“Wall, Gaither’s car was found abandoned about a half mile from the Pinnacle Mountain parking area, on the west side.”
Wall’s evening just got longer. He sat on a gurney.
“Hey, what’s the big idea?” said a patient lying on the gurney. A thin piece of silver metal attached to a green plastic card protruded from his left arm. Very little blood was coming out around it. He noticed Wall looking at it. “It’s a graphics card for my computer. Long story.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Wall said. He stood and walked over to a chair in the waiting area.
“Um, Wall?” Wilson asked.
“I’m still here. Just needed a place to sit. I’ve had a lot going on tonight. You know, that bullet could have hit me back there in that kitchen.”
“I’m a good shot, Wall.”
“Sure. Okay, tell me what you know about Gaither.”
“A park ranger was doing his normal rounds and found the vehicle, a late 1980’s Toyota Camry, white. He called a buddy at the County SO and had him run the tags. Then County sent the nearest deputy to help look for the owner. They don’t like anybody hanging around the park after it’s closed. Usually only unsavory shit goes down out there after dark.
“By the time the deputy got out there, another ranger had showed. They split up. So, now they have one guy hiking up the west summit trail while the other guys hike up the east side and search the base.”
“Call for backup, and then separate. Brilliant,” Wall said.
“Yeah, I know. Anyway, they had radios to keep in touch. The deputy gets a couple miles along the base trail and hears a thump coming from the base of the cliff. There’s lots of woods between him and the sound, so he calls the other guys to tell them he’s going in. Every minute or so, he yells out, ‘Hey, anybody there?’
“As he gets close, he gets kind of spooked because he can hear this scary breathing. It was weird, because he said it sounded like when the kid in the movie E.T. was dying. I don’t remember that. Does it ring a bell for you?”
“Yeah, I know exactly what he means,” Wall said.
“He finally gets through the trees and onto this slope of shale. There’s a man lying there, not moving except to suck in air.”
“Yep. He’s lying there, face-down, one leg bent up wrong, but not a lot of blood around him.”
“Did he say anything?”
“The deputy got down on his knees to talk to him. Gaither said –” Wilson stopped.
“Just checking my notes again, Wall. He said, ‘Don’t help. Tell them I’m sorry.'”
“Sorry for what?” Wall asked.
“I don’t know. He blacked out, and the deputy’s resuscitation efforts failed.”
“He’s dead, then. Dammit.”
“We don’t know for sure, but EMT response time is not good out there. Even the private outfits don’t have a location any closer than 15 minutes. When they got there, they said he wasn’t breathing, but hooked him up and now they’re headed your way.”
Wall ran his free hand through his hair. He had never hidden or planted evidence before, but right now he wished the last words of Jim Gaither would disappear from the record. “Thanks, Wilson. I’ll call you if I need you.”
He walked back to watch doctors treat Stivins. He asked how he was doing.
“The bullet will have to be removed in the OR. We’re giving him O-neg right now, but the bullet didn’t hit any major vessels. He’s lost the most blood from his leg wound.”
“I got overconfident,” Stivins said. “I had become so good at using my machete that I let my attention wander. Pity, really. I might have to miss some work.”
“Where did you get all this practice?” Wall asked. He still was trying to trip Stivins.
“I was in a hiking group that frequently performed trail maintenance. We carried only tools run on muscle, whose only byproducts were sweat.”
Great, he’s an environmentally conscious killer. Wall knew that he had no proof that Stivins had committed the murder. That did not change the feeling in his gut. Sure, Gaither was squirrely, and a lot of people can kill if cornered, but he did not come across as a man who could pull off the Timex job.
Still, neither man had an alibi or a motive. Now Gaither apparently had jumped off a cliff out of guilt and saved the DA the trouble of going to trial.
“Detective. How much money do you think the City of Little Rock has?”
“I have no idea. Why?”
“I believe I shall help myself to a large portion of it in light of your brazen partner’s attempt to kill me.”
Loud voices came from down the hall. “What’s that?” Wall asked.
“That’s the ambulance bay. Sounds like they’re bringing one in,” a nurse said.
