He was on his way home, a leisurely trip driving back roads in rural Georgia.
A sudden encounter with a young teen interrupted his trip.
He’d just completed a job, and the last thing he needed was a passenger.
Especially a kid as a passenger.
We spent the night in Brooklyn County but traveled south before stopping, so we were much closer to Fredericksville. Colt was feeling the end was near. I could see it. I’d been in dangerous situations all my working life. This wasn’t new for me, but it was for him. Even though I hadn’t said why we were here, he could tell this was it. If for no other reason than the week was passing.
But I wasn’t sure if his anxiety was due to what we had ahead or that we’d be separating. I had a feeling it was the latter.
I wanted to talk to him, but nothing was settled, and it wouldn’t be fair to him at this point. I’d made arrangements with people I knew in Washington if things went south; he’d be taken care of one way or another. I thought it likely I’d live through what was coming, however. This didn’t feel like it was even close to as dicey a situation as I’d been in before. I’d lived through several of those. I should survive this one as well.
That was always my mindset when it came to the end game.
I was more nervous about this one than before, however. Because of Colt. I had an appreciation of how he’d feel if I didn’t make it and what might happen to him then, and that made doing what I was going to do both more anxious and grim for me.
While he was walking Fitz after dinner, I again used the time to make some calls. That took more time than walking Fitz did, and when Colt came back, I asked him to wait outside till I called him. He gave me a funny look but did what I asked, even though he was sweating in the August heat and would have liked to be inside. Even kids born and bred in Georgia who have lived with the heat all their lives like to escape it when they can.
I thought tomorrow might work out. If it didn’t, well, I’d done my best. I’d had that thought on many assignments over the years. All you can do is plan, execute, hope for a little luck and pray for success.
In the morning, I had to wait for an overnight delivery to arrive. When it did, I told Colt I’d be gone for several hours. I told him he was the best kid I’d ever met and felt fortunate to have met him. I told him the world was there for him to make of what he would and to go after whatever it was he wanted. I told him there was a chance we wouldn’t see each other again, and if I didn’t come back today, to phone the number on the slip of paper I handed him. Told him people at the other end of the line would be expecting his call. That they were good people and that he’d like them. But not to count me out just yet.
He got more and more emotional the longer I talked. I was as stoic as I could possibly be, but when I opened the door and headed for the car, he was suddenly in my arms, hugging me for all he was worth, and I may have hugged him back just as hard and held the hug longer than I needed to, but then I pried myself loose, got in the car and drove off.
I drove to a Cadillac dealer in town, turned in the Escalade for service for an imaginary brake problem, was given a loaner—an older, sedate, dark-blue Chevrolet sedan—changed my appearance a little and drove to Fredericksville.
I walked into the sheriff’s office at 10:30 that morning. It was already hot and humid—Georgia hot, Georgia humid. I walked from the car to the building, only about a half a block, and I was sweating profusely when I got there. I wiped down my face and neck and straightened my tie before entering.
There was a deputy at the counter and three more at desks further back in the room. Hulking men. I was carrying a briefcase, wearing a somewhat gaudy brown suit and bright-green tie, a softer but matching green dress shirt, and I had a show handkerchief in the breast pocket that complemented the tie. If that wasn’t enough, I was also wearing saddle shoes. I had a pencil-thin mustache and was wearing glasses with heavy silver frames. When I spoke to the receiving deputy at the desk, I lisped.
“I’d like to see Sheriff Haddox, please.”
The guy gave me a glare, and I reached up and smoothed my mustache. He frowned. I smiled winningly at him.
“What you want with the sheriff?”
“I don’t think he’d want me broadcasting that, now, would he?” I giggled briefly, then asked, “Could I just see him, hun? Please?” I followed that with a small simper.
The deputy’s face was red, but he controlled himself. “You have an appointment?” he asked in a voice suggesting that he knew I didn’t, as that was the last thing in the world I would have with this particular sheriff.
