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Kirk Russell Books
Shell Games

Shell Games


Chapter One

When Marquez saw the forested ridge at the end of the canyon he knew he was close. He rounded the last curve and lowered the driver's window, smelling pine pitch and dry grass as afternoon heat swept the truck cab. As he slowed to a stop near the steel posts at the campground entrance, Davies stepped out onto the road and started toward him, a smile on his sweat-streaked face as though they shared some joke played on the dead men.

"Guess they weren't as smart as they thought, Lieutenant," Davies said.

"Guess not. Where are they?"

"About half a mile up the creek trail."

Marquez drove over the entry chain and the quarantine sign attached to it. He parked near a rusted iron barbecue at one of the campsite slots and sat on a picnic table, his fingers tracing initials carved in the top as he phoned the sheriff's office in Mendocino. He identified himself as the patrol lieutenant of California Fish and Game's covert SOU, the Special Operations Unit, telling the detective he was with a Mark Davies, who'd found the bodies of two men along the canyon wall northeast of the Guyanno Creek campground, south of Fort Bragg. The detective drew a breath and Marquez heard a pen scratch paper.

"And when did this Davies call you?" the detective asked.

"Roughly three hours ago."

"Why did you wait so long to call?"

"He said if I didn't come alone he'd leave."

"Who is he?"

"An urchin diver. He works out of Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg. He's helped my team a couple of times."

"An informant?"

"More like a concerned citizen."

"Right. Your name again, officer?"

"John Marquez."

"Hold for a second, Marquez."

When the detective got back on the line he wanted to confirm it was the campground that had been closed by a bubonic plague outbreak and then said they were on their way and not to leave, not to touch anything. Marquez hung up guessing it would be more than an hour before detectives arrived, at least twenty minutes before a county cruiser. He folded his phone and walked up to where Davies stood cleaning his sunglasses with his T-shirt, near a car parked at one of the campsites, an '80s model with faded black paint, a salt-rusted body, a beater with a set of new tires that were probably worth more than the vehicle. He saw dive weights and flippers in the passenger foot well, a yellowed newspaper on the back seat, a sweatshirt turned inside out.

"The owner of this got the shady side of the tree," Davies said.

"Somebody really did a number on them."

"You knew him?"

"I recognize him, but I didn't know him that well. Knew his dive partner better."

Marquez decided he'd run the license plate of the Supra after Davies showed him what he'd found. They started up the creek trail, skirting waist-high greasewood and taller poison oak with red leaves curled and drying. He smelled creek mud and the dry oaks, and for a third of a mile the trail shadowed the water and then climbed into sunlight where a yellow two-man tent was pitched on a patch of grass and thistle, its flap open, two sleeping bags visible, rumpled clothes, a battery-powered lantern with a shattered light. No blood, no sign of violence.

"Did you toss their campsite?"

"Yeah."

"Why?"

"Messing with them, letting them know they weren't alone up here like they thought."

Marquez nodded as though that made sense, but it didn't. Why tip the poachers off that you were here? He felt Davies studying him as he looked over at the campsite. Bottlenose flies rested on the tent sides. A cooler lay in the dry grass nearby with an open package of hotdogs spilling out. A jar of mayonnaise had its lid off and the ants had found it. He pictured Davies tearing up this campsite in the early morning.

"They didn't cook up here," Davies said, as if somehow that was important. "They probably cooked down at the barbecues or ate in town."

He knew Davies easily could have left without making any calls. He could have burned everything he'd touched in a barbecue pit, left it smoldering and taken off, and with the campground closed there was no saying when these bodies would have been found.

"How did you know to look further up the trail?"

"I figured they were shucking it up here somewhere. I looked all around down at the main campsite before I ever came up here. You ready to take a look?"

Marquez picked a couple of bay leaves as they passed through a stand of trees. He folded the leaves, bringing the pungent smell close to his nose before letting them fall to the trail. Nervous anticipation started in him. Something didn't feel right in Davies's story, not that he was lying, but leaving something out. When they came out of the trees he studied the terrain ahead, remembering how the canyon narrowed as it funneled toward the mountains, the country steep and thick with brush. The path didn't go much farther and you had your choice of a deer trail or staying in the rocky creek bed. He heard a faraway police siren like an animal calling from down the canyon and turned his back on the sound, looked upstream through the brush and trees, trying to spot the poachers' setup. He saw a flat table of dark rock and a flash of orange in the brush. He pointed at it.

