Sheriff Ed Beedles grabbed the barrel of his shotgun, yanking it from the rack in his patrol car. He knew Charlie Brennan well enough to know better, but there he was, standing in front of his brother’s farmhouse not fifty feet in front of him, covered in blood, one arm wrapped over his ten-year old niece, Maggie, clutching her like she was a hostage, the girl wearing nothing but a nightgown, shivering in the cold. The dispatcher had taken Charlie’s call thirty minutes ago, Charlie screaming at her that Sam and Gretchen were dead and that he had Maggie.
The Brennan place was twenty miles south of the Sheriff’s headquarters in the Johnson County courthouse in Olathe. He’d made good time, taking advantage of the new highway, Interstate 35, that had opened earlier in the year, making it to Spring Hill in twenty minutes, then heading west and busting it over the last few miles of rough county road. He fishtailed making the turn into the Brennan’s property, tires spitting gravel and ice laid down in last week’s storm, siren blaring, his heart riding in his throat the last quarter mile to the farmhouse. He was first on the scene, his deputy Tom Goodell, and two ambulances five minutes behind.
It had been three weeks since the Clutter family had been slaughtered in their farmhouse near Holcomb. That was a good four hundred miles west but there had been no arrests and every lawman in the state was on edge, scared the killers would strike again.
Still, Beedles knew it was more likely that Charlie had killed his brother and sister-in-law than some faceless maniacs, most murders being committed by people who knew their victims. He’d heard talk of trouble between the brothers, something about the land their parents left them, but as far as he knew, it was just talk.
He opened his car door and stepped out, keeping the door between him and Charlie, the shotgun invisible at his side. The farmhouse sat on a rise, sheltered on three sides from the wind by stands of maples and oaks. It had been daylight for an hour, the sky heavy and close with leaden clouds, the wind cold and stiff enough to make a man deaf.
“Let her go, Charlie,” Beedles shouted.
“They’re dead! Both of them.” A rose mist floated off of Charlie, fresh blood mixing with the frozen air.
“Then we can’t do anything for them but we can take care of Maggie. Now let her go.”
Beedles didn’t see a weapon in either of Charlie’s hands but that didn’t mean he was innocent or unarmed. He could be both and also be unhinged by what he’d seen, making him dangerous in another way.
Beedles started a slow walk toward Charlie and Maggie, keeping the shotgun aimed at the ground. His deputy and the ambulances would come storming into the yard any second, no way to tell how Charlie would react to the added commotion.
“It’s no good,” Charlie said, tightening his grip on the girl. “They’re dead! Cut to pieces!”
“And that’s a terrible thing. Let’s not make it any worse.”
Beedles closed the distance between them, leveling the shotgun at Charlie. Though he couldn’t shoot Charlie without shredding Maggie with buckshot, he knew the sight of that gun pointed at Charlie couldn’t help but make him focus on his mortality.
Charlie stared at the shotgun. “Ed, you don’t think I killed them, do you?”
They were ten feet apart. Charlie’s hands, arms and chest were soaked in blood. Maggie’s face was streaked with crimson, honey-colored bangs falling over her eyes, her lips blue, her nightgown blood splattered. Beedles stepped closer, raising the shotgun at Charlie’s face; Charlie’s eyes opening wide like day lilies under the sun.
“I don’t think anything, Charlie. I just want to have a look at Maggie, make sure she’s okay. Then you and I can talk about what happened. That be alright with you?”
Deputy Goodell’s cruiser skidded to a stop flanking Beedles, Charlie and the girl. Using his open car door for cover, he drew his handgun, taking a two-fisted aim at Charlie Brennan.
“We okay, here, Sheriff?” Goodell asked.
“How about it, Charlie, we okay?” Beedles asked.
Charlie hung his head. “Yeah, we’re okay.”
Beedles lowered his shotgun, reaching for Maggie with his free hand. “Come here, sweetheart,” he said.
