Authors: Craig Johnson
Also by Craig Johnson
The Cold Dish
Death Without Company
Kindness Goes Unpunished
Another Man’s Moccasins
The Dark Horse
Hell Is Empty
As the Crow Flies
A Serpent’s Tooth
Spirit of Steamboat
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First published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Craig Johnson
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Johnson, Craig, 1961- author.
Any other name : a Longmire mystery / Craig Johnson.
1. Longmire, Walt (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Sheriffs—Wyoming—Fiction. 3. Mystery fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Lola, Act ICONTENTS
Also by Craig Johnson
That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
—WILLIAMSHAKESPEARE,Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2
We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those that would harm us.
First off I owe an apology to Campbell County, Wyoming, for getting all noir whenever Walt heads over there; it seems as though it’s always the dead of winter when I cross the Powder River country, but I promise that someday I’ll do a bright and cheery book that takes place in the spring or summer. Honest. Speaking of summer, thanks to the fine folks at the State Game Lodge in Custer National Park for the ghostly tour.
Finally, this novel sprang up with the fertile assistance of Dr. David “Nasturtium” Nickerson as well as the numerous train experts who helped me in spreading the fertilizer and Auda “Snap Dragon” DeLeon and Marlen “Larkspur” Larson for the Spanish language lessons.
Not much grows in the high plains winter, but I had more than a few hothouse beauties helping me up on this one like Gail “Hydrangea” Hochman and Marianne “Magnolia” Merola. The pruning and cutting was ably handled by Kathryn “Columbine” Court, Lindsay “Star of Bethlehem” Schwoeri, copyeditor Barbara “Chrysanthemum” Campo, and Scott “Cactus” Cohen. The bouquet that makes the road smell sweet is Carolyn “Calendula” Coleburn, Ben “Plumeria” Petrone, Maureen “Dahlia” Donnelly, and Angie “Indian Paintbrush” Messina.
And, most of all, my rose by any name, Judy “Sweet-Pea” Johnson.1
Joseph Conrad said that if you wanted to know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a storm; if you want to know the age of the Powder River country, just be on the wrong side of a coal train. A guy who worked for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe once told me that the trains in northern Wyoming are about a hundred and forty cars and a mile and a half long, but it sure seems longer than that when you’re waiting on one.
Lucian Connally, my old boss and the retired sheriff of Absaroka County, reached into his pocket and pulled out his beaded tobacco pouch the Cheyenne elders had given him along with the nameNedon Nes Stigo—He Who Sheds His Leg. “Damn, this is a long one.” He also pulled his briarwood pipe from the inside pocket of his light jacket, much too light for the weather, and fingered a small packet of wooden matches along with it. “We used to get calls from the railroad detectives, what a useless bunch, wanting us to come down and identify the hobos that climbed in the hoppers back in Chicago and Milwaukee, and with the slick sides on the railcar walls, they couldn’t get out . . .” He stuffed a small amount of the tobacco into the bowl of hispipe. “They’d pull those cars into the mines and dump tons of coal onto ’em—imagine their surprise.”
He turned to look at me. “What?”
“Homeless; they don’t call them hobos anymore.”
He nodded his head and looked back at the train. “Flat as a damn pancake is what I called ’em.”
I watched the cars roll and felt the ground shake. The single most plentiful source of coal in the United States, the Powder River Basin contains one of the largest deposits in the world and has made Wyoming the top coal-producing state since the late eighties.
He pulled a match from the pack and made ready to strike. “Pulverized pepper steak; wasn’t a lot to identify, I can tell ya that much.”
The major cities of the Wyoming portion of the basin are Gillette and Sheridan; in Montana, Miles City. The rest of the twenty-four thousand square miles is what they call sparsely populated and I call Durant and home.
It was a Saturday.
“Flat as a flitter.”
I was tired.
“Identify my ass.”
And I was about to lose my patience.
“Looked like hamburger.”
I scrubbed a hand across my face. “Old man, you’re not going to light that pipe in my truck.”
He looked over at me for a moment, the silence between us carrying the electric charge of decades, grunted, and then pulled the door handle and climbed out of the Bullet. The clanging of the warning bells amplified through the open door before heslammed it behind him and hobbled on his one real and one fake leg to the corner of my grille guard, at which point he recommenced lighting his pipe with a great deal of dramatic flourish.
It was December on the high plains, but you’d never know it to look at him, cupping his knotted hands together without a shiver or gloves for that matter and ducking his Stetson Open Road model hat down against the wind. Amplified by the flashing red lights of the railroad-crossing barrier, the brief flicker of orange glowed, reinforcing the impression that he was the devil and that the deal I had struck with him was venal and binding.
He raised his head, the consistent wind that battled the onward rushing of the train pulling at the brim of his hat like a miniature tornado, his eyes almost squeezed shut with nothing showing but the stained, walnut-colored irises glinting black in the half-light.
I looked down at the letter lying on the center console; the postmark was from a week ago, and the return address was Gillette, in the Iron Horse Subdivision, which was located on the other side of the rumbling coal cars. Gillette was in Campbell County, technically out of my jurisdiction as the Absaroka County sheriff.
My daughter was having a baby in a matter of days, and I was supposed to be visiting her in Philadelphia; instead, I was here, helping Lucian resolve his debt to a dead man.
A barely audible whine keened from the backseat, and I reached around and ruffled the fur behind Dog’s ears. The combination St. Bernard/German shepherd/dire wolf glanced at Lucian. The brim of my mentor’s hat was pressed against the crown of his forehead, making it seem as if he was galloping at high speed like some soul-damned ghost rider in the sky.
