DETECTIVE MITCH O’Neill cautiously navigated the unmarked car through the throng of people lining the street until he couldn’t move forward any farther. He parked, threw on the hand brake, and flicked the ignition. He sighed as he looked at his partner, Ross Sloane. Ross didn’t look happy and raised his eyebrows, but he didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. Another day, another death, another gawking crowd. The same shit.
A couple of heads turned at the slam of the car doors, but most onlookers were too enthralled with the action to pay much attention to their arrival. Mitch flicked the fob and pocketed his keys before making his way to the front of the gathering. Mitch and Ross ducked under the blue-and-white police tape that held back the small crowd and marked off the entrance to the crime scene, and the uniformed officers greeted him by name. Unfortunately there’d been too many scenes like this lately for them not to be able to put a name to a face.
He nodded at the young cop. “Jones. Any updates?”
“Homicide are in the building with the forensic team. The crime scene examiner and forensic pathologist just arrived.”
The factory was a single sprawling building set in the center of a large industrial block. Seven-foot-high chain-link fencing surrounded the site, except for the wide gap that used to be secured by the gates. The gates were now hanging open, the left one attached only by a single hinge and both bent out of shape.
“Yeah. The question is whether it was before the shooting or after,” Ross said.
“Are you thinking a robbery gone wrong?”
“Could be. Although if it is, it doesn’t fit the pattern we’re looking for.”
“Maybe they’re expanding their operations.” Mitch didn’t think it likely, but it couldn’t be ruled out. “What do they do in this factory, anyway? Got any idea?”
The huge sliding doors of the corrugated iron building were open. Mitch and Ross stepped inside. As soon as his eyes adjusted to the dimness of the interior, which was in direct contrast to the bright summer’s day outside, he moved forward. It wasn’t hard to know where to go next.
The vic lay on the dirty concrete floor, not far from the entrance. Mitch acknowledged his colleagues who were working around the body and stepped as close as he could get. Half the guy’s head was missing, but there was enough of his face left for an ID. Even if Mitch hadn’t been able to identify Russell “the Rabbit” Hutchins from his facial features, he would have recognized his affiliation from the tattoo on his upper arm, made visible due to the filthy sleeveless tank top. The usual black leather jacket with its distinctive patch was missing.
“Fuck,” Mitch muttered under his breath.
Paolo Rossi, crouched next to the body, looked up from where he’d been writing in a notepad. “One of yours?”
“Uh-huh. Russell Hutchins.”
“Figured he was one of the Soldiers, which is why we got in contact.”
“Yeah, the tat gives it away. What can you tell me?”
Paolo stood and pocketed the notebook. He was one of the best homicide detectives around, so at least Mitch knew the case was in good hands. “Looks like it happened sometime late last night or in the early hours of this morning. Still waiting on the crime scene examiner to give a more accurate time. Nobody heard anything, so the body wasn’t found until first thing when the 7:00 a.m. shift workers turned up for work.”
Mitch glanced farther into the building. “What do they do here?”
Paolo shrugged. “I haven’t had a chance to speak with the owners yet, but something to do with manufacturing prefabricated metal.”
“What the fuck has that got to do with the Soldiers anyway?” Ross looked as baffled as Mitch felt.
“Who knows? Perhaps there’s something else going on here besides manufacturing. Has this place been flagged for anything suspicious?” Mitch pulled his collar away from his neck; it was still early, but it was heating like a sauna in the confines of the giant tin can of a building.
“Nothing yet, but we’re still looking, so I wouldn’t rule it out yet.”
“Maybe it was just a case of wrong time, wrong place?” Paolo suggested.
“Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to it,” Paolo said. “I’ll let you know what we come up with once the forensics are complete.”
“I’ll put my money on death by bullet to the head,” Ross said.
Mitch looked at the body again. The sight of the brain matter and congealed blood, together with the coppery stench overlaid with machine oil, turned his stomach. He’d never been so grateful not to have had time for breakfast before the call came in. Although caffeine was another story.
“C’mon, let’s get out of here. I need a coffee.” He tilted his head toward the exit.
Mitch glanced at his partner and raised a brow. He sounded like he was half-serious. “Why? The job getting to you?”