“Oh, no. I didn’t think I needed one to see a public servant, hun. Why, is he busy?”
The guy ignored that. “You have to tell me what you want if you expect to see him. We screen all visitors. Tell me or leave. You’re loitering and wasting police time.”
I looked around the room as though assessing who might be listening, then leaned over the counter, close to him. I whispered in a conspiratorial voice, “Don’t tell anyone, but it’s about his youngest son, sweety.”
That stood him up straight. He took another look at me, frowned with distaste, and said, “Wait here.”
He turned abruptly and walked to the back of the room, where he knocked on a door and quickly entered. A moment later he was coming back, and he invited me to walk around the end of the counter and follow him.
I did. The three deputies at desks all looked up at me and studied me as I walked through the room. I’d only glanced at them coming in but had done so hoping that Bart wouldn’t be there. I hadn’t thought he would be; he was a patrol deputy and probably not smart enough for paperwork. He wasn’t in the room, and I inwardly sighed not seeing him there, even though I doubted he would have recognized me.
I walked into the room in character, using a subdued prance. The reception clerk waited for me at the office door and gestured for me to go inside when I arrived. There was a huge man sitting behind a desk. He looked at me, then at his deputy, and motioned for him to leave and shut the door.
I smiled. “Sheriff Haddox?”
“Yeah. Who’re you? What’s this about my son?” His voice was gruff, his manner hostile and aggressive.
“I’m a CPA,” I said, losing just a little of my provocatively effete behavior. “I work out of Washington for the Treasury Department.” I handed him my credentials. “May I sit?” I was still speaking effeminately, but not overdoing it. Colt had said his dad was smart, and while I wanted him concentrating on my sexuality rather than my appearance, I didn’t want the idea I might be faking it to occur to him. I didn’t know how good a description Bart could have given him, but it was important he not match that with the man in front of him. I took the chair in front of his desk without waiting for an answer. “We got a tip from an anonymous source that you might have been neglectful when making out your tax returns. Maybe more than just once, too. That possibly some income wasn’t reported. I was sent down here to look into it.”
“An anonymous tip?” He scowled. His face was sweaty, but then it had been when I’d walked in. The room was air conditioned and rather cold, but he still had a fan running, blowing directly at him.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you get a lot of that directed against law-enforcement personnel. You make a lot of enemies, upholding the law.”
“That may be.” I smiled, making it look disingenuous. “That well may be. Still, when I’m told to audit someone, I must do so. So I’d like to see your records, please—your last seven years of 1040 tax forms, and of course records of income and expenses from your holdings, such as, but not limited to, your golf course. Our tipster told us that you’ve collected something over seven million dollars in membership fees alone, and we couldn’t find any records where any of that had been reported. Not a penny of that.”
He sat up straighter. “You already have all my tax forms. My accountant sends them to you. I don’t pay much attention to what he writes down. But they were all filed. I don’t have to supply them again.”
I waved a hand as though batting at the air in front of us. “I’m sorry, but, really, if you want this to go quickly and easily, you’ll just give me what I want. It’s so much simpler that way. I don’t want any kind of trouble—I really don’t like confrontations of any kind—but do want your cooperation. I don’t really need it, but it just makes it all so much easier. And as you know, you’re responsible for what is submitted, no matter who fills out the paperwork. You signed the papers. So trying to blame an accountant, well, that’s never been a successful dodge. Besides, I’m an accountant myself, and it offends me. Seven million dollars. Unreported.” I made a mincing tsk–tsk-tsk sound.
He stood up. Up, he was even more imposing than sitting. “You’re making a mistake here. You’d better leave, and I mean now. Just get up, turn around and get out of here. You want anything, talk to my lawyer.”
