Cheerwine is Fine

 

 

Image courtesy HauntingVisionsStock via Creative Commons

Cheerwine is Fine

A Serial Mystery by Winston-Salem Writers

Chapter One, by Al Perry

 

Business Interstate 40 at the US 52 interchang...

Image courtesy Wikipedia

 

Call Enderton whatever you wish—a two-stoplight town off Interstate 40, an overgrown village with an inferiority complex, a bedroom community for Winston-Salem and Greensboro—but never say that folks who live there don’t know what’s going on. Word travels faster in Enderton than a stomach virus through a kindergarten class.

Before the ambulance carrying Richard Pemble left the town limits, siren screaming and lights flashing, a crowd of Enderton residents gathered at Henry’s General Store.

“Richard got shot,” one of his neighbors explained. “Walkin’ in the woods, right out there on his own property.”

“Hunter do it? Plenty deer around this season. I had to fence off my fruit trees right in my own backyard.”

“Dunno, but don’t think so. The sheriff ordered his deputies to keep everyone away. I heard one of ‘em talking on his radio. Said something about the National Guard bein’ called in.”

“Is Richard bad off?

“Dead, I’m told. Ellena, Richard’s wife, went off in the ambulance with him.”

“I saw her climb in,” a new arrival said. “That pretty little thing was bawling, wringing her hands, shaking all over. Awful.”

At 4:30 p.m., about an hour after the incident, Richard Pemble was pronounced dead at the trauma center in Winston-Salem. At the request of the sheriff, the State Bureau of Investigation launched its own investigation. Enderton was in the spotlight for the first time since, twenty years earlier, it was a contender for the site of a regional airport. That was when Richard Pemble’s 600 acres of farmland adjoining an interstate highway had generated wild speculation.

Now, the town’s largest landowner and its wealthiest citizen was a victim of violence.

Richard, in his early 50’s, also was one of Enderton’s most popular residents. He and his young bride both were active in church and civic affairs.

Rumors flew.

 

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

A front-page story in the next morning’s Winston-Salem Journal disposed of the hunting-accident theory. Quoting “anonymous but reliable sources,” the paper reported that Richard Pemble had been killed by shrapnel from some sort of bomb—an “improvised explosive device” or IED, the type of weapon used by terrorists in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Enderton story went national.

Chapter Two, by Robin Chalkey

 

Image courtesy of 13th St. Studio

 

From his third-floor walk-up on West 11th Street, Jonathan Gilbert had a clear view of Magnolia Bakery, the queue for its ballyhooed cupcakes already curling down the block. He didn’t understand how anyone could process so much sugar so early in the day. Ramsey preferred his morning routine – a crunchy poppy seed bagel with a schmear, a dark-roasted cup of coffee (two on weekends), and the Times.

What he read this morning, however, spoiled the start of his day. The story took up only a couple of paragraphs in the National News summary on page five, but that’s all it took to spoil his mood.

The idiots.

They were supposed to kill the wife.

They’d called the night before, falling all over themselves to apologize.

“It was his fault!” Bumblebrain said, referring to the partner Ramsey called Dunderhead. “He said the woman has a place in the woods behind the house where she goes to, you know, meditate or whatever. She does that yogurt with the stretching and whatnot.

“So I says, Okay, good a place as any. She goes out there every day after lunch. One o’clock like, I dunno, like clockwork I guess. So we’re down the street at Micky D’s, waiting, and we hear the ambulances going to the house, and we think, job over, am I right? We was all happy till we heard on the news it was the husband what was killed.”

Gilbert held the phone at arm’s length, and gave it a look that said Do you believe the incompetence of these morons? He should have known better than to trust his muscle with a job that required brains. Now he had to come up with another plan – and quickly.

When he put the phone back to his ear, Bumblebrain was still trying to justify his failure. “Give us another chance, Mr. G., we won’t let you down again.”

“Dunderhead used an IED? He couldn’t have, I don’t know, strangled her in her garage or something?”

