A Mightier Penn (73)

Avery opened the file on the desk, revealing several police forms and photographs paper-clipped with notes.

“Starting with the smoke bombs. We have the sale of four cases, forty-eight in total – the same number recovered from the Knight building. Purchased the day before attack from a local army supply store, they were paid for in cash. We talked to the cashier earlier this morning, a Dirk Kane. He initially confirmed Ashe as the buyer, but then back-peddled and is now refusing to cooperate, so we’re working through the store’s surveillance for the transaction.”

“Wait, why isn’t the cashier talking?” Asked Michael.

“Something to do with the government and surveillance and his rights – not entirely sure of his rationale, but the result is the same. He ain’t talking,” said Wyatt.

Michael withheld comment or questioned, and instead looked at Avery with eyes and eyebrows that suggested “and…?”

Avery responded by picking up a picture of the greeting card found in the lobby. “The signature on the card reads ‘Eve,’” she said.

“What about it?”

“Care to guess the name of one of Pendleton’s deceased sisters?”

“Not anymore,” said Michael.

“As an aside, her funeral was the morning of the protest.” Avery pointed to a still photograph of Penn, wearing a dark suit, standing next to Holly in the recesses of the protest. “In case you were wondering why he was wearing a suit.”

“I wasn’t, but thanks.” said Michael was quiet for an uncomfortably long period of time. “What are you thinking?”

Avery regrouped before continuing. “In the weeks before the bombing, Mr. Ashe underwent a string of events, life events. He got divorced, lost his house, lost his job, lost his oldest sister. And I think because of that, he felt the need to lash out. So he did.”

Michael nodded this head in thought. “Fair enough, but why go after a utility company?”

“Environmental – fighting the energy company’s expansion.”

“Come on. You just said he’s not involved with the environmental movement. Also, his background, demographics, and history don’t support a man attacking the system. And the bombs,” said Michael. “If he is our guy, we need more. It’s not illegal to purchase smoke bombs, so although it will be nice to have the link, we need direct proof linking him to the bombs at the building. We need physical evidence or a witness tying Ashe – not a man in some disguise – to the scene.”

Avery felt herself deflate.

“And look, I’m not saying he isn’t our guy, I’m saying we need legit facts to prosecute him successfully.”

Avery straightened up, trying to mask her discouragement.

“Do we have footage of him entering the building?”

“Not yet, no.”

“Does he have an alibi?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, we need to know. If we raise our hand on this one without having it buttoned up, the D.A. will crush us. We’re going to need more.”

Michael’s points were direct, but valid. Budget cuts within the district attorney’s office had strapped the legal arm of the city. As a result, the district attorney’s office had hammered the police department to be more exacting in their work and case preparation.

“Then let’s go get more,” said Wyatt with renewed energy. “While we wait on the footage, I say we tackle the alibi and swing by his place, ask him where he was during the bombing. It can’t hurt and, who knows, we might get lucky.”

Michael considered the proposition.

“We don’t have to arrest him,” said Wyatt. “We can just talk to him. At a minimum, he’ll know that we know, and if he feels us staring at the back of his neck, he’s liable to do something, to make a mistake.”

Michael shrugged his shoulders. “It’s not ideal, but it’s worth a shot.”

“Avery, any interest in a field trip?” asked Wyatt with a hint of a wink.

If the above made little sense but you kind of liked it, I’d recommend beginning at the beginning, and clicking here…A Mightier Penn (1)

A Mightier Penn (72)

Avery and Wyatt, saddled with a file and purpose, strode across the floor to Michael’s office.

“I’m only carrying the file, I’m not trying to take credit for the work,” said Wyatt as he entered the office and dropped a folder on Michael’s desk. “She’s good.”

Michael peered up from his computer, his eyes following suit. “Who’s good? And what are you not taking credit for?”

Wyatt deferred to Avery. While it was their collective case, and despite his own quest for departmental advancement, Wyatt allowed Avery to run with the informal debriefing.

“He’s referring to me and the smoke bombing case,” said Avery, edging forward.

“Fire away, what’d you have?”

“Pendleton Ashe,” she stated with resolution.

“What’s Pendleton Ashe?”

“It’s not a what, it’s a he.” From memory, Avery recited the more critical elements of the file that now rested in front of Michael. “Pendleton Avery Ashe is a thirty-three-year-old male, born in Parker, Colorado, to Darren and Patricia Ashe.”

“I like his middle name,” injected Michael.

“So do I. I actually considered suspending the investigation when I saw it.” The sarcasm was appreciated, but without missing a beat Avery reestablished her professionalism and returned to the facts. “Parents are deceased, as are his siblings, both sisters – all natural, all unrelated.