Maggie slipped out from under Charlie’s arm and put her hand in his. Beedles squeezed her hand and she squeezed his, surprising Beedles with her calm strength, as if the blood on her fingers was nail polish.
Over the next hours and days, Charlie Brennan told his story again and again to Sheriff Beedles, the District Attorney, the polygraph examiner and his lawyer, never changing a word, sentence or paragraph. He and his brother had put their hard feelings behind. He’d come to pick up his brother so they could repair a bad stretch of fence they shared. No one answered when he rang the bell. The door was unlocked so he went in and called out for Sam and Gretchen. When they didn’t respond, he went looking and found them stabbed to death in their bed. He got their blood on him when he cradled their bodies in his arms, going crazy at the sight of them. He found Maggie hiding in bushes beneath her second floor bedroom. The polygraph examiner said that Charlie was truthful in all measures and no charges were filed against him.
Maggie Brennan’s story corroborated her uncle. She said that she was awakened by cries coming from her parents’ bedroom. Then she heard footsteps coming toward her bedroom. It was dark. Someone grabbed her but his hands were too wet and slippery with blood to hold her. She freed herself and ran onto the balcony off her bedroom, jumping over the rail, her only injury a sprained ankle. She ran into a nearby field, staying there until daylight, coming back and hiding in the bushes beneath her bedroom, too frightened to go inside the house, remaining there until her uncle found her. She spoke without tears, a doctor who examined her explaining that she was too shocked to cry, assuring Beedles that it was best if she buried the memories of that night.
Beedles walked through the Brennan farmhouse dozens of times, recreating the killer’s path, tracing the blood trail from Sam and Gretchen’s bedroom to Maggie’s. He opened the French doors onto her balcony, stood at the rail and marveled at the courage of a ten-year old girl to escape from the killer and jump from such a height.
Charlie Brennan sent Maggie to live with his sister in California. He never set foot on his brother’s farm again, selling it in the spring and sending the money to his sister to pay for Maggie’s upbringing. That night, he got drunk and was killed when he drove his pickup truck into a concrete culvert.
When Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested for the Clutter family murders, Beedles drove to Garden City to question them. They denied the killings and there was no evidence to link them to the Brennan case.
No murder weapon was ever found. No one was ever charged with the murders of Sam and Gretchen Brennan. It wasn’t the only unsolved crime during Beedles’ years as Sheriff but it was the one that woke him up at night until the day he died.
Maggie Brennan had been waiting to die for fifty years so when the lights went out while she was working late at night and the bell hanging on a hook above the front door jingled as it opened and slammed shut, loosing icy winter wind into the farmhouse, and heavy, steady footsteps trudged up the stairs toward her bedroom, she didn’t call 911, cry out or grab a letter opener to defend herself.
She’d dreamed of this moment often. The image of the killer was as hazy as it had been when she was ten years old, painting her cheeks with her parents’ blood before she hurled herself off the balcony outside her bedroom, the killer never caught, never forgotten.
Her work as a neuroscientist researching the toll of trauma on the brain was a constant reminder of that night. Her nightmares affirmed her unspeakable certainty that she would leave this life the same way, as had her parents.
She rose from her chair, her voice quiet and calm when her killer appeared in the doorway. What took you so long, she asked?
French doors opened behind her onto the balcony, the frozen earth two stories beneath sloping away from the house, rough and rocky. She swung the doors wide, stepping onto the balcony, her feet bare, frigid air rippling through her thin nightgown, pickling her skin. Branches of an oak tree just beyond her reach swayed in the starless night, the eaves above her whining, complaining of the cold.
Her back was to the bedroom. She felt him approach, felt the wooden planks of the balcony sag, then felt a hand slide down the length of her neck, settling into the base of her spine, the push firm as she went over the rail and the unforgiving ground rushed to meet her.
She awoke, as she always did, the instant before impact, her mouth coated with bile. Why, she wondered, was it so easy to kill and so hard to die.
“Jack, this job is perfect for you.”
“I haven’t had a perfect job since Sue Ellen Erickson asked me to carry her books home in the fifth grade.”
