Phelps watched Justin Hathaway—now a civilian—exit his office. A part of him envied the young man. This was a part of himself that he despised, although his self-reproach was tempered by two realizations: One, he knew that he would never—could never—abandon the citizens and taxpayers who had elected him. No, he could not leave them in the lurch with so much violence afoot. He also knew that his second thoughts about law enforcement were inevitable.
Phelps had gone to Iraq with a sense of fatalism. He was by no means seeking death; but he was seeking some sort of absolution for what he perceived as his own weakness. Lori Mills had already spurned him by then. Phelps had believed then that Lori’s rejection had placed him in Iraq, though that was unfair. She had been an excuse for him to run away to what he hoped would be an adventure consisting of black-and-white lines. Pure good against pure evil. At the time, that had seemed preferable to facing the implications of Lori’s recent announcement.
Phelps stopped himself from journeying any farther down that particular branch of memory lane. He did not want to untangle the events and ill-considered decisions that had caused him to drop out of college all those years ago and enlist in the army. He knew well enough that his life could have been—should have been—much different. But that was the oldest story in the world, wasn’t it?
There were more current matters that demanded his thought and attention.
He had barely made this decision when the phone on his desk rang. A call to his direct line. He lifted the receiver and it was Jim Ferris, asking him how the hell he was holding out.
Lieutenant Colonel Jim Ferris headed the Operations Division of the Kentucky State Police. Ferris reported directly to the state’s Police Commissioner. If anyone in the state could secure more law enforcement resources for Hawkins County, it was Jim Ferris.
“Well,” Phelps said in response to his question. “I’ve got two dead bodies and a suspect loose in the woods. One of my three deputies just resigned.”
“I’ve seen better days. But I’m working on it.”
“Well, you’ve done all you can with limited resources, Sheriff. You won’t be working alone much longer, though.”
“Good.” These were welcome words, indeed. “I appreciate the assistance from the state helicopter yesterday. But what I really need is more manpower. Our only suspect is somewhere in Hawkins County. I sorely need a state police team here. We need to search every barn and every patch of woods in the area. We need to knock on every door.”
Simply describing this task reminded him of how herculean the challenge was—even in a sparsely populated place like Hawkins County. Phelps had arisen at four in the morning. He had spent several predawn hours driving the local roads and stopping by some of the obvious places where a fugitive might hide. Beginning at seven-thirty, he had knocked on some doors. But it was truly like looking for a needle in a haystack. No one seemed to have seen Lee McCabe.
Ferris said nothing in response, and Phelps wondered if he had said something wrong. Perhaps he had overstated the obvious. Of course a lieutenant colonel of the state police would understand the details of a manhunt. Ferris wouldn’t need someone to draw him a picture, as Phelps had just done.
“Help is on the way Sheriff, but not from the state. At least not for a few days.”
“I see,” Phelps said noncommittally.
“I’ve taken the liberty of asking for federal law enforcement resources on your behalf,” Ferris said. “Two agents from the FBI’s Louisville field office will be in contact with you. Very soon.”
The FBI. This was not the help that Phelps had been expecting. Nor did he believe it was the help he needed. He knew that a county-level sheriff could count on the state police—they shared the same concerns, spoke the same language. But the FBI was part of the Washington morass, and that often meant a different agenda.
“I had thought that this would escalate according to a certain pattern of progression,” Phelps said. “I want to find out who killed two local citizens. I believe that will have a local answer. I don’t want to spend valuable time trying to connect a local crime to whatever happens to be on the FBI’s top ten list at the moment.”
“What happens in Hawkins County is on the feds’ top ten list now,” Ferris said. “Have you been keeping up with the reports from around the region? There’s been a string of homicides just like this—two-bit meth dealers gunned down for no apparent reason. Just last week a meth dealer fifty miles east of Cincinnati was found in the cab of his pickup truck with this throat cut ear-to-ear. Two more small-timers were gunned down in Nashville less than a month ago. One of them right in front of his family, I might add.”
“And you think that what happened here is somehow connected? It’s not like drug dealers never kill each other.”
“The federal government believes that someone outside the region is trying to consolidate the meth market in the middle southern states. And that theory, quite frankly, makes a lot of sense. Why do you think that young man—an ex-marine of all things—gunned down two of his neighbors in cold blood? Neighbors who happened to be engaged in the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine, by the way. Do you think that was a crime of passion?”
“I don’t think we’ll know for sure what happened until we apprehend Lee McCabe and question him.”
“That’s exactly what the FBI is going to help you with. For the record, Sheriff, I would like nothing better than to send a state police team down to Hawkins County this minute. But we’re bleeding from budget cuts, and record crime rates in Lexington and Louisville. Every marginal character who isn’t doing meth seems to be busy with other sorts of criminal activity at the moment. Car theft in both cities is up by more than thirty percent. I’ll have some state personnel freed up later in the week.”
“I understand,” Phelps said. “And of course we’ll appreciate whatever help the FBI can provide in the meantime.”
“Hold that thought, Sheriff. If you take a moment to consider the situation, I think you’ll find that FBI involvement will actually work to your advantage, both in terms of solving the crime as well as politically.”
Politically? Phelps didn’t see this is a political issue. There was nothing political about the carnage he had seen in that trailer.
“What are you getting at, Colonel?”
“I’m sure you know about the criticism you’ve been receiving from certain quarters,” Ferris said. “An editorial in the Louisville Sun gave you some very sharp criticism. Sad to say that wasn’t the only source of criticism, Sheriff. Our constituents and politicians consume a lot of cops-and-robbers movies, you know. There were a lot of folks out there who were expecting a little more of a chase.”
Phelps felt his cheeks turn red. He had not read the editorial in the Louisville Sun—but he could imagine the recriminations. He had seen something similar in some of the faces at the trailer park.
“There was no practical way we could have apprehended the suspect at that moment in those woods,” Phelps said. “There were only two of us, and we had a crime scene with two corpses to secure. When we first arrived, we didn’t know if there were more gunmen in the vicinity. I had to decide how to allocate minimal resources in a very unusual situation, for Hawkins County.”
“You have the support of everyone in this office,” Ferris said. “We catch our share of flak from the papers and politicians too, by the way. It comes with the job. I’m simply saying, Sheriff, that it might not be a completely bad thing if the FBI ends up with primary jurisdiction here. Those murders might be the tip of the iceberg. If the feds are right, things may get a whole lot worse in your part of the world before they even think about getting better.”
“And when will this federal help be arriving?” Phelps asked.
“As a matter of fact, I believe they are in transit to Perryston even as we speak.”
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