By Russell Guenther
It was another busy Monday morning at the San Diego County Superior Court. Sheriff’s Detective Rogelio Santana didn’t arrive back in the station until well after lunchtime. “Back from the murder trial?” Deputy Hayes, Santana’s former patrol partner asked.
“Puto,” Santana said.
“What’s that, Roger?”
“What kind of asshole kills his own grandmother?” Hayes didn’t reply, he just shook his head, eyes downcast. Santana’s phone buzzed on his belt, and he plucked it off the clip. “Santana…No.” He paused to listen a moment. “Yes, I’ve got it. I’ll be there in ten.” He ended the call.
“Good news or bad?” Hayes said.
“You tell me. A used car dealer got his head caved in at his home in Granite Hills.”
Santana arrived in his Caprice at 2:30 in the afternoon to multiple Sheriff’s Department patrol cars parked on the lawn and blocking the driveway of the single-story ranch style home. It was a quiet cul-de-sac, and devoid of any children, despite its close proximity to three public schools.An affluent community, Santana knew it well. Mostly retirees and childless couples with money to spare. RV’s were parked at practically every other driveway, additional eyesore carports constructed to accommodate them. There were no boats, Santana assumed these would be moored at the marina some twenty miles away.
Recognized immediately, Santana was admitted under the yellow tape and he entered the house. The front doorway was crowded with Sheriff’s personnel, technicians and deputies busy at the crime scene. The first pocket door on the left led to what served as a study or den, a spare room where the owner of the house spent his last moments. He lay there on the carpet in situ,face down with the top two-thirds of his head covered. The object that obstructed his face was a six hundred pound rifle safe, and the plush beige carpet was soaked with the man’s blood, and dotted with bits of skull and brain matter.
“Hi, Detective,” the deputy on-scene greeted Santana. He nodded at the young deputy.
“Fill me in.”
“It’s all served up here for you,” he said. The man’s name plate said “Cruz.” “Safe’s top-heavy, not bolted down. Guy bends down at the wrong time, safe tips, ker-plooey. Probably never felt a thing.” Cruz’s matter-of-fact, almost jovial behavior in such a grim scene would be startling, but Santana was familiar with the deputy, who had recently moved down from a deputy post in Los Angeles County’s Sheriff’s South Station, where he had been jaded by the experience of commonplace violent crime scenes.
“Looks like he was picking something up,” Santana said, indicating the spot where the deceased man’s left wrist ended, the hand compressed firmly between his head and the top of the safe. He turned to the crime scene technician. “It looks like he was going for something,” he said. “Whatever is under that mess when the safe comes up, if anything, I’d like to see it.”
“You got it, Detective,” she said. “It’s going to be a little while. We’ll bag it.” Santana leaned down to look at the cause of death, the up-ended safe. There were ribbons of carpet fiber strewn around four evenly spaced holes, as if someone had attempted to drill directly through the carpet without cutting into it. Santana strapped on a pair of latex gloves and stood up again. There was a roll-top desk next to the front window, with some papers stacked in front of a computer keyboard. The safe looked brand-new, and Santana found the receipt among the papers as he had hoped.
“Whoever installed this safe did a poor job,” he said to Cruz. “Let’s go have a word with them.”
The gun exchange was a ten minute drive from the resident, and a popular outlet for all things gun-related. People traveled from all around the county for the discounted goods flouted by the establishment.
“I hate to speak ill of the dead, but he was a cheap bastard,” Lee, the owner of the gun exchange said. “He haggled the price to hell and back. Two hundred fifty bucks is a bargain for delivery and installation, but any way he could cut corners, he did. Said he’d do it himself. Looks like he didn’t regret the decision for long.” He chuckled. Santana and Cruz remained straight-faced.
“I suppose he signed a waiver or something, having taken the responsibility,” Santana said.
“You bet. Been in business for twenty-five years; I play it safe. No pun intended.” The two policemen remained unmoved by the man’s humor. Santana made a mental note to have someone follow up on this formality and left in his own car back to the station.