Simon Alexander and I were having coffee late Friday afternoon on the Country Club Plaza, the gray day giving way to full night, snow coming down sideways. The after Christmas sales were over and the quarter million multi-colored lights that turned the Plaza’s shops and restaurants into Disneyland from Thanksgiving through mid-January had gone dark. The sidewalks were empty. People with sense were home or on their way.
“You can set your own schedule, spend as much time as you want, take a break whenever you need to, you know…”
The FBI had retired me at age fifty because of a movement disorder that makes me shake, sometimes bending me in half, sometimes strangling my speech, sometimes leaving me the hell alone. The cause and the cure are both mysteries, the symptoms a capricious mix of hiccups and hammer blows. The more I do, the more I shake but a friend once told me that the more you do, the more you do. So I put as much into my days as I can, accepting that it will rattle my cage. Some days are diamonds and some days are stones.
Simon was in the technology security business. He called me when his clients’ problems got more complicated than a string of ones and zeros.
“I keep telling you, Simon, you don’t have to dance around it. I shake. It’s not a big deal.” A flurry of mild tremors stutter-stepped my automatic denial. “Tell me about the job.”
“You’ve heard of Milo Harper?”
“Kansas City’s hometown billionaire. He offered Kate Scranton a job but she turned him down, says she doesn’t trust him.”
“She’d do better reading astrology charts than her facial action coding system. If someone winks when they should blink, she thinks they’re guilty of something they haven’t even thought of doing.”
“Trouble is, she’s usually right. What else should I know about Harper?”
“We grew up together and were roommates at Stanford. He dropped out during our sophomore year. I stayed and got my degree while he left and got rich. Created one of those social networking sites and sold it for a couple of billion. I’ve done some work for him since he came back to Kansas City.”
“You and a billionaire? I don’t see it.”
“Who knew? He was the tall, good-looking guy with wavy hair, a square chin and pecs he could make dance. I was the short nebbish geek with early male pattern baldness whose idea of a good pickup line was would you like to play Simon says.”
“How’d that work out for you?”
“It was the ones who said yes that scared me.”
“Harper plowed a bunch of the money into that place…what’s it called?”
“The Harper Institute of the Mind.”
“He keeps trying to recruit Kate. She keeps telling him no but he keeps asking.”
“That’s Milo. He can charm you if he wants to but he doesn’t care what you think about him as long as you’ve got talent. And, he doesn’t take no for an answer. He says the brain is the last frontier. He’s recruited some of the top people in the field, except, apparently, for Kate.”
“What does he want from me? Is he short on guinea pigs?”
“No, but I told him you were available in case the lab rats got a better offer.”
“Nice. Then what is it?”
“He’s worried about one of his projects, something having to do with dreams.”
“Who’s having nightmares?”
“He is. Two of the volunteers participating in the project have died in the last month. According to the cops, one death was accidental and one was suicide.”
“Bad luck but what’s that got to do with Harper and his Institute?”
“Hopefully nothing, but the families have hired a lawyer named Jason Bolt who has sent Milo the proverbial get-out-your-checkbook-or-prepare-to-die letter. He wants someone to take another look. I suggested you.”
I’d heard of Bolt. He’d made a fortune taking down corporations for everything from defective products to defrauding shareholders. He was one of a handful of lawyers who could force a settlement on the strength of his reputation.
“A billionaire takes your advice?”
Simon laughed. “I was the one who told him to quit school.”
“What else did he tell you? Why does Bolt think these deaths could be tied to the Institute?”
“I’m Milo’s friend, not his priest. He doesn’t tell me everything. He asked me for a name and I gave him yours.”
“You know him. What’s your sense of this?”
“Milo is a passionate guy. He loves the Institute. The look in his eyes, the way he talks about it, you’d think it was his child, like the walls were papered with his DNA. When he called me, he sounded like a parent whose kid had gone missing.”
