PRIMARY TARGET by John Billheimer
Coming soon from Crum Creek Press/The Mystery Company
CHAPTER ONE PREVIEW
PART I: SUICIDE OR MURDER?
Owen Allison was running late for a 9:30 meeting with Sheriff Thad Reader. The battery in his mother’s fifteen-year-old Chrysler had died, and he had jump-started it with his Saturn’s battery, one of the few remaining features of his own car that still worked. The Saturn’s transmission had gone bad two months earlier. He couldn’t afford to repair it, but he didn’t need to right away, since his mother’s Alzheimer’s had progressed to the point where she no longer drove. It would make sense to sell off one of the cars, but in their current condition neither had the resale value of week-old bread.
The Chrysler’s air conditioning hadn’t worked for two years, and all its windows were open in an attempt to ward off the heat of the April morning. The car labored around the curves of the meandering West Virginia road, which followed a shallow creek bed lined with middle-class homes showing signs of wear and deferred maintenance. Missing shingles, cracked concrete and flaking paint were common. But the surest signs of the state’s declining economy were the card tables decorating many of the porches and yards. Cluttered with pots, pans, and other household goods, the tables sat under jerry-rigged clotheslines hung with discarded shirts, dresses, and jeans. All parts of a perpetual yard sale.
With the economic downturn, the county’s accident investigations were just about the only source of income for Owen’s consulting business. All the more reason for being on time instead of ten minutes late, he thought as he pulled into the Barkley town square.
Public buildings bordered three sides of the square. The domed courthouse stood on the north side, flanked on the west by a red brick building that housed the sheriff’s office and on the east by the library, which had a half-dozen homeless scattered on its steps waiting for the ten o’clock opening. Their numbers seemed to be increasing. The economy and the opioid crisis threatened to give new meaning to West Virginia’s “Panhandle State” nickname. On the south side of the square, the welfare office, which had expanded into the space once occupied by a movie theater, shared space with a beauty parlor, discount shoe store, and four boarded-up storefronts.
The parking spaces in front of the courthouse and welfare office were full, but there was plenty of room in front of the county office building. Owen found a shady spot reserved for VISITORS, rolled up the Chrysler’s windows, and retrieved his tan sport coat from the passenger seat. He got out, and as he pulled on his jacket, he glanced up at the flags on either side of the courthouse dome. The state flag bore the image of a farmer and a miner atop a red ribbon with the state motto, Montani Semper Liberi. Owen remembered the translation from his childhood. Mountaineers are always free. Well, not always, he thought. Not any more. Maybe they ought to replace the farmer and the miner with the image of a pair of faded overalls draped over a makeshift front-porch clothesline. He slammed the car door and started up the stone steps to Sheriff Reader’s office.
The overhead fan in Thad Reader’s office was not quite as effective as the Chrysler’s open windows in dispelling the morning heat. Reader sat behind his desk in full uniform, but the balding man in the nearest visitor’s chair had already abandoned his jacket for rolled-up shirtsleeves. Both men stood when Owen entered.
A scowl had caused Reader’s glass eye to cloud over like a fogged-up windshield. Worried that his lateness was the cause of the scowl, Owen immediately apologized. Reader waved off the apology and gestured toward the visitor, saying, “Owen, you remember Tom O’Day, don’t you?”
Owen nodded and extended his hand. “Of course. You were down here covering the Caldwell case a couple of years ago.”
O’Day’s face widened into a broad, engaging smile as he shook Owen’s hand. He was at least four inches taller than Owen’s six feet, and his shoulders were slightly stooped from years of leaning down to talk to shorter listeners. “You guys did yourselves proud on that one.”
Reader returned to his swivel chair and motioned for the other two men to sit as well. “With our primary coming up, Mr. O’Day wanted to talk to us about election fraud.”
“That so?” Owen said. That explained Reader’s scowl. Election fraud had been an explosive issue with the sheriff even before it became a nationwide political football.
