“I’ll dust it, but I’m telling you, it’s a waste of time.”
The lanky crime scene investigator known as Phelps kneeled beside the passenger door of the beige sedan and opened his kit. He shook his head as he studied the eruption of prints on and around the chrome handle, his floppy, straw-blond hair betraying his reluctance.
“Whaddya mean, waste of time,” Detective Dekker demanded. “There must be fifty prints on that door.”
“Fifty six visible latents,” Phelps corrected. “Look, Detective, these are ancient. See how the paint has oxidized around the perimeter of this one?”
“The epithelial oil has preserved the surface underneath, essentially forming a hermetical seal against the elements, while the surrounding paint shows advanced stages of weathering. If the print was fresh, the underlying paint would reflect the same level of deterioration,” Phelps concluded.
“How long are we talking here,” Dekker asked.
“Difficult to say. Lots of variables. Paint degradation to this extent would take decades if parked indoors and properly cared for. The prints would have been obliterated by routine washing and waxing, however, so-”
“Skip ahead,” Dekker growled. Patience had never been his forte.
“Couple years, give or take,” Phelps summarized.
“Run them through CODIS anyway,” Dekker ordered. “Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
Phelps returned to his work without argument.
“Got something over here, Peter,” a female voice called from inside the car. His partner was the only one who called him by his given name. Even his mother called him “Deck.”
Dekker walked around to the driver side and poked his ruddy face inside the open door frame. The familiar, dizzying combination of vanilla and lilac rose from the occupant’s flowing, jet-black hair, overpowering the close quarters.
“Whatcha got, Perez?”
“GPS. God, I love technology. Almost as much as I love the predictability of a Realtor,” she answered.
“Let me guess, a synopsis of the last five hours of his life? He programmed a route of the homes he was showing yesterday.”
“Close,” Perez responded, extending an olive hand to the windshield-mounted unit. Dekker’s eyes lingered on the recent addition to her slender ring finger for a moment before moving to the data that was called up on the display.
“Wait, I know that address,” he interjected.
“Of course you do,” Perez replied, turning to face him with a wicked grin. Her dark Persian eyes flared with mischief. “You’re there most every Tuesday and Thursday. Are the lunch specials as superb as everyone says?”
He felt his face warm as he flushed a deep crimson.
“Yes, I mean no. I mean I, uh … how’d you know that,” Dekker stammered.
“I’m a cop, Peter,” she said with an ironic wink. “Besides, let’s just say that I don’t have to call Quantico for any help with the profile.”
“What about the rest of his stops,” Dekker asked, eager to plow ahead.
“Airport, few more gentlemen’s clubs, a liquor store and the bank,” Perez informed him.
“I don’t get it,” Dekker mused, regaining his composure. “The wife told us he was out showing property all afternoon. Big shot investor of some sort.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time a man lied to his wife about his whereabouts, Peter,” she noted, eyes darting to the floor.
“No, I suppose not,” he admitted. “Something is off here, though. How did his car end up all the way out here in the sticks if he was barhopping in the city? And how do you explain the credit card records? That stop at the Quickie Mart off I-10 for bottled water, soda, ice and snacks is consistent with the contents of the cooler in the back seat.”
“He was thirsty,” Perez suggested.
“No, he was definitely planning to meet somebody,” Dekker corrected. “Those are tour guide supplies.”
“Hmm, that’s interesting,” Perez said.
“He made one more stop. Missed it the first time,” she confessed. “But this can’t be right.”
“Because it’s right here,” she answered.
“Here? On purpose? How is that even possible? There can’t be any address associated with this place,” Dekker argued, gesturing to the surrounding area. “We’re in the middle of frigging nowhere.”
Surveying the fallow cornfield, his sinuses, reminded to object, began throbbing. If desolation had a taste, it was the dusty hint of maize that now sat upon his tongue.
“True, he wasn’t necessarily looking for these coordinates, just something off grid,” Perez elaborated. “Take a look at this.”
Dekker leaned in closer, doing a poor job of ignoring the electricity that coursed through his body when a few errant strands of her hair brushed his cheek. The GPS display was illuminated with the green letters, BFE.
“Is that time-stamped,” he asked.
“5:42 PM, exactly two hours after the previous search.”
“We’ve been looking at this all wrong. Something happened alright, but he wasn’t forced to drive here,” Dekker declared. “Things went bad with the mystery guest for some reason or another, and our boy had a change of plans.”