"There?"

Davies nodded but didn't move, blocking the trail instead, the long muscles of his arms rippling as he folded them over his chest. His face carried white streaks of dried sweat and he was unshaven, his whiskers black, eyes bright with urgency.

"I know you're wondering about me, Lieutenant, but I didn't kill them. I was done with anything to do with killing when I left the navy, but I did get in a fight a couple weeks ago with one of these guys and that's going to fuck things up. It was a bar fight; he got a lawyer to sue me. Supposedly, I fucked up his eye with a chair leg."

"What else haven't you told me?"

"I was going to tell you that."

They started moving again, working their way down to the creek. He left his shoes on, but rolled up his pants and the water felt cool and smooth against his calves. Rocks turned and slid underfoot as he walked up the stream bed with the light current pulling against him. When they reached the work area the poachers had built he put a hand on a flat boulder and stepped out of the creek.

A wood plank had been laid across two aluminum sawhorses to make a table to shuck on, and a pile of abalone shells was at one end, hundreds of them spilling under the brush and into the creek, their silvery green and pink interiors iridescent and reflecting underwater. Flies buzzed around the pile and as he flipped one of the bigger shells with his foot they swarmed around his ankle. White, green, red, pink, threaded, and black abalone had once been plentiful up and down the coast, but only the red were left in any quantity, and Fish and Game was fighting poachers for those, losing a quarter million a year to the black market and to divers who ignored the state limit of twenty-four. There'd been twenty grand in abalone here. He slapped at a fly on his neck and decided he'd get his camcorder and notebook from the truck and come back up here alone.

"There's someone with cash to burn who wants it all, Lieutenant. He's paying fifty, sixty dollars an ab. You've got to be hearing the same thing."

Marquez stared at the shell pile knowing the truth in that. It was the main reason he'd driven up here before calling the county. The global black market in animal parts was second only to drug running, but until now California had dodged the commercial poachers. That they were up against one he didn't doubt at all. They hadn't been able to touch him and biologists and recreational divers were reporting abalone beds that looked like they'd been vacuumed. Bars and docks were boiling with rumors of big money. He pictured the pair here lugging their catch up the creek trail, then carrying shucked abalone back out to the parking lot packed on ice in coolers. Deals going down in the campground, the chain dropped, coolers of abalone transferred under headlights, and then sitting around afterwards near their tent, drinking and smoking under the long arc of the stars, feeling like they had it all figured out.

When they got back to the creek trail the siren was much closer. They climbed and Marquez saw a clearing ahead. His eye followed the trampled grass and thistle to a man's body on the far side of the clearing, sitting against a large oak, head tilted slightly up, as though he'd been resting in the shade waiting for them to arrive. As they got closer and he saw the wound in the man's abdomen a buzzing started in his head. Davies's voice floated in the distance.

"That's Ray Stocker," Davies said. "He was a grade-A asshole."

Marquez looked at the knife buried in the tree above Stocker's head and an image from another killing rose in his memory, one from his DEA years.

"What else do you know about Stocker?"

"He hung with a guy named Danny Huega you'll want to talk to. I don't know for sure Huega was working with them, but there's a pretty good chance. He's another urchin diver."

"Does he have a boat?"

"The Coney Island."

Marquez knew the boat and had an idea who Huega was, pictured a brown-haired diver with a coffee-colored birthmark on one side of his neck. They'd find him and talk to him, if not today, then tomorrow.

Davies pointed. "See the tattoo on Stocker's right arm?" The bluish blur was hard to make out at this distance. "That's the constellation Orion. Stocker called himself Orion. That's the kind of bullshit he was. The guy around back of the tree is the one who owned the Supra. Name is Peter Han. He showed up in Bragg about seven or eight months ago and was probably selling dope with Stocker. No one is making a real living off the water or anything else around here anymore. That's why there's more poaching. They're closing the Georgia-Pacific plant in October so there's not going to be shit left of Fort Bragg. They talk about tourism but who's going to stay in Bragg when they can stay in places like Mendocino."