I knew that fear, how it leeches into your bones, like poison with an eternal half-life. But the Harper Institute of the Mind didn’t have dimples, skinned knees or a smile that could light up a room and break your heart at the same time. It was bricks, mortar and money.
“Is he married? Does he have kids?”
“Neither. He’s married to the job. His first kid was the business he built and sold. Now he has the Institute. It’s not an accident that the abbreviation for Harper Institute of the Mind is HIM.”
My doctor told me that the only way I could control the shakes was to change my lifestyle, to slow down. That was fourteen months ago and I still hadn’t found the sweet spot between alive and dead. The work Simon sent me tilted the scale toward alive but sometimes it’s better to let the scale swing the other way. Rich people who substitute the things they build, create and run for the relationships they never had can be more irrational than any over protective parent.
“I think I’ll pass.”
“Why? Because of Kate Scranton? Give me a break. I was there for your last fight. I’m surprised there were any survivors.”
I laughed. “We’re a work in progress. I’m having dinner with her tomorrow night. The problem is that she sees things in me that I don’t always want her to see.”
“The micro-expressions that she claims give away your secrets?”
“Yeah. It’s how her brain is wired. Sometimes I don’t handle it very well but I still respect her judgment. Plus, rich guys like Harper who think they can buy people the same way they buy buildings can get crazy when things don’t go their way and I don’t do crazy.”
“At least talk to him. I told him that you would call him tonight. All you have to do is check out this dream project and he’ll take it from there.”
“I load the gun and he pulls the trigger.”
“Just like when you were at the FBI and the U.S. Attorney made the call. Why the attack of middle age angst? You’ve spent your whole life going after bad guys.”
“I always knew whose side I was on and I was a lot better at figuring out the truth. Those lines aren’t as bright when a billionaire draws them.”
“There was a philosopher who claimed that it was impossible to determine whether some things are true or false. He proved it by saying that all men are liars. If he was telling the truth, then he was a liar.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t make not knowing any easier.”
Simon took a breath, leaning toward me. “This isn’t about Wendy.”
Wendy was my daughter. She died early last year, twenty-plus years after her brother Kevin was murdered by a sex offender masquerading as a trustworthy neighbor. Every FBI agent in the Kansas City office attended the funeral, some out of respect, others because Wendy had been a fugitive, the last suspected member of a drug ring I’d helped take down before the Bureau kicked me to the curb, the only loose end being five million dollars that had disappeared into the ether. They were convinced she stole the money.
I never stopped thinking about her, wistful memories sometimes crossing into haunting flashbacks so real they stopped me in my tracks or dreams too vivid for sleep. A snatch of conversation, a familiar fragrance, even a sad-eyed junkie could put me back with her, replaying the moment, hoping for a different ending.
“I know that.”
“Then talk to him. That’s all I’m asking.”
Simon had been good to me. I owed him that much. “Okay.”
“Great.” He leaned back in his chair. “So, how you doing with the…”
“Shaking? Every day is an adventure.”
“How about that group of retired cops you told me about? You still get together with them?”
“We have lunch once a month. Somebody presents a case; maybe one that was never solved or one where maybe the wrong guy took the fall. We play cop again, trying to put it together.”
“Any cold cases get solved that way?”
“No, but a lot of beer gets put away so everyone goes home feeling good about that.”
My cell phone rang, the caller ID reading Private. I flipped the phone open.
“Mr. Davis, this is Milo Harper.”
“Hang on a second.” I covered the phone. “It’s your roommate. I thought he was waiting for my call.”
“I forgot to tell you. He’s a little impatient. I gave him your number.”
Simon headed for the door. I put the phone back to my ear.
“Call me Jack.”
“For now, I’ll call you late. I’ve been waiting to hear from you.”
I gritted my teeth. I’d promised Simon I would talk to Harper. I didn’t promise to be nice. “Simon just finished telling me about your situation.”
“Fine. I’ll meet you for dinner at McCormick & Schmick at seven-thirty and don’t be late.
Excerpted from THE DEAD MAN © Copyright 2010 by Joel Goldman. Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.