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Authors: Phillip Margolin

Supreme Justice

BOOK: Supreme Justice
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Supreme Justice
A NOVEL OF SUSPENSE

P
HILLIP
M
ARGOLIN

This book is dedicated to the newest member
of the Margolin family, Charles Joseph Messina Margolin,
who arrived in Portland, Oregon, on September 29, 2009.
Welcome to the world, Joey.

Contents
Part I
Ghost Ship

October 2006

John Finley’s eyes snapped open. His heart was beating rapidly. Something had jerked him out of a deep sleep, but he didn’t know if it was a dream sound or a real one.

Captain Finley sat up. The
China Sea
was moored at an isolated dock on the Columbia River in Shelby, Oregon, roughly halfway between Portland and the coast. No machinery was running, so every night sound was audible. As he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, he slid his hand under his pillow and gripped his .38. He was never without a weapon on a trip like this, especially with the cargo they were carrying and a crew he didn’t trust completely. The ship swayed gently against the pilings of the dock. Finley’s breathing eased. He’d just convinced himself that he’d been dreaming when a groan slipped through the stateroom speaking tube.

The
China Sea
was an old supply vessel, originally built to take crews to and from oil rigs. She had been extensively refitted for her midocean rendezvous with the freighter from Karachi. There were intercoms throughout, but Finley had kept the old-fashioned speaking tubes on a whim. There was one on the bridge above his stateroom and one in the engine room.

The seven-man crew had acted professionally during the mission, but everyone had been hired by Belson, the man who had hired Finley. He didn’t know Belson. He wasn’t even certain that Belson was the man’s real name. “Orrin Hadley,” the name that appeared on Finley’s passport and other identification, sure wasn’t his.

Finley crossed the room quietly and pressed his ear to the door. A minute later, he unlocked it and eased it open. Bulbs trapped in wire cages lit the companionway outside his room. Shadows daubed the metal walls between each cage. The floor was carpeted, and the doors to the crew’s staterooms were dark wood like Finley’s. The trip was long, and he’d made sure that each stateroom was as comfortable as the cabins on a cruise ship.

Greg Nordland had the stateroom across from Finley. He was a professional painter who had touched up the scars left on the hull after docking at sea with the Pakistanis. Nordland’s door was slightly ajar. Finley rapped on it gently. When there was no response, he nudged it open. There was no light in the cabin and it took a moment for the scene inside to register. Nordland’s right arm hung off the bed, his knuckles and the back of his fingers touching the floor. The blood pooling on his sheets had seeped out of a deep knife wound in his throat.

Finley was no stranger to death, but the unexpected tableau still shocked him. He backed out of the room and was startled by an explosion that echoed off the walls in the narrow corridor. Then he crumpled to the floor, knocked down by the bullet that had been fired from the other end of the companionway. Steve Talbot walked toward him, adjusting his aim for the kill shot. The radioman’s concentration on his projected point of impact saved Finley’s life. Talbot was so intent on getting his next shot right that he didn’t notice that Finley was armed. Finley squeezed off six shots. The sudden noise and the bullets that tore through him caused Talbot’s shot to go wide, and he was dead by the time he hit the carpet.

Talbot’s bullet had seared the captain’s side. It hurt like hell but no other damage had been done. Finley gritted his teeth and struggled to his feet. His side burned, and he stumbled when he started down the corridor. There was another stateroom between him and the dead man. He knew what he’d find when he pushed the door inward. If the thunderous explosions of the past minute hadn’t brought Ned Stuyvesant out of his room, Talbot had probably slit his throat. Finley took no satisfaction in being right.

It was four
A.M
. and Talbot was supposed to be on deck on guard duty. It made sense. The radioman had waited until everyone else was asleep before slaughtering the crew. Finley’s habit of locking his door had probably saved his life. Talbot had been forced to use a knife, because the captain would have heard a gunshot in any of the staterooms. Finley guessed that something had gone wrong with Talbot’s plan when he went after the crewman who was in the engine room. When Talbot had been forced to use his gun, the ancient speaking tube had funneled the sound of the shot into the captain’s stateroom.