Even with the heat, decomp had barely started and Marquez guessed they'd died last night. The second man sat with his legs splayed, right arm falling to the side, but Marquez couldn't get a good look at his face without getting closer, and didn't see a way to do that without contaminating the crime scene. He could make out abrasions on Han's face and wondered if he'd had answers beaten out of him. Was this a robbery, torturing them to find out where money was hidden? Why take it to this degree? He took in the broader scene again, Stocker facing out toward the clearing, Han toward the brush and steep canyon wall. A heavy link chain had been wrapped around the tree and their necks, then ratcheted tight with a rusty come-along that looked like an old coyote trap. Wrists and ankles bound with wire.

Stocker's intestines had sagged onto his groin and Marquez looked again at the knife stuck in the tree above his head, a military blade or a knockoff of one. He'd been a big man, heavy-boned, tall, about two hundred-fifty pounds. Both wore boxer shorts, so maybe they'd been asleep in the tent. That would be the time to take a man Stocker's size. Hold a gun to his head and tell him to get up very slowly. Bind his wrists before backing him out and walking him up here.

The siren closed in now and then shut down abruptly. Marquez guessed the county cop was just reaching the campground entrance and looking for him, probably thinking about the quarantine, the young girl who'd contracted plague here a month ago in August. The girl had survived but the media had played it up and the cop was probably wishing he hadn't caught this call.

When they hiked back down there were three county patrol cars parked in the lot with their lights still spinning. Marquez showed his badge. He could tell the uniforms had been told to sequester Davies and after they sat him in the back of a patrol car, Marquez got his video camera from the truck and walked back up to film the shucking table and shells. He'd wait for the detectives to clear him before removing any evidence, but he documented and made a rough count. He wrote his notes and made a sketch of the setup, putting the creek in his drawing, the brush and the flat rock, reasoning that the poachers had carried the abalone up here in case anyone visited the campground, though they'd also cut the entry lock and put on their own.

Two detectives had arrived while he was filming and had gone up to look at the bodies. They had put an end to the sightseeing, confining the county cops to the paved area, ordering crime tape strung across the upper end of the campground as though they could close the canyon off. When he returned from the shell pile, Marquez sat on the table near his truck and finished his notes as the cops running the yellow tape behind him agreed that this had been a drug hit and that it was no surprise. One cop said the last case of plague had been in Ukiah, you never saw it this close to the coast and that probably it was because of global warming. He said last winter's rains were proof, and then their conversation went sideways into the poor quality of tires on county cruisers nowadays.

Marquez watched the two county detectives come down off the trail and start toward him. Detectives Ruter and Streatfield. They shook his hand, listened, and took notes, their eyes offering neither acceptance nor judgment, their smiles a formality. The taller one, Streatfield, had a tired brown mustache and eyes that looked like they wanted to sit in a porch chair and get out of this heat. The other, Ruter, was clearly in charge. He exchanged cards with Marquez and wanted to know about the Fish and Game covert team, but Marquez said little by way of explanation, which was his habit because they were often working small towns where word traveled fast and cops gossiped as much as anybody, maybe more.

They took his statement, working it chronologically, moving slowly up the timeline from Davies's first phone call this morning, an edge creeping into their voices as he admitted not following protocol by delaying his call to them. They wanted him to say he was a friend of Davies and kept coming back to it.

"He's helped you before," Ruter said. "Isn't that right?"

"It is."

Poaching tips were the rainwater that nourished the Fish and Game system and Davies had helped his team without ever asking for CalTip money, the fund used to pay tipsters. Marquez had a lot of respect for that, but this was something else and he wasn't sure what he thought yet and wasn't going to speculate with the detectives.

"And he was here for you today. He hiked up the creek last night on a mission for Fish and Game."

"We don't run missions."

"He talks like he's on a mission and he's an ex navy SEAL, did you know that?"

"Yeah, he told me once."