I sat back in my chair, unmoved by his display of anger. “I’m sorry, but you do see, don’t you, that that’s not how this works. I need statements which support the numbers you entered for business earnings and expenses. See, when we got the tip, we checked some other records. And, we spoke to some of the members of that golfing club. Is that what it’s called? I don’t play the game myself. All that sweating in the sun! But those members, they say they did indeed pay fifty thousand dollars to join the club. Each! And none of that is shown anywhere on your tax returns. No offense, nothing personal I’m sure, but I think you’ve been a very naughty boy, sheriff.”
His face looked thunderous. I smiled back at him. He stood there, uncertain how to proceed, then slowly sank back into his chair. Seemed the gravity of the situation was dawning on him.
“Well, I’ll talk to my accountant. He’ll get back to you. I’m sure there’s an oversight somewhere. Just give me a few days.”
He was sweating more heavily now, and his bluster was gone.
“I’m sorry, Sheriff. When they send an agent out, we’re not on a fishing trip. We’re sent to do a job. We expect to get cooperation—immediate and full cooperation—but in fact, as I said, we don’t really need it. We’re going to settle this matter now, today, not in a few days after you’ve had the chance to weigh your options. The only break I’ll give you is, I’ll wait while you have your accountant and lawyer come here. But only if it doesn’t take them more than a few minutes to arrive. That’s all the leeway I will give you. Otherwise, I’m prepared to issue a subpoena. The US Treasury Department doesn’t appreciate it when anyone makes us take that step because all sorts of legal ramifications go into effect. That pisses us off, and we can get nasty. So, you might want to hold off on making demands. What you need to do is cooperate. You, sir, must do whatever I tell you to do.”
He was listening to me lisp at him and watching me flutter my hands as I talked, and I could see him thinking he was being put on the spot by some limp-wristed freak, and his blood was rising. Just the effect I wanted. I wanted anger, not cool thought.
“Fuck that! Fuck you! This is my office, my town, my county! I don’t have to do a goddamn thing I don’t want to do!” he shouted.
I guessed offense was preferable to defense for him. Probably had worked all his life.
I shook my head sadly, showing no concern at all for his anger or his crimson face. “If we have to resort to subpoenas, it’ll mean getting all those golfing club members to testify. All one hundred and, what is it, fifty of them? About? And of course collecting all your records. You do have records, don’t you? If you’d just give them to me now, I’ll be on my way and out of your hair. I really don’t want any trouble.”
He stared at me, not saying a word, and then I saw his eyes change, a cunning look suddenly appearing. In a softer, more menacing voice he asked, “Why did you say this meeting was about my son?”
“Oh, that!” I forced a chuckle. “I just wanted to get in here without a lot of hassle and delay and figured that would work. It did!”
“But, but how did you know…” He trailed off, not knowing how to ask how I knew his son was missing without entering territory he probably realized would get him into deeper trouble if explored very rigorously.
I didn’t see anything to be gained by relieving his confusion. “So, Sheriff, what’s it to be? Are you going to comply right now and show me your records, which I imagine are sitting in that safe in the corner there, or am I going to have to get a warrant?”
His eyes lit up. “You’re damn right you’re going to have to get a warrant. You get nothing till you have one!”
“And I suppose that’s so you’ll have time to dispose of anything incriminating in that safe.”
“That’s none of your business! Now, get out of here!”
I smiled at him. My soft posturing had slipped some during the last bit of our talk. Now he was taking this seriously, and I was allowing him to see a stronger opponent than he’d thought he had at the beginning. I’d wanted him concentrating on me the treasury agent, and not me the possible son savior. I thought we were long past the point where he’d be thinking of anything but his own peril, and so saw no reason to keep playing the fop.
“I’m afraid that’s not how it’s going to work.” My lisp had disappeared. I reached into my pocket and withdrew a folded sheet of paper and handed it to him. “This is a warrant that permits me to examine everything in this office. You’ll note it specifically includes the contents of that safe. The fact you’re refusing to open it without a warrant certainly suggests I’ll find all sorts of interesting stuff inside, perhaps things that aren’t even related to tax evasion and fraud.
