John Christian Harrow had never much cared for the Iowa State Fair.
He was uncomfortable around throngs of people, and the cacophony of chatter, ballyhoo, and music always put a crease between his eyebrows. The skyline of vast barns, art-deco pavilions, Ferris wheels, and even a mammoth slide held no magic for him; overhead open-air cars of airsick passengers swaying like fruit about to ripen and fall made him question the general sanity of the human race.
The smells, whether the stench of farm animals or the lure of frying batter, did not appeal --- they made him neither want to milk a cow nor risk his arteries on a funnel cake. And now and then an unmistakable upchuck bouquet would waft across his nostrils. At least the day wasn’t sweltering, as August often was here. It was eighty and humid and no picnic, but this wasn’t heaven, this was Iowa.
At six-two, barely winning the battle to stay under two hundred pounds, Harrow might have been just another farmer gussied up to go to town, fortysomething, short brown hair, penetrating brown eyes, strong chin, high cheekbones, a weathered, slightly pockmarked complexion, tie loosened and collar unbuttoned.
But J.C. --- as anyone who knew him for more than five minutes called him --- was not farmer but a detective. He was in fact a seasoned field agent and criminalist for the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation. And right now he detected a damp stripe down the spine of his dress shirt, and wished to hell that the Kevlar vest underneath came with pockets for ice bags. His sun-soaking, unbuttoned navy suitcoat concealed his holster and nine-mil, clipped to his belt, riding his right hip.
This was no day off to take in the state’s most celebrated festivities. And it wasn’t the normal workday where he found himself either at a crime scene or in a lab or even in the field interviewing witnesses and suspects.
Today Harrow had drawn a special assignment as part of the extended protection team working on the President of the United States’s visit to the nation’s most famous state fair.
Usually cops augmented the President’s Secret Service detail, but the events of September 11 had changed that. Ever since that tragic day, security weighed heavily on the minds of most Americans, and the government had become more creative in ways to protect those in their charge. They kept cops on the streets when they could and when necessary, used qualified others, like DCI Field Agent Harrow, to fill in.
The rule was, you had to have a badge to work protection detail.
Today, his DCI badge --- probably aided by the fact that he had a background in local politics --- seemed to make him the perfect candidate for this particular task. Which sounded far more exciting in practice than it really was. He’d done very little in the morning other than walk around the fair and assess threats.
He had deemed the cow sculpted from butter as non-menacing unless the President decided to ingest it, in which case it would be death by cholesterol overdose. In the afternoon, before the President was introduced, Harrow stood on the stage, eyes processing possible troublemakers in the crowd, then maintained his vigil from stage left throughout the Commander in Chief’s address.
A thin man with too heavy a jacket for an August day, another who seemed jittery, a woman with a purse big enough to hold a gun or a bomb or God knew what...
Harrow saw them all and reported them up the food chain to Secret Service. A certain amount of stress came along with searching for a potential assassin, but on the whole this was a vacation day with pay for Harrow. Despite his general disregard for politicians, and his lack of love for the fair itself, the DCI agent felt honored to be entrusted with a small part of his President’s welfare.
After a well-received speech, the President was led down the stairs by the Secret Service contingent at stage right. Secret Service eyes quickly scanned left, ahead, right, and back again. Several more agents eyeballed the crowd on the other side of the wire fence between the audience and the backstage area. Trailing this group, still on stage, Harrow looked out over the still-cheering crowd.
Despite the chest-high wire fence, the throng pressed forward, each citizen wanting to shake hands with the leader of the free world, some wearing sunglasses, some not, some wearing hats, farmers, businessmen, housewives, women in power suits, young, old, middle-aged, an ocean of faces and bodies surging for a chance to press the famous flesh, or to get at least a closer-up glimpse of the President. Most were smiling, some looked confused, and some even afraid as the crush of people pushed toward the fence.
Then Harrow picked out a face --- really, an expression --- of anger. But all that watching had sent Harrow’s eyes sliding past before what he’d seen registered, and the DCI agent’s eyes darted back, scouring the crowd for the unhappy man.
Seconds crawled like minutes until he again located the face in the crowd. The man was dressed like a farmer --- bib overalls, T-shirt, sunglasses, and a cap with CONTINENTAL PEANUTS stitched across the front.