“Well, West Virginia does have a colorful history when it comes to elections,” O’Day said. Unaware that he was juggling dynamite, the reporter set about demonstrating that he’d done his homework by tracing the last sixty years of the state’s long history of shady election practices. He started with the 1960 primary that Joe Kennedy bought for his son Jack and ended with the Texas convict that polled forty-two percent against President Obama in the 2012 Democratic primary. In between there were episodes of cemetery voting, ballot-box stuffing, incumbent kickbacks, and ballots that passed from hand to hand like square dancers doing a right-and-left grand.
Owen watched Reader drum his fingers through the litany of electoral abuse. Finally, the sheriff leaned forward so far that his swivel chair squealed and raised his hand. “Mr. O’Day, if you want us to work with you again, you shouldn’t start by insinuating that the entire state is overrun with election fraud.”
“It’s a little more than insinuation,” O’Day said. “It’s historical fact.”
“Well, none of what you’re talking about happened on my watch,” Reader said. “The convict vote was unfortunate, but there was nothing illegal about it. The man paid his $2,500 filing fee to get on the ballot, and the voters did the rest. As to your other historical facts, they either happened long ago or downriver, or both. The Kennedy primary is ancient history, and those corrupt officials you’re talking about are in jail a couple of counties southwest of here.”
“It might not be your county, but it’s your state,” O’Day said. “And you can’t deny it has a rich history of vote buying and stuffed ballot boxes.”
“That’s history,” Reader said. “It’s my job to see it doesn’t repeat itself in next month’s primary.”
“It’s next month’s primary that brings me down here,” O’Day said. “If Jason Davison wins the New York and Pennsylvania primaries this month, and it’s looking like he might, he’ll catch up with Sam Halstead and the winner of your primary in May could be the presidential nominee. The stakes will be high, and you’ll be overrun with reporters.”
“You among them, I assume,” Reader said.
O’Day took a copy of a magazine story from his briefcase and laid it on Reader’s desk. “Both of you should have been pleased with the story I wrote about the Caldwell case. I gave you full credit for recovering over $150 million in embezzled funds.”
Reader nodded toward Owen. “That was mostly Owen’s doing.”
“Well, it happened on your watch, sheriff,” O’Day said. “And I’m guessing my write-up helped you win your last reelection campaign.”
“Didn’t hurt,” Reader said.
“I thought you did a nice job,” Owen said. “For an outsider, you got most of the facts right. I did think you could have eased up a little on the word ‘hick.’”
“I was just quoting my sources.”
“Mr. O’Day,” Owen said. “I can count on one hand the folks around here who’d use the word ‘hick.’ And none of them would use it talking to a New York reporter. So why don’t you just tell us what you’re after here.”
“Can we talk about next month’s primary, then?” O’Day asked. “If I’m right about the candidates coming in neck and neck, the eyes of the nation will be on you. Your primary hasn’t been so important since Kennedy beat Humphrey here in 1960. And I see a lot of parallels between that primary and the one you’ve got coming up.”
Reader stroked his neck, causing his jaw to jut out at the reporter. “And just what parallels are you finding between today and something that happened over half a century ago?”
O’Day showed no sign that he sensed the challenge in Reader’s voice. “Well, for one thing, your primary was decisive. The winner went on to the White House. For another, rumor has it that young Jason Davison’s at least as randy as Jack Kennedy. And finally, you’ve got a politically savvy Daddy Bigbucks who wants to buy the election for his son. Let’s face it, back in 1960 Joe Kennedy bought out the state for his boy Jack.”
“I wouldn’t say he bought out the state,” Owen said. “Just kind of rented it for a day.”
The reporter smiled. “No matter what face you put on it, he bought enough votes to put his son over the top.”
“He bought just enough votes,” Owen said. “Jack Kennedy used to joke about it. Claimed he got a telegram from his father saying, ‘Don’t buy another vote. I won’t pay for a landslide.’”
O’Day tapped the briefcase on his lap. “That quote’s the title of one of the books I’ve been reading.”
“I’ve read it,” Owen said. “It’s not bad, but it could have used a better editor. The author said everything at least twice.”
“One of the things he says more than twice is that votes are still up for sale in this state.”
“Let’s just hold it right there,” Reader said. “I agreed to invite Owen in and have this little talk with you because I appreciate the help your article gave me in the last election. But this talk of parallels between today and 1960 is getting a little out of hand.”
