lightened as she stepped in. Clark glanced at her, then glared at the third man in the room.

Every inch of him was soft and round. He was a wobbly pudding shaped like a man, scorched pink and red, squeezed into a deep green uniform. His short-sleeved shirt strained at the seams, the buttons threatening to pop. An enormous belly flopped over a generously-oversized pair of pants. His patent leather dress shoes shone brilliantly in the weak light. Over his breast, he wore a giant gold star.

He rose unsteadily to his feet, propping himself up against the table.

“Ms. Fox. Sheriff Josh Smith. Pleasure to meet you.”

Smith extended his hand. Fox moved to grasp it. It was like seizing a dead fish, moist and squishy and slippery.

Then he applied pressure and suddenly he was crushing her hand.

She met his grip and then some, locking down her hand into a death grip, smiling into his eyes, promising daggers behind her own.

Two can play this game.

Smith smirked and let go. Kayla pulled up a seat next to Clark.

“Apologies for any unpleasantness or inconveniences you may have experienced. We are satisfied that you have acted fully in accordance with the law. We will not be pressing charges at this time.”

As Smith spoke, his eyes bored into Clark. Clark returned his gaze with a shark-like smile.

“Thank you very much, Sheriff,” Clark said.

“We must ask you to stay in Moreno Island for the time being, to assist with further investigations.”

“No problem,” Kayla said.

“Could we get our guns back?” James asked.

“Sorry, no. We must hold on to them as part of our investigations.”

“When will you release them?”

“Once our detectives have closed the case.”

Which, no doubt, would only occur well after the election. If at all. If the guns didn’t simply walk themselves out of the evidence room and into a private locker.

At least Kayla didn’t take any of her nice guns on this job.

“My life is at risk, Sheriff. My protectors need their guns back,” Clark said.

Smith spread his arms in a gesture of feigned benevolence.

“I sympathize, Detective. Nonetheless… rules are rules.”

“Then I must request for a protection detail from the Department.”

“We have few deputies to spare, I’m afraid.”

“Even a paid detail?”

“After the Temple Commission swept through Saint Lucile, we saw an uptick of organized crime activity. I’m sure you’re as aware of it as I am. I’ve had to redeploy law enforcement resources accordingly. We’ve scaled back paid details in favor of putting more boots on the ground, as you’re so fond of saying.”

“Which I intend to do by improving recruitment standards and incentives, so that there’ll be enough deputies to cover the entire island,” Clark said.

“Yes, yes, but I’m sure you didn’t come all this way to debate policy, yes?”

“Given the circumstances, we didn’t want to be here at all,” Kayla said.

Smith laughed.

“True, true. Hardly anyone wants to be swept up in a self-defense shooting. Especially someone with as much… experience as you.”

“Everywhere we go, we find ourselves cleaning house,” Kayla said.

Smith’s eyes narrowed.

“We would thank you for not stirring up any more trouble for the length of your stay.”

“We don’t plan on starting trouble—”

“Good.”

“—but trouble seems to find us anyway,” Kayla finished.

“Don’t go looking for trouble and trouble won’t come looking for you.”

“We didn’t want any trouble, but it came looking for us anyway,” James said.

“Being a politician is dangerous in this day and age, isn’t it?”

“Funny how you never seem to be targeted. Or everyone who wore that badge before you,” Clark said.

“Moreno Island was a peaceful community. Then the Feds came. They cut out corruption from society, true, but they left a gaping hole behind them and expect us to clean up. I do what I can, but… well, you understand, we need to carefully manage law enforcement resources to protect and serve the people.”

Kayla clenched her fists under the table. Did the Sheriff just imply that he wouldn’t protect and serve someone running against him?

“Then I’ll have to deploy my own protectors to manage my security.”

“Do as you see fit. Just keep it above the board.”

“I always do.”

“I’ve got a question for you, if you don’t mind,” James said.

“Go ahead.”

“Who were the hitters?”

“We don’t know. We’re still in the process of identifying them.”

“How did they know where we were?”