I thought about how easy it would be to just throw the bigthree-quarter-ton into reverse and back out, turn around, and take Route 14/16 back up to the Gillette airport to jump on a plane, but they likely wouldn’t allow Dog, so that was out.
Wondering what it was I was doing here, other than playing the role of chauffeur, I leaned back into my leather seat and felt the pressure of my Colt 1911. “Maybe they’ll have this talk, and then we’ll turn around and go home.”
I looked at Dog again, but he didn’t seem convinced.
Turning back and watching the old sheriff stare at the train, I sighed. “Yep, me neither.”
Pulling the collar of my sheepskin coat a little tighter and cranking my hat down so that it didn’t follow the train to Oregon, I pulled the handle on my door and slid my boots to the gravel surface. I crunched around to the front of the Bullet to lean on the grille guard with him. I spoke loudly, in the field voice my father had never let me use in the house, just to be heard above the endless procession of open cars and the bells that hammered their warning. “They still do.”
He studied me with a clinched eyeball and said nothing, puffing on his pipe like he was pulling the mile of coal himself.
“Find bodies in the hopper cars.”
The ass end of the train went by, another disappointment in that it was not a caboose but rather a set of locomotives helping to push from the rear, and I got that familiar feeling I always did whenever a train passed; that I should be on it, but it was going the wrong way.
Suddenly the bony arms of the crossing gates rose, and the incessant clanging stopped. We listened to the wind for a while, and then the old man beat his pipe empty on the hard surface of the grille guard, unintentionally repeating the coda of the claxons. “Hard times.”
With this singular pronouncement he turned and climbed back in, leaving me watching the skies peeled back in folds of gray, darker and darker to the horizon.
He honked the horn behind me.
Flakes were streaking in the wind like bad reception as we pulled up to the house, an unassuming one, one that you’d drive right by, thinking that there must be happy people inside—at least that’s the way I liked to think.
We both sat there, dreading what was coming.
He cleared his throat and started to say something.
Gazing out the side window at a deflated Santa Claus that looked as if it might’ve overimbibed in holiday festivities, he grumbled, “Boom or bust.”
“Oil, natural gas, and coal; they used to have bumper stickers over here that readCAMPBELL COUNTY—GIVE US ONE MORE BOOM AND WE WON’T SCREW IT UP.” He continued to study the Santa, looking even more like it might’ve arrived in the bottom of a train car. “Used to see a woman here back in the day; used to drive over here on Sundays. She lived alone in this big old house and had money—used to like spending it on me. Never saw her out on the town, never mentioned other men, never bothered me calling or anything like that and was always glad to see me. Whenever we got together we’d end up in motels over in Rapid or up in Billings—we’d mix drinks in this big champagne-gold ’62 Cadillac she had . . .”
“What ever happened to her?”
He stayed like that for a moment, not moving, and then nodded once. “Hell if I know.”
Lucian got out of the truck, and I trudged along after him through the snow that had just started blowing to South Dakota, made a detour into the yard, and reattached the small air compressor to the hose that led to Santa’s boot heel. The jolly old elf rippled on the ground as if trying to crawl away but then slowly grew and stood with an arm raised, a fine patina of coal dust covering his jaunty red suit.
I walked onto the porch where Lucian had rung the bell.
“That your civic duty for the day?”
“Evidently not. Here I am with you when I should be in Philadelphia with Cady.”
Nothing happened so he turned the knob and walked in.
“What are you doing?”
He looked at me still standing on the front porch in the wind and scattered snow. He didn’t say anything but limped off into the house; I had the choice of following him or standing out there freezing my butt off.
I entered, careful to wipe my feet before stepping onto the unusually wide plastic runners that lay on the white carpeting, and, leaning to the side, saw Lucian round a corner past a room divider to go into the kitchen.
I unbuttoned my coat and stuffed my gloves in my pockets and followed, hoping that if somebody got shot it would be him and not me—he was gristly and could take it.
When I got to the kitchen no one was there, only an electric wheelchair parked beside a door open at the far end of the room that led to a basement with one of those fancy stairway elevators that you see in the octogenarian catalogs I’ve been receiving far too often lately.
I reached over and touched the joystick on the spacey-looking wheelchair and it jumped forward, crashing into my leg. “Ouch.”I gently pushed the stick back so that the contraption parked itself in the exact same spot.
Glancing around the kitchen, I was struck by how clean and orderly and white it was—like a museum or somebody’s heaven.
There was a humming sound from the basement and what sounded like typing and, peering down the steps, I could see that lights were on down there, flickering blue ones as if from a couple of televisions.
Easing myself around the track for the chair elevator, I started down the steps—Lucian was sitting on an overstuffed leather sofa and was leafing through a magazine. At the bottom of the stairs, I got a better view of the dimly lit room, which was dominated by three huge flat-screen televisions surrounding a counter with two computer monitors; an older, platinum-haired woman, seated in another wheelchair, raised her hand and waved at me. I took off my hat and waved back.
She smiled and shrugged, her head encased in a massive set of headphones, her eyes redirected to one of the screens and what I could now see was an end-of-the-season football game—Oakland and San Diego.
Stepping around the counter in front of Lucian, I watched as she casually tapped the elongated keys of the stenotype-like machines at her fingertips, belying the speed at which the words were magically appearing up on the closed-captioned portions of the screen.
After a while, with no other recourse, I sat on the sofa with Lucian and waited. There was another door, which must’ve led to another room, but little else. “She does closed captioning for the NFL?”
