Sneak Preview: The Dragonslayers vol. 2: The Hand of Justice, Chapter 1

Coming this Spring in Kindle, Nook, and paperback formats.

Chapter 1 The Road Ahead

Scott felt the rifle dig into his hand as he settled into his shooting position, 316 yards from the state highway. I’m way too old for this shit, he thought to himself. He looked to his right towards Manuel, who looked back at him with a mix of fear and apprehension, and Scott couldn’t tell which emotion dominated. Did I really look that scared twenty years ago when I killed Cavanaugh? he thought to himself. Yeah, he probably did.

He cast a look towards Eric on his left, who wore a look of determination that seemed fitting for a man of sixty three who was going to war for the second time in his life. It looked like the faces he remembered on television from when he was seven. He hadn’t understood then why those buildings had fallen down or why there were so many people who were scared and so many who were angry. Eric looked like those people he remembered in the lines for the military recruiters, who knew they were signing up for war. He gave Scott a thumbs-up and went back to looking through his rifle scope.

What does my face look like right now? he thought as he looked at the road through his Trijicon. His fortieth birthday had been yesterday, and the militia had thrown a small get-together for him. The Trijicon was his present, an exorbitant gift these days, but he had to admit he needed one. Scopes don’t help you shoot better, they help you see better, and Scott had need of seeing better after four decades. None of them had spilled the beans on where it had come from, but Scott suspected there was a federalized local police officer who had been torn a new asshole in the past week. He had appreciated the gesture, and it made him feel comfortable and loved by the men and woman he commanded in the field this day.

He remembered back to when his path to freedom fighter began, two decades and hundreds of lost opportunities ago. He remembered the losses he had suffered, both those he deserved and those he didn’t. He remembered his parents and how they had looked in their caskets – paid for by the federal government to cover their complicity in the deaths of Adam and Anne Philipson. He remembered the week he had suffered in a Colorado jail, waiting for the government to decide what to do with him after the mall shooting. He remembered the years he’d spent watching his freedoms be eaten away, one by one, until he realized they were, for all practical purposes, as irretrievably lost as his parents.

And with each remembrance his face became a bit harder, his expression a bit colder. Father, he prayed, in your hands I leave my safety this day. You commanded us to rescue the weak and needy and deliver them from the hands of their oppressors, who will shortly travel the road before me. Let my aim be true, and let me not endanger my troops unnecessarily. The lead vehicle of the expected convoy turned the bend in the road and he clicked the radio button on his vest once. Let confusion reign amongst my enemies. The radio clicked twice in his ear; team two had the convoy in sight and was ready. Let fear drive them before us, and let them turn on each other as they did in the days of Gideon. The radio clicked three times; everyone on his side was prepared to kill. And above all, Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’ve started. His aim settled ahead of a man foolishly exposed in the turret of the last vehicle of the convoy. The M1A bucked in his shoulder, and the bullet that struck home a third of a second later ended the third life Scott Philipson had taken in his forty years on Earth.

Twenty years earlier

In any other situation, a blonde nurse in handcuffs on the couch would be a rather sexy affair, but the medical examiner standing over a dead body in the hallway put a rather harsh damper on things. Not that Ronald Royce was into handcuffs outside his profession as a sheriff’s deputy, but he had to admit she was rather attractive. But tonight he had bigger problems to worry about, namely the location of Scott Philipson and why there was a body in the hallway of his house – and why it was this body in particular.

William Cavanaugh had been found dead by the nurse, Carley Hill, when she had arrived home after shopping at the Victoria’s Secret in the Charlottesville shopping mall. She had been expecting her roommate and lover, Scott Philipson, but found the corpse and called 911. Cavanaugh had been dispatched with one shot from a .40 Smith & Wesson semiautomatic to the back of the head at close range, dying instantly. His wallet had been removed from his back pocket, but it was unclear if any cash had been taken. All the cards and his Charlottesville Police Department badge seemed to be in place, and the wallet had been found next to the body. Philipson had shot him and fled the scene when he realized who the dead man was, or so Royce surmised.

But there was no reason for Cavanaugh to be there in the first place. Cavanaugh had been the arresting officer in Philipson’s drug arrest in December and the trial had concluded today – a verdict of not guilty being returned by the jury. The defense had called Cavanaugh’s honesty as a cop into question, a strategy that hadn’t surprised Royce, given his own previous experience with the deceased. But the evidence seemed pretty cut and dried to him. Regardless, Cavanaugh had last been seen leaving the courthouse square at about the same time as Philipson and the two had not exchanged any words or anything more than glances from a distance, according to police and press eyewitnesses. So why and how had Cavanaugh ended up in Philipson’s home?