“Maybe they followed you—”

“No. I ran a lengthy surveillance detection route from Detective Clark’s home to the ferry terminal. No one followed us. The hitters were already waiting for us. They repositioned their SUV after we arrived to cut us off.”

Kayla’s eyes narrowed.

“Who knew we were going to the terminal?” James asked.

Clark sat up straight. Her hands rested on the table. Her face hardened to granite. Her gaze drilled into Smith’s.

“I told Captain Brian Holt that I was going there to meet a specialist from Babylon,” Clark said.

Her words were ice, her eyes pyres.

“I see,” Smith said tonelessly.

“Why did you tell him where you were going?” Kayla asked.

“Regulations state that all personal security details and private investigators operating in Moreno must be registered with the MISD. I spoke with Captain Holt about the legalities of hiring a specialist from Babylon. He said there were no problems with it. We just had to fill out the appropriate paperwork. I told him I would meet you at the terminal in the morning, then bring you and Mr. Wood to the station. We arranged an appointment for eleven o’clock.”

“Captain Holt served with us for twenty-two years. Are you accusing him of hiring the hitmen?” Clark said, his voice sharpening into knives.

“I only said that I told him where we were going. And he was the only person who I disclosed my plans to.”

“Seems you need to investigate this Captain Holt,” James said.

“I will inform the Professional Standards Unit.”

“Captain George South is in charge of the PSU, isn’t he? And a close personal friend of Captain Holt too,” Clark said.

“Are you questioning his objectivity too?”

“Just making an observation.”

“I trust Captain South. I will ensure he will run a thorough and objective investigation into any allegations of corruption.”

Clark smiled tightly.

“I’m sure you will.”

“Thank you for your vote of confidence. In the meantime, there is one last matter you should attend to.”

“Which is?”

“The media.”

“What about the media?”

“Word of the shooting spread quickly. Now we have journalists from the Moreno Island Courier, the Babylon Times, the Riveria Herald, and every major news agency crawling all over the reception area. They want a statement.”

“You’re going to talk to them?” Clark asked.

“Of course. But you are free not to speak to them if you wish.”

“I’ll speak to them too.”

“You wish to make a joint statement?”

“Of course.”

#

The press were jackals.

Every time there was a killing in Babylon, there they would be, descending on the scene like vultures, documenting the scene with ghoulish fascination. The more blood the killers spilled, the more horrific the crime, the better.

It was no different here.

The journalists and cameramen crammed themselves into the conference room. Kayla and James hung way back, out of sight of the cameras. Smith and Clark took center stage, frowning somberly into an army of camera lenses.

Smith opened the conference with a succinct recount of the events at the terminal. The journalists hung on to every word, all the way to the conclusion.

“Such a heinous act of violence is unacceptable in our community. We are grateful that Detective Clark and her bodyguards are alive and well. We will chase down every lead and take every step necessary to find and arrest those who would target innocents and compromise our democratic processes.”

Clark took a moment to compose herself. When she spoke, her voice rang clear and loud, a queen addressing her people.

“I’ve served in the Department for thirteen years. In those thirteen years, I have never seen violence as horrific as this. Killers with long guns attempting a drive-by shooting in broad daylight. Criminal aggression like this has no place in our society.

“I wish to express my deepest gratitude to my protective detail. Thanks to their skill and bravery, we all escaped unharmed. Thanks also to the first responders, who arrived promptly and ensured our continued safety. They are the finest of our community, standing between order and chaos.

“Make no mistake. This is an act of terrorism. It is the culmination of a campaign of harassment and death threats aimed at me and my family. The ones behind this thought they could scare me into dropping out of the race. I refuse to give in to fear. They chose to escalate to assassination. And failed.

“They are afraid. They are afraid of what I will bring to Moreno Island. Having seen first-hand the impact of gangs, narcotics and corruption in our community, I will do everything in our power to protect and serve our citizens and to wipe out the criminal elements infesting our society.

“They thought they could scare me. I don’t scare at all. They thought they could kill me. It’ll take more than that to even touch me. To those who organized this hit, I have this to say to you.

“We are coming for you. We will find you. We will stop you.”