Several things about the farmer made simultaneous blips on Harrow’s cop radar: The hat was for a peanut-seed company, one of the biggest in the country, but peanuts were a crop not grown in Iowa; the man was Caucasian and about forty; the sunglasses were not typical --- the generation of farmers younger than Harrow’s father had learned the value of UV protection, but many farmers Harrow knew never wore sunglasses.
The loudest, biggest blip came from the soft, white skin of the man’s bare arms --- not even a hint of tan, and a farmer who had not been outside by August was not a farmer at all. A glance at hands soft enough to belong to a perfume-counter clerk told Harrow this “farmer” had not done a real day’s work in his life. . . .
Harrow’s processing of all this took a second or two, and then the fake farmer’s hand slipped into a pocket and came out with something that glinted in the sunlight. Harrow didn’t even have time to use the little communicator that ran down his arm inside his suit.
He yelled, “Gun!” as the angry face in the crowd lurched forward, right arm coming up. Harrow knew at once that the man’s hand held a small- caliber automatic pistol.
Harrow leapt from the stage, arms in front, feet splayed wide behind him, the faces of the people below etched in expressions of surprise, fear, and confusion as he flew over them, his only thought to get to the weapon.
Everything seemed to stop for a second or two, Harrow feeling he was hanging in air, watching as the would-be assassin slowly squeezed the trigger. The agent seemed able to see each fraction of an inch the trigger moved in its inevitable journey.
Just as Harrow grabbed onto the man’s arm, flinging it upward, the gun fired, the shot flying harmlessly over the barns of 4-H animals, creating a muffled but immediate symphony of whinnies and grunts. . . .
As Harrow and the man crashed to the ground, the world went from slow motion to fast-forward as Harrow found himself suddenly aware of several things happening at once: People broke their fall, and the crowd separated like a welcoming gate only to dump them on the gravel-packed ground; panicked bystanders tried to escape the wrestling bodies and the sight of the gun that Harrow and the shooter still fought over even as several Secret Service agents crashed down.
A knee dug into Harrow’s back and fingers clawed not only at the shooter’s hands, but at Harrow’s, trying to pry the pistol free. Even under the pile of writhing bodies, Harrow managed to twist the arm back, the shooter screaming in pain and releasing the pistol into Harrow’s grip.
A Secret Service agent said, “I’ll take that,” and Harrow handed it over, as another agent asked, “You all right, buddy?”
“Yup,” was all Harrow could manage.
Final tally: one wild shot, and no injuries to the President.
Who was whisked away so swiftly that Harrow almost missed the moment where the most powerful man in the free world locked eyes with him and mouthed: Thank you!
Several Secret Service agents had received a few scrapes, and a handful of fairgoers did suffer injuries, the most serious a young woman who broke an arm in the panicked trampling that followed the gunshot. Harrow himself was unscathed but for a bruise on his back from that overzealous Secret Service agent leaping on him.
The would-be assassin, like the young woman, had a broken arm, thanks to Harrow, not that the perp received any sympathy from the crowd watching him get hauled away.
That was when Harrow found himself the center of attention, questioned first by the Secret Service, then by the national media, and, finally, by the Des Moines Register and local news crews before he was able to extricate himself for the drive home.
Though the outside temperature was only about seventy, the Ford F-150’s air conditioner ran full-tilt. In the pickup, Harrow relished the blast of cold as he sailed north on I-35, the night swallowing the lights of Des Moines in the rearview.
Although he’d always thought of himself as a cop first, until five years ago Harrow had made his living in politics, twice winning election to the office of sheriff of Story County. But he still considered himself basically apolitical.
Deciding not to run for a third term, Harrow had hooked up with the DCI in 1997 and had been much happier ever since. The job change had saved his marriage too --- otherwise, his wife of twenty years might have wound up divorcing him and taking their son, David, with her.
Ellen had never asked Harrow to quit, not in so many words, but had wholeheartedly supported his decision when he finally smartened up. His petite brunette wife had been the prettiest girl at Ames
High and then Iowa State University, and one of the smartest too, smart enough anyway to see long before Harrow the strain the sheriff’s job had inflicted on him.