“You’ll also note that the warrant states it is effective on presentation, and I just presented it. Open the safe now, or I’ll arrest you under my authority as an agent of the US Department of the Treasury, of which I’m a sworn deputy, for obstruction. You’ve seen my credentials.” I pointed to them, still lying on his desk. “It will be my pleasure to authorize your deputies outside to haul you to your own jail in handcuffs. I think they’ll be happy to do that rather than be charged with obstructing justice and failure to obey the orders of a US Attorney.
“One way or another, Sheriff, that safe will be opened, and its contents will be examined.”
He was studying the warrant and seeing the signature at the bottom. The name of the judge who’d issued the warrant was the judge who’d been in his pocket for years. If the sheriff’s face kept getting redder, he’d have a coronary, it seemed to me.
Quite calmly, sounding very pleased with myself, I said, “Judge Reinhardt was happy to assist in this investigation. He was promised a stay at a minimum-security prison for only a short time in exchange for his full cooperation. He’s been singing like a bird. Of course, at his age, a short time could be his final hours, but the amenities where he’s going are such he might be happier there than at home.”
I sat up a little straighter. “But we’ve wasted enough time. You’re almost certainly going to jail dependent on the contents of that safe. It’s still to be determined for how many years. But we need to see in that safe. Open it. Now! It’s that or sitting in your own jail while I arrange for it to be opened for you. This has taken too long already. I’m tired of you.”
He changed from staring at me to staring into space. It took him a full minute, but then he stood up and walked a bit unsteadily to the safe. He squatted down, no easy proposition for him, and, with his back to me, began twiddling with the combination dial.
I added my final spur as he did so. “And don’t even think of trying anything. I can have backup here in ten minutes, fifteen tops. You have no options.”
That ten minutes seemed to echo through the silent office.
What he’d heard, what I’d wanted him to hear, was that I had no immediate backup at the ready. It was just the two of us.
He finished, yanked down the latch handle, and the door swung open, hiding the contents of the safe from my vision. He reached inside, and I said, very sharply, “Stop! If you don’t bring your hands out of that safe where I can’t see them, I’ll shoot you. Self-defense. Even if you don’t have a gun, you will by the time your deputies rush in here. I’ll put one in your hand. So, don’t move.”
He stayed still except for his head, which he swiveled toward me so he could see me standing by the corner of his desk, my gun pointed at his chest. He didn’t move his hands out from behind the safe’s door. I hadn’t been sure whether he would do that or not.
“OK, now, what I want you to do is kneel in front of the safe, and without turning around, still facing the safe with your hands inside, bring each one out of there to behind your back, slowly, one at a time, so I can see each one is empty. Do that, and then I’ll tell you what to do next.”
He hesitated, then dropped to his knees, his hands still in the safe. As I watched, he brought his left hand slowly out and moved it behind his back. Then came the right, just as slowly.
Except, when it was mostly out of the safe, he jerked it the rest of the way, spun and shot at me.
I had planned for this. I’d fueled his anger, I’d let him see that his case was desperate, that we had him cold and jail was all there was in his future, and then, if he had a gun in his safe, which was pretty usual, I’d let him have access to it. I’d expected he’d do exactly what he did, and so I was no longer standing where he thought I was. After I’d last spoken, while his back was still to me and he was slowly withdrawing one hand and then the other, I’d silently moved to the far corner of his desk and crouched there. I could see his back clearly enough but was nowhere near where he thought I was.
He fired, saw I wasn’t there, turned to look for me, and I shot him in the chest. He fell back against the open safe and then slumped so his head fell inside the safe’s open door. He lay still.
Now was the critical time. I hadn’t been worried about the
sheriff. His deputies were another matter. If they rushed in, saw him sprawled on the floor and me standing over him with a gun in my hand, it was odds on that all of them would shoot me.
So I did as planned. It took no more than a second after I’d fired my gun to reach his office door and lock it. Then I moved to the side of it and waited. I didn’t have to wait long. About a second later, someone was trying the knob and then pounding on the door, calling out.