He flipped another page in theWyoming Wildlifemagazine and glanced up at Phyllis Holman, still tapping away like Morsecode. “Football, baseball, hockey . . . you name it, she does it.” His head dropped back to the tips on wild turkey hunting. “Knows more about sports than any man I know.”
“Hi.” She had pulled one of the ear cups back and was looking at me. “Commercial break.”
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Holman.” I glanced around at all the technology. “Quite a setup you’ve got here.”
She shrugged. “It keeps me occupied.”
I looked at one of the TVs, my mind playing pinball in an attempt to find something to say as the talking heads came back on the screen. “Who’s your favorite announcer?”
She quickly pulled the headphone back over her ear, her attention returning to the keyboards. “Anyone who talks slowly and distinctly.”
I watched her work for a while and then, with my interest not being piqued by either of the teams or by any of theWyoming Wildlifeturkey tips, I sidled into the corner of the sofa and pulled my hat over my face.
It was not a new dream, the one that overtook me; rather a continuation of an experience that I’d had back in the spring. There was snow, there was always snow in my dreams or visions, as my good buddy Henry Standing Bear called them.
In this one I was postholing my way in thigh-deep snow, old and laden—both me and the snow. The collar was up on my coat, and my hat was hard on my head, defending against the wind. The visibility was horrible, and I could see only about ten feet in front of me. I was following something, something that didn’t want to be followed. There were other shapes, darker ones that hurtled around me, but the creature continued on.
The shapes continued to dodge their way around me, and I could hear their breathing, heavy and dangerous. The tracks were difficult to see in the whiteout, and I reached down to clutch the side of my hip where my sidearm should have been resting under my coat, but there was nothing there—and that was when I saw that the thing had turned and what I was following had horns.
“. . . You know Gerald, Lucian. He never would’ve done something like this; it just wasn’t like him.”
I didn’t move, just stayed as I was—a stakeout under a hat.
Lucian’s voice sounded tired, and I started to weaken, thinking of all the conversations like this that he’d had to endure. “He was a good man, Phyllis, but I’m not so sure there’s anything anybody can do about this. I spoke with Sandy Sandburg and he said—”
“Don’t mention that man’s name in this house.”
There was a silence. “Nonetheless, he said that—”
“They wrapped it up too quickly, Lucian.”
He made a guttural noise in his throat. “Goddamn it, Phyllis, it was the investigators down in Cheyenne that did the autopsy at DCI. You know as well as I do that when a man like Gerald Holman dies they have to do a complete—”
“They didn’t like him; they didn’t like him, and they’re trying to cover something up, I can tell by the way they look at me. I was a court reporter, remember, and I developed an ability to read people; I can tell when people are lying, believe me, I’ve heard enough of it.” Another long pause. “You know as well as I do that these things happen for two reasons: either it’s trouble at home or trouble on the job. Now I know there wasn’t any trouble at home, so—”
“How’s your daughter, how’s Izzy?”
There was a pause, and then she answered. “Connie’s fine.” I could feel the two of them staring at each other. “We haven’t had to use the room, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Do you know what it was he was working on?”
“They won’t tell me. What did they tell you?”
“They said he was carrying a full caseload, including a missing persons—”
“The stripper—that whore, doesn’t it figure that that’s the case they would focus on.”
The old sheriff adjusted himself on the sofa in order to sit forward. “Were there other things you know about?”
“Things that would make a lot of very important people in this town more than a little nervous. Yes.”
Lucian sighed. “Things like what?”
“I’m not sure I want to tell you about them if you’re not going to help me.” Another longer pause. “He was a good man, Lucian. He helped you when nobody else would, and now he’s dead; I think you owe him something more than a phone call.”
I could feel him nodding. “Not as young as I used to be, Phyllis.”
“I’m assuming that’s why you brought him.”
Even with my hat over my face, I could feel their eyes shift to me.
“He as good as they say?”
I waited and listened.
“When I hired him I told him two things: no man has any sense till age thirty-five and damn few afterwards . . .”
“Amen to that, and the other?”
“Never go after a man to arrest him unless you are certain you are legally right, but then arrest him or die.” I felt him shift and was sure he was looking straight at me now. “In all the time I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him quit, which is where most of ’em ain’t up to snuff—they give out. If he’s got any give in him, ain’t nobody found it yet.”
“That he is, but that ain’t the half of it.” He got up from the sofa, and I could hear him limp over to her. “Is that the room over there, the one where you kept Connie?” She didn’t say anything, so he continued. “I want to warn you that if you put Walter on this you’re going to find out what it’s all about, one way or the other.” Another pause, and I could imagine the face that was peering down at her, a visage to which I was accustomed. “You’re sure you want that? Because he’s like a gun; once you point him and pull the trigger, it’s too late to change your mind.”
“Oh jeez, if it isn’t dangerous and dangerouser.” Sandy Sandburg, the sheriff of Campbell County, pulled out a chair, sat at our table, and propped up a large manila folder on the windowsill beside him, careful to pick a spot where the condensation wouldn’t do any damage.
It was cold in the little Mexican restaurant in Gillette’s industrial section beside the interstate highway; late on a Sunday night the patrons were few and far between—as a matter of fact, we were the only ones around. A skinny waitress came from behind the counter and sat a cup of coffee in front of Sandy.“¿Cómo estás?”
“Hola, guapa. ¿Qué tal?”
Sandburg reached out and gripped one of her thin arms and slid the sleeve of her sweater up to reveal a speckling of old scabs.“¿Te mantienes limpia?”
She shrugged, pulled her arm away, and yanked a pad and pencil from her apron.“Me bañe en la mañana.”
