Race driver Kurt Maxxon’s quiet life of racing stockcars and training his new puppy, Beau, is turned upside down after he finds well-known local driver Rusty Gallegar shot to death at the racetrack. Very quickly into the investigation, the police arrest Alisa Sharpe, Gallegar’s live-in mistress, who Gallegar kicked out of his life a week before the shooting.
According to the police, Alisa lied about key items, and the evidence against her is compelling. Kurt’s friend Mutt Sparks adamantly maintains that Alisa is innocent, and asks Kurt to help her. Kurt visits Alisa in jail and agrees Sharpe is probably not the killer, then launches his own investigation to prove it.
Kurt discovers Gallegar was preparing to sell his auto body shop and quietly leave town, apparently running away with a married woman. Kurt also uncovers a string of women who traded sex with Gallegar for his silence to their husbands and insurance companies about auto wrecks they had. Secrets and intrigues turn up in every corner Kurt looks.
Love, infidelity, jealousy, gossip, and revenge surround Kurt Maxxon as he gathers information and analyzes it using his unique logic and approach, to find out who killed Rusty Gallegar?
Very Early Friday Morning, June 25
It was only a matter of minutes, although it seemed like a lifetime for the army of cops to arrive. Moving in a surreal, time-warped world, I made a 50-cup pot of coffee in the kitchen area of the Driver’s Lounge, which was only a hundred feet from the crime scene—Rusty’s garage. Recalling Elaine Willowby’s murder at Masonville last year, I cranked up the air-conditioning and lit up the lounge. I expected the police to use the two pool tables to catalog evidence.
Even as the siren died down from the last squad car to arrive, the lounge had become a hubbub of activity. It was a convenient staging area for the police and crime scene people—as well as a cool and comfortable place for a break from the hot and muggy June night.
I was operating mainly on instinct and prior military training after finding Rusty’s corpse. Trying hard not to dwell on it, I cleaned the kitchen sink and microwave oven, then checked the refrigerator for decaying contents and tightened a loose hinge on the door into the men’s locker room.
I kept out of everyone’s way by cleaning commodes and urinals in the men’s locker room, placing fresh bars of soap at the sinks, and replacing rolls of toilet paper as well as paper towels in the dispensers. I had checked the women’s room, but few women used those facilities between the weekly janitorial visits and nothing needed done.
I drew a cup of coffee to sip on and decided I needed to check on Beau. Afterwards, I’d wander around the scene again to see what was going on. I was about to stand up and leave when a female paramedic came out of the women’s rest room, drew a cup of coffee, and walked to the bulletin board. She stopped to study it while she inhaled the fragrant aroma of the fresh coffee.
She was an attractive young woman, medium height, hourglass body, and curly auburn hair. She wore a Fire Department shirt and cargo style pants laden with bandages, latex gloves, scissors, and other medical paraphernalia. As I rose, she glanced at me, looked at the board, then turned back to me again, and said, “You’re Kurt Maxxon, aren’t you?”
I nodded and walked over to see what prompted her question. Posted under a banner saying “NOTEWORTHY NEWS” was an article with a photo of me standing next to my car, Nikki, taken a month earlier, after we’d won the Evandale race. The Headline read: Kurt Maxxon comes from behind—wins by a bumper. Mutt Sparks, a good friend who is the Chief Sports Reporter at The Kings Rapids Times-Democrat newspaper, had written the story. The paramedic stripped off a purple latex glove and flung her hand out to me. “My husband’s a huge fan of yours,” she said. “He’ll be at the race Sunday, rooting for you.”
I generally take compliments in stride. Right now, however, I hoped the warmth in my cheeks wasn’t a blush. I’ve been racing stock cars for fifteen years, most of which came after twenty-six years in the U. S. Marine Corps as a fighter pilot. If you do the math, that puts me closer to sixty than I figured I’d ever get and staring Social Security in the eye. I’m five-eleven and in pretty good health, since I keep the old body limber and conditioned with workouts at the gym three or four days a week.