“Just spoke with the manager at the Victoria’s Secret,” Deputy Schottke said to Royce. “The nurse’s alibi seems to check out. Her receipt matches the time the manager remembers seeing a blonde in medical scrubs in the store, and I’ve sent a C-ville cruiser over to pick up the surveillance video, just to be sure.”

“Good. Any ideas why Cavanaugh would be here though?”

“Nah, I’m more concerned with the fact that there’s a cop killer on the loose,” Schottke said. “Don’t get many of those in this part of the state,” Schottke said.

“Never heard of a cop killer who kills in his own house, though,” Royce said and walked over to the couch. “Hands,” he said to Carley, who offered hers up with a scowl. “You’re alibi checks out, at least so far,” he said as he unlocked the handcuffs.

“Yeah, I know,” she said. “Now hand me my purse, I need to call my lawyer.” Royce did, but only after looking through it.

“What? I have a duty to look for the gun,” he said in answer to the glare. She yanked the purse from his hands and grabbed her phone from it. She called the lawyer who had represented Scott in the drug trial, Martin Shanston, and told him the news. He walked in the door thirty minutes later.

“Any word from Scott?” he asked without preamble of Carley.

She shook her head. “No answer on his cell phone, goes straight to voice mail.”

“Same for me. You’d think he would pick up for me, at least.”

“Unless-” Carley began, but Shanston cut her off with the wave of a hand.

“Later,” he said. “Needs to be confidential.”

“I do not believe, for a moment, that a police officer with Cavanaugh’s record would willingly go to the house of a suspect and let his guard down to the point where he could be shot in the back of the head,” said James Brodine, Chief of the Charlottesville Police Department. “There is no reason for him to be there at all, let alone for him to give opportunity to a man with motive and means to kill him,” he railed.

“Sir, there are no signs of forced entry, and no signs of a struggle,” Royce had argued. “Either Cavanaugh was let into the house or he broke in, and I can’t imagine why Philipson would let him into the house. Sir.” He added after the briefest pause.

“Then you need to expand the range of your imagination, Deputy Royce,” the Chief said with a glare.

Forty six hours later that same glare faced him as he offered the casket flag to the Chief. Ronald Royce had been chosen by bureaucratic protocol to present the flag to the Chief, since Cavanaugh had been unmarried and had no other family to receive it. Royce was glad the script called for him to step back, salute, and retreat to his assigned position to stand at attention.

Chief Brodine was a dour old man, close to retirement but didn’t look like it. The only betrayal of his age was his wrinkled eyes and gray hair, which contrasted with his tight physique and quick mind. He had spent his entire professional career in Charlottesville, except for a six-year enlistment in the Air Force where he had served in the Security Force. His Defender badge hung on the wall over his chair, and when standing at attention before him it was exactly at eye level.

The rifles barked, the bugle called, the priest closed, and the crowd of mostly police and politicians was dismissed. Royce found himself milling about, making polite conversation, and wondering if it was too early in the day to get a beer and ponder what he’d discovered so far. His gaze drifted to a blonde woman standing at the edge of the crowd, watching him intently. She wore a black, knee-length leather skirt and a purple sweater to keep away the early Spring chill, and he realized she’d been there since the ceremony ended. He thought about introducing himself but was interrupted.

“Deputy Royce, nice to see you here,” he said.

“Hello Officer …” Royce asked, shaking the offered hand.

“Peter Metoskowicz, CPD,” he replied. He was short but carried himself well, and a scar on his chin gave him the air of a man who had some experience with roughness. “I understand you’re heading Albemarle’s investigation into the death of Officer Cavanaugh,” he said.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Any luck?”

Royce hesitated, not wanting to reveal that he had essentially nothing at the moment. “Some. Less than I’d like, but it isn’t like the murderer’s going to just walk into police headquarters.”

“No, I suppose not. Well, it was nice to meet you, and if you need any help with the investigation, please, let me know.” He took a business card from his pocket and passed it over, then walked away quickly and quietly.

Royce almost called out to him in surprise, but checked himself. He felt a small data chip taped to the back and wondered what Officer Metoskowicz might know that would force him to resort to clandestine tactics such as this. He was still wondering when another man came up to him, this one dressed in a suit and tie.

“Deputy Royce? I’m Agent Edgar Ward, DEA. I’m told you’re in charge of the investigation of Officer Cavanaugh’s murder.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Royce repeated.

