Friday, September 8th
Kurt Maxxon, Early Morning
II thought I’d left the TV on again. Occasionally, when I fall asleep in my recliner, I wake up to the TV news. Voices had brought me out of my deep sleep, and, nearing consciousness, I suddenly realized I was in my camper—and sat bolt upright. I listened until the pounding started again. I heard voices yelling, “Mr. Kurt, Mr. Kurt, wake up, wake up!”
I slid out of bed and opened the camper door to look down at the wide-eyed faces of Joshua and Jacob. “What’s up, guys?” I asked.
“Ya gotta come look at Mr. Carlos,” Joshua said between gasps for air.
“He look dead,” Jacob chimed in.
“What? Where did you see Carlos?” I asked, hoping I was still dreaming.
“Behind his building,” Jacob said.
“Behind the Trattoria?” I asked.
“Yeah,” both boys said, in unison.
“Where’s he at?” I asked, not grasping what was going on.
“By the dumpster,” Jacob said.
“Laying on the ground. Ya gotta come look,” Joshua said again. “Quick.”
I shed my pajamas, slipped into my pants and shoes, shoved my cell phone into my jeans pocket, and backed down the camper steps. All three of us dashed to my truck. I clicked the remote to unlock the doors and opened my door. The two boys ran around to the passenger’s side and scrambled into the passenger seat. Joshua fumbled with the seat belt. I reached to buckle the seat belt across them. “Can you dial 9-1-1?” I said as I dug my cell phone out and handed it to Joshua. He held the phone with both hands, deftly punched the buttons, and then handed the phone to me. I’d started the engine and was pulling the gear lever into position, when the buzzing ended, and I heard a female voice say “Nine, one, one, what is the nature of your emergency?”
“There’s a man lying in the parking lot of the Trattoria Restaurant at the corner of County Road J and Speedway Road. It might be the owner, Carlos Guerrero.” I clicked the gate opener on my sun visor and had to wait a short moment while the gate chugged open. I sped the short distance down the road.
“Do you know the condition of the man?” the voice asked.
“Not yet. I’m just now turning into the parking lot,” I said. I parked with my headlights aimed at the person lying facedown near the dumpster. I swung out of my truck and stopped to observe the motionless body. All my instincts told me “dead.” From the clothes, I was sure it was Carlos Guerrero. Holding the phone to my ear, I walked to Carlos’s body, knelt down, and felt for a carotid pulse. Nothing. “It’s Carlos Guerrero, the owner,” I reported to the operator. “He’s dead.”
“A Pierre County sheriff is on the way,” the female voice said. “What is your name, sir?”
“My name is Kurt Maxxon.”
“The race driver?”
“Will you please remain at the scene until the deputy gets there, and tell the deputy all you know about this situation?”
“Yes. I can do that,” I said. “But I don’t know a whole lot about what happened. I’ll be here, though.” I looked down the road and saw a pair of blue and red flashing lights coming toward us. I said, “They’re nearly here.”
“Thank you, Colonel Maxxon,” the voice said.
I turned toward my truck and saw the boys peering around the corner of their open door. “He be dead?” Jacob asked.
“Yes. We got here too late,” I replied.
“The cops are coming,” Joshua said. He was almost hyperventilating, and I sensed his fear of dealing with law enforcement people.
“Yes, you two just get up in the truck and stay put. I’ll handle this. What were you doing over here?”
“We be looking for food they throwed away,” Joshua said. “We came to see about that.”
“It wouldn’t be in that dumpster,” I said and pointed toward a dumpster inside a fenced area near the kitchen door. “The dumpster over there by the kitchen has the food, because of the health laws. Carlos is by the trash dumpster.”
“We figger, if you rat us out, and they send us to different places, we just gonna run away an’ meet up again,” Jacob offered.
“An’ if we do that,” Joshua said, “we be needing places to get food. Besides, Auntie Jean, she always needing more food.”