“Thank you,” I said, relieved to think about something other than the body jammed under the workbench in the nearby garage. I glanced at the Fire Department badge over her left breast pocket, and then at the brass nametag above her right breast pocket: Kathy Vorhagen.
“What’s your husband’s name?”
“Richard Vorhagen,” she said. “He’s a paramedic, too; home sound asleep. We just about always work opposite shifts; but we get six days off every four weeks to spend together.”
“I’m wondering if I’ll get any sleep tonight,” I said.
“Me too.” Kathy sipped on her cup. She read through the article, then asked, “Why in the world did you name your racecar ‘Nikki’?”
“My wife didn’t like me calling mechanical equipment by her name.” The pain of losing Vicki must have flashed across my face.
Kathy’s eyes softened and she studied me for a long moment. “Are you feeling okay?” she asked. “A lot of people in your situation often find themselves suffering from shock—what after finding a dead body.”
“No …No,” I stammered. “I’m okay. It’s just that my wife, Vicki, passed away nineteen months ago from ovarian cancer.”
“I’m sorry,” Kathy said, “You must miss her.”
“All the time.”
“You named your car Vicki?”
“It started years before my racecar. I named the aircraft I flew ‘Vicki’. She suggested I name my plane ‘Nike’, because the diminutive of Nike is ‘Nikki’ which rhymes with Vicki. The name ‘Nikki’ stuck all those years.” I felt myself rambling, so I stopped talking, remembering all the times Vicki had said, “Vicki and Nikki—your two favorite women…” I turned to look out the window as my eyes dampened.
Kathy moved with me to a row of chairs that allowed us to see the hodgepodge of activity around the crime scene. I’d counted twenty-seven people and wondered how they kept from bumping into one another. Five huge halogen “light trees” were illuminating the area around Rusty’s garage. Their droning diesel engines permeated the air with an irritating smell of diesel fuel. Technicians were busy searching, placing tags, measuring, photographing and bagging each piece of possible evidence, no matter how large or small. They bantered among themselves and dictated notes into their minirecorders. The detectives acted like traffic cops, guiding the cataloging and labeling of the evidence bags, which rapidly accumulated on the pool tables in the lounge. The Medical Examiner and his assistants inside the garage were the only calm in the storm.
I followed Kathy out of the Driver’s Lounge.
“It shouldn’t be too much longer,” Kathy said, as she took a new latex glove from one of her pockets and stretched it on. “The M.E. has finished the body and the CSTs are wrapping up now.”
The sky was a dome of stars with a few wispy clouds. A gentle breeze ruffled Kathy’s hair as she walked away from me toward the open garage.
After the M.E.finished his preliminary investigation of the body, the crime scene techs measured, photographed, and chalk marked the floor with the location of everything in the room. Then the lead detective called a tow truck operator to move Rusty’s car into the empty garage next door. They also requested personnel to move all of Rusty’s tools, test equipment, toolboxes on the workbench—and the workbench—into the other garage. Fingerprinting dust was everywhere—on the tools, workbench, doorknobs, walls, and the floor.
Rusty’s body was under the workbench when I spotted him. I’d overheard the M.E. tell the detectives the force of the close-in gunshot probably sent the body sliding under the workbench. With the workbench removed, the M.E. could complete his field-examination of the body and then get Rusty into a body bag, which he tagged.
The two detectives came into the lounge about one a.m. They drew cups of coffee, walked toward me and sat off to the side. The senior detective looked familiar. He was a couple of inches taller than I was, and about the same weight. He had black hair, razor cut and trimmed at the ears. He carried himself erect. I was sure he had been a Marine. I couldn’t recall who he was, however.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” he said.
I shook my head.
The second detective swung his head toward the tall detective, as if to protest fraternizing with suspects. He was shorter and slight of build. He reminded me of Barney Fife when Mayberry’s finest went undercover in his plaid sports coat, straw hat, and white socks.
“We played golf together two years ago,” the tall detective said, as he extended his hand to me. “Terry Grossman, Lieutenant, Kings Rapids Police Department.”