Finley squeezed his eyes shut and breathed deeply to deal with a spasm of pain. Then he straightened as best he could and finished his journey down the hall to make sure that Talbot was dead. When he was certain that the radioman no longer posed a threat, he leaned against the wall and tried to think. Talbot had killed the crew and tried to kill him, but there was no way Talbot could move the cargo by himself, which meant that he was not acting alone.

Adrenaline coursed through Finley. He had to get off the ship
now
. He staggered back to his stateroom and reloaded his gun. Then he grabbed the duffel bag with the money and his fake passports and ID and threw in as much clothing as he could.

Finley felt light-headed but he forced himself to bury the pain and get to the deck. A cloud-covered sky obscured the moon. In his navy blue pea jacket and watch cap he wouldn’t be easy to spot. It was cold outside. Finley turned up his collar for protection from the wind that blew off the river. Then he slid onto the deck on his stomach and scanned the shore. They were docked opposite a warehouse, and he’d parked his car next to it when they went to sea. To get to the car, he would have to go down the gangplank and cross a wide, open strip of asphalt. Anyone waiting for him would have a clear shot, but what choice did he have? If he stayed on board, the men who were working with Talbot would kill him for sure.

Finley sucked in a breath and staggered off the ship. Every step was agony, but he made it to his car without being shot or fainting. The captain’s head was swimming. He thought he might throw up. When a wave of nausea passed, he started the car. Finley could think of only one place to go as he pulled onto the highway. He was so afraid of passing out that he riveted his attention on the road ahead. That’s why he didn’t see the headlights in his rearview mirror.

Tom Oswald got out of the police car just as a gust of raw wind whipped off the river. He ducked his head and bulled his 210 pounds through it toward the warehouse with his partner, Jerry Swanson, close behind. Below the warehouse, the current pushed the
China Sea
into and away from the dock.

The two Shelby cops found Dave Fletcher, the night watchman, inside the warehouse. He was wearing a rent-a-cop uniform and clutching a mug of hot coffee.

“You’re Mike Kessler’s uncle, right?” Oswald asked to put the jittery witness at ease.

“Bob’s my brother.”

“Me and Mike played ball together at Shelby High.”

“I seen you,” Fletcher said, but he didn’t seem any more at ease. There was a tic near his right eye, and the broken capillaries in his nose told Oswald that Fletcher was a man who likely gave frequent testimonials at AA meetings.

“So, why are we out here, Dave?” Swanson asked. They’d been thirty-five minutes from the end of their shift when dispatch had sent them to the warehouse.

“Something terrible happened on the ship,” Fletcher answered, his voice trembling.

“What do you mean, ‘terrible’?” Oswald prodded. He was beat and had been thinking of crashing for the past hour and a half.

“I finished my rounds a little before four
A.M
. I go once around the perimeter every hour.” Fletcher stopped to collect himself. Something had shaken him badly.

“I was getting ready to go in when I heard something. I did a hitch in the army. It sounded like shots. There was wind and the ship’s hull is thick, so I wasn’t sure.”

Oswald nodded encouragement.

“Then a guy comes running off the ship, across the lot and around the back side of the warehouse. He was bent over and he was holding his side and he staggered like he was hurt. There’s this car that’s been parked around back for a few weeks. The boss said it was OK. Someone from the ship got permission to use the space when they rented the dock. That’s where the guy went. By the time I got around the back side, the car was driving away.”

Fletcher paused. His grip on the coffee mug was so tight that Oswald was afraid it would shatter.

“Right after the man from the ship drove off, an SUV passed by, but it could just have been driving down the highway.”

“Do you know the make of either vehicle?” Swanson asked.

