--05 Grave Matters (10-2004)

For Skip Willits-

who knows that art matters.

I would like to acknowledge my assistant on this

work, forensics researcher/co-plotter,

Matthew V. Clemens.

Further acknowledgments appear at the

conclusion of this novel.

M.A.C.

'I never guess. It is a shocking habit.'

-The Sign of Four, ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE

'Very few of us are what we seem.'

-Partners in Crime, AGATHA CHRISTIE

1

AUGUST HEAT PUMMELED LAS VEGAS, the nighttime temperature hovering just over 100 degrees, driving the natives inside the air-conditioned sanctity of their homes. Out on Las Vegas Boulevard, in front of Treasure Island, electronically controlled sprayers over the sidewalks cool-misted the crowd as they watched pirates killing each other…though where mist stopped and the sweat started, who could say?

Downtown, on Fremont Street, even as the evening light show flashed overhead like gaudy lightning, many of the usual gawkers ducked into the coolness of casinos lining the pedestrian mall. Hearing Sinatra sing about luck being a lady, craning your head back to watch giant tumbling electric dice, wasn't nearly so much fun when salty pools of perspiration settled in and around your eyes.

In the desert around the city, even the animals were hunkering down, seeking the coolest spots Mother Nature could provide. Coyotes lay silent, too parched to howl, and the snakes sought refuge under rocks, away from the scorching desert air, slithering into coiled solitude as if finally accepting guilt for the Garden of Eden.

During the day, when the heat did its worst, the temperature rising to over 110 degrees, tourists still milled around the Strip, shuffling with the dutiful doggedness of the vacationer ('We paid for this fun package, and by God…') from one attraction to the next, all of them bleeding sweat, each weary traveler trudging along shell-shocked, wondering how they aimed for an oasis and wound up instead in the Ninth Circle of Hell. The endless parade-this Bataan Death March outfitted in garish T-shirts, Bermuda shorts, and dark socks with sandals-took each step as if absorbing a punch.

Stuck in traffic, watching the sorry spectacle, Captain Jim Brass could relate, even though his Ford Taurus's air conditioner was cranked to the max. It's not the heat, he thought, it's the humanity. The coolness of the car's interior did nothing to relieve the sensation that he was being pummeled with each throb of a massive headache that had settled behind his eyes like a house guest that had no intention of leaving, though the party was long since over.

He hadn't even taken off his sportcoat, a sharp brown number that with his gold-patterned tie reflected an improved fashion sense that admittedly had taken him years past his divorce to cultivate. A compact man with short brown hair and a melancholy mien that belied an inner alertness, Jim Brass fought hard against cynicism, and mostly won. But what Brass had not seen in his almost twenty-five years on the Las Vegas Police Department, he was not anxious to.

As usual, the summer heat had brought out the crazies-local and imported. Here it was, not even the fifteenth of August, and already the city was pushing double-digit homicides for the month. LVPD had averaged investigating just over a dozen homicides per month for the last two years-a staggering number for a department short of bodies, at least the right kind of bodies-and now the heat seemed to be driving that number off the graph.

Brass worried that the hotter this oven of a desert got, the sooner the city might boil over….

And, of course, the politics of Brass's job were as unrelenting as the blinding sun.

There was, as the saying went, a new sheriff in town…who was bringing down some heat of his own. Former Sheriff Brian Mobley, had-after a failed mayoral bid-resigned; Mobley had never been anybody's favorite administrator, and few mourned his passing. But Sheriff Rory Atwater, while possessing better people skills than his predecessor, was no pushover. Atwater wanted the spate of killings stopped, and-Brass had already learned, in the new sheriff's first few months on the job-what Rory Atwater wanted, Rory Atwater generally got.

Both sheriffs were good, honest cops; but each was, in his way, a career politician, which only reflected the reality of the waters both lawmen had to swim in. The difference was: Mobley had always seemed like a high- school bully trying to behave himself while running for class president; Atwater, on the other hand, was smoother, more polished, and there were those in the department who considered the new boss a barracuda in a tailored suit.

Sighing to himself, stuck behind an SUV at a light, Brass pondered the latest absurdity: Atwater's meetings and memos had made it clear the sheriff expected these murders (and probably the damned heat wave as well) to stop simply because the man wanted them to…as if he could will homicide to take its own Vegas vacation. And it was up to Brass and the rest of the LVPD to turn the sheriff's desire into reality…with the results expected sooner, not later.

The snarled line of cars pulled forward another yard and Brass eased ahead, his eyes flicking toward the switch for the flashers. He was tempted, but he wouldn't break the rules and, besides, what the hell good would it do? Even if the cars ahead were willing to move out of the way, they couldn't.

Another twenty minutes passed before Brass finally slipped the Taurus into a parking place and hustled from the car into HQ, the broiling temperature popping beads of sweat out on his forehead, despite the short walk into the building. Sidestepping the metal detector, Brass nodded to the uniformed officer guarding the entrance and resisted the urge to mop his brow with his sleeve; the fabric wouldn't like it. Metal detectors had become SOP for many government buildings after 9/11, and Vegas had been no different from hundreds of other American cities in jumping on the security bandwagon.

The officer at the door was a post-9/11 occurrence as well. City Hall's atrium lobby was large and saw a great deal of foot traffic during any given day. Today was typical, with pedestrians seemingly everywhere and Brass having to duck in and out of the crowd as he made his way toward the elevator.

He had just squeezed in, touched the button for the correct floor, and was watching the doors slide shut when a suit-coated arm broke through and stopped them. Amid frowns and sighs from the half-dozen other people in the car-irritation was high on a hot day like this-Sheriff Rory Atwater strode into the elevator and gave them all a quick once-over and smile, as if this were a meeting he'd convened. Then he nodded and turned to face front.

The sheriff-in a double-breasted gray suit, white shirt with a red and blue patterned tie-showed no sign whatever that he had spent even a second in the blast furnace outside. The man's wide gray eyes matched his suit and his light brown hair, slowly turning silver, was close-cropped and as neatly trimmed as his thick mustache. The effect was dignified and gave weight to his self-possession, serving to make him appear older than his forty-five years.

'Well, this saves me a phone call,' Atwater said cheerfully, tossing a grin toward the detective who found himself at the sheriff's side.

Brass managed to smile just enough in return, inwardly wondering, Now what in hell?

'Does it?' Brass said mildly.

'It does,' Atwater said. 'Someone I want you to meet, up in my office.'

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