“Undergrad degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Recently divorced from Beth Tipton-Ashe – no children. House sold during the divorce; current address is an apartment. Jobwise, Pendleton recently lost his as a consultant.

“Basically, he’s a poster child for normal. Clean legal bill of health. He’s not a member of any political party, radical organizations, or social clubs, and he’s not a registered member of any local or national environmental groups. And as far as we can tell, he has not given any money or contributions to any of the aforementioned.”

Michael scratched the back of his neck at the banal bullets. “No offense, but Ashe doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would attack a building. He strikes me as the kind of guy I’d play golf with – if I golfed.”

“Stay with me,” Avery said. “It gets a little more interesting.”

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A Mightier Penn (71)

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

On a typical weekday evening most of the division was somewhere other than work. Only a few grizzled divorcees and a pair of janitors joined Avery in the midst of the detective pit, an expanse of desks and workstations partitioned by low dividing walls.

Avery sat at her computer and dutifully entered some of Wyatt’s field reports into the department’s incident management system. The system was a series of correlated databases that provided members of the police department and others within the law enforcement community with the ability to search and cross-reference specific cases, evidence, witness accounts, notes and data. The transposing of scrawled field notes, hand-written interviews, memos, and forms was a loathsome task universally despised by the underling corps. For Avery, the hour compounded the tedium, but she robotically carried on. She was squinting in her struggle to translate an abused piece of legal paper that contained one of Wyatt’s side notes when her desk phone rang.

“Avery Hughes.”

“I was fully expecting your voicemail,” said Kash Patel.

Kash was of Indian decent but born into the middle class of the Bronx, which explained both his bulletproof skin and his accent. Kash had parlayed ROTC in college into a brief military career as an intelligence officer and then to the F.B.I., where he served, in part, as the liaison to the city’s local law enforcement.

“Sorry to disappoint,” said Avery.

“What the hell are you doin’ sitting around the office? Hot girl like you should be out on the town getting after it.” Perhaps it was his accent or personality, but Kash had the ability to deliver quasi-inappropriate comments without offending.

“I could say the same thing about you.”

“You could, but I don’t think the Mrs. would think too much of my skinny ass creeping around past bedtime. Are you camped out at your grubby little desk?”

“Yup, exactly where you called me.”

“I’ve got some details to go with the name and pics you sent.”

The prospects drew her closer to the phone. “Fantastic, shoot.”

“Don’t get too fired up. Take a look at your e-mail. I just sent over a profile on your boy: social, address, employment, accounts, DMV stats, voting record, tax records, divorce docs, and more blah, but –”

“But what?”

“But nothing.”

“What do you mean nothing?”

“I’d bet, if we were to run a full profile on that smoke bombing, we wouldn’t come up with this guy. He’s as boring as your last date. Short of a speeding ticket seven years ago, no record. Nothing. Nada.”

Avery was quiet for a moment.

“Sorry.”

“No, don’t be. Thanks for the quick turn around,” said Avery.

“Don’t mention it. And now that you’ve got your man, get out there and get you a man.”

Avery appreciated Kash’s wit and wished him a goodnight before she hung up the phone and directed her attention towards the e-mail. Over the next hour, she studied everything the F.B.I. knew about Pendleton Ashe. Kash’s wet blanket “nothing” lingered, along with the initial disappointment, but both eventually gave way with the promise of a couple threads, which Avery teased into existence as she fleshed out her lone suspect.

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A Mightier Penn (70)

Technically, the pool at Chestnut Ridge was open, in that the cover had been removed and the water had been treated, but the water’s temperature begged to differ. Prohibitively cold, the half dozen residents scattered about the concrete apron, including the Colonel, Bob, and Bayer comfortably out of the water.

Penn saw the fellows as he returned to the apartment, parked near the pool, and opened the gate.

At the sight of their host, the Colonel and Bob smiled and waved, welcoming Penn to their adopted oasis. Bayer withheld fanfare and looked at him Penn with searching eyes. Little over an hour before, he had spoken with the then painted Penn. That encounter had drummed up a slew of questions, but Bayer had kept those, along with the earlier conversation, to himself.

Penn stripped off his shirt, kicked off his shoes, and, before he could be forewarned, jumped into the frigid water. The numbingly cold water shocked his system, but also rinsed off much of the acetone residue, which was point. He resurfaced with a muted gasp and scrambled from the pool. “Good God, that’s cold,” he exclaimed with an exaggerated shiver as he rubbed his goose-bumped shoulders.

“Are you out of your damned mind?” said the Colonel. “There’s a reason why we’re sitting out here and not in there.”

“I didn’t know you couldn’t swim,” needled Bob.

“Oh, I can swim,” countered the Colonel, “I can swim like a damn piranha. I’m landlubbing cause I don’t butterfly in ice cube water.”