Bumblebrain was glad to pass the buck. “That’s what I told him, but he said this would cause the police to think it was some kind of terrorist plot.”

Gilbert rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Just come on back. The reading of the will is here in the city on Tuesday. I’ll just have to think of a way to get rid of my sister while she’s here.”

Chapter Three, by Ray Morrison

Every square inch of the long, wide conference table was covered with open files.  Special Agent Jack Dollar had been reading and rereading their contents for more than two straight hours.  Outside the conference room, in the main room of the SBI’s Greensboro field office, a dozen agents sorted through notebooks containing the crime scene evidence or made phone calls to follow up on the few leads they had.  It had been nearly seven hours since Richard Pemble had been killed and four since Dollar had taken the call from the Raleigh, from the Director himself.  The use of an apparent IED had made everyone jumpy.  Dollar had been on the phone all afternoon with liaisons from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the Secret Service.  Added to the mix was the fact that the widow’s twin brother was no less than Jonathan Gilbert, one of North Carolina’s U.S. Senators, who had recently won his party’s nomination in the upcoming presidential election.  With so many eyes on him, Dollar knew there was no room for mistakes on this one.

 

Image courtesy Creative Commons

 

Dollar studied the crime scene photographs taped on two enormous white boards hanging on the wall across from him.  Again and again his eyes followed the sequence of pictures from left to right.  Most had been taken by the forensics staff of the Guilford County Sheriff’s office immediately after the explosion and focused on the small wooden building in which the device had been placed.  Nearly the entire front wall had been destroyed upon detonation and the resulting fire it had caused.  Pemble’s body had been thrown nearly twenty yards in the blast, driving his head into the trunk of tall pine tree.

“Excuse me, Jack.”

Dollar looked toward the conference room door.  Alex Toledo, a young agent who had joined his staff only a few months prior, stood holding up a sheet of paper.

“Hope that’s good news,” Dollar said.

“Maybe.  It’s the final report on the explosives from the lab.”

Alex handed it to Dollar and waited as he scanned it.

“It seems our killers might be locals,” Dollar said.   He looked up at Alex.  “Don’t you think?”

“How can we assume that?”

Dollar smiled and motioned for Alex to follow him.  He walked out of the conference room into the large, open office.  He called for everyone to gather around.

“It’s been a long night,” Dollar said.  “And I don’t have to tell you we are under the gun on this one.  Tell me what you’ve got.”

One by one the agents gave synopses of their individual investigations.  Dollar concluded with the forensic report, which indicated that the main explosive in the bomb was 110-octane gasoline.  Fragments confirmed that the container for the fuel had been a plastic liter soda bottle.  Cheerwine, to be exact from a shred of the bottle’s label.

“110-octane?” Alex asked.

“That’s NASCAR fuel,” Dollar said.  “Which, while uncommon, can be found close to here at Bowman Gray Stadium, right over in Winston-Salem.”

Chapter Four, by Amy Elliott

“What’s found at Bowman Gray?” Ellena Pemble’s lip trembed. Her attempt to hide tear-swollen eyes behind oversized Juicy Couture sunglasses was in vain. Her shoulders curled inward as if protecting her heart from further pain and her dark hair swarmed her head in an uncontrolled exhibition of what she felt inside. She looked nothing like the elegant, composed woman captured in paparazzi photos.

 

Image Courtesy Creative Commons

 

Agent Dollar crossed the room in two strides, gently laying his hand on her fragile arm. The faint smell of Chanel No. 5 caressed his senses. “I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”

“They – the officers – said that they needed – that I needed to come and – give a statement.” Her breathless reply barely audible. “Was it wrong of me to come?”

“No, no, not at all. Let me find someone to help you,” Dollar said, steering her towards the door.

“NO!” Ellena pulled her arm from his grasp. “What was found at Bowman Gray?”

The uniformed cop seated closest to Mrs. Pemble stood to help Agent Dollar.

“Don’t worry yourself with this, maam. When we know something, we’ll let you know.”