His eyes diverted to us as he let the girl go. “As you might expect, the burritos are pretty damn good.” He glanced back at the waitress and held up three fingers. “Tres, por favor.Beef with the green stuff.” He watched her go and then turned back to the two of us. “Gentlemen, there’s no mystery.”
Lucian cocked his hat back on his head, looking like Will Rogers ready to make a run on a casino. “Phyllis Holman, by God, seems to think otherwise.”
“The bereaved widow . . . Well, she would.”
I volunteered. “She doesn’t seem to like you.”
Lucian glanced at me, now sure I had been awake on the sofa.
“Yeah, I get that, too.” Sandy shrugged. “Hell, I don’t know what I did to her but offer her retired husband a job on the Cold Case Task Force.”
“Maybe that was it.” I eased back in my chair as far as I could without fear of breaking it. “How many on the Cold Case Task Force anyway?”
“One.” Sandy grinned with his matinee idol smile, the one that got other people in trouble, his teeth white against the tan he acquired at Coco View Resort in Honduras every Christmas. “Started it up just so Gerald would have something to do.” The smile faded. “Then this happens; I gotta tell you, of all the fellas I would’ve thought would go out this way, Gerry would’ve been the last.”
I sipped my already cold coffee. “Why?”
Sandy clicked his eyes to mine. “Ever meet him?”
“He was so by-the-book that he might as well have published the damn thing.” He looked at Lucian. “Am I right, or am I right?”
“Gerald Holman never broke a rule by force of bending one, that’s for damn sure.” He glanced at the folder next to Sandy’s elbow. “That the report?”
“It is. We’ve got a DCI field office up here with two cashiers and a bag boy.” The colorful euphemisms the sheriff used were a result of the Division of Criminal Investigation’s headquarters in Cheyenne being an old grocery store. “But they drove the Death Mobile up here anyway and did a full autopsy.”
I sat my mug down with more of athunkthan I’d really wanted; they both looked at me.
Sandy reached over and opened the folder and read: “On December 13th, one Gerald Holman placed the barrel of his issued sidearm, a .357 revolver, in his mouth and pulled the trigger. It was established by agents of the Division of Criminal Investigation that the individual, locked in the room from the inside, had opportunity and the condition for the decedent to have self-inflicted his injury. Further investigation revealed that no one else had been in the room, verified by eyewitnesses, position of the decedent’s body in relation to the unlikely position the assailant would have to have assumed, blood spatter, and the gunpowder residue on the decedent’s hand. A gun-cleaning kit was found on the bed beside the decedent, but it was determined that the firing of the weapon was not accidental.”
“’Less he was licking the damn thing clean.”
I ignored Lucian’s remark. “Demonstrations of intent?”
Sandy continued reading. “He used a pillow to muffle the noise.”
I looked out the window at the reflection of three men attempting to understand why one of their own had done what he had done. “Personal effects?”
“Nope.” He studied me. “There’s nothing here, Walt.”
“Can I have the report?”
He folded it up and started to hand it to me but then stopped as my fingers touched it. “Promise to bring it back?”
I didn’t move. “Make copies if you want.”
He shoved it at me. “I trust you.”
I began looking at the photos and reading the summary report from the DCI investigators. “Who is Rankaj Patel?”
“Oh, the Pakistani guy that owns the Wrangler Motel where the incident took place, about a mile east of here . . .”
Sandy studied me. “What?”
“Indian; the man’s Indian.”
I watched him think about it. “No, he ain’t Indian—”
Lucian interrupted. “Dot, not feather.”
I continued leafing through the folder—the photos were, as usual, gruesome. “About a third of all motel owners in the U.S. are called Patel—it’s a surname that indicates that they’re members of a Gujarati Hindu subcaste.” I looked up at his confused face and figured I might as well educate him on the subject. “The Indian caste structure has four principal divisions and a myriad of subcastes, of which Patel is one; Vaishyas, or traders, were at one time employed to calculate the tithes that were owed tomedieval kings by farmers in Gujarat, an Indian province on the Arabian Sea.”
Sandy shook his head and looked at Lucian. “Was he like this when you hired him?”
He nodded. “Better than a bookmobile.”
I put the folder behind me, uninterested in looking at it any more before I ate. “What was he working on?”
“Lots of things—nothing earthshaking.”
“Can I see those files?”
“Richard Harvey says he’d be glad to meet with you tomorrow morning.”
I nodded. “That his replacement?”
Sandy smiled again, and I knew the real trouble had begun. “Of sorts.”
The Wrangler Motel sat on the eastern side of Gillette like it was run out of town. With a lone strip of eight ground-floor and nine second-floor units, it was anchored to the high plains by a decrepit café/bar, the Aces & Eights, on one end and an equally run-down office on the other.
I was standing in said office arguing with Rankaj Patel about a twenty-dollar pet fee for Dog; he was a tiny man and, as I’d suspected, of Indian descent. I looked down at the worn, stained carpet and collapsed chairs and up at the moth-stained art on the walls. “You’re kidding.”
He responded in a singsong lilt. “It is corporate policy, sir.”
He spread his hands in a gesture of largesse. “The Wrangler Motel Corporation, sir.”
“Of which you are the chairman of the board and CEO?” Ipulled out my wallet and adjusted my thinking to the fact that I was paying half as much for Dog as I was for Lucian and me. “I’ll also need the key to room twelve.”
He half turned with the key to room 5, the one he had selected for us, and froze. “I’m afraid that room is not available, sir.”
I pulled my new badge wallet from the back pocket of my jeans.
“There was an accident.”
“I know . . .” The stiffness of the leather caused the thing to fall from my fingers and land on the counter between us like a shot quail, ruining what I had hoped to be a dramatic effect. I reached down and spread it open so that he could see the six-point star. “I’m the guy who’s supposed to find out why there was an accident.”