Penn smiled, shaking his head at his roommates while putting his shirt back on. “What’s the good word?” he asked in a voice that masked his frayed nerves and exhaustion.

“Same old, same old,” replied the Colonel. “Killing the clock – speaking of, Penn, you got a watch, what time is it?”

Penn looked down at his wrist, but hesitated in translating the hands. “One forty-five.”

“Huh, it feels later,” said the Colonel.

“What time did we drag our butts out here?” asked Bob.

“I don’t know, mid-morningish,” Bayer said.

“One forty-five,” repeated Penn.

“I guess time does come to a standstill when you’re on vacation,” commented the Colonel.

Bayer looked down and caught a glimpse of Penn’s watch. The time read two forty-five.

Minutes later, Penn excused himself and returned to the apartment where he changed the clocks backwards an hour – only to reset them to the correct time in the middle of the night.

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A Mightier Penn (69)

Penn went to pull from the lot, but a wave of responding police cars flew past and prevented his flight. For the moment he was trapped, and although the passing vehicles paid no attention to the man in the Jeep, Penn could feel the anxiety constrict about his chest. When the incoming wave passed, he traversed the turning lane and rumbled from the felonious festivities. He pressed down on the gas pedal and the anxious coils of stress lessened – until he caught sight of police officers establishing a barricade a quarter mile down the road. Rooftop lights flashed as an officer strategically arranged his car to obstruct the escaping flow of traffic while another other worked at removing a collapsible barricade and bright cones from the trunk of his cruiser.

Penn slowed, his heart raced. He felt physically sick. The thought of arrest mixed with the lingering fumes furthered his nausea and his mouth watered yet he was unable to swallow. He wanted to vomit, but he fought the urge tooth and nail, conscious that fresh streaks of throw-up down the side of Jeep would attract unwanted official attention. He conformed into line with innocents and drifted towards his fate. He pulled beside a stout traffic cop who was re-aligning the supports of the sawhorse barrier. The officer looked up at Penn and studied him, his damp hair, sunburnt looking skin, sunglasses, and the retro Jeep while working the legs. Penn was a duck on pond, cool and placid on the surface with legs churning a million miles an hour beneath.

The officer stood, hoisting the end of the barrier chest-high.

Penn’s right foot readied to shift from the brake the gas pedal.

The cop inhaled deeply through his nose, his nostrils flared. Catching the smell of the flammable solvent radiating from Penn, he stepped closer to the Jeep.

“She doesn’t hold her gas as well as she used to.” Penn patted the steering wheel affectionately. “Might be time for me to look at an electric car.”

The officer continued to eye Penn until he succeeded in locking the barrier leg in place; he was visibly gratified. “As long as the vehicle passes inspection.” The officer placed the barrier in position and nodded for Penn to proceed.

Face devoid of relief or excitement Penn fled, careful to stay at the speed limit. A mile later, the stress and acetone caught up with him, and he craned his head from his window and threw up off the port side of the Jeep. He immediately felt better. He wiped his mouth with his hand, drawing a strange smile from his face.

On his way home, he stripped down out of his suit pants and dress shoes and into a pair of shorts and sandals that paralleled his floral shirt. Once changed, he looped into a parking lot and pulled alongside a dumpster where he tossed the empty can of acetone, the rags, gloves, wig and suit.

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A Mightier Penn (68)

When his gloved hands touched the door, he was off to the races. Bolting to the rearward woods, he ran full speed wholly expecting to hear sirens flood his wake. He heard nothing, and motored into the curtain of trees where he made an abrupt right-hand turn and headed through the woods in the direction of the Jeep.

In fear that he would become one, he moved like a fugitive. Bent on self-preservation with zero regard for personal injury, he sprinted through the bushes, branches, sticks and vines. He hurdled a downed log and ducked a head-high branch before abruptly skidding to a stop in the leaf-covered dirt. He knelt at the base of a large tree, shielded from civilization, the businesses on the right and the neighborhood on the left.

With no time to catch his breath or stew in the excitement and fear, he stripped himself of his hat and wig and ripped his clothes from his body. Once reduced to underwear, he unzipped his backpack and removed the acetone and rags from the same compartment that contained the bundles of fives and pellet gun. He hurriedly unscrewed the plastic safety top from the metal canister and poured the noxious paint thinner over a rag. With a deep breath, he closed his eyes and doused his head and face. The powerful chemicals washed over his skin, the feeling was unholy. The fumes evaporated his breath and singed his airway. Penn fought for nontoxic air. Ignoring the effects, he vigorously scrubbed his face and neck with the solvent-drenched rags, repeating the noxious process several times over. Both his skin and eyes were on fire and nausea was beginning to turn his stomach, but within a minute, Penn had returned to Penn, his minority status revoked along with the fraudulent scars and unsightly lines that pocked and sliced his face. He wiped himself clean, careful not to miss any of the makeup, and exchanged his suit jacket, shirt, tie, hat, and wig for the colorful Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses from his pack.