They were interrupted by a loud crash behind them.
“What the hell,” Decker exclaimed as he caught sight of the trunk bursting open in the rear view mirror. He jumped back from the doorway and sprinted the three steps to the back of the car, Perez not far behind. The shrieking CSI tech scurried around to the front bumper and ducked out of sight.
“Damn it, I thought this scene was secured!”
Perez jostled Dekker as he stopped short. She opened her mouth to chastise him, but had her train of thought derailed by the spectacle playing out in front of her slack-jawed partner.
Hopping away from the flabbergasted pair was a pale, middle-aged, white male. Save for the red garment with which he had been hog-tied, he was naked as the day he was born, his bare skin twinkling in the midday sun with each lurching movement. The gargling sound emanating from his strained vocal chords failed to resolve into coherent words.
“Well, there’s something you don’t see everyday,” Dekker managed.
The man had hop-crawled ten yards into the barren field before the detectives recovered their wits sufficiently to walk him down. They approached as one would a strange dog, palms up and cooing assurances of, “it’s okay,” and “no one’s gonna hurt you.” Closing in, they noted a light dusting of glitter on his skin to compliment the heavy stench of Scotch. He regarded the detectives through bulging, bloodshot eyes that had taken on the panicked sheen of a cornered animal before grudgingly yielding to their assistance.
“Herph mah,” he pleaded. “Herph mah.”
Phelps loped over with a blanket from the CSI van as Dekker freed the captive from the silk necktie that bound him and dislodged a crumpled up piece of paper from his throat.
“Help me,” the man croaked, wincing against the words.
The trio helped him to the backseat of Dekker’s Saturn, where Perez took his statement as they awaited the arrival of the paramedics.
Leaving the victim to his thoughts after fifteen minutes of gentle questioning, Dekker let a low whistle escape his lips when they were clear.
“Dirtbag,” Perez spit as she looked back at the cowering figure in the window.
“Hey, not his fault if he doesn’t want to buy,” Dekker retorted. “Like my daddy always said, never pity a salesman.”
“Yeah, but four years? FOUR YEARS? You string somebody along like that and you’re lucky they don’t show up at your front door with a bazooka,” Perez answered, eyes narrowing.
“Touche,” Dekker said.
“This had to have been the last straw,” she decided. “Guy hasn’t had a client in his car in ages, according to the wife, right?”
“Right,” Dekker acknowledged.
“His white whale calls out of the clear blue sky and says he wants to see some multi-million dollar properties. He’s serious this time. Our guy puts on his best suit and closing tie, makes appointments, picks the whale up at the airport, gets derailed by requests to hit up every strip club and nightspot within a five mile radius. Ever the good host, he hits the ATM to pull out his last sixty bucks somewhere in the middle of it all.”
“Then Moby Dick here tells our boy that he’s too partied out to look at houses and needs a lift back to the airport,” Dekker finished.
Dekker handed Perez the wet piece of paper he had fished from the victim’s mouth. Unwadded, it was a surprisingly legible document. She handed it back after a cursory glance.
“Our boy goes all Falling Down vintage Michael Douglas. Plots a course for the middle of nowhere, strips the vic in symbolic retaliation for same, binds him, gags him with the buyer agency agreement, abandons him with the vehicle and … ,” she trailed off, scouring the horizon for signs of life.
“K-9 unit should get here before it gets dark,” Dekker told her. “They’ll find him. Nothing easier to track than imitation Aqua Velva and desperation.”
She looked unconvinced.
“A night in the desert isn’t gonna do him in if the nuclear holocaust in the housing industry hasn’t managed it,” he added. “They’re cockroaches. Can’t kill’em.”
“But if he’s suffering some kind of psychotic break …,” she began.
“Then better he’s wandering around out there somewhere than holding an open house,” Dekker interrupted with a chuckle.
“And if the dogs don’t get here before nightfall? Cockroach or not, no one is surviving two days in this heat without water.”
“He’s a Realtor, Alana,” Dekker reminded her. “We should be so lucky.”
She studied his rigid jaw for a long moment, recalling her embittered partner’s botched short sale. The stress of the resulting foreclosure had led to his eventual separation and six months spent on her couch. Not necessarily in that order.
“You gave them the wrong directions, didn’t you,” she demanded.
His light green eyes flashed grey, a tell that had chased him out of the weekly Robbery/Homicide division’s card game years ago.