A Bitter Dying

Chapter 1

Monday, March 13, 6:35 a.m.

A cyclist passed him, and Marcus Picconi suddenly realized how to win his lawsuit. The ugly bike helmet had made him think about the company’s safety issues in a personal way. His client had filed a broad complaint meant to set a legal precedent, but Marcus wanted to win big and collect his third of the 1.2 million.

Inspired, he stepped up his pace and headed toward the connecting path along the river. The temperature dropped as he neared the water, and dark clouds threatened rain. Maybe he would only run the three-mile loop this morning. He needed to be in court by eight-thirty anyway. As he hit the wider path, he turned left, away from the downtown city parks and gardens. This route was quieter with fewer dog walkers and baby strollers. Not that it mattered this morning. Only the die-hards were out exercising or commuting to work in the dark drizzle.

A grunting sound rumbled behind him. A homeless person camping in the brush along the path? Marcus glanced back, mostly unconcerned. Someone in a poncho rushed him, arm raised. Was that a baseball bat? What the hell? Panic filled his chest, and he snapped his head forward again. Adrenaline surged in his legs as he started to sprint. Was he being attacked by the crazy street person who’d already knifed two people?

Marcus didn’t get far. The bat smashed down on the back of his head, sending explosive shocks of pain into his eyeballs. Blinded and unable coordinate his legs, Marcus stumbled and went down on his knees. Dear god, what has happening? Weakness gripped him, and he fell flat on the cold, damp asphalt. He couldn’t let himself die here on the bike path, beaten down without a fight. His son was only eight and needed a father. Pain waves kept coming and threatened to overwhelm him, but Marcus managed to roll over and face his assailant.

The bat came down again, smashing into his right quad. The soft snap of a bone followed by searing shocks. The man raised the bat a third time, then stopped midair, as if listening for something. His head and leg screaming with pain, Marcus couldn’t focus on the attacker’s face. He was a blur of green poncho topped by pale skin and dark hair. Or was that a knit cap? The man abruptly spun and darted back into the brush.

Darkness invaded Marcus’s brain, and he couldn’t think anymore. Couldn’t move. A humming sound approached. A motorized bike? Marcus didn’t care. As long as it was someone who would help.

Dude, are you okay?” The voice was young and male and close by.

No, he was not okay. “Call nine—.” It was all he managed to say.

Chapter 2

Monday, March 13, 8:45 a.m.

Detective Wade Jackson shifted on the hard courtroom bench. Where the hell was the judge? The sound of a ticking clock made him look up. The hearing had been scheduled to start twenty minutes earlier. He was nearly alone in the quiet room, with only him, the plaintiff, and a handful of lawyers. Civil court was very different from criminal court, which tended to be a madhouse of addicts, petty thieves, and stressed-out public attorneys. A familiar pain in his gut flared into a fireball and he turned to his lawyer, an older man sitting nearby.

I’m stepping out for a minute. Maybe I can find out what’s going on.”

Don’t go far. She could walk in the minute you leave.”

Okay.” Jackson hurried down the aisle between the empty benches, the pain leveling out. His retro-peritoneal fibrosis was growing again, and the prednisone wasn’t helping anymore. He hadn’t been to his doctor because he knew the surgeon would want to cut him open again. Jackson pushed the disease to the back of his mind. For the moment, he had enough to worry about. His ex-wife’s finance was suing him for wrongful death and trying to collect $250,000 dollars. His lawyer felt confident that Jackson’s role as a police detective in Renee’s death would absolve him of responsibility. Jackson was less sure. Every time he resolved one financial issue, another one popped up. This one could devastate him.

In the waiting area, a group of lawyers in dark suits had gathered in front of the stairs. Their conversation buzzed with an excitement that startled him. Courtroom drama was a myth. The longest, most boring days of his life had been spent in this building, the Lane County District Court. Even when the case was sensational—such as the murder of an entire family—the process made it dull. Curious, Jackson walked over to the group, thinking the news might be about the late or missing judge.

He approached Jim Trang, an assistant DA he’d worked with. “Hey, anything going on I should know about?”

Trang clapped his shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll get the call soon. Marcus Picconi was attacked on the river path this morning, so his civil case has been delayed.”

The name wasn’t familiar to Jackson. He didn’t follow civil trials—except his own. It was all he could do to keep up with the Violent Crimes Division’ cases. “Who is he?”