He studied the badge, taking in the fact that the county was adjacent. “I told the investigators everything I know.”
“I’m sure you did, but if you think of anything else I’d appreciate it if you would tell me.”
He nodded. “How long will you be staying?”
I picked up the keys to both rooms. “As long as it takes.”
I ignored the signs, backed in, and parked in front of room 5. Dog jumped out and immediately began sniffing the surroundings as I opened the tailgate and handed Lucian his overnight bag and the key. “How well did you know Holman?”
“Not that well; we worked a few cases together.”
He nodded. “A daughter; she’s on the school board here.”
“Think she’d be worth talking to?”
“Hell, I don’t know. I never met her.”
“You’re a liar; I heard you ask Phyllis about her—and what’s the story on the room in the basement?”
He studied me. “Her name is Connie but Gerald used to call her Izzy for Isadora Duncan, the one that got killed in that Bugatti when her scarf got caught in the spokes of the wheels back in ’27?”
“Actually, it was an Amilcar, but her chauffeur’s name was Falchetto and she used to call him Bugatti.”
He shook his head at me. “Anyway, Connie was one of those ballet dancers, they say a really good one, but she got caught up in drugs trying to keep her weight down and . . . Anyway, Phyllis and Gerald kept her in that basement bedroom and got her clean. Model citizen, these days.”
I turned to watch my pet Kodiak snuffle the tires of a Jeep Cherokee. “Dog.” He sniffed a few more times just to show his independence and then joined the two of us at the door. “Lucian, you take him and get settled in.”
The old sheriff looked up at me. “Where the hell are you going?”
I stuffed the folder Sandy had given me under an arm. “Upstairs, to twelve.”
“Plenty of time for that tomorrow.”
“I still have the greatest of hope that I can salvage my trip to Philadelphia.”
He stared at me for a moment, said nothing, and then slipped the key in the loose lock. Followed by Dog, who never met an open door he didn’t consider an invitation, Lucian flipped on the light and shut the door behind them; I stood there listening to the eighteen-wheelers Jake-braking on the interstate.
As I turned to go, I saw the curtain in the window of number 6 slowly pull closed. I thought about knocking on the door butinstead walked over and looked at the only other vehicle parked in the lot, the one that Dog had irrigated, with Idaho plates, 6B 22119. Boise County, city of Boise; there was also a Boise State snorting bronc sticker in the rear window along with the black-and-white sticker of thelauburu, otherwise known as the Basque cross.
Even with the Basque population of my county, an odd vehicle to be parked in this lot.
“If you’re here to run me off, it’s not going to work.”
I turned and looked at the tall young woman with a thick mane of dark hair pulled up in a ponytail, backlit by the light from room 6. “Excuse me?”
She hugged herself, and I figured it was the cold but maybe just a habit. “I’m not intimidated by any of you.”
I glanced around to indicate to her that I was alone. “Okay.”
“I saw you . . . looking at my car.”
“It’s a nice car.”
“Well, it’s not going anywhere.”
I repeated myself. “Okay.” Feeling I should make some kind of effort at western hospitality, I stepped forward and raised a hand to shake hers. “Walt Longmire, I’m the sheriff of Absaroka County.”
She stared at my hand, her arms still wrapped around her chest, one set of fingers clutching the doorknob in an attempt to not let too much of the cold enter the room. “This is Campbell County.”
I pushed my hat back on my head with my now-free hand. “Yes, it is—and you are?”
She sighed and said her name mechanically. “Lorea Urrecha.”
Her chin came out a little farther and her head turned, thehigh brows and cheekbones highlighted in the small amount of illumination—classically beautiful but with character. “Yes.”
My attention was drawn to a Cadillac Escalade EXT that had entered the parking lot to travel down the rows of rooms, the vehicle slowing when it got in front of us. The windows were fogged, but from the dash lights I could see that it was a woman behind the wheel. She slowed almost to a stop but then looked more closely at my truck—the stars and the bars—and quickly pulled away.
I got a glance at the plates as she rounded the Aces & Eights bar and café at the corner of the motel at the 17—Campbell County. Turning back to the young woman, I stuffed my hand in my pocket. “Been at the motel long?”
She didn’t say anything at first but then spit the words. “Is this an interview or an interrogation?”
“Actually, it was just a question.”
She turned her head away from me, and I lost her profile.
I glanced back at the closed office and the now litNO VACANCYneon light that Rankaj Patel must’ve turned on just before turning in. “I can always ask the motel manager, if you’d like.”
“I’d like.” She stepped back, her lips compressed, and shut the door in my face.
I stood there looking at the closed door and then raised my fist. “Go Broncs.”
You crafty devil, you certainly played her like a Stradivarius.
I turned and started up the metal steps by the office, stopped at the landing, and looked at the numbers on the rooms until I got to the one with the yellow plastic tape that readPOLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS. Thoughtfully, the Gillette PD and the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office had simply put the barrier on the door so that you could open it without having to retape.
I slipped the key in and turned the knob, stepped inside, and closed the door behind me as I turned on the light. The heat in the room was off, and it was cold, cold enough to still see my breath.
Like a meat locker.
With more than thirty thousand suicides a year, the act is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. The rates for those above sixty-five years of age are much higher than the average, and Holman was sixty-seven. Fifty-six percent of male suicides are a result of firearms, whereas with females the predominant choice of departure is an overdose.