Remember to pursue this discussion later, I told myself, and find out who Auntie Jean is. A white, brown, and green sheriff’s car pulled into the lot and stopped next to my truck, letting the headlights augment the lighting on the body. I walked to the car, as the deputy was getting out and adjusting his equipment belt. His jaw was square with a heavy shadow of beard that matched his coal black hair. He wore metal-rimmed glasses, set on a straight nose with a heavy line of black eyebrows above them. His uniform was the signature Western style adopted by many sheriff departments in the valley, greenish-brown with a Western-cut shirt and dark brown pocket covers and epaulets. I walked to meet him, and he stuck his hand out toward me. “Pleased to meet you, Colonel Maxxon.”
I shook his hand, reading the name on his brass nametag above his right pocket, as he said, “Joe Bradley.”
He scanned the area. “Anybody else around?” he asked.
“Just me and the two boys in my truck over there,” I said, pointing with my chin toward my pickup. “They discovered the body.”
“How old are the boys?”
“Twelve and ten.”
“How’d they find the body?” the deputy asked.
“They apparently tripped over it,” I said. “From the conversation I’ve had with them so far.”
“How much did they mess up the evidence?”
“I don’t know. I can talk to them and see,” I said, hoping the impending interview of the boys by the cops could be short and direct. I worried that the normal procedures of questioning might make the boys nervous enough to run away. Maybe the cops would allow me to comfort them somehow.
“Are you responsible for them?”
“Yes, sir. They’re staying with me.”
“Okay,” the deputy said. “We can talk to them later.”
His use of the word we made me relax a little.
The deputy retrieved a four-cell flashlight from the dashboard and swung it around the area in front of the dumpster. “Did you walk up to the body?”
“Did you touch the body?”
“Do you remember how you walked up to the body?”
I moved slightly to the left, more in line with my truck door and the body, stopped, and swung my hand, palm vertical, up and down to show the approximate path I had walked.
“Good,” Deputy Bradley said and walked toward the body in the same general corridor. He felt for a carotid pulse and shook his head. He carefully shone his flashlight over and around the body, stopping to study the gash at the base of the skull. “Looks like someone hit him pretty hard from behind,” he said over his shoulder. He got down on his hands and knees and leaned in to get a view from ground level. “It’s the owner, Carlos Guerrero,” he said as he stood up and dusted his knees with his hands.
The deputy walked back toward me, carefully staying in the same path as his approach. He straightened his equipment belt again, clicked the microphone clipped to his left epaulet, and said, “Com … fifteen.” I listened to the radio exchanges, as Deputy Bradley reported the details and requested the medical examiner and crime-scene technicians. I felt sweat trickle down my back and gather at the waistband of my skivvies about the same time a cold shiver rolled down my spine. Here you are, Maxxon. Another dead body. I went to stand by the passenger side of my truck.
Squad cars, crime-scene vehicles, and the medical examiner’s hearse arrived, and the boys grew more apprehensive. The parking lot and the street were a sea of red and blue lights whirling around and around. We watched the busy activity in the parking lot, and I worried about how the boys were dealing with it all. I knew both boys would probably have some reaction to finding a dead body. I decided it would be best if they talked about it. “After you found Carlos, what did you do next?” I asked.
“We run like hell back to get you,” Joshua said.
“You didn’t walk around the body or touch anything?”
“No way,” Joshua said.
“We don’t like dead bodies,” Jacob added.
“You came over here to look for food,” I said, “and, as you moved to the other end of the trash dumpster, you tripped over Carlos lying on the ground.”
Both boys bobbed their heads in unison.
“Did you see anyone else around here?”
“Nobody,” Joshua said, shaking his head. “We waited a long time in the dark over there and looked the place over.” He waved toward the trees behind the dumpster.
“It was still pretty dark,” Jacob said. “We didn’t see anyone else.”
“Did you see any cars leave the parking lot?” I asked.
Both boys shook their heads.