The second Clark finished, the journalists rose from their seats, thrusting their mics high, shouting a flurry of questions. Smith held out his hands placatingly.

“One question at a time, please. We’ll come to you in a moment.”

It took a minute to restore order. Another half-minute for Smith to choose his first questioner, a journalist from the Riveria Herald.

“Detective Clark, you said this was an act of terrorism. Are you saying that you were targeted because you were running for the elections?”

“We’re not going to jump to conclusions here—” Smith began.

“Yes,” Clark said. “It is the only logical explanation.”

“Who is responsible?”

“It is an ongoing investigation, so we can’t comment at this time. But we are exploring all available leads,” Smith said.

“Do you know why they want to kill you?”

“They want to degrade our democracy using force. We will not allow them to do so,” Smith said.

“If I’m elected as Sheriff, I will push for broad measures to restore law and order to our community. The criminals behind this attack don’t want this. They don’t want a new Sheriff of the swamps.”

The next question came from the Courier.

“Sheriff, how do you plan to respond to this attack?”

“I can’t reveal too many details, of course, but I am coordinating a massive anti-crime effort as we speak. In line with my public safety policies, we will step up patrols in the area, identify the perpetrators and their enablers, and crack down hard on them. The men and women of the Sheriff’s Department are ready to protect and serve.”

“What about you, Miss Clark?”

“I am taking measures to ensure the safety of my community, family and myself. That’s all I can say on this matter.”

Trust Smith to turn this into an opportunity to promote himself, Kayla thought.

Now came the reporter from Babylon, mic held high.

“You said you are taking measures to ensure your safety. Does that include hiring two former operatives from the now-disbanded Special Tasks Section?”

Kayla startled.

James twitched.

Clark blinked.

“Excused me?”

The man thumbed behind his shoulder.

“I recognize those two. James Wood and Kayla Fox, formerly from Team Black Watch of the STS. The team with the highest body count in a paramilitary organization infamous for its body count. Are they your bodyguards?”

“I can’t comment on that—”

As one the reporters wheeled around. Cameras clicked and flashed. A clamor rose from the crowd. Kayla held out her hand, covering her face. James watched the mob, scanning for threats.

“No pictures!” she called.

“We’re not part of the press conference!” James said. “Turn back around.”

“Detective Clark, could I confirm that you hired Mr. Wood and Ms. Fox as bodyguards?”

Smith glared furiously at the press.

“I refuse to comment on my personal security measures, or on my protectors. I will ask you to refrain from doing anything that might compromise our safety. There are criminal elements out there hunting us, and any information you divulge will only help them.”

“Why are two of the deadliest former law enforcement officers in the nation in this room?”

“I am done answering questions.” She paused and pointed at the journalist. “If anything happens to me, my family, or my protectors, it is on your head, and that of the Babylon Times.”

She stormed out the door. As James and Kayla followed, the reporters loosed a torrent of questions. Kayla ignored them all, giving them only the side of her face.

She’d always despised reporters, those that sought only headlines and glory in service of the New Gods. They were far more trouble than they were worth. Here was another reason to hate them.

“They’re going to paint you as a monster,” James said.

Clark nodded grimly.

“I can see tomorrow’s headlines now. Janet Clark is so tough on crime, she brought in gunslingers to protect her and clean house. She’ll militarize the SD like the STS and turn Moreno Island into a warzone.”

“I’m sorry,” Kayla said. “I didn’t expect this to happen.”

“They suckered us into it. It’s just how the game is played over here.”

“Will this affect your chances of election?”

“Yeah. But there’s one thing they don’t understand.”

“What is it?”

“They think they can discredit me by painting me as a brutal and heavy-handed cop. They think they can claim I’m militarizing law enforcement and call it a victory. They think the people want more of the same.

“They’re wrong.

“The people want change. They’re sick of the crime and the drugs and the violence that washed up here ever since the New Gods rooted themselves here. They want someone who is tough on crime and corruption. The tougher the better.”

“Someone like you.”

She smile. “Exactly.”

Back in the STS, James Wood and Kayla Fox never had to worry about the press. Too much. Check out their adventures in BABYLON BLUES!



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