Freebie: The Chief, Chapter 1

William looked up from his morning newsfeed at the commotion outside his window. A taxi had been hit by a delivery truck, and the ensuing jam had been further snarled by the arrival of the emergency vehicles. Firemen had blocked one of the two lanes on Upshur Street, and police were routing southbound cars around the commuter misfortune. It would not be a good start to the morning for many working on Capitol Hill.

Fortunately, William did not have to be anywhere besides his apartment for another two hours, possibly more. He rubbed his stubble as he sipped his coffee, contemplating the various networks that would have to adjust to the reset button that had been pushed outside his apartment. There was the obvious commuter network, the business network that would have to make up for missing workers, and the political network that would have to wait for God knows whatever it was the interns and staff delivered in the morning.

He tried to go back to his newsfeeds but they didn’t hold his interest anymore. His mind was fickle like that, flitting from one topic to another, revisiting each one in turn to process it a bit more and step closer to a conclusion or solution. He would often, in his daily work as an Internet investigator, appear to simply tap away at his laptop’s keyboard, making no apparent progress or discovery, but then suddenly make a series of calls and report that yes, Mister Smith had been having an affair with Miss Jones, or that Mrs. Wilkinson had been embezzling funds from her husband’s business to cover her gambling debts, or that Mister Young had indeed once been Mister McLane.

Unfortunately he hadn’t been doing any of that as of late. His last case had given her payment and received her report a week ago, and the well had been dry since. One appointment had been made for ten this morning, a woman in her mid thirties, concerned her husband of three years was having an affair. Her suspicions started when he started staying late at work, and were confirmed (at least in her mind) when she discovered a family necklace was missing. William was curious to help her, but the case was, technically speaking, dull. Affairs typically were broken because the cheater made a fool’s mistake of using his own cell phone to call the interloper, or some other such unforced error.

The phone rang, he picked it up. “Hello, William Bartlett speaking.”

“Mister Bartlett, it’s Stacy Stonebauer, your ten o’clock appointment.” She was sobbing over the phone. “I’m afraid I have to cancel, there’s been a – a development.”

“Is this a cancellation, or a reschedule?” he asked delicately, suspecting the answer before he asked.

“I’m canceling. The bastard came home,” she sobbed heavily, then regained herself and continued. “He came home with, oh jeez, um, lets just say ‘evidence’ that he had been out with someone last night.”

“I’m terribly sorry to hear that, Mrs. Stonebauer. Is there anything I can do for you in the meantime? Track down the girlfriend, perhaps? I’m sure your lawyer would like to know where to send his subpoenas.”

“Oh no, there’s no need. The ‘girlfriend’ was passed out in my husband’s car, and – ” More sobbing. There was something about how she said “girlfriend” that struck him, almost as if he could see her make the quotation mark gesture as she spoke. “And HE had obviously been doing something with my husband I thought was my specialty alone.”

“Oh. OH. Well, oh dear, then, well, um…” he grasped for words, but they eluded him. “You have my sympathies, please don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything.”

“Nope, can’t think of anything.” She terminated the call abruptly, and William looked back out the window. The firemen were sitting around, waiting for something apparently. The taxi driver was on the phone, presumably with his dispatcher, while the truck driver was yelling at him vociferously. The taxi driver wore an expression of calm boredom, almost as if he had been through it all before.

He wasn’t going to get any more interested in the newsfeeds, and the accident was much more interesting. With nothing else to do, he threw on a pair of jeans and a polo shirt, grabbed his keys, wallet, tablet, and phone, and went out the door.

Down on the sidewalk he found it easy to navigate around the congestion to get a better look. The bumper of the taxi was crushed, but that appeared to be the extent of the damage, except for the deployed airbag. The truck looked relatively unscathed. Its bumper was not visibly crushed, but the license plate frame was definitely bent. That seemed odd. William figured that a crash strong enough to crush a sedan’s bumper would be bad enough to damage a truck’s bumper. He’d have to look into that. He turned to walk down the street to grab a coffee and doughnut, and scribbled some notes onto his tablet.

He didn’t notice the first shots as they cracked out, but definitely noticed the thwack as one of them impacted the tree he was passing. He jerked his head to the side, puzzled by what he heard and saw, then jerked it forward and saw the mayhem in front of him.

A van had pulled up to the red light at the intersection in front of him, about twenty yards away. The door had slid open and men appeared, guns drawn. They had opened fire on a man as he walked down the street. His briefcase had burst open when it hit the sidewalk, the papers splattered with his blood. William stood there in shock, taking it in as the cartridge cases tinkled on the sidewalk. The murderers finished their work, slid the van door shut, and drove off when the light turned green.

William stared, mouth open, notes about the crash forgotten. Policemen from the accident rushed past him, bumping him out of the way as they rushed by. He saw one of them on the radio, reporting the incident, while the other tried to give aid to the victim.

William found himself looking down at the dead man, not sure how he got there. The policeman who had tried to help the victim looked up at him, ordering him to back away.

William didn’t hear him. He was too busy studying the dead man’s face, trying to remember where –

“I’M TALKING TO YOU, BUD. You need to step back, this is a crime scene, if you couldn’t figure that out.” The officer finally drew William’s startled attention. “I have work to do here, you aren’t part of it.”

“I saw it. I saw the whole thing. Well, most of it, anyway. I saw it.”

“You saw this?” The policeman was incredulous. “Wait here, do not move. We need to get a statement from you.” William obeyed, leaning against the bus stop bench. He had never seen a real dead body before, only the ones on TV. Like on the show last night, some low-grade crime series that had been on the decline for years, but which no one had the guts to cancel. It had been followed by the evening news, which had glossed over some decision from the courts that had come out yesterday. It had been a typical news report, so light on facts it could have blown away in the wind, so William went to the Internet to read more about the decision –

Then it hit him who the poor man was. His shock numbed him as the blood of the Chief Justice of the United States cooled in the morning sun.