“Okay, the cops will want to talk to you, just so they get your story. Don’t worry about it, just tell them what you just told me,” I said. Then I thought about the dumpster diving. “Maybe you shouldn’t tell the cops you came over here dumpster diving.”
“What be dumpster diving?” Jacob asked.
“Yeah?” Joshua chimed in.
“Looking for stuff in dumpsters,” I said.
“Okay,” Joshua said. “You told us there ain’t any food in that dumpster anyway, right?”
“The food is in the dumpster behind the kitchen,” I reminded them.
“The cops going to arrest us?” Jacob asked.
“No. They just want you to tell them what you did and saw. You did the right thing coming to get me. They’ll like that. Both of you are good citizens; that’s what any good citizen would do.”
They both beamed and sat a little straighter.
Deputy Bradley and a crime-scene tech walked toward us. The deputy told me a sheriff’s investigator was on his way. The crime-scene tech introduced himself and said, “I’m a big fan of yours, Colonel Maxxon. I like your Web site, too,” he said, pointing to the red lettering along the bottom of the truck’s doors: KurtMaxxonRacing.com.
I’m Kurt Maxxon. I drive stock cars in the Swift River Valley Stock Car Racing Association—the SRVSCRA to many people and the “Shrev-scraw” to those bold enough to try to pronounce it. I’m sixty-two years old, five eleven, and only a few pounds overweight. If you round up my height in centimeters, and round down my weight in kilograms, my BMI is just about right. What hair I have left is steely gray, far different from the lush mane of brown hair I once sported.
I’ve been racing stock cars for twenty years, especially hot and heavy since I joined the SRVSCRA after retiring from the U.S. Marine Corps with twenty-six years of service as a fighter pilot. Duke Ford sponsors Nikki, my number 27 red and white Ford Taurus, with a little help from my store, Maxxon Auto Parts. I’ve taken first place 31 times out of 151 races, which keeps me upbeat and optimistic, just like I felt flying my A-6E Intruder during the Gulf War. I’ve never crashed in an airplane, although I did forget to lower the landing gear once during my training. However, experiencing six crashes in the SRVSCRA has given me a great respect for speed and control of automobiles. I enjoy the constant strategic decisions required when driving a car at high speeds, just like those made while flying sorties over war zones. I’m always pleased to meet a fan, so I reached into the truck, grabbed one of my Maxxon Auto Parts keychain flashlights attached to a card I had signed, and handed it to the tech. He chortled with delight. “I’ll go put this to use right away!”
Ernesto Vasquez, the Trattoria’s maitre d’, arrived and opened the doors for the sheriff’s people to go in and check out the building. Eventually they cleared one corner of the dining area for us to use, and the boys and I had a place to sit. Ernesto’s oldest son, Chico, arrived with boxes of doughnuts and breakfast pastries, and he quickly had carafes of hot, delicious coffee available for the dozens of people on the scene. He also made cups of hot cocoa for the boys.
Damon Hertz, a sheriff’s department investigator, arrived soon after. He was a young man, mid-twenties, sun-bleached hair with a flattop cut, round face, blue eyes, my height but a lot thinner around the waist, and dressed in a sharply creased uniform. When he asked me to spell my name twice, I decided he was not a race fan.
As I stood talking to Damon, a weathered sergeant in a wrinkled uniform walked up to me and shook my hand, saying “How you doing, Colonel Maxxon? I’ll be rooting for you Sunday.”
“Thanks, Mort,” I said. I’d known Mortimer Chrysler for the twelve years I’d been racing at the Carpentier Falls track. He was always somewhere around the track during race weekend.
Giving me a wary glance, Damon looked at Mort and asked, “You know Mr. Maxxon?”
“Everybody knows the colonel,” Mort said, throwing his left hand into the air as he walked away.
Damon’s forehead wrinkled into a puzzled frown. “What’s the ‘colonel’ for?” he asked.
“I’m a retired light colonel from the United States Marine Corps,” I said.
“Is that why ‘everyone’ knows you?” Damon asked, emphasizing the word everyone.