“Oh, sure,” I stood to shake his hand. “That was the Law Enforcement Officers Pro-Am Golf Tourney in Centralia.”
“Yeah. Your friend, Brad Langley, bailed out on you to play with three of us from Kings Rapids, which forced you to play with three cops from Centralia. You guys came in last.”
I bobbed my head at the memory. “Your foursome took the trophy.”
Grossman spread a broad grin. “How’s Brad doing nowadays?” he asked.
“Same old Brad,” I said.
“Yeah, I know him fairly well. Not as well as you do, but well enough.”
The shorter detective was obviously becoming impatient and he coughed to attract attention.
Grossman looked at him and realized his faux pas. “Sorry. Kurt Maxxon, this is Marty Fisher, a rookie detective. Kurt Maxxon is a well-known race driver in the valley.”
Fisher shook my hand. His grip was mushy. He was not a military man.
Grossman handed me one of his business cards.
As Fisher fumbled around in his coat pocket for a card, I pulled two of my KurtMaxxonRacing.com cards from my shirt pocket and handed one to each detective.
By then Fisher had found one of his cards; he studied the tears and smudges briefly, then thrust it in my direction.
“Okay, Mr. Maxxon,” Fisher said. “Tell us about your activities tonight. How you got here. When. How you found the body.”
“I left Albertstown about 6:15 p.m.” I paused as Fisher flipped through his notebook, stopped at a page, flipped back a couple of pages, then apparently changing his mind, grabbed several pages between his thumb and forefinger, folding the pages to the back of the pad.
“Who was the last person to see you in Albertstown?” Fisher asked, astutely holding his pencil just above the notepad. “Where is Albertstown?”
“Southwest of Centralia,” I said. “The last person to see me there was Christina Zouhn.”
“The retired school administrator?” Grossman asked.
“Why’d you stop to see this Christina woman?” Fisher asked.
I detected that Grossman was merely tolerating the young cop’s questioning. “I stopped to pick up Beau.”
“Who’s Beau?” Fisher asked.
“My three-month-old Beagle-Schnauzer mix.”
I watched Fisher’s eyes as he analyzed the information. “A puppy?” He scribbled in his notebook. “Okay, you left Albertstown and drove to the track?”
“No, I drove the seventy miles to Kings Rapids, and arrived at Birty’s Diner just after eight o’clock. I ate and left Birty’s around nine-fifteen. Then I drove to the track.”
“That’s Birty Hayes’ Diner just up the highway a piece?” Fisher asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“You try her pork chop pie?” Grossman asked, referring to Birty’s popular Thursday night special. I glanced at Grossman with a wide grin. “That’s all I thought about during the drive down here. That’s why I had to stop there before coming to the track.”
Grossman nodded. Fisher smiled, I supposed, to show he knew Birty’s cooking, too.
“You called us about…,” Fisher flipped a few sheets, “at exactly Nine-fifty-seven?” he said. “What were you doing between 9:15 and 9:57?”
“I drove to the track, unloaded my car into my garage, then drove around to the RV lot and set up my camper.” I nodded toward my camper. “I saw the garage with the lights on. When it appeared there was no one around, I checked it out. I almost missed spotting him, being under the bench like he was. I was ready to just lock the garage up to protect his tools.”
“Good thing you saw him,” Grossman said. “Did you see anyone or anything out of the ordinary when you arrived at the track?”
“See any vehicles around the area?” Fisher interjected.
I wagged my head. “No. There wasn’t anyone around.” I knew the detectives had dusted Rusty’s pickup for prints and impounded it.
“Well, we appreciate your making coffee and all the support,” Grossman said. “You’ll be around for the weekend, I assume.”
I pointed with my chin to my camper. “That camper over there is my home in Kings Rapids for the weekend.”
“How well did you know a Matthew Jacob Gallegar?” Grossman asked me, almost as an afterthought.
“Pretty well,” I said. “Everyone called him Rusty.”