Ellana Pemble snatched her glasses off and glared at the officer.

“I may not appear so, sir, but I am strong and entirely capable of hearing what you have now. I have plenty of experience in dealing with difficult times. I’ve lost my husband, not my mind.” Upon seeing the officers’ shocked reaction, and in true blue blood style, she smiled and added, “at least not yet.”  Ellena slid a chair out from under the heavy conference table and sat down, dropping her shoulder bag on the floor. “Well?”

“Mrs. Pemble, I’m not comfortable with-“

“Do I look the slightest bit interested in what you’re comfortable with? Agent Dollar, my husband had lots of friends and more than a few enemies and no one knew him like I did. If you know anything, I may be able to put things in context. Now, I ask again, what the hell was found at Bowman Gray?” Dollar rubbed his forehead and sank into the chair at the head of the table.

“It’s the closest place to find 110-Octane fuel.”

 

110 Octane?

 

“You’re discussing gasoline? I thought you were investigating the murder of my husband,” Ellena quipped.

“We are,” Dollar sighed. “It’s what fueled the explosion.”

Ellena cocked her head and bit her bottom lip. It was an expression captured in print on more than one occasion. She had a successful career as an Assistant District Attorney before marrying Richard Pemble and moving to Enderton. Lip biting was her signature gesture in court. One nibble and everyone on the jury held their breath. It was almost as successful with the cops in this room.

“110-Octane. That’s racing fuel right? And you’re saying that’s what blew up and caused all that damage?” In discussing the facts of the case, Ellena could distance herself from the pain. Gave her something else to think about, something other than her husband.

Chapter Five by Geoff Penney

“Do you know the worst thing about Richard’s death?” Ellena said slowly, straightening herself and looking directly at Dollar.   “I feel like I killed him.  I’m responsible, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

She bent over, trembling, and Dollar feared the worst, but no, she visibly got a grip, and looked him in the eye again.

“I go out to the studio every day, to practice my yoga, and Richard never goes out there.   It’s my place, my private place.  The only reason he went out there was because I asked him to that day    Lord, I wish I never had.”

She fell silent, rocking a little in the chair.

“Mrs. Pemble, why did you ask him to go out there?” Jack asked gently.

 

Animal in the Yoga Studio?

 

“The day before, there was some mess, and I thought some animal had gotten in, and I asked him to come with me, just in case.   And then I realized I’d forgotten my glasses, and I went back for them, so he went on alone.”

“You know what that means, don’t you?” She looked directly at Jack, and he remembered that she had been a pretty smart A.D.A.   “It means the bomb was meant for me.”

*****

Back in the conference room, the detectives looked up in surprise.

“The thing is, boss, that doesn’t tie with Rosita’s story.   You know, the housemaid?”

“I know who Rosita is, Mike.  I may have been talking to Mrs. Pemble for an hour, but I haven’t completely lost track of the case.”

“I talked to her this morning.”   Mike was really Miguel, and he had long resigned himself to being the go-to Hispanic on the squad.   “Rosita agrees that Mr. Pemble went out without Mrs. Pemble, but she says it was his idea, not hers.   He was loud, almost shouting.   He told her to stay in the house while he went out to the studio.   And she never mentioned any animal.”

“That’s very strange,” Jack said cautiously.   “If she’s right, he deliberately went out to the studio, on his own, at the time she usually went out there, on her own.   And it also implies that…  she didn’t want us to know that.”

Alex Toledo chipped in: “Here’s another thing about Mrs. Pemble.   She’s been making long calls to a cell phone.  The name on the account is a fake, but we do know the phone is being used right here.   In Greensboro.”

*****

Sally Weston was a young policewoman who had an understanding of mutual benefit with Alex.    “I’m telling you, Alex, Jack knew her.   And she’s the grieving widow and all that, but he was just too nice.”

Now Jack had announced he was going to New York with Mrs. Pemble for the will reading.       Ellena might have been the intended victim, but she seemed to have some secrets of her own.   Maybe that’s why Richard was angry.  Maybe, she …

One way or another, Alex decided, he was going to New York himself.