Most suicides occur as a result of depression, but there are some where the motives are never fully ascertained. This line of thought is of little comfort to the survivors but sometimes helpful to the investigating officer, who can become so immersed in the case that he or she is tempted to slash his or her own wrists.
I flipped on the light in the bathroom and took in the chipped, stained porcelain, the worn tile, and the mold on the shower curtain. The thin towels were still hanging folded on the rod, and the little cakes of soap were still wrapped in paper and sitting beside the unused sample bottle of shampoo/conditioner. Even the toilet paper still had its folded and pointed edge—my compliments to housekeeping.
I turned off that light and moved into the main room, past Gerald Holman’s suit jacket and three-quarter-length parka, both carefully draped on hangers below the chrome shelf where his bone-colored cattleman’s hat still sat, brim up.
Nonetheless, his luck had run out—or he had run it off.
There were more tape lines set up that framed off the areaaround the bed where Gerald actually shot himself, which was fine by me because I saw no reason to get any closer to the gore.
The majority of the blood was centered not on the bed but on the floor where he slid after he had shot himself. Evidently his upper body had been thrown back by the impact but then had bounced off the bed, which forced his lower body and legs forward where he slipped onto the floor and bled out.
Usually, when an individual shoots himself in the head, the weapon falls from his hand onto his lap, but from the photographs in this case I knew that Officer Holman had been well trained because the Colt Python had still been clutched in his constricted hand, a product of cadaveric spasm. This is a sure sign that the victim died with the weapon in hand; no one could place the revolver there and re-create the same effect.
In the movies, the individual usually slips the barrel of the gun in his mouth, pulls the trigger, and a brief spray of blood fans from the back of his head onto a wall, usually white for cinematic effect, then the victim’s eyes roll back in his head and he falls sideways, leaving a relatively undamaged face with which the mortician can work.
I’ve seen the aftermath of more than my share of suicides, and I’ve never seen one that ended like that; instead, according to the armament, the effects are devastating. The photographs in the folder under my arm told the tale of the Remington 158-grain semi-wadcutter that had traveled through the roof of the investigator’s mouth at over twelve hundred feet per second, taking off the top of his head and the majority of his face from the bridge of his nose up.
I didn’t need to see the soot and powder trace results or the evidence of blowback material on the Colt to know who andwhat had done the deed—there was only one question that continued to puzzle me.
Because Gerald Holman was shot in the head two times.
The only scenario is that two weeks ago today, he had raised the big revolver up in his left hand and shot himself in the left cheek, then he had placed the barrel of the .357 in his mouth and finished the job.
He had started his career in law enforcement with the Wyoming Highway Patrol in the freewheeling fifties, then had accepted a job as a deputy in the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office in the sixties, where he had been promoted to undersheriff in the seventies, ran for sheriff himself in the eighties, had lost, but then had accepted a position as an investigator; after retirement, he had returned to duty in the Cold Case Task Force that Sandy Sandburg had created for him.
A half century standing behind a badge, Gerald Holman knew where to point a weapon to kill a person.
So why would he shoot himself in the cheek?
There seemed to be only one answer, and it wasn’t contained in the report from DCI. And that was that Gerald Holman did something that, to my knowledge of him, gleaned from his wife, Phyllis, and both Sandy Sandburg and Lucian, he had never done to another human being.
He had punished himself.2
Aces and eights is a poker hand generally referred to as the dead man’s hand. This particular combination of cards arrived at such notoriety by being the one held by Wild Bill Hickok in Saloon 10 at the time of his demise in Deadwood, South Dakota—a little bit east of where we now sat.
According to popular opinion, Hickok held only four cards—the ace of spades, the ace of clubs, and two black eights—the subsequent draw for the deprived fifth card having been interrupted by Broken Nose Jack McCall, who fired a bullet through Bill’s head that exited his right cheek to rest in the wrist of a fellow card player, the fifth card being the least of Wild Bill’s problems at that point.
Getting breakfast at the run-down café of the same name as the dreaded dead man’s hand was as elusive as Wild Bill’s hole card. The short counter was where the waitress supposedly served meals, but she was a little slow in responding, and getting a second cup of coffee was proving difficult. We’d gotten the first cup all right, but refills appeared to be in high demand, which was strange, since we were the only customers in the place.
Every once in a while the young Hispanic woman who hadpoured us our initial cup rushed through the restaurant, and we’d ceremoniously hold up our mugs, but she would continue on and out the door.
Lucian watched as the girl breezed in again, once more ignoring our two-mug salute and disappearing through the swinging kitchen doors. “Damn, what’a ya got to do to get another cup of coffee outta that Mexican jumping bean.”
He flipped the side of his old hunting coat back, the one that had the 1951 Wyo. Rifle Association patch on the shoulder, and rubbed at the small of his back where the rented bed had not agreed. “What?”
I gazed into the kitchen, where I could vaguely see the smoky visage of the ghost of breakfast future. “I think she’s cooking our Denver omelets.”
“Think they’ll be done before the fire alarm goes off?” The old sheriff studied the massive coffee urn at the bar-back, and I could see him eyeing the prospect of climbing over the counter to get at it.
The young woman passed us again, and we raised our mugs to no avail.
“So, what’d you see up there in room twelve?”
I sat my coffee down and looked at him. “Apparently . . . a man killed himself.”
“I knew I trained you well.” He continued to stare at the brushed stainless steel surface of the coffee urn longingly. “No question about it?”
I swirled the tiny bit of coffee at the bottom of my own cup in an attempt to make it last. “You read the report; look at the pictures?”
“Nope, I just called those assholes over here at the field office,and they made it clear that they were doin’ me some kind of big damned favor by talkin’ to me. They said that as far as they were concerned, he’d killed himself and that was that, case closed.”
