Chapter 13: The Hornet Takes Flight

No one ever tells you that giant explosions make you sore. In the movies, people jump out of explosions all the time, and then just get on with the next scene, and everything is fine. The next morning, however, I was anything but fine. Everything was sore, from my back to my legs to my ears and sinuses. It felt like a bad hangover, and sure, there might have been a little of that too. It was a long night.

I trudged into the office just a little later than usual, about an hour before my first appointment for the day. Meredith stopped me as I walked in, to shake me down for information about a few files she’d been waiting on for days. She had heard all about the night before and knew I was exhausted, but the files were on her task list and that’s her policy when it comes to things on her task list. Recent explosions and henchmen dressed as clowns were all very exciting, but I needed to answer her questions or she was following me to my desk.

Taking the long way around the office, I checked in on Tom. He had the door closed with Cypress Hill cranked behind it. Better leave him in there. Then I checked on Mike, who did not appear to be sore and who, from what I was hearing of the end of his phone conversation, had been at the gym at something called Four Thirty This Morning. That didn’t even make sense, I just shook the words out of my face and dropped myself into my chair behind my desk.

I had work to do, and I got to it, finding it a relief to be back to what I’m accustomed to doing instead of skulking around warehouses looking for killers. My first appointment came and went, and then my second one, and then as I was walking the couple out of my office from my third consultation, I found Agent Fine sitting in the conference room, talking to Mike. Carl’s cheese spread was set out around them and they were going at the cheese spread like it was their jobs.

“This one’s Bacon and Sundried Tomato,” Mike was telling him, passing a tub over. “I looked online, there are three or four hundred flavors of this stuff. How do they even do that?”

Agent Fine was already crunching down a tiny pretzel stick covered in it, grunting in agreement.

“Greg DuPont!” He had a brand new attitude toward me now; we were colleagues. “How are those ears feeling? Still ringing?”

“Everything’s ringing,” I told him. “My elbows are ringing.”

“I was just talking to Mike here about throwing bricks. In basketball that’s a bad thing. I guess in this case it was the opposite.”

Agent Fine had shown up the night before at my house within minutes of the police, and within a half an hour the local news was there, and he was taking full credit for cracking the case open and apprehending Carl. It was quick and surgical. One minute I was explaining to him everything that happened at the warehouse, from the attack on Jason and Jeremy de Modelo to the explosion, and the next minute he was explaining it to a beaming reporter as if it were the end of an Agatha Christie movie and he’d put it all together himself.

He’d even had photos taken of himself posing with Carl up against a van, Carl wearing handcuffs. Becky went ahead and got onto his Facebook page and changed that one to his profile photo, and got a few laughs. Then Mike and I rode back over to the warehouse and showed him where I’d been taken into and out of Maxwell Mechanical. We showed him the stack of bricks and the cigarette butts by the path over to the next warehouse.

“Looks like he used to come out here for smoke breaks,” Agent Fine said, his eyes narrowing and darting around at the trees. “Probably sat there looking at these bricks a hundred times, taking his breaks. Then he came to grab a smoke before going after Greg here, and brought one with him.”

“That’s literally exactly what I just told you,” Mike said. “Word for word, I just said that.”

One of Fine’s eyebrows shot up. “Or did you?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Carl were the one who found it.”

“He is. As I - again - just told you.”

He snapped his fingers, shooting a triumphant glance between Mike and I. “I see. So. It’s just as I suspected.”

“For crying out loud, man.”

“Follow me.”

We picked our way down the path to the next warehouse, where several fire trucks lorded over a dozen other emergency vehicles. The building was a smoldering ruin, the hulking shells of ruined food trucks steaming in the debris. The fire had spread to the next building, too, but they had it under control. It smelled like the chicken we’d eaten earlier in my back yard, but far less pleasant since not all of it was chicken.

There, we walked through everything with him, and then walked the police through it, and then walked them all through it a few more times. Eventually, after a few unsettling comments about the district attorney “making a final decision about charges,” they let us go home for the night.

“They’re not going to charge you with anything,” Agent Fine told me in the conference room. “I mean, no one expected them to, but there are like six dead people, and Mike here hit one of them in the face with a brick. They have to do their due diligence.”

Mike’s face grew cold and stony even as he crunched away on the delicious cheese spread. “That guy,” he said. “was an old-fashioned Communist.”

“I know, pal,” Fine said.

“I see a Communist, I hit him with a brick, that’s my policy.”

“I know. Oh, hey, I didn’t tell you this yet because I was waiting for Greg here. I found out what was up with the clown suits.”

I pulled up a chair and before I could sit down, Meredith appeared in the door to remind me that I had another appointment in just fifteen minutes. “I tried to tell the agent here that was the case,” she said pointedly, glaring at him. “But he just came in here and sat down and then Mike brought him cheese spread and a Dr. Pepper.”