Chapter Six by Cindy Olivett Richter

Alex’s call to authorities at Greensboro’s terminal indicated the need for police work. He ordered a list of passengers, making arrangements to sit behind Jack and Mrs. Pemble. He boarded the northwestern flight to NY before anyone else and sat there waiting.

Something was amiss. In spite of having worked with Jack for only a few months he was in tune with the way Jack looked at Mrs. Pemble and felt there was something he was not privy to. He remembered Jack telling him his nephew drove a race car at Bowman Gray Stadium. He was trying to fit the pieces together but nothing made sense. When the stewardess opened the door for other passengers, he crouched over, grabbed a magazine to be sure the passengers coming aboard couldn’t see his face. He focused on the pages but kept his ears open.

Mrs. Pemble sat by the window and Jack sat next to her. After all passengers were buckled up the stewardess recited the usual safety information. The plane’s engines grew louder; it taxied down the runway taking off smoothly. Once in the air Jack and Mrs. Pemble began to talk.

“Ellena, I’m not comfortable with this letter you want to present to the lawyer. There are too many things about Richard that shouldn’t be revealed. It could be used against you. I’ve seen this happen before.”

“Jack, this letter shows proof that my brother was involved in land disputes with Richard and worse than that……..”

Alex couldn’t hear any more, for a baby in the seat behind him began to cry. It took 20 minutes for this child to calm down and by then Alex noticed Mrs. Pemble had closed her eyes and was sleeping. The rest of the trip was uneventful. Before long the plane was in Philadelphia for the stopover. Alex waited for them to leave first. There was an hour and a half wait for their connection to NYC. He lost track of them but he had the list of passengers and they were to board again at 2:15PM. Alex grabbed a ham and cheese sandwich on a hard roll and waited.

 

Off to New York

 

At 2:15PM people gathered at Gate 23 for NYC. Alex was first in line. When they opened the door to the walkway he quickly walked down the ramp to his seat to once again focus on a magazine. In no time everyone was seated, but Jack and Mrs. Pemble hadn’t come on board. Alex looked at his list to be certain it was the correct flight. It was and they were not on board! What had happened?

When they landed 45 minutes later Alex contacted Sally Weston at Winston-Salem’s police station and asked if anyone heard from Jack. “Not a word, Alex. Jack said he was stopping over in Philadelphia and getting the plane to NYC. That’s all I know.”

“Get right on this, Sally,” Alex said with distress in his voice. “I think we may have two missing persons.”

Chapter Seven by Dan O’Sullivan

EXIT 203

“You two are dumber than the crust on boarding house, bed-sheets.”  Jonathan Gilbert’s face reddened with rage.  His personal DC-3 was not where he wanted the authorities to find his sister and her boy-toy.  Especially, when said boy-toy is a Fed.  Bumble-brain and Dunderhead sat opposite his customary seat.  A low table separated the three with cup-holders cut into Jonathan’s side only.  The ice chilling his bourbon rattled against the short glass.

 

Rattled

 

“Boss,” Bumble-brain held his hands, palm up in a half-hearted shrug.  “You told us to silence her.”  The burly man gestured toward the cargo area separated from the cabin by a door.  Jack Dollar and Ellena were trussed up in the tail section of the big, vintage plane.  “She can’t say nothin through duck tape.”

Jonathan laughed, unable to stop himself.  The two morons grinned in his direction, no doubt thinking they were off the hook.  The whole mess was getting out of hand.  If only Ellie would listen to reason, all of this could be so simple.  600 acres of prime real estate was going to bring his hopes for high office to an abrupt end.  He helped her for God’s sake.  That idiot husband of hers signed it over to her without a second thought.  She planned to develop it into tracts zoned for business, condos and who knows what else?

