As he draws near he glances nervously over his right shoulder at the command vehicle, and I realize he's part of the unofficial non-invitation. Intrigued, I step quickly from the SUV and join Jimmy at the fender just as the detective comes up and extends a welcoming hand.
"Nice to see you, Kevin," Jimmy says, taking the hand and shaking firmly.
"Thanks for coming," the detective replies. "It means a lot."
Jimmy throws a thumb in my direction. "Kevin, this is Operations Specialist Magnus Craig. He's our lead tracker."
"Magnus," Kevin says, repeating the name so he won't forget it. It's a good memory trick, especially for a detective. "Thanks for coming," he says, thrusting his hand out.
"Call me Steps," I say, taking his hand.
"Steps?" He gives me a quizzical look.
I shrug. "It's a long story."
"This is an old friend of mine, Detective Kevin Mueller," Jimmy explains. "He's been with the Skagit County Sheriff's Office probably longer than he cares to remember. We used to be on the same softball team."
"Softball? When were you on a softball team?"
"During a different life," Jimmy replies dryly. He scowls up at the ugly, weeping sky a moment before turning his eyes back to the crime scene. "Why don't you tell us why we're here, Kevin?"
It's the same old script: love betrayed, money pilfered, and murder most heinous, just retold a different way—and Kevin doesn't spare the details. As it turns out, the suspect, Archie Everard, is a high school friend of his and, according to him, incapable of harming a soul, despite his six-foot-six linebacker build.
"He's a gentle giant," Kevin says, wearing out an already overused cliché.
I've heard it all before, the same sentiment, the same conviction, and if there's one thing I've learned it's to never underestimate the dark shadow that lies upon every human heart. Sometimes it's small and buried deep, other times it's all-consuming.
Every so-called gentle giant is just one beanstalk away from becoming a raging titan. Archie Everard has every reason to be a raging titan. Four years ago he married Krystal Moon Beam—yeah, her parents were hippies—and for the first year he thought life couldn't get any better.
Then Krystal convinced him to sell a forty-acre blueberry field for a hefty sum. Archie had other fields, two hundred and thirty-five acres' worth, so the loss of the smaller parcel wasn't a big blow to his farming operation, but it was land that had been in the family for eight decades. The sale came with a lot of personal guilt on Archie's part.
It wasn't long before the money started to disappear from the happy couple's investment fund in five-thousand- and ten-thousand-dollar chunks. By the time Archie discovered the loss, $655,000 had been siphoned off. When he confronted Krystal about the withdrawals she didn't even blink.
"She broke his heart," Kevin says. "Told Archie she wanted a divorce, which he gave her, with a verbal agreement that she return half the money. She didn't, of course. She moved here"—he lifts his chin at the house—"and then six months later she marries this guy from Seattle named John Ballard."
"Ballard?" Jimmy chews the name. "Where's he?"
"According to the neighbor, he spent last night at his condo in Seattle, something about an early audition today."
"He's an actor," Kevin replies.
"So he's unemployed," I say.
Kevin laughs; it's short, but from the belly. It's a good laugh, the kind that puts a smile on your face. "Yeah," the detective says, "I think that qualifies as unemployed. He used to deal blackjack at the casino, but that didn't last long. We asked Seattle PD to do the death notification a couple hours ago. Last I heard, one of their support officers was driving him up here." He glances at his watch. "They should be here anytime now."