I waited till the knocking and yelling let up just enough so they could hear me. I called out, “I’m a US Attorney, investigating corruption. The sheriff just tried to shoot me. You heard that shot. I defended myself. You heard that shot, too.
“The sheriff is dead. He was corrupt. You people have two choices. You can bust in here and shoot me, in which case you’ll be arrested and tried for the murder of a government agent. Or you can just walk away. We were after the sheriff, not you. But your names may come up in the continuing investigation, and you may want to be gone by then. I’m giving you a break.”
Silence from outside the office. My hopes rose.
“There are agents outside, waiting to storm the office on my signal, or if I’m not outside in another—” I paused, supposedly checking my watch “—six and a half minutes. They’ve been told that if you deputies walk out before that, they’re to let you leave. I’d strongly advise you to do that. Now. The clock is ticking.”
That was it. We were at an impasse. They could break in and we’d be in a shootout, they could call for backup, or they could leave. I was sure they were all guilty of something and was counting on the fact that, with the sheriff dead, they had no support for whatever they’d done over the years. I also thought it would take very little time for them to realize that. I waited, not knowing what they’d decide, but I used the time to pick up the fake credentials and forged warrant I’d handed the sheriff and stuck both in my pockets. Then I got behind the open safe door, the safest spot in the room, and simply wondered if they’d rush in, shotguns blazing, or if they’d leave.
About five minutes later, I heard the faint sound of a door opening. From the direction of the sound, I guessed it was it a back door to the squad room. I didn’t hear it close. I heard three cars start and peel out. I waited a short time longer, then unlocked and cracked open the door to the outer squad room. It was deserted.
I walked out. Leaving everything as it was. On the way, though, I stopped and placed a call to Washington from a phone on one of the deputy’s desks, a traceable call. To the Treasury Department. To the Whistleblowers Hotline.
“This is the tax hotline. How can I help you?” said a female voice. Somewhat bored but professional.
“I know someone who’s been cheating on his taxes. Is it still true, if you people collect money that’s owed, I get some of it?”
I heard a sigh. She probably had to explain this to every caller. “Depending on the circumstances, sir, you can receive up to 30 percent of owed taxes recovered as well as penalties charged and other ancillary amounts we collect.”
“And how do you know who to give the money to? I mean, do I just give you my name?”
“You give me your name and address and the facts that you know, and I give you a claim number. Then, if your information results in funds being collected, we’ll notify you and you’ll be rewarded. Or, at any time, you can call and use your claim number to find out the status of the investigation.”
“Sounds good,” I said. “But tell me this, can I assign my claim to someone else?”
“Certainly, sir. But we’ll still need your name for our records.”
“That’s no problem. I’m Kent Lewis,” I said, and gave her my phony address in Richmond, Virginia. “And the name the claim is to be assigned to is Colton Haddox of Fredericksville, Georgia.”
“Thank you, sir,” she responded, and gave me the claim number.
“OK, my turn,” I said.
And so I told her about the county sheriff in Caverton County, Georgia, his underreporting income from his golf course, the nearly seven and a half million dollars in membership fees that had never been reported, and the fact that he was involved in many enterprises that he’d probably never included in his tax statements. That the county circuit judge was in on it with him and was probably also not reporting his illicit income. And that at the moment, the sheriff’s safe was standing wide open with all sorts of incriminating evidence of tax fraud and other illegal activities, possibly including money laundering and prostitution at the golf club, there for anyone who happened to walk in.
There was silence on the other end of the line
“Besides all that,” I continued, “the sheriff seems to be lying in his office at the moment, dead. And, as I just said, his safe is open, which I’ve been told it never is. So someone should come and take care of everything before all the records are lost. It’s a matter of some urgency.”
More silence, and then a different voice, male and suspicious: “Hello?”
“Goodbye,” I answered, and hung up. I glanced around the recently vacated room, then opened the front door and walked back out into the furnace that was southern Georgia in August.
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