In the kitchen of Paul Brickman’s home, the Huntress stood and took in the scene. The light residue of fingerprint powder was evident on the countertops, the doorknobs, and any other surface that might have been touched. In one hand she held a folder with all of the reports from forensics, ballistics, evidence technicians, and interviews with Brickman and other potential witnesses.
“Nobody’s fingerprints in here except Brickman’s. He lived alone, had a casual romance with the victim, and was a pretty friendly and outgoing person, well liked among others at the base. Didn’t anyone else ever come in here?” She walked out of the kitchen. In the living room, she paused and looked around. Front door to the outside. Open doorway to a hall, leading to bedrooms. Door to the kitchen. “No dining room, so anybody coming over for dinner would probably eat at that table in the kitchen. I’ll need to ask around, see if anybody has been here lately.”
Next, she walked out to the driveway. She nodded to the young corporal who was standing by the front door. “All right if I check over the car?” she asked him.
“Commander Lewis said you were free to examine anything here, ma’am, so long as you don’t disturb the evidence.” He smiled. “I figure I can trust you on that one, ma’am.”
“Thank you.” She walked over and opened the door. Without sitting in it, she leaned over to look at the far side of the steering column. There, she saw a set of keys hanging in the ignition. Two GM keys and a worn brass key that looked like a house key. A San Diego Padres souvenir key fob was also attached to the ring. Then she pulled a pen from her utility belt, reached down, and tucked the pen up under a lever set into the lower part of the dashboard. Pulling back, she heard the hood release pop open. Walking around to the front of the car, she crouched down to peer into the opening between the hood and the body. Spying the secondary release lever, she again used the pen as a lever. When she heard it pop, she placed a fingertip at one corner of the hood and lifted it open.
“Excuse me, Huntress, but what’s wrong with that engine? It doesn’t look right to me.” The Marine corporal walked over to look in the engine compartment with her. “Looks like someone started steam-cleaning it, then stopped midway through.”
“That would explain the way the grime is smeared around on the engine block and on the underside of the hood.” The Huntress pulled out a small camera and took shots of the swirled patterns in the grease and dirt. “Could be steam, or–” She broke off and walked back to the driver’s door. Reaching down under the seat, she felt around for a moment. When she straightened up, she held a red cylinder in her gloved hand.
“Hey, I get it!” said the corporal.
“Yes, you do, and pretty soon now, someone else is going to get it.”
“Yeah, Mary-Ann and I were seeing each other for the past year or so. Not a big thing, just a couple of folks who worked together all the time, and we started spending some of our time off together.” Paul Brickman sat on one side of a Plexiglas barrier, the Huntress on the other. “I guess I’ve never been one for serious commitments.”
“Fifteen years as a Marine is a pretty serious commitment,” noted the Huntress.
“Well, yeah, but that’s why I’ve never committed to a person. In the Corps, you go where they tell you to go, and they don’t care if you’re leaving behind a girlfriend. Besides, Mary-Ann and I were pretty different people. I guess I was kind of dull for her, but dependable.”
“Oh, really? I take it she had a wilder side?”
“Yeah. She used to take off to Mexico every other weekend, go down to Tijuana. I went down there once and never had any interest in going back there. Not her, though.” She shook his head. “We’d finish up on Friday, she’d hop in her Corvette, and zoom! Off to the border.”
“Any idea what she did down there?”
“No, she wouldn’t talk about it. I always figured I didn’t really want to know, you know what I mean?”
“Umm, I don’t mean to get too personal, but if you two were, ah, intimately involved, weren’t you taking a risk with her?”
Brickman shook his head. “Condoms and medical tests every month. Both provided by the USMC. The base medics see enough cases of the cla — umm, venereal disease — that they provide anything you want to prevent it. Didn’t seem to be a problem, though, Mary-Ann’s tests always came back negative.”
“That’s a good thing.” Changing the subject, the Huntress asked Brickman if he knew anyone else that Captain Smith had associated with outside of her work.
“Not too many. I know that she and Lance were good friends, and they used to spend a lot of time at the practice ranges together. Me, I qualified as necessary. Those two, they loved spending hours blowing away targets.”