I reached over and tapped the thick manila folder that sat between us. “That the investigator who did the scene?”
“Two of ’em.”
“I’ll talk to them, but if I have to I can get in touch with T. J. Sherwin.” I left my hand on the report. “Instantaneous rigor in the strong-side hand, trace elements.”
He nodded. “I figured as much.”
“There’s one thing though.” He turned his head at the tone of my voice. “He shot himself twice.”
I watched the dark eyes sharpen. “With that big .357?”
“Yep.” I sighed. “Wadcutters.”
“Seems like once woulda been enough.”
“If he had wanted it to be.”
He raised his mug to his lips but then, remembering it was empty, sat it back down. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Either somebody else shot him first, or your friend, Investigator Holman, raised that big revolver up and pointed it in his own face and pulled the trigger. Then he stuck it in his mouth and blew out the top of his head. Now, why does a man do that?”
Lucian scooted his cup toward me, and a sadness seemed to overtake him as he spoke quietly. “I don’t know; I don’t know what comes over a person to be driven to the point where they don’t see any other way out than . . .” His words stuttered to a stop. “I just don’t understand any of it. I guess I’ve fought so hard to keep my life that I can’t conceive of a situation where I’d voluntarily give it up.” The old sheriff sat there moving his jaw in anticipation of the words. “Why would he do that?”
“Possibly to punish himself?”
“I guess that’s what I really have to find out.” I glanced around. “And why here?”
“Hell, he was probably waitin’ on a cup of coffee.”
I repeated the question and then added, “Did you see his house? Spotless; he wouldn’t stay in a place like this unless there was a reason.”
He nudged the handle of his mug with a thick thumbnail. “Maybe he didn’t want to make a mess for Phyllis to have to clean up.”
I sat there quietly for a moment. “Hey, Lucian?”
“That story you told me in the Holman driveway about the woman you used to come over here and see on Sundays? That was Phyllis, wasn’t it?”
“By God, I warned her . . .” He turned and looked at me again. “I told her that you were a force to be reckoned with and that if she didn’t want the answers, she better not have you ask the questions.”
“You’ve got a lot of women in your past.”
Absentmindedly, he lifted his mug and then slammed it down. “Yeah, and I’m pretty damned proud of it.”
“Were you driving when she was hurt?”
He pivoted on his stool to look at me, and his glare was like a blast furnace. “No, I wasn’t, and this doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the case.”
I didn’t look at him but stared straight ahead and spoke in a low voice. “Maybe you better tell me the story, and I’ll decide if it does or not.”
“You go to hell.”
“It’ll be a matter of public record, but I’ll be wasting more time looking it up.”
“Wasting time is right . . .”
I didn’t move, and if I’d had more coffee I wouldn’t have drunk it. I did one of the things I do best; ask a question and then wait for the answer—something he’d taught me quite a few years ago.
Our waitress passed through again, once more leaving our mugs like ships in the night. After a while he turned back and thumbed his coffee cup some more. He took a deep breath, and I could feel the emotion leave him. “But I was in the car.”
I continued to wait and then listened.
“We was headed down Route 59 for the rodeo in Cheyenne. Hell, I don’t know, she wanted to see men fall off horses or some damn thing. We’d been drinking. This is back before she was married to Gerald. Hell, they didn’t even know one another . . . You remember how it was, they used to hand you mixed drinks out of the drive-through in every bar in Wyoming—to-go cups.”
He sighed. “She was in a hurry. Like a damn fool, I bet her a hundred-dollar bill that we wouldn’t make it and let me tell you, she put her foot into that Eldorado and we damn well flew.” His jaw moved up and down, chewing on the words he said next. “Wasn’t even another car involved. We came around one of those big, sweeping turns and the thing just decided it wanted to go to Nebraska . . . She didn’t have on her belt and flew out on the first roll.”
He didn’t say anything more and just sat there.
“You’re not doing this for him; you’re doing it for her.”
He stared into the empty mug.
I let the dust settle and patted the report. “No signs of drugs, alcohol—”
“He didn’t drink.”
I dwelled on Phyllis Holman. “What did she say about him?” I leaned in closer. “Change in sleeping habits, lack of appetite, sex—disinterest in the job?”
He shrugged. “You’ll have to ask her that.”
“No, you will. You know her, and she’s more likely to open up to you.”
The waitress passed us again and both of our mugs levitated from the surface like some magic act and hovered there before slowly returning, in tandem, to the counter.
“I don’t think I want that.”
I was getting a little annoyed. “Then what do you want?”
He flipped his coat back again, and I thought he was going to rub his back some more, but instead, he quickly drew his service .38 from its holster, extended his arm, took careful aim at the coffee urn, and fired.
The sound in the enclosed space of the café/bar was like a falling tree, and the thing bucked against the bar-back like a wounded felon before spouting a single jet of coffee out onto the floor behind the counter. The old sheriff holstered the Smith & Wesson, hooked the handle of his mug with a forefinger like a talon, leaned forward, and held the cup under the stream to fill it.
The young waitress appeared at the door with both hands at her mouth. Lucian turned his head, grinned, and threw her a quick wave before she backed through the door and ran away.
After filling his mug, he took mine and held it just away from the gusher. “Cup of coffee?”
The sheriff’s office in Gillette was a big one by Wyoming standards, and to me it looked like a fort set down in hostile territory. I didn’t know anybody in the outer sanctum—Sandy Sandburg must have been in his office—but they all knew Lucian.