"He reported in to you and maybe you said you'd handle us. You're fighting a war to save the abalone and he's on the front lines."

"I think I already saw that movie, Ruter. Why don't you cut to the chase?"

"All right, I will. You ought to be full of apologies for giving the killer or killers an extra three hours to get away, but you're not and Davies talks like what he did was the right thing to do, calling you first. So I'll be calling your chief this afternoon and asking him when shellfish became a higher priority than murder."

"I'll give you his phone number and my cell. That's the best way to get ahold of me."

"You're not leaving yet. You stick with your picnic table a little longer."

Marquez made phone calls. He picked up his voice mail and listened to a message from Jimmy Bailey, a ponytailed informant out of Pillar Point, near Half Moon Bay, thirty miles south of San Francisco, a man his team had nicknamed "Docktalk." Next, he called Fish and Game dispatch and ran the Supra, got the name Peter Han and a Bay Area address, Daly City. He asked dispatch to check Stocker's and Han's names for boat registration and they came up negative. It was another hour before Ruter came back to him.

"What kind of money is in abalone?"

"Roughly fifty dollars a pound."

"What do poachers take a year? Give me a dollar value."

"Ten million."

"And what do these divers make on urchin?"

"A dollar fifty a pound."

"Fifty a pound for abalone, a dollar fifty for urchin," Ruter repeated. Marquez nodded. Ruter continued, "I guess you do need help if you can't keep a lowlife like Stocker from pulling that many abalone. You're not covering the base and you're worried about it? Is that it? Davies called and you jumped in your truck without thinking about procedure."

Marquez let it slide and Ruter pointed at the camcorder lying on the picnic table.

"Did you take pictures of the victims?"

"No."

"You don't mind if I look at the tape, do you?"

"Go ahead."

Ruter talked as he watched the video playback. "I wish we had equipment like this, but we had to fight just to get cell phones. That's our big victory this year."

Marquez knew what tight budgets were about. The SOU budget had been halved this year. His team had been cut to six. He watched Ruter run through the video, then lay the camcorder down.

"Thank you," Ruter said, hitched his pants, and walked down to his partner.

Marquez waited a few minutes then drove down to where they had Davies. Both rear doors of a county car were wide open and Ruter sat next to Davies with one arm up on the seat back. He was a short, bullet-headed man, salt-and-pepper hair parted on the left side, red in the face from walking up the slope repeatedly in the heat. He sat with his trousers hiked up, one foot out the door, left hand covering his inside holster.

"I'm taking off," Marquez told him.

"Stay available," Ruter said. "Don't get too far undercover."

Marquez touched Davies's shoulder, said, "Give me a call, I want to talk to you more about this."

"Where are you going to be tonight?" Ruter asked.

"In Fort Bragg."

"If I want to talk to you, where do I find you?"

"Use the number I gave you." Ruter turned back to Davies.

"Is that the number you called this morning?" he asked, and Marquez never heard the reply.

A couple of hours later, he was driving between Mendocino and Fort Bragg. The sun was low on the horizon, its last light streaking the water. His phone burred softly and he looked at the number showing on the screen, then matched it to Ruter's card.

"Your friend killed them," Ruter said, his voice hoarse now. "And this isn't about abalone. Stocker was suing him and Davies saw a way to use the poaching as a cover and take care of the problem." Ruter paused, waiting for a response, but Marquez had gone as far as he was going to go with the detective today. "Davies went berserk in that bar and Stocker was going to win the lawsuit. Stocker's lawyer says the case was a no-brainer and Davies was going to lose his boat."

"Everything is a no-brainer for a lawyer."

"Davies told me this afternoon that someone should have turned Ray Stocker's lights off a long time ago."

"I don't think Davies is your man."

"You've got a lot of opinions for a game warden."

"And you solve cases faster than any detective I've ever met." He heard Ruter's hard exhale. "Look, Ruter, I'm sorry I didn't call you sooner."

"So now you're sorry? I'll tell your chief that for you. If I was your superior officer, I'd—"

Marquez pulled out his earpiece and clicked the phone off. He drove slowly north looking out over the darkening water as DEA memories invaded him again.

© Kirk Russell


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