Robert Zimmer, the deceased, had been the owner of a used car dealership, as well as a telemarketing outfit that sold timeshares, innocuous named Vacation Foundation. The deceased was discovered by his wife after she had been away visiting family in New Jersey. Through her shock, she had confirmed that she and her husband shared the house with no one else. Her son from a previous marriage had moved out of their home a year prior. The cause of death was likely accidental, Santana concluded in his report, and went home.
Santana, having been expected home early after a day in court, explained his arriving home late.
“Oh, I heard about that on the news,” Maria Santana said to her husband. “So it was accidental then?”
“Looks that way,” Santana said. “Guy was too cheap to pay someone to bolt his safe down,the thing tipped over and crushed him. It looks as if he started a half-ass job of doing it himself and gave up. Cost him his life.”
“Dios mio,” Maria said. “With all that money?”
“Did they mention he was rich on TV?”
“No, I just figured,” Maria said. “Him being partners with that coin collector guy.”
Santana absentmindedly stroked Hector, the family cat, who rubbed against his calf. Hector had been a recent addition to the Santana household, having been abandoned at the house after an eviction had been served. Hayes had mentioned something to Santana afterward about “some scumbags leaving behind a perfectly good cat.” Santana drove by the house on his way home and found the cat, bringing him home to find a new owner. As soon as his wife named the cat, he knew it wasn’t going anywhere.
“Coin collector guy?” Santana asked after coming back from his memories.
“Yeah, I recognized him from the car dealership. I just knew his partner collected coins, in particular rare Peruvian coins. I guess they call them cobs because of the imperfect shape. I read an article about him. They mentioned he was part owner of the car dealership, and I remembered the name, put the two together.” Santana marveled at his wife’s memory and ability to make connections like this one, often joking that it was she who should have been the detective.
“Oh,” he said. “Say, what smells so good?”
In the morning, Santana sat at his desk with a steaming cup of his wife’s good coffee. He had a message at his desk that they had the item for him to collect from the crime scene. He assumed the techs had bagged whatever the victim was holding after lifting the safe off his head. He took his time with the coffee, with no real urgency pressing in an accidental death.
He went to the crime lab to pick up the item and was met by Kara, the tech from the previous day. “Let me guess,” he said. “An imperfectly shaped Bolivian coin. Wait, no.Peruvian.”
“Hey, who told you about the coin? And who said it was Peruvian?”
“I was just kidding, Santana said. “It’s just that he’s partners with that coin guy.”
“Oh,” Kara said. He expected her to ask him about it more, but she didn’t. She brought the item out, and Santana put an evidence seal on it as a matter of protocol, thanked her and left.
Signing the evidence into the log, the old deputy at the desk looked at the name and raised his eyebrows. “This is that fellow whose safe dropped on him, huh?”
“That’s right,” Santana said.
“Interesting bit. What’s this got to do with him?” ’
He was holding it when he died. It’s a Peruvian coin…cob, actually.”
“You seem to know your rare coins,” the deputy said.
“I only know because my wife read about it. The victim’s partner collects them.”
“That rich collector guy? Oh, they haven’t been partners for years. Had a nasty falling out, I hear.”
“You don’t say?” It wasn’t unlike Maria to remember minutiae from some tidbit she’d ready ears prior. “You wouldn’t happen to know the guy’s name, would you?”
The old man furrowed his brow and pouted. “Hmmm…Powers. Yeah, that’s it. Kinda hard to forget that. Victor Powers. Probably not his given name, you ask me.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Thanks.”
Victor Powers lived just where a wealthy man with his name would call home: at the top of Mt Helix, looking down on the entire valley of people under him. Santana drove up the winding one-way rise up the mountain, having to pull over for a garbage truck along the way, reaching the ornate wood gated home after a ten minute climb. He pushed the button for the intercom.“Mr. Powers?”