“No,” I smiled. “I drive racecars in the SRVSCRA. I get my name and mug shot in the newspapers every once in a while. ‘The Colonel’ is my nickname around the circuit.”
“The SRVS … um, say those letters again? And what do they stand for?”
“The SRVSCRA is the Swift River Valley Stock Car Racing Association,” I said. “Sunday is the race here in Carpentier Falls.”
“Sorry I didn’t know you,” he said. “I’m more into tennis than car racing.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “We all have our things. I collect Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, Mercury dimes … and I talk to my car.”
“What’s wrong with talking to your car?” Damon said, smiling.
“Freud probably wouldn’t approve.”
Damon chuckled and nodded agreement. “Getting back to the business at hand, I’m going to talk to you and then to each boy separately in one of those rooms over there.” He pointed with his chin to the meeting rooms along the far wall. “As soon as they clear us to use them.”
“Probably not a good idea for the boys,” I said. “The boys will just clam up. You need to interview them together, and out here in the open, so they can see me. I won’t try to coach them. I think you’ll get more information that way.”
Damon studied me for a long while, and I watched his eyes, as he analyzed the grandfatherly advice I’d just given him. He swung around to survey the table arrangement in the main dining room. “You may be right; I’ll interview them over there.” He pointed to a large, square table in the far corner. “Before that, I want your statement out of their earshot.”
“Deal,” I said.
I gave Damon all the information I could, telling him I’d known Carlos for many years, because of racing at the racetrack across the street and a shared love of Cuban food. I told him the boys and I had eaten supper at the Trattoria the night before.
“You and the boys ate supper here last night?” Damon repeated.
“Was Carlos here last night?”
“Yes. That’s the last time I saw him alive.” I told Damon how Carlos had taken to the boys like a doting grandfather, feeding them specially made pappas rellenas he had prepared himself, along with other Cuban dishes, and then cuatro leches cakes with dulce de leche topping. The boys had swooned over the cooking at the Trattoria and loved Mr. Carlos.
“Carlos told us he would prepare us his special recipe, huevos habaneros for breakfast,” I said. “I am so fond of Carlos’s huevos habaneros, if Carlos had a restaurant in Centralia; I’d eat them every morning.”
“What time was he going to fix breakfast?” Damon asked.
“Carlos told the boys they could come help him open at five. That’s why they were over here and found the body.”
“They found the body and ran to get you.”
“Right. I was still sleeping when they came back. You know how kids are when something comes up.” I wondered if Damon knew anything about kids but decided to bluff my way through this.
“So Carlos had probably arrived to open and someone accosted him,” Damon said.
“The clothes Carlos had on this morning when we found him were the same ones he had on last night,” I said.
“You think the killing happened last night, rather than this morning?” Damon let a frown cloud his face.
I pursed my lips and shrugged, tilting my head in an I-don’t-know gesture.
“Interesting,” he said. He went to the boys and asked them if they would answer a few questions. Both boys eyed me warily. But I said, “Go ahead and tell Deputy Hertz what you saw and heard and did.” They accompanied Damon to the corner table and climbed up onto the chairs.
I got a fresh cup of coffee and sat on the other side of the dining room sipping it. I overheard Joshua say, in a loud voice, “We were just cutting across the parking lot when we found Mr. Carlos. It scared the living daylights outta me. We run like hell to get Mr. Kurt.”
I hoped Damon wouldn’t make an issue out of Joshua’s cursing.
I thought about calling Brad Langley but then decided to wait for him to hear about the killing through the normal channels. Brad is the chief of the Central Investigation Division (CID) of the state police’s major crimes unit. I wasn’t eager to let Brad know I’d stumbled onto another dead body. When I discovered a body the first time, four years ago at Masonville, and the second time, three years ago at Kings Rapids, I’d wound up getting involved in discovering who the killer was.
The first time Brad nearly disowned me. The second time he begrudgingly congratulated me. I was not eager to find out his reaction this time.