The lawyer representing Doug Thayer and his activist group. Thayer is suing WestPac for five million.”

That company name he knew. He’e heard of the case when the suit was first filed, because WestPac was already being sued by another company for two million in economic damages—as well being fined by the state. Thayer’s five-million, medical-pain-and-suffering suit on top of the other financial hits had created a trifecta of a shit-storm that threatened to put the oil recycler out of business. But it was Thayer’s connection to an environmental group that had caught his personal attention. Jackson did his part to be “green,” but the fanatics made his job difficult and annoyed the hell out of him. They were occasionally violent too, and he’d once investigated an ecoterrorist with a fondness for bombs.

How was Picconi attacked?” His unit would likely have to investigate the crime.

He was hit on the head with something big while jogging north on the river path.” Chang nodded. “Along River Road somewhere. A cyclist found him and called emergency services.”

Is the victim okay?”

The ADA turned to a woman in a white blazer. She glanced up from her phone. “Picconi is still in surgery, so we don’t know yet.”

Jackson’s phone rang, and he glanced at the ID. Margo Dupont, the supervisor at the 911 call center. He thanked Trang and stepped away from the group. “Hey, Margo. What have you got for me?” Jackson was taking new-case calls and leading the Violent Crimes Unit while Sergeant Lammers took a personal leave of absence. She’d rescinded her resignation, and the Eugene Police Department was dithering about how to handle her status as a legal, medical-marijuana user. Something none of them had known until Lammers was poisoned with a pot brownie.

A violent assault on a jogger near Rasor Park,” the calltaker said.

Marcus Picconi?”

Yes. You heard.”

I’m at the courthouse, and the lawyers all know.” Jackson opened the door to the courtroom he’d been waiting in earlier. The judge was still absent. “Justice seems to have come to standstill this morning as a result.” Thayer’s civil lawsuit would certainly be postponed too—even if the activist had an assistant lawyer working with him.

Sorry for the delay in contacting you,” Margo said. “I had to track down his wife first, and she insisted I call the the courthouse. This victim is apparently in the middle of a big trial.”

I need to know the exact location of the attack, so I can get a forensic team out there.”

I’ve already called the crime lab, and they should be on their way.”

Great. I’ll get detectives out there soon.” His team needed to search for blood, trace evidence, and witnesses. The attack sounded similar to others in which random strangers had been assaulted by a homeless man they somehow couldn’t describe. Except for the weapon. The first victim had been knifed, and the second assaulted with a broken bottle. But the perp may have been smart enough to change his MO—or maybe he was just crazy enough to use whatever came in handy while he was agitated. Eugene had a homeless population of 1200 or so, and they were a constant pain in the ass for law enforcement. But it was usually an intoxication or trespassing problem. The violence was new—and worrisome. “Any other information?”

The report came in at 6:48 a.m., and the caller identified himself only as Jason. He stayed with the victim until the paramedics arrived, then took off.” The dispatch supervisor paused. “He also said the victim muttered the word poncho.”

Describing the assailant?”

I don’t know.”

Thanks.” Jackson hung up and tried to decide who to assign the case to. If Sergeant Lammers were making the decision, she would give it to Lara Evans, the least experienced of the team. Jackson knew it would piss Evans off, but she had the lightest workload at the moment, and he had to show good leadership. He pressed her phone icon, the third on his favorites list after his girlfriend and daughter.

Evans picked up immediately. “Hey Jackson. What’s up?”

I have an assault case for you.”

She hesitated. “Another homeless stabbing?”

Sort of, but not exactly.”

Seriously? Why am I still getting the bullshit cases? How can I prove I can handle a challenging homicide investigation if I never get one?”

Jackson envisioned the cantankerous look on her sweet, heart-shaped face and smiled. He loved her spunk. And thoroughness as a detective. “If this case is related to the others, it makes sense for you to handle them all.”

But you don’t think it is. I can tell.”

The victim is Marcus Picconi, the lawyer for Doug Thayer. They’re in the middle of a five-million-dollar trial against WestPac.”

With that much money at stake, you think this one might not be random.”

He knew he’d make the right choice. “That’s certainly possible. The weapon was a heavy object, and Picconi was struck on the head.”

When and where? I’m on it.”