Wall ran out of the room and headed toward the voices. Two EMT’s pushed a stretcher, rattling off medical jargon to an ER doctor who walked alongside looking at the patient.
It was Gaither.
Wall fell into step with the doctor. “How is he?” he asked.
“Who are you?”
“Detective Davies, LRPD. This man is part of an ongoing murder investigation.”
“Well, detective, there is not much reason to investigate this man. His heart stopped beating at least 20 minutes ago.”
“He doesn’t look that bad,” Wall said.
“He suffered massive internal injuries after a high fall,” one of the EMT’s said. “He was still talking when they found him.”
“I know. Thanks.”
It was just as he feared after talking with Wilson. Gaither was gone.
“Can’t the state crime lab do DNA tests yet?” Wall asked.
“No, Wall, and even if another lab could, we see no reason to pursue Stivins,” Leigh said.
“You don’t think that by cutting his leg he was tampering with evidence?”
“We hadn’t told him we were looking for that as evidence, so there’s no proof he had motive for that, much less the murder itself.”
“Motive and proof. Dammit. That’s all you talk about. This guy’s got issues. I can tell by the way he looks at me.”
“We can’t use the judicial system to chase your hunches, or work out Stivins’ issues. Gaither’s actions, misguided as they may have been, pretty much sewed it up for our office. We don’t have time or resources for a wild goose chase, Wall.”
Wall was enraged. He let it pass. “Listen, Leigh-Leigh, there’s no way Gaither did this.”
“I’m sorry, Wall, but that’s our office’s position. Gaither tried to pin it on someone else, and changed his story at least once. When he was cornered he decided he had nothing to live for, and committed suicide. Happens all the time. Guy goes on a shooting spree, then turns the gun on himself.
“Don’t make me mention his threat to sue the City. I think he’ll go forward with that regardless, but if we press charges now, he’s going to make Wilson’s stunt widely known, and probably get a huge settlement.”
“It wasn’t a stunt, Leigh-Leigh. He saw Stivins standing there with a knife, and blood everywhere.”
“Don’t call me that. It’s all perception, Wall, and we don’t happen to have a videotape of the incident.”
He realized then that he had given Stivins an alibi for that night. Had he not gone over there, then Stivins would have been alone. Maybe they could have made a case for Stivins pushing Gaither off the mountain, to shut up the only witness, or out of revenge for being implicated in Shaeffer’s death.
He stood in silence. A fire engine sounded in the distance. The siren rose to a loud wail, then quickly faded off in true Doppler form.
Wendy and Wall stood in the kitchen, talking and cooking. He added some olive oil and basil to the green beans while she ripped and washed Romaine lettuce. The aroma of homemade lasagna wafted from the oven.
Wendy said they were celebrating. For Wall, it was more like moping. There was good food, though, and they had not done much as a couple lately, so he tried his best to seem excited.
This could not be it. He had told Wendy he would consider leaving the detective business for something else, but this was no case to go out on, with such a stale taste in his mouth.
“Babe, do you still want me to quit being a cop? You know, both the boys will be out of the house within a couple years.”
“Wall, this last case pretty much did it for me.”
“Wilson’s stepping up some. He branched off on his own on this case. I think he’s ready to take more of my workload.”
“He shot Stivins.”
“Everybody’s ganging up on the guy for that. I was pissed at first, but I gotta admit, out of context, I probably would have done the same thing. Besides, I’ve been thinking, maybe quitting isn’t the best way for me to go. Maybe I should look at transferring to a different city. Something a little smaller, more scenic, but close enough for you to keep teaching a few days a week. You love scenic.”
Darren, their younger son, walked into the kitchen.
“Let’s talk more about it later,” Wendy said.
Wall lifted the saucepan lid and saw heavy, deep red bubbles gurgling up at him. He grabbed a wooden spoon, dipped it in, and leaned over the stove for a sniff.
“This smells good. Is this your usual sauce?”
“No, it’s from a new recipe our department head gave me.”
“Well, I’m open to trying new things.” He pulled the spoon to his mouth for a taste.