Only after he’d taken the DCI job did his wife finally confess how close she’d come to leaving him. Being married to a cop was hard enough --- being married to one who spent half his time running for reelection had become unbearable.
Now they were happy as newlyweds. The family hadn’t moved to Des Moines when he took the DCI gig --- fifteen-year-old David was thriving in the tiny Nevada (Nuh-vay-duh) school district, just thirty miles north of the capital, and Harrow wasn’t about to pull his popular, athletic son out just as high school was kicking in.
They’d moved from the county seat to a secluded farmhouse that cut fifteen minutes from his commute, and, anyway, plans were afoot for the crime lab to move to Ankeny, in a couple of years, which would shorten the ride even more.
Harrow knew he should be hurrying home --- Ellen would be breathless to find out whether or not he’d shaken hands with the President (he had) and if the man was as handsome in person as she thought he was on TV (actually, more). Certainly, she would grill him about that even harder than the Secret Service and the media had.
He’d been trying to call ever since the so-called “State Fair Incident” had gone down, but the answer machine was full and Ellen didn’t carry a cellular. He was a little surprised she hadn’t called him on his cell --- maybe she hadn’t been near a radio or TV.
The home addresses of DCI agents were a closely guarded secret, especially from the media, and Harrow hoped the national news hadn’t pulled strings or done computer hacking that would mean he’d arrive home to a surprise party of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox news trucks.
That possibility aside, pulling off the interstate, heading east on Highway 30, he found himself not surprisingly anxious to get home. And, as usual, though he enjoyed the unwind time of the commute, the closer he got to home, the more eager he became.
He exited 30 onto Six-hundred-twentieth Avenue, turning back south on the two-lane blacktop with just a couple farms on either side, the last few miles of his drive. He killed the air, rolled down the window, and let warmth rush over him.
He yearned for a smoke, but if he lit up, even just a precious few drags, Ellen might smell it on him. Then she’d be pissed even if he had saved the President, and he didn’t need that tonight. He glanced wistfully at the glove compartment, where half a pack and a cheap lighter kept a low profile under a map of Iowa.
Smash in the door of a crackhouse? Say the word. Confront a PCP-pumping gunman holding a pistol to the head of an innocent hostage? No problem. Stop a presidential assassin? Even that had seemed easy today . . . but let Ellen catch him with cigarette smoke on his breath?
No way, no chance, no how.
Another left, and he was heading east on Twohundred- fiftieth Street. The lights of their house, settled mostly by itself out here in the country south of Nevada, would be visible when he topped the next hill. As the idea of a cigarette drifted away like so much smoke, he crested the rise, looked to the left for the familiar glow, and saw only the mercury vapor light stationed atop the garage.
No house lights --- that was odd. He wondered if Ellen had mentioned going out tonight. He didn’t remember her saying anything like that, but sometimes words went in one ear and out the other, when you’d been married as long as they had. David could be most anywhere, with his buddies or his girl. . . .
Well, at least the national news boys hadn’t been waiting. Harrow slowed at the turn up the long driveway to the house. Turning just past the mailbox, he felt something inside him catch.
The door of the mailbox was closed.
Ellen always left it open, after removing the mail, her signal to him that he didn’t have to stop for it. Had he forgotten a dinner out she’d planned, or one of David’s many ball games? She was active with a couple of women’s groups and the PTA --- maybe she’d gone to Des Moines to shop or run errands, and went straight to whatever it was.
With a shrug, he put the truck in park and climbed out to get the mail.
If the mail was still here, though, that meant she had been gone since mid-afternoon at least. He opened the box, pulled out its contents, and headed back to the truck.
He climbed up and in, tossed the pile of bills and magazines and so on onto the passenger seat, and eased the truck into gear, then crept up the long blacktop driveway. The two-story house was dark, which made him uneasy.
If Ellen was home, the lights would be on; but even if she was going to be gone, she would have left one light on for him. It was just something they did for each other.
Something was wrong.
Harrow gunned the truck up the short hill, pressing the garage-door opener and painfully counting the seconds as the door slid up. He still couldn’t see anything. He cursed himself for not replacing the opener’s burned-out bulb.
The hill was steep, and the garage sat at a slight angle to the house. He would not be able to tell if her car was inside until the truck’s lights hit the garage. He crested the hill, and, as he feared, her car sat parked in its space.
