"Oh. Well, this is a fucking mess," Eric commented as the cruiser turned left in to the High Pointe Townhomes complex.
In addition to the Sheriff's Department cruiser and County Crime Scene unit already present, several Omaha Police vehicles had shown up. Deputy Rawlins was standing in front of the door to Unit #36, doing his best to refuse entry to the Omaha Police personnel standing outside. When he saw Johnny and Eric getting out of their cruiser, he waved them over.
"Glad you're here, guys. Looks like we have a problem."
"I'll say," Johnny nodded. "All right, who's in charge of all these OPD guys?"
Rawlins looked around and pointed out a young woman. She was dressed in plainclothes, and had a cell phone pressed to her ear. She was also, Johnny thought, way too pretty to be a cop. When she saw Johnny approaching, the young woman held up one finger, a 'just a second' gesture. Johnny waited for her to finish her call. It only took a few seconds.
"Hi," she said, smiling and pocketing her phone, "Detective Ellie Jarvis, OPD Assault/Homicide division."
"John Teal, County CID," Johnny said, offering his hand. As she shook it, he noticed her hands were quite strong. She smiled at him again.
"Looks like we've got a little jurisdictional mess here, Deputy. My bosses say this is city, yours probably say it's county."
"Damned westward expansion," Johnny grinned. "I assume that was your office on the phone. What's their solution?"
"They don't have one. Not yet, anyway. They're supposed to call me back."
"I should check with my boss, too. Red tape. Don't you love it?"
"Oh, sure. Whole reason I became a cop. Love the endless paperwork," Ellie laughed.
"Uh, guys?" Eric interrupted. "It's both."
Johnny turned around to find that Eric had his netbook set up on the trunk of their cruiser.
"What do you mean, it's both?" Johnny said.
"I mean it's both city and county jurisdiction. City limits end about halfway through this unit's living room. Come take a look."
Johnny and Ellie looked at the netbook's screen -- the County Assessor's Web site was up, and the city limits did, indeed, end in the house.
"Damn. That's just going to make an even bigger mess," Ellie shook her head. "Our bosses'll be fighting over this one for hours."
"Maybe not," Johnny said, looking over at the combined city and county police and forensics people on scene. "Maybe we both take this one."
"Never work. Too many techs in a small space. We'll be stepping on each other's dicks, fucking up evidence left and right," Ellie said.
"How big's your team?" Johnny asked.
"Six. Four techs, two investigators, counting me."
"I've got four techs, plus me and him." Johnny nodded at Eric.
"Yeah, meant to ask -- who the fuck is this guy, anyway? No offense, but you're not a cop or a tech."
"None taken. I'm a consultant."
"Right. OK, Deputy. . . what's your idea?"
"We'll have to get it approved by the bosses first. But your two best techs, my two best techs, me, you, your partner, and my consultant. Joint investigation."
"Gonna be a hard sell."
"Better to try and sell it than stand around here looking at each other while our bosses hash out the rules of their pissing contest."
Ellie nodded slowly, and Johnny thought he saw a quick wink.
"You Sheriffs aren't half as dumb as we were led to believe," she said.
Johnny smirked and dialed the office. He explained the situation -- and his solution -- to Nathaniel.
"My boss'll call your boss. We're go on my end, though."
"Mine too. Easier than I thought convincing him. We can stand around and wait for them to chat, or. . ."
Johnny waved a hand at the doorway to Unit #36, and Rawlins moved aside.
"After you," Johnny said.
"Thanks. Taub, Klein, with me."
Two of the OPD forensics guys walked over to Ellie. As they walked past, she pointed to them in turn.
"Blood guy. Trace evidence."
"Right," Johnny nodded. "Jenkins, grab your camera. Ewing, you're on fingerprints. Let's get moving, folks. Clock's always running."
The complex's management office had unlocked the door for Rawlins, so Ellie opened the door and stepped inside. Johnny and Eric followed. Ellie's partner, a heavyset man in his 40s who hadn't bothered to introduce himself yet, led the combined forensics team in next.
Johnny had been prepared for six bodies, and had even prepared himself for the smell. What he hadn't prepared for hit him hard in the face.
Two of the victims were children.
They were both at the far end of the room, but they were the first bodies Johnny saw. Both children had been shot facing the far wall while they were on their knees. They had fallen forward -- crumbled into a fetal position. Neither of their faces was visible, but from their size, Johnny guessed they were both under ten years old.
Johnny turned to Eric. He was simply shaking his head slowly -- he had nothing to say. Johnny knew the feeling.
"Fan out and get to works, folks," Johnny said.
"Report your findings to Detective Jarvis or me. Let's find out who did this."
The techs busied themselves collecting and photographing. Ellie's partner stood next to Johnny.
"Frank Serrano," he said.
"Hey, Frank. John Teal. He's Eric Drake."
"Gents. What do you think?"
"Well, Eric?" Johnny asked.
"Looks like any number of professional killings I've seen. Two things don't match up, though."
"Oh? And what're those?" Ellie asked.