“It’ll be a good thing,” she told him.  “New housing developments for the disadvantaged as well as upscale homes for your constituents from all walks of life.”  Right off exit 203 on I-40.  The very heart of the growing Triad.  But, then they’d start dying of leukemia, emphysema and whatever other dread disease erupts from drinking contaminated ground water.

It was perfect, at first.  Richard knew, but Ellie didn’t.  Everybody made money, where did Ellena think all that money came from, anyway?  The New York people paid them millions to dispose of waste products.  They buried them deep too.  Then Raleigh built that damnable I-40 bypass right next to it, putting exit 203 on top of Richard’s 600 acres.  What a freaking nightmare.  Ellena and her geological surveyor were going to blow the lid off the whole thing.  New York sent the two morons to eliminate the problem before they suffered too much exposure.  Taking care of the surveyor they accomplished well enough, but, then the two Guidos blew up Richard.

 

Silenced?

 

Jonathan guessed Richard really did love Ellena, even though she’s screwing the Fed.  The jerk died instead of his wife, leaving Jonathan to clean up the mess.  Then Bumblebrain and Dunderhead imagined ‘silence her’ involved duct tape and kidnapping.  The weight of the .45 holstered under his arm gave him a resolve he thought he might lose.

Pressing the intercom button, he called the cockpit.

The pilot responded instantly.  “Yes Sir?”

“Call me when we clear the coast.”

“Yes Sir.”

Dunderhead shook his head in the negative.  “I ain’t killing no Fed.”

Jonathan watched the two closely as Bumblebrain shushed his partner.  He didn’t know their real names, such familiarity generally proved costly.  It didn’t matter, all four were going swimming.  He may yet be President Gilbert.  Twin propellers rumbled from outside the silver plane.

Chapter 8 by Jennifer Stevenson

The Lobby

In a subterranean office deep inside CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a top-secret meeting was in session.  Given the location, the covert briefing was not unusual, nor was the subject matter.  Murder was most usual in America’s top spy shop, and every day thousands of operatives moved silently through corridors conveying messages of death.

Uncommon Cooperation

What marked this group was an uncommon cooperation. For 53 straight hours agents from the CIA, FBI, Secret Service, and Homeland Security gathered in a makeshift command center to puzzle over a murder. Not of a deposed world leader but of a businessman blown to bits in his own rural backyard.

The death had been damn inconvenient and now they had to fix it.

The group stared at images projected on wall-size monitors. A green blip of light blinked steadily at a landing field in Philadelphia.

“The target is set to take-off at any minute.”

“How long before our man gets there?”

“A chopper left New York twelve minutes ago.”

“Hope he gets there in time.”

“He always does. “

——-

Chopper on the Way

Jonathan Gilbert’s silver plane idled on the runway, rain lashing the porthole windows.  The senator peered out, failing to see a solitary man crossing the tarmac. Kept waiting an hour, Gilbert was impatient, angry.

“Let’s get going,” he demanded, slapping the console. “Tell the frigging pilot to take off now!”

Then he heard a voice, calm but steely; he turned to confront a stranger stepping into the cabin.

“Sorry, Senator. Your flight is delayed,” Alex Toledo said in greeting. “Permanently.”

Gilbert saw the pilot duck out of the cockpit, then down the stairs.

“What’s going on? Who the hell are you?! “ demanded Gilbert, getting up.

“Sit down,” Toledo replied, forcefully pushing Gilbert back into his seat. “Let’s just say I’m an interested party from an interested agency.  And we have great interest in your bad behavior, which now comes to a close.”

Immediately, Gilbert felt dizzy with fear. He’d waged many a vicious political campaign, but this terrified him. He’d always known an anonymous man would come for him some day.

Now, he was here.

“I don’t know what you are talking about!” Gilbert countered. “You have no authority here!”

“Murder, Senator,” Toledo said evenly. “I’m talking about the murder of Richard Pemble – which you ordered.  Plus kidnapping, conspiracy, aggravated battery, fraud, illegal dumping of hazardous waste, and ten counts of weapons charges.

“But that seems minor when compared to 23 counts of conspiracy to commit terrorist attacks.”