Reader held up his index finger. “First place, my politics are purely local. I don’t much care whether Davison or Halstead winds up on the presidential ballot. Second place, I’m an officer of the law. Vote buying is a felony, and I won’t countenance it in this county.” He closed his fist and bounced it on his desktop. “So you’d best tread pretty careful when you talk about buying votes in next month’s election. You got something to say, I want to hear some facts. Not just something you might have read somewhere.”
O’Day flipped open a spiral notebook. “Everything I have read about West Virginia elections indicates the only thing that’s changed since 1960 is the price of votes. Back in Kennedy’s day, people were offering half-pints and sawbucks for votes. Today, a vote can cost as much as twenty dollars.”
“Got to allow for inflation.” Owen smiled and stroked his beard. “A half-pint will probably still buy a vote, though, depending on the brand. But a sawbuck sounds a little high for a presidential vote back then, wouldn’t you say, Thad?”
“Does sound a mite high,” Reader said. “First election I ever voted in, this’d be back in ’72, five dollars was the going rate for a vote for sheriff. President would have been a lot less, around a dollar. ‘Course, back in 1960, they could have overcharged an out-of-stater like Kennedy.”
O’Day arched his eyebrows in an exaggerated show of incredulity. “You’re saying a vote for sheriff cost more than a vote for president?”
“It’s a practical matter,” Reader said. “Down here, the sheriff’s office comes with a lot of perks. He can hand out jobs, fix traffic tickets, and take it easy on your teenage offspring. President’s too far away to do any of that. And even if you made the trip to D.C., you’d have to stand in line behind lots of fat cats who donated big bucks to his campaign.”
O’Day jotted down a few quick notes. “That sheriff/president comparison is exactly the kind of insight I need for my column. But it sounds like you’re saying the sheriff’s job is up for sale.”
“No more than the president’s,” Owen said. “But we could be jerking your chain a little.”
“If you’re going to be reporting down here, you’d best develop an ear for that,” Reader said.
O’Day was not deterred. “According to the Charleston Mail, vote buying is still a seasonal business down here.” The reporter flipped back a few pages in his notebook. “The paper claims it ‘puts a little zip in the economy every two years.’”
Thad Reader scratched under his glass eye and fixed the reporter with a glare from his good one, a glare that Owen had seen crumble hardened criminals. “Write this in your book. There’s no vote buying in this here county. Not on my watch.” He jabbed a finger at the reporter’s notebook. “Period. End of story.”
The reporter shuffled through his notebook pages. “Then your county must be the exception that proves the rule. In the last several years, the sheriff and more than fifty public officials in Mingo County have been jailed for voter fraud and corruption.”
“Don’t you dare compare us with Bloody Mingo.” The sheriff’s chair squealed as he leaned forward to face O’Day. “I’m not saying that vote buying isn’t a problem in a lot of the counties south of Route Sixty. But you Northerners have got no cause to feel superior. Here in West Virginia, elections are rigged the old-fashioned way: one vote at a time. Up north where you come from, fat cats buy votes by the bushel full. A slug of TV spots here. Saturated radio ads there. Newspaper editorials every day. And who knows how much foreign hacking. Seems to me our way’s a lot more democratic. Although I’ll grant you, the way it’s been done down here must seem a little quaint to you big-city reporters.”
O’Day shook his head. “If the primary race stays close, you’re about to be overrun with big-city reporters. Half of them think Deliverance was a documentary. They’ll come in expecting to find a barefoot, inbred, and ignorant third-world country. On a slow news day, they’ll file stories featuring vote buying, opioid overdoses, welfare cheats, strip mining, poverty pockets, and roadkill recipes.”
“That’s a pretty grim picture,” Owen said.
“I can’t control it, but I can help you counter it,” O’Day said. “I know you two guys are good and competent. When the reporters swarm in, give me a little access. Plug me into your loop and I’ll plug you into mine and help polish your image in the national news.”
Reader was quiet, then responded with a tight, grim nod. “All right. We’ll keep you in the loop. On one condition. If your digging turns up any evidence of vote buying in this county, any evidence at all, I’ll trust you to bring it to me. Then stand back and I’ll give you plenty of fodder for your stories.”
The reporter closed his notebook. “It’s a deal.”