“Rusty was his nickname?” Fisher pursed his lips and nodded. He made notes in his notepad. “Makes sense, what with that light brown hair and all those freckles, huh?”
“Yes. He was Rusty,” I said.
“Did you know him well enough to give me a preliminary ID of the body?” Grossman asked. “It’ll help me if I have a preliminary ID. A family member will have to make it official.”
“Be glad to help,” I said, feeling better now because they asked me to do something.
“How do you know Matthew Jacob Gallegar, a.k.a., Rusty?” Fisher asked.
“I’m president of the SRVSCRA, and I know most of the regular drivers because I usually lead the prerace driver’s meetings. I’ve talked to Rusty Gallegar many times.”
“What is the SRV—whatever?” Fisher asked, his pen poised over his notebook.
“It stands for the ‘Swift River Valley Stock Car Racing Association.’”
Fisher said, “Do your cars end up like those demolition cars at the fairgrounds?”
I smiled, remembering my crash at the Masonville Oval the year before. “Sometimes,” I said.
Grossman looked at Fisher and said, “You’re not a racing fan, are you?”
Fisher wobbled his head.
The two detectives led me to the gurney with the body bag on it. Grossman motioned the M.E. over and asked him to open the bag.
“Is that Matthew Jacob Gallegar?” Grossman asked.
I gazed down at the empty eyes and distorted face in the black plastic bag. “Yes, that is Matthew Jacob Gallegar.”
“You’re absolutely sure that’s Matthew—ah,” Fisher said, as he flipped through his notes again, couldn’t find what he was looking for, and said, “Jacob Gallegar?”
“Yes,” I said, bobbing my head for emphasis.
Grossman said, “Alive, how tall was Rusty? About how much did he weigh?”
“He was my height, five-eleven. Twenty pounds less, probably about one sixty.”
“Did he wear blue jeans at all?”
I thought about that for a minute, “I don’t remember seeing him in blue jeans. All I remember him wearing is mechanic’s work pants.”
“A denim jacket?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”
Grossman waved to the M.E., who nodded and started closing the body bag.
“How long’s he been lying there?” I asked.
The M.E. shrugged. “Body temp is eighty-five, the same as the ambient temperature. Rigor status, just starting, not advanced. Livor Mortis, again, just starting. Body was in the same position it was when he died. Best guess of time of death,” he said slowly, “four to eight hours ago. I’ll be able to tell more when I get him in the lab.”
“That makes TOD, what,” Grossman paused doing the mental calculations, “somewhere roughly between five p.m. and nine p.m.?”
The M.E. gave a noncommittal nod and nose wrinkle.
That gave me a sense of relief. Several times during the night, I’d worried about not investigating the garage with the lights on earlier. Apparently, Rusty was dead before I arrived at the track, so it wouldn’t have made any difference.
“You know you are a suspect in this case,” Fisher said, ignoring a scowl that spread across Grossman’s face. “So we must warn you not to leave the area without permission. Also, you should not discuss this case with any person or persons who might also be a suspect.”
I nodded. Grossman and I watched Fisher flip through several pages of his notebook, as if he was checking to see that he had put his notes in the right category.
“Of course,” Grossman said to me, pointing his chin toward the bulletin board. “Your friend, Mutt Sparks, keeps reminding me that it took a sports guy, a race driver, no less, to solve the Elaine Willowby murder in Masonville last year.”
I gave him a sincerely stupid grin. I realized Grossman meant the information to enlighten Fisher.
“We may have additional questions,” Fisher said, with stubborn determination.
Since I’d spent most of the evening in the Driver’s Lounge, having found everything possible to replenish, repair, or clean, I decided to take another walk around the area. The halogen light-trees created eerie shadows around the perimeter of Rusty’s garage. I noticed one of the female police officers standing alone in the shadow from the Admin building. I thought about going over to talk to her, when she turned toward me and said, “What’s that noise?”
When she looked at me I noticed her red-rimmed eyes. She’d either been crying, or her day shift had extended until two in the morning.