"One, the kids. Kinda rare to see them around, even in a revenge killing."
"He's right on that one. These three, sure," Frank nodded at the three adult males on the floor. "Her, maybe, if she got in the way."
Frank used his pen to point at the dead woman near the kitchen door.
"But the kids? I been doing this for 20 years. Don't see 'em often."
"Just what kind of consultant is he, anyway?" Ellie asked.
"Gangs and Organized crime," Johnny said.
"Fine. What's the other thing?"
"Huh?" Johnny asked.
"You. Tattoo guy. What's the other thing that doesn't match up?" Ellie said, pointing at Eric.
"Right. What do all of the victims have in common?"
The two detectives and Johnny looked around the scene. Johnny came up with the answer first.
"Shit. They're Muslims," Johnny said.
"So it's not a gang thing. It's a hate crime."
"That's my guess," Eric nodded.
"Wait. How did we move off gang-related so quick?" Ellie asked.
"There aren't many Muslim gangs or crime syndicates," Eric said. "They exist, but these folks weren't part of them. Most are Somalian or Albanian. These people aren't," Eric explained.
"Dammit. You're right. This seems like a normal family," Ellie said, looking around the house. There were pictures of the victims on the walls. Vacations, graduations, holidays. . . just as with any other American family.
"Deputy Teal. . . you're going to want to see this."
Taub motioned from the small kitchen, and Johnny walked over to the doorway. Inside, he could see what had caught the tech's attention. He'd have to be blind not to.
On the wall above the dining room table in black spray paint was a large, badly drawn swastika.
"Like I said, hate crime," Eric said, popping up at Johnny's shoulder.
Johnny had an odd feeling in his stomach. Something wasn't right. Of course, there were many things that were wrong about an innocent family gunned down -- but something at the crime scene just didn't fit.
He wasn't sure what it was, but somewhere in his brain, alarm bells were clanging. He shook his head and left the techs to their work.
* * *
They got the official word while the joint forensics team was finishing up -- the joint investigation was a go.
Johnny would be the lead investigator for County, Ellie for the OPD. Evidence would be worked at the city lab with techs from both teams. As the techs loaded up both vans to head to the city lab, Johnny suggested they all grab some coffee and talk through some planning.
"My brother owns a diner about 20 minutes away," Frank said. "You just wanna follow us?"
"Sounds like a plan," Johnny said, nodding.
It took less than 20 minutes (as rush-hour traffic had died off) to reach the Benson neighborhood. Frank parked his unmarked on the street. Johnny found a spot for his cruiser just off Maple, and he and Eric followed Frank and Ellie into Leo's Cafe. Johnny knew the area well. Leo's was just a spit away from Joe's Cafe, Nathaniel's "let's-get-coffee-and-talk-about-work" diner of choice. The place was nearly empty. Two old men sat at the breakfast counter, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. They ignored the cops and Eric as they took a table.
"Your brother owns this place?" Johnny asked as they sat down and turned their coffee cups right-side up.
"Just bought it last year. He retired from the force a couple years back, but got bored hanging around the house. That's him now. How ya doin', Gary?" Frank said.
"No complaints, little brother," Gary responded with a grin. The man was huge -- 275 at least -- and had a gut to rival a pregnant woman's. "Anything besides coffee for you guys?"
"Nope. Just the diesel, and keep it coming," Ellie told him.
"Big case? With the County boys?" Gary nodded at Johnny.
"Yep. Jurisdictional nightmare," Frank said.
"I'll get a spare pot going," Gary said as he filled their cups.
"So, I hate to be the asshole who brings this up," Frank started, dumping sugar into his coffee. "But I gotta float this out there."
"I think I know where you're going, and I was wondering, too. Could there be some kind of terror connection here?"
No one said anything for a moment. Frank and Ellie both seemed to be looking to Eric for an answer.
"Don't look at me," Eric shrugged. "I'm gangs and mafia. Johnny's the one who knows about extremists."
Johnny took a long sip of coffee before answering.
"Gotta say no. I know it's tempting to see a group of middle-eastern people and jump to 'terrorist,' especially the way our media portrays those folks. From my experience -- even in the middle east -- that's not true 99.99 percent of the time. No evidence at the scene to back it up, either."
"So you agree with your guy here? Hate crime?" Ellie asked.
"Sadly, that's a much more reasonable explanation," Johnny sighed.
"You don't sound like you really buy that," Eric said.
"I don't know. It makes sense -- a lot of cowardly, uninformed people in the world. Still, something bothers me about that explanation. Something doesn't fit."
"Besides the general bad taste something like this leaves?" Ellie asked.
"That's part of it, I'm sure. . . but there's something else. Something's wrong with the whole situation."
"Now that you mention it, something struck me odd when I was talking to the neighbors," Ellie said, digging out her notebook. "Here it is. We've got six bodies, right, shot through the head? According to the people I talked to, no one heard any gunshots. Not one."
"OK. I'm not a cop, and I don't know shit about investigations. . . but that even strikes me as weird," Eric said.