“I seen the one parked around back every day. It’s a blue Honda. I don’t know the plate. The SUV was black. It could have been a Ford. It was going fast and I didn’t see the license.”

“Dispatch said you reported a body,” Oswald said.

Fletcher lost color. “There was one I seen in the companionway and one in a cabin. The one in the companionway, his face was shot off. I didn’t stay long enough to get a good look at the guy in the cabin, but there was a lot of blood.” Fletcher’s voice was little more than a whisper. “That was enough for me. That’s when I got out and made the call.”

“How many victims are on the ship?” Swanson asked.

“All I saw was two, but there were a lot of shots.”

“Do you think there’s anyone alive on board?” Oswald asked.

“I didn’t hear anything when I was inside.”

“OK, Dave. Thanks. Now you stay here. Jerry and I are going to look around. You did great.”

Oswald went to the police car and got the forensic kit out of the trunk. He ran up the gangplank and found Swanson waiting on the deck stamping his feet, blowing into his hands and trying to stay warm.

“What do you think, Tom? Have we got ourselves an OJ?” Swanson asked excitedly. They didn’t get a lot of big league crime in Shelby, Oregon. Judging by Swanson’s tone, the young cop thought he was going to find the Yankees playing the Red Sox inside the
China Sea
.

“We’ll soon find out,” Oswald answered as he stepped through the hatch.

The policemen moved through the silent ship, guns drawn, and stopped when they found the bullet-riddled body in the companionway. A quick search of the staterooms turned up two more bodies.

“Let’s split up,” Oswald said. “I’ll take the next deck and you check the one under that. As soon as we’re done, I’ll call the state police and the crime lab.”

Oswald was halfway through his deck, when Swanson called up the stairwell.

“Get down here, Tom. I found two more bodies and something weird.”

As he descended to the lower deck, Oswald wondered what could be weirder than what they’d already seen. Swanson was waiting at the bottom of the stairs.

“There’s a body in the engine room and another over here,” he said as he led Oswald to a short corridor behind the crew’s head. “He was lying on his stomach. I rolled him over to check for a pulse and found this.”

Swanson pointed to an almost invisible seam in a section of industrial carpet that covered the narrow hallway.

“Did you pry it up?” Oswald asked.

“Yeah, but I put it right back when I saw what was under it. I wanted to wait for you. You’ve got the kit.”

Oswald squatted, dug his fingers under the seam, and lifted up a three-foot-square piece of carpet. Under it was a metal hatch.

“Shine your light on this while I dust for prints,” Oswald said. Swanson’s flashlight illuminated the steel surface. Oswald lifted three latents and put them in cellophane envelopes, which he slipped into his jacket pocket.

“OK, get it up,” he said.

Swanson grabbed a metal handle that was affixed to the hatch and used his bulging muscles to wrench it open. Oswald shone his light into the pitch black interior of the hold. The space looked like a water tank, and he guessed it went down two decks. Someone had drained it. The beam of Oswald’s light fell on several stacks of burlap-wrapped packages. He stared at them for a moment, then worked his way down the rungs of an iron ladder that was secured to the wall. When his head was even with the top of the nearest stack, he took out a knife and cut into one of the burlap packages. He stared at the substance and swore.

“I can’t be certain until it’s tested,” Oswald said, “but I think this is hashish.”

Oswald climbed out of the tank and shook his head. “What a clusterfuck. We have enough hashish to keep the city of Shelby happy until the next century and our own version of
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
.”

Oswald closed the hatch, and the policemen headed topside, discussing their possible courses of action. Just as they stepped onto the deck, three cars raced past the warehouse and screeched to a halt next to the dock. Car doors flew open before the engines were at rest, and men carrying automatic weapons poured out. Several men stationed themselves on the dock. The rest followed a tall blond man in a windbreaker up the gangplank. Oswald moved to the top of the gangplank to intercept them. The blond man displayed identification and kept walking.

“Arn Belson, Homeland Security,” he said. “Who are you?”