The sheriff extended his hand across the desk. “In that case, I think we’re done here.”
As soon as the reporter had gone, Reader managed a thin smile and said, “He’s already got his mind made up. Red Davison is going to buy the election for his boy Jason. That’s the story O’Day wants to tell. He’ll dress it up with some prime examples of election fraud and tombstone votes. It’s not hard to find those if you know where to look. And he’s already looking at Mingo County.”
“So how do you turn it around?”
“Well, like I told O’Day, vote buying’s a felony. So I’ll let it be known I’ll prosecute it to the full extent of the law and then make a few arrests to show I’m serious. I can’t be everywhere, though, so I need people I can trust to help out.” Reader paused and looked at Owen. “You, for instance. You got some time between now and election day?”
“I’m available. And I need the work.” Owen smiled at his own understatement.
“Then you’ve got it. We’ll need to find poll watchers and people to watch the poll watchers. And make sure nobody tampers with the absentee ballots and the no-excuse votes.”
“What’s a no-excuse vote?”
“Fancy name for an absentee ballot. Except you don’t need to be absent on election day. The state will let you turn in your ballot any time during a fifteen-day period before the election. Makes it easier to get out the vote. Trouble is, it makes it easier to rig the outcome too.”
“Bigger window of opportunity for the fixers. Instead of concentrating all their efforts in a single day, they’ve got two weeks to find the weak spots in the system and attract customers.”
“It should be easy to find customers,” Owen said. “On my drive in, half the front yards along Paw Paw Creek had card tables packed with price tags on pieces of people’s lives. If you’re selling grandma’s brooch or grandpa’s watch, along with your own pots and pans, it’s got to be pretty tempting to put your vote up for sale as well.”
“It’s against the law,” Reader said. “And it’s counterproductive to boot. Think about every group you’ve ever been a part of, from your kindergarten class to your tennis team. How’d you like to pick the group leader by weighing wallets?”
Owen smiled. “We’ve seen enough examples of that to know there are better ways.”
“Hell, a random game of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ is a better way. Some fellow once said it would be better to be governed by the first two thousand names in the phone book.”
“I think I’ve heard something like that,” Owen said. “I think the guy who said it was named Aaron.”
Reader laughed. “’Course, the first two thousand names in a West Virginia phone book are likely to be kinfolk.”
Owen didn’t laugh. “That’s exactly the kind of joke you’ve got to stifle around people like O’Day.”
“What the hell, I’m a native. I’m entitled to joke about family trees that don’t branch much. Like blacks using the n-word. But I’m just jerking your chain,” Reader shrugged. “Like I told O’Day, if you’re down here for any length of time, you’d best develop an ear for it. You’re right about the pull of poverty, though. We’re dealing with double-digit unemployment down here, and twenty bucks for a vote can be mighty tempting to somebody who’s out of work.” Reader barked out a short laugh. “Hell, there’s just too many weak spots in the system. It’s no wonder voter fraud is practically a cottage industry in this state. But I don’t need to tell you that. You were born here.”
“I may have been born here, but the first time I ever voted here was four years ago when you were re-elected. I left the state to go away to college and did most of my voting in California.”
“Compared to West Virginia, elections must be pretty clean out there.”
“Not much buying and selling on Election Day. There’s the same problem you pointed out to our reporter friend, though. Both parties buy votes by the bushel with TV ads.”
“No law against that. With all that time you spent in California, though, you must have a fix on this fellow Davison.”
“Not really. He came on the scene after I left the state. Won his Senate seat after a term in the state legislature. But his dad was governor when I lived there. Got rich at it. Ruined my consulting firm by voiding the award of a big contract we’d won and giving it to a crony.”
“Everybody’s saying his daddy’s money has been a big factor in his recent surge. So you probably don’t hold too high an opinion of the younger Davison.”
“Like I said, I don’t know much about the son. In my experience, though, the turd doesn’t fall too far from the asshole.”
Reader laughed. “That sounds like something I would say.”
“I’m sure you will, next chance you get.”
“No. I’d have to pick my spots. It’s a little crude, even for me. But it’s good to know you’re not bitter.”
“His father cost me my business. And my marriage. Why on earth would I be bitter?”
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