“Nah, hair of the dog, mate.”
Mitch almost stumbled, the words being so unlike Ross. They’d worked together for three years, and this was the first time he’d remotely indicated coming into work with a hangover. Not that Mitch could say the same thing. They ducked under the checkered police tape again. The crowd had thinned, obviously bored by the lack of action.
The dark-leather interior of the sedan was hot when Mitch slid into his seat, the metal of the seat belt buckle hot to the touch. “Jesus, it’s going to be a stinker today,” he said, almost to himself.
Mitch started the car and threw an arm behind Ross’s seat. He reversed one-handed, dodging the police cars and the ambulance and the couple of news vans that had finally turned up. He said a silent prayer he’d avoided the journalists, knowing they’d be hounding them for information about the case if they had even the remotest sniff of something gang related.
It didn’t take long to clear the industrial area, with its block after block of gray and dreary buildings, all surrounded by equally gray concrete. Fuck, it was bleak. It was now peak hour, and the traffic was horrendous. It looked like it would be a while before Mitch enjoyed that first longed-for cup of coffee. He put it out of his mind along with the desire for a smoke. He had taken up the habit after breaking up with Peter, the only thing he regretted about that relationship.
“Fuck,” he muttered under his breath.
“What’s wrong?” Ross asked, straightening in his seat.
“Nothing, just wanting a cigarette.”
Ross chuckled. “Nothing new, then. You always want a ciggie.”
“So you going to tell me what’s wrong?”
“Who says anything’s wrong?”
He snuck a sideways glance at Ross before returning his gaze to the road. “Hair of the dog. Remember?”
Ross sighed. “It’s Shelley.”
“Understatement of the century.” Ross sighed again. “She’s not happy with the way things are going.”
“Yeah?” Mitch braked behind the line of cars crawling toward the city.
“She wants to have a kid, but I’m not sure now’s a good time. I mean, we’re in the middle of the investigation, and I’m hardly ever home. I can’t be there through the pregnancy, and what about when the baby is born?”
“I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask, mate. I know nothing about having kids. But from what I hear, there’s never a good time. If you wait for the stars to align or whatever the fuck sign is needed, you’ll never have one.”
“The voice of reason, as usual.”
Mitch snorted, then breathed a sigh of relief as the traffic started slowly moving again. “So what is it? Money? The commitment? Other than the kid thing, are you and Shell okay?”
“Aside from fighting all the time, yeah.” Ross chuckled, and then his voice grew serious. “I love her and really want a family with her.”
“I don’t like the thought of something happening to me. What if she’s left alone to raise the kid?”
“Jesus, Ross. That’s a bit pessimistic, isn’t it?” He glanced at Ross, who shrugged.
“Maybe, but fuck, cops are killed on the job all the time.”
“And a lot of cops aren’t. Half the department is married with kids. Hell, there are mothers out there on the front line.” Mitch indicated and pulled off the freeway, joining the line of cars heading downtown.
“I know. I know I’m not being logical, but these guys are bloody dangerous.”
“Too right they are. But that’s why we’re taking them down. We’re close, Ross, especially now with the tip-offs we keep getting. I know we’re closing in.”
“I hope you’re right.” Ross sighed. “I wish I could be like you, all gung-ho and positive energy, but it’s sucking me dry, mate. The hours, the shit we see every day….” They drove silently for a while.
Mitch had no idea what to say to Ross. He was shit at this type of thing. He was okay at listening, but when it came to advice? He couldn’t even make his own relationship work, so what good would he be at giving advice to anyone else? And especially advice about women? No way in hell. His sister, Vanessa, was still a mystery to him, and he had grown up with her. He’d spent the last twenty-nine years of his life trying to get a handle on her and had finally come to the conclusion it was never going to happen. They might have been twins and had a special bond, but they were like chalk and cheese.
“You want me to get the coffees?” Ross’s question pulled Mitch from his reverie once he parked the car in the underground parking garage.
“Sure. That’d be great.”
They crossed the car park and got in the lift together. Ross exited when it reached the ground floor. Mitch continued up to the seventeenth floor, where the doors slid open onto the headquarters of Operation Solo.