What the hell was going on?
Where was David? If something was wrong with Ellen, if she’d gotten sick or been injured, why hadn’t David called his dad’s cell? Nearing the garage, Harrow kicked the brake and threw the truck into park, the sudden stop almost hurling him into the wheel.
He hopped out, pulled his pistol, and circled around the back of the truck. Anxiety gripped him and his cop senses were tingling; but he hadn’t defaulted to cop objectivity --- this was his home.
Resisting the impulse to run, but still using the vehicle as cover, he crept around the truck, checked the windows in the house, saw no movement in the dark, then crossed the short distance to the back door.
You’re being a dumb, over-reacting shit, he told himself.
Still, he had the pistol ready as he opened the screen door. . . .
Then, his hip holding it open, he reached for the knob of the inside door with his left hand.
The knob didn’t turn.
The door was locked, yet another bad sign. They never locked the doors when they were home. Acid poured into Harrow’s stomach, his chest tightened, and his eyes burned. This afternoon had been about instantaneous action --- leaping to stop an assassin a nearly instinctive move.
This was different.
Entering his own house had become about caution and danger, his mind flooded with possible outcomes, none good.
In his gut, he already knew that tragedy was waiting. That didn’t stop him from praying that he was wrong as he unlocked the door. Entering the landing, he looked straight ahead at a family photo on the wall, Ellen, David, and himself smiling at the lens. His mother had snapped the photo at a family picnic a year before she died.
He glanced left, down into the darkened basement, then turned right and went up two steps into the kitchen.
Normally a bright room, with its yellow walls and white trim, now an inky threat, with no lights on, every shadow a trap. In the half-light that filtered in through the open curtains of the corner window over a small breakfast nook, knives in their wooden block on the counter to his right took on malevolence. Harrow glimpsed the moon through the window, a full fat moon, a butcher’s moon.
Fitting then that he also noticed that the butcher knife was gone from its slot in the block.
He moved past the stove on his left, the sink on the right, the big side-by-side refrigerator/freezer straight ahead. His rubber-soled shoes padded silently across the floor. Every nerve in his body strained, on alert for the slightest movement, the smallest sound. At the doorway, he could go right down a short hall to a bathroom and a downstairs bedroom that now served as a home office. Straight ahead lay the dining room.
He wasn’t going to turn on the light, just in case. On TV, the criminalist would have used a mini-flashlight to find his way around. Never mind that said criminalist made himself a target by using the flash, giving away his position to any potential attacker. Television never showed the real use of the flashlight, which was to find the goddamned light switch…
Not that he needed light getting around his own home. Still, this was not city dark, which wasn’t darkness at all, really --- this was country dark.
The house remained eerily silent except for the ticking of an old-time mantel clock atop the wood sideboard. As his eyes struggled to find clues in the darkness, he slowly slid forward past the formal oak dining set. The only illumination came from the tiny amount of moonlight and rays from the garage light that sneaked in through cracks in the curtains in the dining room windows.
Gun up now, moving toward the living room, Harrow heard the thundering rush of his own blood and felt sweat streaking down his forehead; and, too, he heard his heart’s sledgehammer pounding. Just short of the living room, his foot touched something, and he looked down to see one of the chairs on its side under the table, a spindly wooden leg sticking out.
He wanted to scream for Ellen and David, but something was wrong here, and if there was an intruder, Harrow couldn’t know if the bastard was still around.
That meant doing things by the book.
Finally, cop objectivity settled in. Moving slowly, his eyes well adjusted to the dim light, he eased into the living room.
Moonlight spilled through the half-open curtains of the picture window and played like a grim spotlight on the face of Ellen on her back on the floor beside the coffee table, a dark pool on the rug around her body, her lifeless eyes staring at Harrow, begging to know where he had been when this terrible thing happened to her. She wore a cardinal-red ISU T-shirt and blue jeans, her dark hair framing her face. Two holes darkened the shirt like a huge snake bite near her left breast.
Kneeling beside her, only vaguely aware of the tears running down his cheeks, he checked for a pulse, knowing already he would find none. Her skin felt cool and slightly rubbery --- like meat left out to thaw on the counter.