“A terrorist! You’re insane!” Gilbert yelled. “You don’t have any proof! “

The other man shook his head.

“We’ve had your office over on 11th Street under surveillance for more than a year.”

Gilbert sneered. Finally, he might have a chance.

“Then you have nothing,’ he said.  “With my clearance, my lawyer will get any tapes suppressed because of national security issues.”

“Not if we charge you with violating national security,“ Toledo said. “We also have witnesses.”

“Like who?” Gilbert interrupted. The recordings worried him, but not witnesses. He’d handpicked his small, loyal crew.

“Like the two men sitting in front of you,” Toledo said, pointing to his bodyguards.

“These guys?” Gilbert yelled. “They’re morons!”

“They are well-trained agents,” Toledo snapped.  “But we like to call them Izzy and Bo.”

“Nice to finally meet you,” Izzy said to Gilbert.

“And they’ll testify — if it comes to that,” Toledo said.

“Sure would,” said Bo. “It’s been a long year for a couple of morons.”

“I’ll kill you!” Gilbert said, charging the men.

Now, Ellena and Agent Dollar joined the group. Earlier, the undercover bodyguards had untied them while Gilbert was distracted.

“Don’t forget me, “ Ellena said. “I’m a witness, too.”

Gilbert roared.

“You’re my friggin’ sister!”

“And you tried to kill me twice!”  Ellena said. “And besides, I’m adopted.”

Toledo interrupted the deadly sibling rivalry. “This why we say Russian orphans are so useful. She’s been undercover for a long time”

Jack Dollar whirled from the Ellena to Toledo.

“That’s it? This is a secret CIA sting? Why didn’t you tell me?” Dollar demanded.

“Because, Jack, if I told you the secret it wouldn’t be one,” Toledo said.

But I don’t get it ,” Dollar said, still confused. “The Senator killed Richard Pemble? Why?”

“A bigger secret,” Toledo replied. “Gilbert’s cover scheme was a new housing development. Then, conveniently, that very piece of land is contaminated with “waste products” from some New York firm.

“But let’s say what really happened,” Toledo continued. “The housing project was Gilbert’s idea, not Ellena’s.  And he needed that land for a very good reason. Where else could he dump contaminated nuclear waste from secret weapons tests Al Qaeda operatives are conducting right here in America.

“The Senator has made big money working with the enemy,” Toledo said. “Ellena found out, and Gilbert ordered her dead. Richard Pemble also stumbled onto the truth – or part of it. He was snooping in his wife’s studio when he walked into Gilbert’s death trap for his sister.”

Jack Dollar looked like he wanted to ask more questions, but Ellena pulled him up the aisle.

“Leave ‘em alone,” she said.  “Our work is done. C’mon, I’ll buy you a drink.” “

They left, and the plane was silent.

Gilbert was still shaking, his face ashen. He fell back heavily into a seat.

“I didn’t kill him!” he said, pointing to his former bodyguards. “They did.”

“There’s dead and there’s dead-dead’,’’ said Toledo.  “Did you see him Richard dead?

“There was a body,” Gilbert stammered.  “The state police found it.”

“But Ellena made the ID. Richard is just said-dead.” Toledo said. ‘The most interesting things happen to those who are said-dead. The last time we saw Pemble was in a Quonset hut in Guantanamo bay. He’s been in a chatty mood.”

Toledo paused.

“Time to go.”

Gilbert looked from Toledo to the hulking men flanking him. His shoulders slumped. “I need to call my lawyer –I have rights”

“But we’re not arresting you,” Toledo said. “We just want to talk.”

“I’m a U.S. Senator.” Gilbert said shrilly, “You can’t just make me disappear!”

Toledo smiled briefly.

The bodyguards each grabbed one of Gilbert’s arms and hoisted him roughly to his feet.

“No! Arrest me, arrest me,” Gilbert yelled. “I’ll confess, I’ll confess.”

Toledo followed, then stepped into the falling rain.

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