“Thomas Oswald, Shelby PD, and you’re trespassing on a crime scene.”

Belson flashed a patronizing smile. “Actually, Officer Oswald, it is you who are trespassing.” Oswald detected a faint Scandinavian accent. “You have stumbled into a federal investigation that has been ongoing for some time. I must ask you and your partner to leave the
China Sea
.”

Oswald’s mouth gaped open in disbelief. “You’re kidding.”

“I assure you I am not. There are national security implications in this operation, so I’m afraid I can’t be more forthcoming, but your cooperation will be appreciated at the highest levels. I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you.”

Oswald fought to keep his temper in check. “I don’t know what kind of yokel you think I am, but you’re mistaken if you think you can waltz in here and take over the investigation of a mass murder by showing me a plastic ID that I can duplicate in a hobby shop.”

Belson pointed to the men who were arrayed behind him. Their guns were aimed menacingly at the two officers.

“You do not want to question my authority, Officer Oswald. That foolhardy course of action will lead to your arrest and detention. Now, please leave this ship and the immediate area at once or my men will take you into custody.”

Oswald was about to say something when Swanson put his hand on his partner’s forearm. “We’re outnumbered, Tom. Let’s just get out of here and figure out what to do later.”

Oswald glared at Belson, but he didn’t need a fortune-teller to see who would come out on top if he resisted. He started to walk down the gangplank when Belson pointed at the forensic kit.

“Please turn over your kit,” the agent said.

Oswald feigned reluctance as he handed over the kit.

“One question,” he said. “How did you know this crime scene existed, and how did you get these men here so fast?”

“That’s two questions, and I can’t answer either of them. I wish I could, but it would compromise national security. Things have been very different since 9/11, as I’m sure you can appreciate.”

The only thing that Oswald could appreciate was that he and Swanson were being fucked over, but he kept that thought to himself. Then he headed to his car with the fingerprints from the
China Sea
tucked away in his pocket.

When they’d driven out of sight, Oswald pulled to the side of the road and called Shelby chief of police Roger Miles. He could tell from the chief’s tone that he’d been sleeping soundly.

“Sorry to wake you, Roger, but some really weird shit has just happened.

“What are you talking about?”

“We answered a 911 call from that dock near the warehouse. You know the one I mean?”

“Just tell me what happened, Tom,” Miles said in a voice still thick from sleep.

“OK, well, there’s a ship docked at the pier, and we found five dead men and a hold full of hashish on board.”

“You what?” Miles said, fully awake now.

“There are five dead men on board. Some shot, some stabbed, and a hold full of drugs.”

“Jesus. Call OSP. We’re not equipped to handle something this big.”

Oswald had expected Miles’s reaction. The chief was a politician first and a law-enforcement officer second.

“I don’t think the Oregon State Police will be welcome at the crime scene, Chief.”

“What are you talking about?”

“About fifteen minutes after we boarded the ship, three carloads of armed men from Homeland Security showed up and ordered us to turn over our forensic kit and leave.”

“They what? Can they do that? This is our jurisdiction.”

“The leader, a guy named Belson, told me he’d arrest us if we didn’t leave. I didn’t want to press my luck. They were better armed than we were, and Jerry and I were outnumbered. So, what do you want us to do?”

“What a mess,” Miles muttered.

Oswald could imagine the chief running his hand through his hair. He waited quietly for Miles to develop a plan.

“OK,” Miles said finally. “Your shift is almost over, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Head home. Forget about the ship. Let the feds handle it. We’d have to call in help anyway. Five dead men and a hold full of drugs. We’d be in way over our heads.”

“Should I write a report?”

“Yeah, write it up, and be sure to mention how you were threatened. We need to cover our ass in case something goes wrong and someone tries to blame us.”

“What should I do with the report when I’m done?”

“Just file the damn thing. If we’re lucky, we’ll never hear anything about this mess again.”

BOOK: Supreme Justice
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