“This is Mr. Powers assistant,” a man’s voice hissed through the speaker. Of course it is,Santana thought.
“This is Detective Santana with the Sheriff’s Department. I’d like to speak with Mr. Powers personally.”
“What may I say is this regarding?” The badge did not carry carte blanche this high up in the hills.
“Tell him it has to do with the death of his former business partner.” He waited for two minutes, then the gate slowly opened its jaws to admit him up the driveway, which was large enough to fit the entire county fleet of patrol cars. He parked the Caprice next to a covered Ferrari. Santana could tell it was a Ferrari not only by the contours, but the fact that the Ferrari horse’s emblem blazed yellow on the custom cover. He got out of the Caprice and climbed the steps up the marble walkway to the front door of the home. It made Zimmer’s stately ranch-style house look like a hovel. Matching fountains of marble matching that of the walk flanked the ten-foot double front doors. It was ugly, Santana thought. Expensive, just the same.
A man he assumed to be Powers greeted him at the door. A deeply bronzed man in his late fifties, he wore an open collared baby blue sport shirt over blinding white slacks, mahogany loafers on sock-less feet. Every hair on his head and tooth in his mouth were in perfect alignment,and all the same pearly hue. “I’m Victor Powers. What can I do for you, Detective?”
“I’m investigating the death of Robert Zimmer. I have some questions for you.”
“Yes,” Powers said. “I heard about the accident. Quite a shock, to say the least.” Powers was looking at the skyline over the foothills as he said this. Then he turned back to Santana with an earnest face. “I can’t see whether I would have anything to add to your investigation. I haven’t spoken to Bob in years.”
“So your relationship with Mr. Zimmer was simply a professional one?
“Actually, no,” Powers said. “That came later. We met through a car club, became friends after. The dealership seemed like a good idea at the time. We had our disagreements,unfortunately about business.”
“What about coins?” Santana abruptly switched the line of questions to keep him off balance.
“Yes, I understand you collect them. Did Mr. Zimmer share this interest?”
“No,” Powers laughed. “It’s true, I do have a penchant for rare coins. I’m afraid the only thing Bob liked collecting was other people’s money.”
“So you didn’t give him this?” Santana produced the bag containing the cob.
Powers’s eyes showed obvious surprise. “No,” he almost shouted. “Where did you get that?”
“We found it in Mr. Zimmer’s possession after his death.”
“May I see it more closely?’ Santana acquiesced, holding the plastic tight against the embossed figures on the piece, and shielding against the glare from the sun. He reached out as if to touch it, but his hand froze when Santana spoke again. “He was holding it when he died. Is it yours?”
“No, I’m quite sure it isn’t. I have one remarkably similar. A Peruvian cob, 8 escudos. Very valuable.”
“Could I see it?” Santana asked.
Powers let out an exasperated sigh, showing that he was clearly too busy for this nonsense.“Of course. Please, come in.” Santana followed him through the doors and into the home.Beyond the archway the ceiling soared above in a vast dome to rival the Louvre. In the summertime the man’s power bill probably equaled Santana’s mortgage. Their feet touched the surface of four Oriental rugs before they reached a door to a bedroom, which actually turned out to be a display room. Pieces of art adorned the walls, in line with the muse motif. Santana recognized a Picasso, but little else.
“This piece, as well as my other Peruvians, I don’t have on display,” Powers said, opening a closet. “I haven’t yet completed my collection.” A small safe, cheap considering the contents,stood on a shelf. Powers opened it without dialing a combination.
“You don’t keep it locked?”
“Just for storage, really,” Powers explained. He pulled out a drawer and stood aside. “Be my guest.” Santana Stepped into the walk-in closet and peered into the small drawer. “Now,’ Powers said. “I hope you’ve satisfied your curiosity. I’m afraid I am very busy.” Santana looked at him seriously, making no move to leave. “What?”
“See for yourself. Sir.” Powers, patience at the breaking point, almost pushed the policeman aside to look at the drawer, then gasped.
