A dark and suspenseful debut
Detective T.J. Peterson has a problem, and it’s not just how much he’s drinking or the daily, silent, tormenting video calls from his estranged daughter. A Catholic priest has been bludgeoned to death in church, apparently by a symbol of his faith, and an unidentified woman’s body had been found. He’s barely holding it together. When a deranged teenager, a possible witness, crosses his path, he is propelled into a sleazy, violent world of underage prostitution, sexual abuse, and human trafficking as he pursues a merciless killer.
A stylish and riveting exploration of both the consequences of depravity and the sometimes-extraordinary resilience of the human spirit.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Drop Zone
A T.J. Peterson Mystery
By Bob Kroll
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2015 Bob Kroll
All rights reserved.
Skype image. No one on the screen, just an angled view of an unmade bed in a crummy corner of a fleabag room with peeling wallpaper. No hello. Nothing said — not by her, not by him.
He squirmed at the silence, knowing she was on the other end listening to his nervous breathing. She had been calling him like this almost every day for more than a year. And like all the other calls, this one had him wincing, as if the Skype image were pressing on a sore spot.
Then she hung up and the screen went white. He set the cell phone on his desk, snapped his head back, and stared at the cold fluorescent lighting. He sat that way for several minutes, then he pulled a pint of Johnnie Walker from the pocket of his green jacket, the one with a pack of wolves stencilled on the back, and held it to the light to see how much was left.
The room was large with wall-to-wall desks, and a woman at a desk three away from his broke into his thoughts. "You stare at it long enough, Peterson, it'll disappear."
He knew the wide smile that went with that voice. He'd recently seen her flash it in an interrogation room to entice a suspect into telling her what she wanted to know. Her name was Detective Grace Bernard, but she preferred being called Bernie.
"It'll disappear whether I stare at it or not," T.J. Peterson said without turning her way. "And no splitsies," he added, dressing the comment in a dollar-store laugh. He swivelled his chair and looked at her. "There's just enough to top up my coffee."
Bernie's husky voice didn't match her sweet face and thin frame, but it had worked wonders for her as a uniform cop whenever she'd ordered a street seller or gangbanger to go up against the wall and spread 'em. And the voice was only one of her deceptions. Her easy manner was another. He had seen her in action, smiling an aggressive six-foot, two-hundred-pound suspect off balance, then taking out his knees.
He slipped around the desks to reach hers. "I'm on the coffee run, you want a cup?"
"Thanks. But I'm going home. Sleep does wonders, Peterson. You should go home and try it sometime."
"I did once, Bernie. Overrated!"
She smiled that big smile of hers and asked, "Do you even have a home?"
Peterson ducked the question the way he ducked most questions about his private life — especially the one about what the T.J. in T.J. Peterson stood for — with a shrug. He was out the door and halfway down the hall when he heard Andy Miles holding court in the coffee room.
"Don't talk to me about justice," Miles said. He was fifty-eight, a detective, a has-been on the front line. A cover-my-ass complainer with a Rolex that didn't match his pay scale. He slashed his hand under his chin. "I've had it right up to here."
"The guy's waiting for her to come home," he continued. "He's watching TV with the Remington across his lap. Loaded. She didn't even get to close the door."
Sitting with Miles at the Formica table was Jamie Gould, midthirties, hair gelled and combed for a Thursday night in the downtown bars. Gould had the newspaper opened to the crossword. A smartass to most other cops in the Investigation Unit. He cupped his hands over his ears. "We going through this again?"
"A hundred times, asshole," Miles said.
"In your face!" Tommy Amiro shouted, cocking his fingers into a gun and blowing off the smoke. Amiro, an acne-scarred hotshot, was sitting on the side counter. He had squinty eyes, like he was perpetually in a room full of smoke, and a squealing voice that must have driven his mother mad.
Peterson walked in and made straight for the Mr. Coffee, doing his best to ignore the conversation. But Miles saw him and piped, "How'd you see it, Peterson? Justifiable homicide or what?" Peterson poured a mug half full, showing Miles his back.
"From your point of view," Miles insisted. "Give us your inside take on the drug head out in Hardwoods smoking his old lady for body packing another man."
One swing, Peterson thought, one swing to shut him up. Bad blood had been between them for years, ever since they had squared off at a Christmas party, both drunk, both belligerent, and both wanting the other to start what each believed they could finish. But one swing now would bring the house down around Peterson's ears.
"The lawyers did a sit down and got a plea bargain," Gould explained.
"Lawyers get involved and everything goes to rat shit," Miles said.
Peterson pulled the pint of Johnnie Walker from his jacket pocket and topped up the coffee. He looked at the door like he wanted back out.
It was show time in the coffee room, with Miles acting the stand-up guy for an audience of fellow cops. "We don't nail a confession with the punks, shitters, and show runners, and the case goes behind closed doors. They plea-bargain a murder rap down to five on the inside and he walks in two. And then you know who they blame? They blame us. They blame you, me, and every cop on the street. So don't talk to me about justice."
Peterson rolled his eyes.