Also, no wedding ring. It wasn’t like her diamond was anywhere near big enough to inspire a robbery.
He swallowed and rose. Moving, Harrow looked through the entryway and saw David crumpled on the floor in front of the stairs to the second floor, a dark puddle around him too, the butcher knife on the floor nearby.
David was on his back, eyes closed peacefully, two black holes piercing the first A and the D in the Nevada T-shirt that he wore over knee-length denim shorts.
Looking at the knife on the floor, as clean as it had been in the block, Harrow knew instantly that David had been in the kitchen when he heard the first shot and had grabbed the knife in a vain attempt to protect his mother.
Harrow checked for a pulse, found none, paused long enough to run a finger through his son’s fine brown hair, then rose and checked the rest of the house.
Assured that he was alone, he punched 9-1-1 into his cell phone.
Then he found a chair and positioned it between his dead wife and son. This was a crime scene, and even that small act was out of bounds, but he did not care. He was not about to leave them alone.
Harrow felt empty inside, hollow, but the emptiness, the hollowness, was Grand Canyon vast; echoes of screams and gunshots he’d never heard filled the abyss within him.
Cops were crawling all over the house now, every light turned on, the windows bright in the darkness. The first uniforms to arrive, in a blur of flashing red and blue were Johnson and Stanowski, the deputies who had worked under Harrow when he had been sheriff. Johnson confiscated his gun and walked him outside to take his initial statement in the yard.
Under the garage light, Lon Johnson, a rail-thin twenty-year vet with light green eyes and sandy hair, shook his head as he looked toward the house, his skin pale and a sickly yellow under the mercury vapor light.
“J.C., I’m sorry. Christ, I’m sorry. Do you have any idea what the hell happened in there?”
Harrow shook his head.
Night-shift sergeant Stanowski, another longtime vet, was heavyset, his crewcut tinged with silver. “No questions, Lon. Not till the detectives get here.”
“Jesus, Stan,” Johnson said to the sergeant, “this is family.”
Stanowski gave Johnson a sharp look that said, Family or not, he’s still a suspect. In the sergeant’s place, Harrow would have done the same.
Johnson seemed about to say something to his sergeant, and Harrow held up a hand. “Lon, take it easy. Stan’s just doing his job. Wants his ducks in a row.”
“I know, J.C., but…”
“No buts,” Harrow interrupted. “You want to do me a favor? Do this by the book.”
The sergeant tried to hide his embarrassed smile at the show of support from the man who, if you went by the book, was their prime suspect.
Looking at Stanowski, Harrow said, “Any chance I could get into my truck?”
“Not before it’s processed. Why?”
“Cigarettes in the glove compartment.”
Stanowski pulled a pack from his shirt pocket and shook a smoke out for Harrow. The sergeant knew Harrow supposedly had quit, but had the decency not to point it out, and lit up the former sheriff.
Harrow took a long drag, letting the smoke fill the emptiness, as he wished nothing more than for cancer to strike him instantly, right at this moment, right here in the goddamn yard, and kill him. A second later, however, the thought dissolved, like a hailstone battered by rain, replaced by another one: Someone had to find the person who had killed his family.
And in that moment, the decision that would inform years to come was made: if it took every second of the rest of his life, he would find the killer of his wife and son.
“J.C.,” Johnson asked, “you all right?”
Harrow just stared at him.
After a moment, the deputy blanched and said, “Sorry, stupid damn question.”
The detectives drove up then, putting the awkward moment out of its misery, and Harrow was left alone to finish his cigarette as the two deputies talked to the investigators.
The secondary was some young pup that Harrow never saw before --- short black hair, a suit that probably cost almost a month’s pay, and the well-scrubbed shine of someone who didn’t like getting his hands dirty. What the hell was he doing in this job?
The lead detective Harrow knew. A short, wide-bodied man in jeans, an open-collar shirt, and a cheap sportcoat, Larry Carstens looked like the one-time college football player he’d been --- closecropped blond hair, wide forehead, wide-set brown eyes, formless nose, and lips as thin as a cut.
Carstens had been a uniformed deputy under Harrow, and had made detective three years after Harrow’s departure. In the last couple of years, they’d even worked a couple of cases together, Harrow representing DCI.