“What the hell?” His confident demeanor seemed to vaporize, betraying a slight Southern twang.
“Don’t make any travel plans,” Santana said. “I’ll be back in touch with you soon.Meantime…” Santana handed him a card. “Let me know if you come across it.” He left the man gaping with the empty drawer clenched in both hands.
Santana had a challenge convincing the Captain of the legitimacy of his investigation. “It just seems a little thin,” he said. “The guy held this coin…”
“Technically it’s a cob. Coins are more perfectly shaped.”
“Whatever. He holds this thing like a hidden clue left behind by someone who dropped a safe on him? What are the odds of that?”
“I think it bears looking into, sir. Even if it’s unrelated to his death, you have to admit, it’s curious.”
The Captain rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and middle finger. “This was supposed to have been an accidental death.” He instinctively reached for cigarettes that weren’t there. Ten years after quitting, he still had the tell of a veteran smoker. He leaned back and took a deep breath of air instead. “I should have joined the fire department. Alright, bring him in for questioning. No arrests yet. Christ, I hope this doesn’t blow up in our faces.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Three days later, Santana once again pulled the Caprice up to the large wooden gate on top of Mt Helix and pressed the intercom. This time he had a Sheriff’s Department SUV following. They were admitted immediately, and drove up to the house. Santana imagined Victor Powers watching from his picture window as the Caprice and the black-and-white SUV approached his house. Surely the man was beside himself.
Santana parked and got out, the afternoon sun baking. With Powers money he could have easily lived in Point Loma or Del Mar, where it would have been substantially cooler, but he wouldn’t be at the top. As Santana approached the SUV to confer with the deputies, his phone buzzed. It was the Captain.
“Call it off,” he said.
“Sir, we’ve just pulled in.”
“Do it now. I’ll explain later.”
After dismissing himself at Powers’s place, which was a royal embarrassment, Santana drove back to the station fuming. After parking, he sat in the car with the AC blasting, hoping it would cool his temper before going in to talk to the Captain.
“Before you go popping off,” the Captain said in anticipation, “listen. A couple tweakers have been in county lockup since yesterday, trying to hock stolen jewelry.”
“What’s that got to do with Powers?” Santana said. “He acted like he didn’t even know his items were missing, he wouldn’t have reported them.”
“It was some other crap they were trying to drop. The pawnbroker called it in, these guys were picked up. Guess what else they found?” Santana didn’t have to answer. “Yep, more of your famous ‘Peruvian cobs.’ There’s more: after back grounding these two it turns out they work as carpet cleaners in the La Mesa/Mt Helix area. They obviously don’t drug test. Anyway, after checking with the employer, the dicks asked about their hiring process. The boss says he was doing a friend a favor, hiring his stepson.”
“No,” Santana said.
“Yep. Bob Zimmer’s stepson, by recommendation.” Santana was surprised, but his frustration was eased by finding they had another lead to go on.
“Can we brace him?” Santana said.
“No need.” The Captain seemed to take some kind of cruel satisfaction in bursting the detective’s bubble. “His buddy snitched on him. Says he watched the guy drop a safe on the old man. Of course he ‘didn’t have nuthin to do with it.’ The stolen piece fell out of the guy’s pocket, old man bent over to pick it up. The kid freaked and tipped the safe over.” Santana rubbed his eyes, not wanting to look at the Captain. “If that’s not enough for you, they found Zimmer’s drill on them, his name painted on it.”
After taking the Captain’s offer to go home for the day, Santana called his wife to ask if she needed anything while he was out.
“Yes,” Maria said. “Could you stop by the mercado for some corn tortillas?”
“Could we do flour instead?” Santana asked.
(Bio: Russell Guenther is an emerging fiction writer based in the Pacific Northwest, with a collection of short stories in a broad spectrum of the darkly humorous. Russell’s work has been featured in The Stardust Review, and he is seeking representation for his first novella as he continues to produce new fiction.)