"Fuck you and the uh-oh eyes!" Miles said. "How many times, right here, right in this fucking room, I hear you complain about back-room deals that keep a perp from doing time?"
Peterson took a big slurp of coffee-plus. "We do the job. We put a case together." He stared hard at Miles. "What's personal stays on the shelf. We fix nothing, and the rest we leave to judges and lawyers."
"And you know how far that goes," Tommy Amiro said.
"It's the fucking lawyers," Miles said. "I work a case and it gets shafted by two lawyers over a dry martini. I wish I'd never brought it in. I should have fixed it so it looked like suicide or self-defence."
Peterson shook his head and started for the door.
"Don't tell me you never felt that itch," Miles pressed.
Peterson stopped but didn't answer. He backed up a few steps into the room.
"You know it, Peterson! Don't tell me if you had a perp in cuffs and enough evidence to prove it, and the Crown and defence take it sideways, don't tell me you never wished you'd had one loaded in the throat for a head shot. You shake your head, but you're no better than the rest of us. You get the itch to settle things yourself, just like me, just like Tommy and Jamie here, and everybody else with a badge and nine mil Sig to go with it."
Peterson was about to turn on him when Bernie's voice snagged everyone's attention. "The Airport Road homicide. That's you, Peterson."
Peterson wheeled her way. "Ice cold."
"Someone doesn't think so."
* * *
He followed Bernie into a glassed-in room where two cops, male and female dispatchers, sat before a semicircle of computers and digital audio boards. Both wore headphones. This was Central Messaging and Dispatch.
The female dispatcher saw them enter, jotted a time code number on a yellow pad, and played her fingers over a keyboard. She listened for a moment. Once she heard what she wanted, she moused over the timeline to cue the recording. She pulled the headphones down around her neck.
"This came into 911 less than ten minutes ago," she said. "A cell phone call. The caller hung up. It could also be a prank call."
"Like the other night," Peterson said with a smile in his voice.
"You heard about that?"
"The guy in a Burger King drive-through."
"It takes all kinds," she said.
"All what kinds?" Bernie asked.
"A guy calls 911 from the drive-through," the dispatcher said. "It's past one in the morning, and he complains he's not getting any service. He sees staff inside mopping floors, but nobody's answering his order. He considered that an emergency."
"C'mon?" Bernie said.
"He was yelling his order at the 911 operator," the dispatcher said. "'Whopper, fries, extra large Coke.' True story."
"What about this one?" Peterson asked. "Prank or not?"
"Judge for yourself. A screener at 911 picked it up right away. We usually don't get it that fast, but the Airport Road thing caught her attention and she thought we should have a listen." She transferred the output to the speakers and clicked the mouse.
There was a scramble of noise then a male voice said, "911. State your emergency."
"I saw something," a young woman said, her voice jittery.
"Not this!" The woman was suddenly frantic. "To talk to ... I got to tell them."
"Tell them what?"
"What would you like to tell someone?"
"What they did!"
"Did? Did what?" His voice was calm, encouraging. "Who are you talking about?"
"I don't understand what you're —"
"Took it away and then the Airport Road!"
"Was there an accident? Are you reporting a car accident on Airport Road?"
"No!" The girl screamed. Then her voice became distant, hollow sounding, as though she had lowered the phone. She was muttering a battery of unintelligible words. Then she said, "Drop Zone!" and something else that was another wild ramble of broken words.
"The Drop Zone?" the male voice asked.
"Midnight or ..."
"I'm not following you. Can we start over please? What is the situation there?"
"No!" She was angry now, shouting, moving the phone away from her mouth then back again. Disjointed words.
"But I'm not following you. Hello? Hello?"
Peterson slid the yellow pad closer and pulled a pen from his breast pocket. "Can I use the headphones?"
The dispatcher removed them from around her neck and passed them over.
He signalled her to play the recording again. This time he took notes, telling her when to stop and start. Bernie read them over his shoulder. "Diesel truck idling nearby. Major intersection? People talking. Moving away. Traffic light? Crosswalk? Bus pulls up. Doors open."
He had the dispatcher replay it, and he underlined a few words on the notepad. Then he removed the headphones. "People are talking in the background," he said. "Any chance we can brighten up what they're saying?"
"Not here. Communications probably can, but not until tomorrow morning."
Peterson checked his watch: 9:38 p.m.
"What's your verdict?" the dispatcher asked.
Peterson rubbed his face. "She could be spiced. Definitely scared. But I don't think it's a prank."
He and Bernie returned to the Investigation Unit. He opened his desk drawer and finger-walked the active files. Pulled one out and opened it flat on his desk.
"Are you going?" Bernie asked.
"I thought you were going home."
"I can hang in."
"Thanks, but I'll call Danny," he said, shaking his head. "If this turns into something, he'll want to be there."
"Why the Drop Zone?"
His eyes went distant, and his face seemed to sink with sadness. Then he looked up from the file. "Out of the way, maybe. Abandoned building. It used to be the first stop for teenage runaways. The caller could be in there hiding."
"I heard it's the next in line for demolition."
"It won't be missed."
"Sure you don't want me to hang around?"