“Lance Newcomb, Captain Lance Newcomb. He heads up the transportation pool at Pendleton. A good man, lives across from me.”
Must be Terry’s father, thought the Huntress. I hope this doesn’t get messier than it already is. “Where are these practice ranges, Paul? I may want to check them out.”
“Rifle and pistol ranges are on the base near the motor pool. Artillery range is about thirty miles east of the city. We have an annex out there, artillery range, long-term storage, and a small airfield. Used to be used for deploying troops out of Pendleton, but it hasn’t been used for that for about twenty years.”
“I’ll check that out, then. That, and, if I have to, I’ll head down to Tijuana.”
“Look, I don’t know how you got involved in this, but I really appreciate it.”
“Let’s just say someone’s looking out for you.”
The silver car pulled up to the guard shack and stopped. The window slid down, and a gloved hand held out an identification card and a slip of paper. The officer on duty took them both, read the note, then passed them back. A second officer crouched down to look in the window before it closed again.
“Damn, it’s true, isn’t it? That was really her?”
“Easy, boy, down. Yeah, it’s the Huntress. What’s the big deal?”
“Hey, I’m from Gotham! The Huntress is the next best thing to Batman himself!”
“Yeah, yeah, right. Tell you what: you can handle the window for the rest of the shift. Maybe you’ll get to see her on the way out, OK?”
The Huntress stood in front of the command bunker at the artillery range, looking around her. To one side was a parking area, and beyond that a long row of maintenance bays for the base’s tanks, half-tracks, and mobile artillery equipment. To the other side, a cluster of small warehouses.
“The logs show that Captains Smith and Newcomb were here on Sunday evening. Listing of ammunition used indicate that they fired fifteen rounds of mortar fire, something that usually takes anywhere from a half-hour to an hour under normal practice conditions. They checked in at the guard shack at six P.M. and left a little after nine P.M. That’s a lot of extra time.” She turned to the young man who had come in with her. It was the same officer who had been standing watch at Brickman’s house earlier. “Thanks for helping me figure out those logs.”
“Happy to help, ma’am, but it doesn’t make much sense. What would they have been doing out here, unless–” He paused, and a stunned look crossed his face. “You don’t suppose… Captain Smith and Captain Newcomb?”
“Anything is possible, Kevin. Now, those garages don’t look like they’re used too much. Have you ever been in them?”
“Can’t say as I have. You want to check them out?”
“Can we get in?”
“The commander said, if you want in, you get in.” Lance Corporal Kevin Reynolds grinned and held up a heavy ring of keys. “We just got to figure out which one fits.”
It took ten minutes of trying keys before they got in. Once inside, they found a service bay that was immaculately clean in the way that only a platoon of Marines could keep it. “Looks like everything is in its place, ma’am.”
“Looks like it. But there’s one place in a garage that’s both hard to keep clean, and a great place to hide something.” She led the way to a flight of steps set into the concrete slab on which the building rested. At the bottom, she turned and looked up. “They have to be able to work on that heavy equipment from underneath, so an old-fashioned oil pit is the easiest solution. And if you do a lot of work here, you don’t want to be going up and down all the time, so…”
“Right here, ma’am.” Reynolds walked to the opposite side of the pit and pushed open a door that was barely visible under the grease and oil that coated the walls. The Huntress pulled a light from her belt and snapped it on, and they stepped inside. There they found the expected tool chest and neatly labeled drawers of fasteners and parts. In the center of the small room, however, was something unexpected. A stack of wooden crates, the top one with the lid slightly askew.
“Let’s see what we have here,” said the Huntress as she lifted the top box down to look inside. Plastic bags, full of white powder, filled the box about halfway to the top. “Jackpot! Can you stand watch over this and make sure nobody touches it while I call your commander in?”
“Yes, ma’am!” Reynolds unhooked the strap on his holster.
“Not here. Upstairs.” She turned and led the way out of the storeroom. As she stepped over the threshold, she heard a faint click. “Down!” she cried as she whirled and tried to enfold the young Marine in her cape.