“How’s it going?” the agent asked, and Royce gave the brief rundown. “Well, it seems we’re after the same man. Have you heard about the Executive Order the President issued last week?” Royce had. The President had issued an order directing all federal law enforcement agencies to ‘take all measures necessary to pursue the maximum penalty under the law’ for any crime involving the death of a police officer. It was part of a political push to shore up his law-and-order base before the election next year. The President wanted to appear tough on crime and tough on drugs, and the executive order had come along with others that dealt with marijuana prosecutions in states that had legalized it and offenses involving guns. Inside the course of a single week, the nation’s federal bureaucracy had been turned against the rising tide of states who felt marijuana prohibition was a bad policy to follow.

“The DEA is pursuing federal charges against Mister Philipson. I’m your federal liaison on the case, and the Sheriff of Albemarle said I could have your full cooperation on the matter. I’d like a complete review of the available evidence on my desk by Tuesday.” He offered his business card, which Royce was obligated to accept.

“I’ll be in touch, Agent Ward,” he said.

“Good to hear,” Ward said, shaking Royce’s hand with a tight-lipped smile. Curiouser and curiouser, Royce thought to himself. Royce looked up and saw that the crowd had dwindled but the blonde was still there. He looked around, noticing no one else seemed interested in her, not even the reporters that were making small talk with law enforcement. He walked over to her.

“Normally I don’t try to pick up women at funerals,” he said, trying to be light hearted, “but you seem too interested.” She smirked and glanced away, the mirth less effective than Royce had hoped.

“You’re Deputy Royce, right?” she asked. “I saw you on TV a few days ago.”

“Yes, that’s me. What’s your name?”

“Friends call me Paige,” she said, fidgeting. “Too bad about Cavanaugh,” she said.

“Yeah, worse for the killer though,” Royce said. “You know how cops are when they lose one of their own.”

“Look, I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead,” she began.

“But …” Royce said, annoyed at the developing trend, “that’s exactly what you’re going to do?”

She huffed. “Look, not every cop is a good guy, and I happen to know that this one wasn’t.”

“Oh? And how do you know that?” Royce said.

“I have a friend who is, shall we say, paid to be friendly? Cavanaugh stole from her when they met one time.”

“Well, in terms of vague accusations, that’s pretty impressive,” Royce said, then hesitated. “And it may or may not fit with what I may or may not have been told about him from sources that may or may not be reliable. What are you getting at?” Royce asked.

She scowled, annoyed at Royce’s disbelief. “I know I don’t have anything but the accusation – it was a cash deal, like always, so there’s no receipt – just don’t believe everything you hear about him in your investigation.”

“When you say your friend is paid to be-”

“Come on, Deputy, you’re a smart man,” Paige said, cutting him off.  “And I’m a loyal friend. Let’s just leave it at that, alright?”

“Alright,” Royce said, not wanting to drive her away. “Anything else you wanted to say?”

“It was nice meeting you,” she said flatly, turning on her heel and walking away. Royce thought about calling to her, but decided against it. Best not to draw attention to her, especially when what she was saying fit with what he’d discovered about Cavanaugh.

The man had come from Baltimore, and there had been trouble there before there was trouble in Charlottesville. A few discreet calls had turned up a highly polished badge – a police record not tainted by anything so much as a bad word, officially, but lots of rumor and innuendo, hearsay and secondhand stories. Cavanaugh had joined the Baltimore force and been assigned as partner with an old beat cop named Nathan Drake, who had the misfortune to be shot during the pursuit of a suspect. He’d lived initially, but died a few days later of a pulmonary embolism. The suspect, Shawan Thames, had died of a gunshot from an unknown assailant, coincidentally on the same night. Royce couldn’t help but notice the coincidence and wondered at it, but knew there was no way he could tie the two together. The gun recovered at the scene of the crime had belonged to Thames at one point but was clean of fingerprints. The murderer had never been captured.

Shortly after the deaths of Drake and Thames, Cavanaugh had moved to Charlottesville, where Royce met him about five years later. He was with the Charlottesville Police Department at the time and hadn’t liked Cavanaugh from the start. They had gotten into a row over how a suspect was being treated and it had boiled over into Cavanaugh punching Royce. There was a reprimand and an apology and Royce had taken it like a man, but there was no official punishment. Things had cooled between them over time, but Royce had always looked at Cavanaugh with suspicion.

His phone rang in his pocket. He didn’t recognize the number but answered it anyway.

“Deputy Royce,” he answered.

“Deputy Royce, my name is Deputy Andrew Wethernock, of Bath County Sheriff. I was told you were the one to contact about the Cavanaugh murder. Is that correct?”

“Yes, I’m the lead investigator on that case,” Royce said.

“We’ve picked up a suspect that you’re looking for, Scott Michael Philipson. He was driving a 2003 Honda Accord west on state route 39 this morning when he encountered a safety check. We were going to cite him for just the headphone rule, but the check of his license turned up your BOLO. We’ve got him in custody, how would you like him delivered?”