"You got your kid to go home to. But thanks."
"I hope it's something," she said. She started to leave, then turned back. Wide smile. "How long have you been camping at your desk?"
Three months with her detective's badge and the inside buzz about him had finally piqued her curiosity.
His voice flattened with disappointment. "Hearsay evidence is inadmissible," he said.
"We haven't worked together," there was an apology in her voice and eyes, "so I only know ..."
"What you hear."
She tried shrugging out of it.
"You're a detective aren't you?" he asked.
"Maybe that's why I'm asking."
Peterson cut her some slack. "Most of what's said about me is true. Not all."
Her eyes filled with curiosity, but she let it go. "Goodnight, Peterson."
He nodded, waved, and opened the two-week-old file.
White female, late teens or early twenties, buried in the woods off Airport Road. Shallow grave. Ten months in wet soil. Body largely decomposed.
He remembered how the body was discovered. A nearby resident had called it in. Her black lab, off leash, had dug for something rich to roll in.
When he read his handwritten note in the margin, he again felt disappointed with the forensic report. No missing person match with dental records or DNA. Nothing to go on but the body of a murdered girl whom nobody had bothered to report missing. Exact cause of death: Blunt force trauma, skull fracture.
He picked up his cell phone, speed-dialed Danny's number and got voice mail. After seven days on the clock and a successful collar in a drug hit, Danny had booked off until the following afternoon. A hot date. Who could blame him? He was midforties, good looking, and, according to a few female cops and the girls working in administration, a dead ringer for some heartthrob who played the casino circuit with a rockabilly band.
Peterson waited for the beep and left his own message. "Midnight in the Drop Zone, Danny Boy. Face to face with someone playing Deep Throat about the Airport Road homicide. Possibility, but a long shot. If you don't show, I'll call it a lucky night."
He checked his watch again, saw he had two hours to kill in a pub on the way.CHAPTER 2
There were more potholes than pavement, and Peterson felt like a bobblehead doll as he eased the black Jetta down the back road to the waterfront, his brake lights pulsing. His eyes widened in the dark, searching for the foot-deep craters. Then the road gave into a dirt track with caved sections along the shoulders. The car scraped bottom where runoff from the upper streets had scoured a two-foot-wide gully that snatched the back wheel on the driver's side and jammed it tight.
Peterson got out and looked, scowled, and got back in and rocked the car until it pulled free. Then he crept it forward, past what had once been a three-storey red-brick tenement. The multicoloured graffiti on its crumbling walls sizzled under the high beams. Painted red waves exploded into orange tongues of fire, and black ooze dripped from dark blue scrolls.
He drove by empty lots that had turned into junk-littered fields overgrown with weeds. Then he pulled up before the Drop Zone, a condemned dockyard warehouse, its grey walls scoured by the sun and wind. Glassless windowpanes. Doorjambs hanging free. He cut the lights and engine. Checked his watch, 11:35 p.m., and reached for the pint of Johnnie Walker on the shotgun seat.
As he pulled at the mickey, his eyes wandered across the dark harbour to the downtown lights of this port city on Canada's east coast, his city, rolled out and ripe for the Thursday night crowd to drink the bars dry, and with a dockyard ramped up for shipbuilding, five universities, and half a dozen hospitals, there's a lot of drinking going on. And that has people using and abusing each other and picking fights and taking them to the streets, and lacing down cops to foot patrols that corralled young drunks and pipeheads and crammed them into caged vans.
He shook his head then capped the bottle and returned it to the shotgun seat. Emptied his mind. Closed his eyes. Opened them. His watch read 11:54. He punched Danny's number again and left another message, "Hey Dan! I'm going in."
He grabbed the Maglite flashlight from the back seat. Then he climbed from the car and reached back under his seat to retrieve a twelve-inch nail puller, a cat's paw. He shoved the cat's paw up his jacket sleeve and cupped it in place. Holding the flashlight hip high, he kicked through trash and smashed glass and the high weeds growing up around broken bricks and chunks of concrete.
He stepped over the yellow No Trespassing tape and squeezed through the space between splintered boards nailed over the entrance. He caught a soft spot in the floor and stumbled. The flashlight flew out of his hand as he grabbed the edge of a stack of wooden pallets and held his balance. It landed a few feet away and its angled beam transfigured a burlap roll into a shadowy, outstretched body.
Peterson stared at it. Moved closer, grabbed the flashlight, and continued staring, thinking about the last time he was in this place, the time he came here to search for his daughter.
He ducked under a sagging beam and stepped between the burlap roll and a pile of rubble. His senses reached into the darkness, and he heard water dripping and felt the confines of a large room shrunk by walls of shadows.
"I'm Detective Peterson," he shouted. "You called 911."
The brick walls flung back his voice and the high ceiling hollowed his words into meaningless sounds. He listened, flicked off the light, and listened. Heard only the unnerving quiet. For the next few moments, he stood unmoving, hating and loving the darkness for how it conjured a sense of being alone. Isolated.
Excerpted from The Drop Zone by Bob Kroll. Copyright © 2015 Bob Kroll. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.