“Much obliged,” Fine said, holding up the can.

“I won’t be long,” I said, sitting down. “Thank you, Meredith.”

She went back to her desk but left the conference room door open. Mike had to get up and close it, still muttering about Communists.

“Apparently,” Fine went on. “They all used to work at the carnival together. Before food trucks were big, that’s where they’d work most of the time, when there wasn’t a fair in town or some kind of rib festival or whatever. Back in the late nineties. One of them’s got a wife-“

“None of those guys had wives. How would any of those guys have wives?”

“Well, these two have been separated for fifteen years. She said they’d wear the clown outfits ironically, found their sales went up ten percent every time they worked the trucks in clown suits. The nineties ended, and doing things ironically got old, so they scaled back the clown suits, and also the industry figured out better ways to operate, and also are there still even carnivals? I don’t think there are still carnivals.”

I helped myself to some cheese spread. “So when they needed disguises to wear to come after me, they already had them in storage somewhere.”

“Right there on their trucks. There’s storage on them, and once in a while, like Halloween or if there’s a kid’s birthday party or something, they put their clown suits back on.”

Mike said, “How did Carl even get hooked up with these clowns?”

“Well, assuming she’s telling the truth, Chelsea told him about them. She’s got a lawyer, but she’s being very cooperative. My gut tells me she orchestrated everything, just walked the men in this case around like puppets the way beautiful women can sometimes do. But you listen to her tell it, and she was being manipulated by Carl the whole time. She’ll get immunity to provide the testimony to put him in jail, is how I think it will go. Happens more often than you would think.”

“Why’d she do that?”

“These guys have a Facebook group, and some of the members started trolling her once Arturo started talking about selling the team. Arturo is as we all know, a bit more advanced in his years than Chelsea, and has no social media presence to speak of. So the trolling got directed at her instead of her husband. She said she told Carl about it because she was frightened of them. Carl must have followed Mike’s playbook, headed over to the bar, and infiltrated them. Kind of money he had, it’s easy to see how he could manipulate them, throwing it around.”

“Is it?” Mike said. “Easy to manipulate knuckleheads into first-degree murder and kidnapping? Also, why’d she tell us about the hornet nest in the Hornet, if she was in on it from the start?”

Agent Fine looked at his watch. “Welp, I gotta skedaddle, boys. It was great working with you.”

“You don’t know why, do you, Agent Fine?”

“Life’s a bucket of question marks, isn’t it? You guys take it easy. Maybe we’ll cross paths in some other,” he paused, searching for the right word. “Season.”

“Maybe,” I told him. “Have a great afternoon, Agent Fine.”

Arturo de Modelo passed away at six minutes after midnight on the day after the expiration of the life insurance policy that he’d been murdered over, moving peacefully from coma to death with what the nurses who witnessed it described as a barely audible murmur of relief. They say nothing can stop mortality, but in spite, it seems, can hold it off sometimes.

Mike and I attended the funeral, sitting quietly in the back to pay our respects, and then following the procession to the graveside to watch him lowered into the ground in the rain. Jason and Jeremy were there, scantily clad young women on their arms, keeping it classy. They pretended not to know us, and we went ahead and let them.

Chelsea was also there, with her attorney, an older gentleman from Westerville whose name I’d seen around, and who already seemed a little closer to Chelsea than an attorney really ought to be. Watch out, counselor, I thought.

When the body was in the ground, Mike and I stood by the hood of my car, watching the crowd disburse and occasionally taking a nip from a flask I’d brought along. The rain stopped and the clouds broke, and a shaft of light fell right on Arturo’s grave, and we liked to think maybe it was Arturo, sort of tipping us a wink.

Mike said, “You know when this thing started, it seemed like it was either a huge ball of coincidences that Chelsea was rolling into a conspiracy theory or it seemed like a huge, sprawling conspiracy like in Columbo or something.”

I remembered Chelsea arriving at my office after Arturo’s accident, the incredibly intricate acting job she delivered. The way she gazed out into the parking lot, as if traumatized when actually, she’d known exactly what had happened and was probably crying out of terror of having to answer for it.

“Yes,” I told him. “Once the beekeeper turned up in the river, I was bracing myself for Professor Moriarty, or The Riddler or something.”

“Instead, it was just freaking Carl.”

“And a bunch of rabid Crowns fans,” I said. “Dressed up as clowns.”

“Sure didn’t see that coming.”

“Nope.”

We remained there until the clouds had blown away, and the shaft of light blended into the rest of the sky. Then we climbed back in the car, and drove to the office in silence.

When I dropped Mike at his car, I said, “Get some rest. 2020 is going to be a big year for us and it’s right around the corner.”

Mike nodded. “I was just going to hit the store on the way home. I’ve had this weird urge to stockpile toilet paper for some reason.”

“I know what you mean,” I told him. “Except, I’m thinking toilet paper and gin.”


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