A fireball erupted in the oil pit, the blast of heat driving them back into the storeroom. Exposed skin on the Huntress’ arms and legs felt like they had been laid on a stove burner. She grabbed the door and slammed it shut.
“Jeez, that was close!” said Reynolds. “Are you all right, ma’am?”
A quick glance told her all she needed to know. “Singed but survivable. However, we need to get out of here. The only way out is through that fire, and with the oil that’s built up there, plus who knows what they used for the explosion, that could be a while.”
“Maybe not.” Seeing her puzzled look, Reynolds explained. “I worked in a garage before I enlisted. They had a setup like this. Storeroom like this, needs to be ventilated directly to the outside, so there should be a vent here somewhere.” Shining the light around the room, they spotted a grill in the near the ceiling.
Five minutes later, they were standing outside of the garage building. They could hear sirens approaching, obviously responding to a fire alarm from the garage. “You stay here, tell them everything that happened, then call Commander Lewis. I’ve got to go.” Reynolds nodded, and the Huntress ran for her car.
It took nearly an hour for the Huntress to reach the main base of Camp Pendleton. Once there, she drove directly to the transportation pool offices. She was not surprised to find Commander Lewis there with several members of the base’s military police unit. Good man, Reynolds. He came to the same conclusion I did, she thought. Together, she and Lewis walked inside. There, Captain Lance Newcomb sat at his desk.
“Commander Lewis? And who is this? I don’t believe we’ve met.” Newcomb rose and extended his hand.
“Don’t bother, Newcomb. Kind of hard to shake hands when your wrists are cuffed.” Lewis cast a look at one of the M.P.s, who stepped forward with a pair of handcuffs.
“Captain Newcomb, you are hereby under arrest for the murder of Captain Mary-Ann Smith, the attempted murder of Lance Corporal Kevin Reynolds and the Huntress, and for conspiracy to smuggle illicit contraband. Further charges regarding misuse of military property and equipment, arson, and destruction of government property may also be filed, pending further investigation,” said the officer.
“I see Reynolds managed to fill you in on everything, then?” asked the Huntress.
“He said it all added up to a deal between Smith and Newcomb, bringing drugs up to the annex from Mexico. He filled us in on most of it, except for what convinced you in the first place that Brickman didn’t do it,” replied Lewis.
“The house was too clean. Brickman is a personable guy; other people would have been in that kitchen. Somebody cleaned it out too thoroughly. I suspect it was when Newcomb took the gun last night.” She looked at the captain to see if he would respond.
“Yeah, yeah, I went in last night. We had a key to his house in case of emergencies.”
“What about the car? Brickman said Smith had it overnight, and the hood was cold when we showed up.”
“Newcomb brought it back after they dropped off her body. Brickman was too concerned with calling the police, and never heard it pull in. Then he used the fire extinguisher that I found in the car, shooting it up under the engine compartment to cool it off. Probably ruined the engine in the process.”
“Brickman said he saw two people carrying something into the house, which I presume was Captain Smith. Who is the other person?”
Newcomb volunteered the answer to that one. “Private Bloch, one of the grunts in the garage here. He’s hooked me up with some of his old friends from school who were dealing on the streets. We figured it was a way to build up something for after we’re out of the Corps. Not like the government gives a damn about us when we retire, you know?”
Lewis’ hands balled up into fists, and the Huntress was afraid she’d have to hold the base commander back from hitting Newcomb. “You stupid, damned fool. You were willing to mess up your own life, Smith and Bloch’s lives, and jeopardize every Marine on this base, just to build up a little nest egg?”
“I’m guessing that Smith wanted out, didn’t she?” asked the Huntress.
“Yeah, hanging around with that do-gooder Brickman was rubbing off on her. She wanted out, and threatened to go to Lewis if I gave her any trouble.”
“Take him away,” said Lewis before he turned to the Huntress. “Ma’am, I’m sorry I doubted you. I always figured that Batman would have been a top Marine, and I gotta tell you something — you give me reason to doubt the wisdom of them rules forbidding women in combat.” He put a hand out to the heroine, which she took.
“I appreciate that, Commander. Now, I just have to go tell a little girl that her father won’t be coming home anymore.”