When they had been filled in by the uniforms, the detectives walked over to where Harrow stood next to his truck, his eyes darting between them and the house, which seemed to call to him in a low whisper.
“Larry,” Harrow said with a faint nod.
Carstens returned the gesture. “J.C., we’re all very sorry about your loss.”
Harrow gave another nod, but said nothing.
“We’ll do it by the book,” Carstens said with a world-weary sigh.
“I had patrol cars set up a half-mile in either direction. Any reporter, national or local, that wants to turn this into a circus will have to hike his ass in.”
Harrow sighed. “Appreciate that.”
“Tell me what happened. I know about this Afternoon --- it’s been all over the media. Start with leaving the state fairgrounds.”
Harrow told Carstens what little there was, right up to the 911 call.
“Let’s back up,” Carstens said. “Take from the morning till the presidential assignment kicked in.”
Finally Harrow said, “Look, Larry, you’ve got my gun. Run it, and you’ll see it hasn’t been fired.”
Carstens nodded absently. “By the book, J.C. We’ll want to do a GSR test too.”
“Fine, then where the hell is Ogden?” Harrow referred to the only real criminalist employed by the Story County Sheriff’s Office, the man who should be doing the gunshot-residue test.
His eyes narrowing in the darkness, Carstens took half a step toward Harrow. He kept his voice low, tone clipped but not disrespectful. “Try to remember, J.C., you’re not running this investigation. For now, in fact, you’re a suspect.”
Harrow stepped back, stubbed the cigarette out under his foot. “Okay, I’m a suspect. You’re right. But can I ask one question?”
“You can ask.”
“Was there any sign of robbery in there?”
“Nothing so far, unless precious items turn up missing. You have a safe, or a locked box with jewelry or money or anything in it?”
Carstens frowned. “Then why the question?”
“Ellen’s wedding ring is gone.”
“…Could she have taken it off to do the dishes? Maybe it’ll turn up on her nightstand or ---”
“No. She never took it off. She had a thing about that.”
David and Ellen were buried in a cemetery in Ames, not far from Ellen’s parents. A huge crowd, too many of them media, turned out for the funeral. The nation mourned with him --- the tragedy that befell the man who had saved the President. But even on that sacred day, consumed with grief, Harrow heard the whispers.
He hired it done.
The coroner was an old pal who covered up for him.
It’s all a cover-up, so no one would know the kid killed his mom and then himself.
Though they all kept their voices low, every allegation screamed at him.
As Harrow had predicted to Carstens, his firearm test came back that his pistol had not been fired. He also tested negative for gunshot residue. The Secret Service had video of Harrow on post for the hour on either side of the approximate time of death determined by the coroner at the autopsy. Everything about Harrow and his story checked out, and still the rumors continued.
The DCI worked the case hard, but there were just too few clues. The best one, a tire track lifted from the driveway, led nowhere --- a P235/75R15, the most popular passenger car tire sold in the United States. Harrow knew too many knockoffs were out there for anybody to even be sure of a brand.
The story ran big. Not just in the Des Moines Register and statewide media, but USA Today and CNN and every other cable news outlet. When Harrow was exonerated, leaving the DCI to search for, as NBC Nightly News put it, “a killer in the heartland,” the story began to attract international attention.
The mail had started then, some accusing him, the far larger percentage telling him the nation shared his grief --- the man who saved a president only to have his family murdered the same day had become something of a national celebrity.
His friends, the people he’d worked with for most of his adult life with either the sheriff’s office or DCI, busted their asses for him. They wanted to find the murderer who had killed the family of one of their own. Months passed, then a year, with no new leads.
Harrow’s law enforcement brethren wanted to help, but they had other crimes on their hands, and of course the national media had a finite attention span.
Finally, J.C. Harrow returned to the decision he’d made in his front yard on that terrible night: David’s father, Ellen’s husband, would track down the killer himself.
He had no idea how, but he would find a way. Sell his car or sell his soul, he would find a way.
Excerpted from YOU CAN’T STOP ME © Copyright 2011 by Max Allan Collins and Matthew Clemens. Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.
You Can’t Stop Me
- paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Pinnacle
- ISBN-10: 0786021349
- ISBN-13: 9780786021345