“It sounds like someone’s hurt,” she said.
I cocked my head and listened with her.
“Hear it?” she whispered.
I knew what it was.
I took off at a double-time stride toward the camper. The nearer I got, the louder the noise got. Even after I opened the camper door, and climbed in, Beau sat facing forward in the middle of the bed—howling. When he heard me, he tried to stand on his hind legs in a prayerful plea. “Did you wake up and miss me, Big Guy?” I crooned as I picked him up. “You caused a lady cop to think I was hiding an injured person over here.” Beau wanted to give me a few of his “I’m-glad-you’re home” kisses. I let him give me three kisses, rather than the normal two, since he had suffered a large scare. Cradling Beau, I backed down the camper steps and put him down in his pen. He did his business and then sat down to glare at me. I decided to carry him with me back to the Driver’s Lounge. Until he finished leash training, it wasn’t worth the hassle of putting the leash on him.
Carrying Beau like a football, I walked back toward the Driver’s Lounge and was suddenly aware of the calm. The ambulance bearing the body bag was driving away. The crime scene people were loading their bags and cases into two white vans. The electricians who set up the lighting trees had disconnected them and were rolling up electrical cable. In the darkness, the moon waxed and waned through the thin cloud filter. Only two of the dozen blue and white squad cars remained in front of the Admin building along with one white unmarked car. Three uniformed officers were sitting in the lounge chatting with Detectives Grossman and Fisher.
The red-eyed female cop was gone. I’d wanted to introduce her to the “someone” who sounded “hurt.”
Grossman and Fisher got up to make one last sweep of the crime scene. They acted like they were checking out of a motel room and wanted to make sure they hadn’t left anything behind.
“You’ll be here tomorrow?” Fisher asked.
“Like I said, that camper is my castle.” Beau struggled a bit and gave a low growl. He didn’t like Fisher. I wondered where he’d learned to dislike anybody; he was so young.
The three uniforms took huge rolls of yellow “crime scene” tape out of the trunk of one car and went to put it crisscross over both garage doors. They had closed the large door to Rusty’s garage and taped it. The tape was the only barrier to entry on the man-door, so the room was open and would air out.
I locked the Driver’s Lounge. On the way to the camper, I decided to inspect my rig before Beau and I climbed in for the night. The pickup is a Ford four-door heavy-duty tow vehicle, only a few hormones shy of being a monster truck; with more than enough heft to haul the cab over camper while also pulling Nikki’s enclosed car carrier. It’s white with a stripe of red lettering across the bottom of the doors on each side that reads: KurtMaxxonRacing.com.
Beau wiggled from my holding him too long. I didn’t want to put him down for fear he’d run off and I wouldn’t be able to coax him within reach. Beau remained hyper as we climbed into the camper, even after a brief stopover in his pen; so I backed down to the ground, put Beau in his pen and sat down at the picnic table. I racked my mind, trying to remember what I saw when I arrived at the RV lot and if anything out of the ordinary happened while I set up the camper. The only thing that kept cropping up was the garage with the light on. I hadn’t seen Rusty’s truck parked back in the shadows of the Admin building. As I thought about it, I didn’t remember seeing Rusty’s pickup until after the police arrived and investigated it.
Beau finally wore himself out and sat staring at me. I scooped him up, carried him into the camper and put him down on the bed. He ambled to the foot of the bed, circled once, and curled into a ball against his pillow. He went sound asleep even as I watched.
I wish he could teach me how to do that.
I glanced at my watch—twenty minutes past two in the morning. I sat down at the miniature table in the camper and stared out the tiny window; trying to unwind. As I had done several times tonight, I replayed my arrival at the track and the evening’s events. It had been a long day, but I didn’t feel any fatigue yet. Would I be able to go to sleep?
The shadow patterns created by the moon looked like psychiatric ink spots to my imagination as I looked out the window. I let my gaze settle on Rusty’s garage.
It’s not “Rusty’s” garage anymore, though.