He continued with the pack in hand, and soon he could see his Jeep through the urban wilderness. Penn crept to the edge of the parking lot, where he took stock of the situation. The immediate coast appeared clear and he tiptoed from the strip of forest towards the Jeep.

Sirens ripped into earshot, electrifying the neighborhood with the blare of crime fighting and emergency. Though obstructed by the former restaurant, Penn could hear the police cars racing past – not to – his location. He released a nervous exhale and took to the driver seat before he wedged the backpack under the passenger’s seat. He then put the key in the ignition and dropped the Jeep into gear.

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A Mightier Penn (67)

The police were armed with his name and on the prowl for him. Yet, Penn continued to the bank unabated. He parked a quarter of a mile from the branch behind an out-of-business restaurant, and used his rearview mirror to put the finishing touches on his outfit.

In full regalia, he took his backpack by the strap and walked from the soon-to-be getaway car. Stepping from behind the dormant restaurant, he headed along the sidewalk and down a commercial stretch of national and regional franchises towards the bank that was located on the next block. Penn studied his surroundings. Behind the businesses was a swath of token forest that separated the boulevard from a residential neighborhood. The woods appeared dense in coverage but spacious enough to allow for adequate flight. They were his out.

In minutes, Penn was facing the plate glass door of the bank. His heart rate ticked up. He steadied himself with a deep breath before tentatively reaching for the door’s handle, which greeted him with a static shock. He flinched; his hand recoiled a few inches. Penn pulled open the door.

The lobby was quiet, the bank without other patrons except an older woman conducting business with a teller at the far end of the counter, which left two other tellers idle at their posts, a young man and a young woman.

Penn causally neared the counter.

In a jovial voice that ran counter to the bank’s mortuary ambiance, the female teller welcomed Penn. “Good morning, welcome to New State Bank. What can we do for you today?”

Angling for a more intimate exchange, Penn withheld his reply and walked towards her and her hospitable smile, toothy grin that dominated the lower half of her face until Penn came into full view.

“I called earlier today about changing some hundreds into fives,” he said in his Southern baritone.

“Uh, yes,” confirmed the teller with hesitation. Averting her eyes from her deformed customer, she added, “Our assistant manager set aside the fives.” She slid a slip of paper across the counter. Still shying away from her customer’s deformity, she failed to notice his gloved hands as they took the form and reached for the chained pen. “If you would, please fill out this exchange form. I’ll get the bills and recount them.”

The teller disappeared into a door at the end of the counter, as Penn wrote on the small piece of paper. After a moment, she returned carrying several stacks of five dollars bills that she placed on the counter next to an automatic counter. Penn watched as she undid the first stack and ran it through the machine.

The denomination was not random. Penn had selected five-dollar bills because he wanted to avoid confrontation with a dye pack capable of soiling both his money and clothes, and from what he had gleaned from movies, television, and the internet, dye packs were typically reserved for bundles of tens and twenties. But once the teller ran the stacks through the counter, which fanned the bills, all dye pack trepidation was alleviated.

After the last of it was counted the teller turned to Penn. “Five thousand seven hundred and sixty, all in fives,” she said, still uneasy by the man’s appearance. “I need from you is the exchange slip and the money you want exchanged.”

Penn slid her the completed exchange form.

She glanced over the information provided and quickly looked up. “Are you serious?” she asked, as if she was the victim of a practical joke.

Penn did not answer. His twisted Picasso expression remained warped as he slowly opened the backpack and held it up to the counter.

The teller froze.

Penn attempted to encourage her with a nod of his head, but the subliminal effort failed, and she remained catatonic. He further opened the pack, and gestured with a tilt of his head for her to look inside.

The teller peered into the bag. At the sight of the black gun, she snapped to and quickly moved to retrieve the stacks of money from the rear counter.

Penn eyed the bank. It was quiet. Every conceivable activity had come to a complete stop. The phones were no longer ringing, employees were no longer moving, and the old woman standing down the counter stood like a statue facing the similarly still banker before her. A jolt of fear seized him. The silent alarm had been triggered. No one was moving or talking because they were operating under robbery guidelines. In the stillness, Penn could feel the police racing to towards the bank. Panic gushed from his stomach up through his throat, but he choked the bile down with a forceful swallow.

The instant the teller placed the bills on the counter, Penn swept them into the backpack, and the lopsided transaction was complete. He offered a polite but hasty “thank you” in his contrived accent before zipping up the pack and trotting to the door.

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