“There was this one time where we had this crazy guy from over our way that was after his wife and her boyfriend and drove over here. Killed both of ’em and was on his way out the door with a pump shotgun.” I watched as the old man’s eyes glinted in the storytelling. “There was a whole mess of us, but you know how those things can go when you’re dealin’ with the deranged—somebody’s gonna get shot.” He shook his head. “The crazy son of a bitch was on the porch wavin’ around that twenty-gauge and screaming and yelling about how he was going to kill everybody, and we’re takin’ cover behind the vehicles when I reached in the trunk of my Nash Rambler for my own scattergun and noticed the vacuum cleaner I had in there.”
I studied the plaques on the entryway wall and noted that Sandy was a member of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, the Masonic Lodge, the Powder River Shrine, Kalif Horse Patrol, Elks Lodge, and the Wyoming Sheriffs’ and the National Sheriffs’ Associations.
“So I fetched the thing out and started walking toward this loony like I was there to sell the crazy bastard a vacuum cleaner.” He turned and swept his eyes over the half-dozen deputies who listened in nostalgic rapture. “I had the thing in there to drop it off to get worked on, but I just walked up to that man and started telling him all about the benefits of having this vacuum cleaner.”
I wasn’t sure if it was the retelling of Lucian’s story or thethought of all those associational responsibilities that was wearing me out, but I wasn’t aware that Sandy was standing beside my chair until I heard him laughing at the old sheriff’s story.
“Well, crazy as a waltzin’ pissant, this guy starts screaming that he’s gonna kill me, but I just kept tellin’ him about the vacuum cleaner and how he was gonna need it to clean up the mess in there . . . Well, sure enough, he starts listening and after forty minutes I traded the crazy son of a bitch the broken vacuum for the shotgun.”
Sandburg tapped on my shoulder and nodded toward the sanctuary of the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office. Unnoticed by the assembly, I stood and followed him down the short hallway; he partially closed the door behind us so that we could still hear Lucian’s voice. “He’ll be tellin’ that story for the next hour, and I’m betting you’ve heard it before.”
“You’d be right.”
He crossed around his large, wooden desk and sat in an oversized, oxblood leather chair. “So I hear you had a lively breakfast at the Aces and Eights this morning.”
“Lucian has a somewhat unique perspective on self-service; I was just along for the ride.”
He glanced at what I assumed was an incident report that had been taken by the nice young patrolman we’d met this morning and straightened the stack of papers on his leather-trimmed blotter. “Mr. Patel of the Wrangler Motel Corporation has agreed to not press charges if you replace the mortally wounded coffee urn today.”
I glanced up at the mounted elk above his head. “Okay.”
“They’ve got nice ones at the Kmart on South Douglas Highway; I had to buy a new one for the bullpen a month ago.”
“Somebody shoot it?”
“Nope, natural causes.” He leaned back in his chair and considered me. “It’s where I get most of my supplies; kind of puts a whole different meaning to blue-light special.”
He said nothing for a while but then spoke. “You seem kind of down, Walt.”
“Hey, I heard that little spitfire of an undersheriff of yours got sliced and diced in that cluster down near Powder Junction.”
I studied him back but said nothing.
“Vic all right?”
He continued to look at me. “You want to talk to Richard Harvey?”
“I suppose so.”
“Good, because he’s standing behind you.”
I got up and turned to meet Gerald Holman’s replacement, a tall man, built like a fence post, with a weathered complexion, wiry hair, an impressive handlebar mustache, and caramel-colored eyes. I extended a hand, and he took it. “Walt Longmire.”
He nodded, sizing me up. “Inspector Harvey.”
I surmised from that that we were on a formal basis.
Sandy spoke from where he sat. “You wanna have a seat, Inspector?”
He placed his big hands in his trouser pockets, the action revealing a badge on his belt and in a holster a 586 S&W .357, the same type of weapon that Gerald Holman had killed himself with, but this one had ivory handles with some kind of medallion inset. “I’ll stand.”
So it wasn’t just for me.
Sandy squeaked in his leather chair. “Sheriff Longmire iscontinuing the investigation into Holman’s death, and we’re going to help him in any way we can.”
The inspector jiggled his car keys and some loose change in his pocket.
“He’s wanting to know about Holman’s caseload.”
“It’s all in the file I gave you.”
He sounded as if he was from the Southwest somewhere. “I’d like the individual files.”
Harvey glanced at Sandy. “Those are ongoing investigations.”
Sandburg smiled. “In any way we can, Inspector; now why don’t you take the sheriff here down to your office and get him those files?”
Harvey tilted his head just a little, glanced at me, and then back to the Campbell County sheriff. Without any further word, he turned on a cowboy heel and started toward the door as Sandy called out.
“You’re excused, Inspector.”
The fence pole paused at the door and looked back at me. “You coming?”
I glanced at the sheriff, who was grinning, and followed the inspector down the hallway; taking a hard right, we passed Lucian, who continued to inspire the troops with tales of yore, stood at the elevator, and waited for the car to arrive.
He stared at me without a smile. “Albuquerque.”
I nodded and watched the numbers rise. “How long have you been here?”
“Ten with Arizona Corrections, ten with the APD, sevenwith Denver, and then transferred up here from the DCI Field Office about six months ago.”
“Decide you wanted to shovel snow?”
“Something like that.”
“Sandy trying to get rid of you?”
He glanced at me and nodded. “I don’t think he likes me.”
“As charming as you are—how can that be?” The small car arrived, and he gestured for me to step in. “Probably thinks you’re going to take his job.”
Harvey joined me in the elevator and punched the button, then studied me for a moment and stuck out his hand. “Richard.”
I shook it as the doors closed, and the car silently descended. “Walt.”
Appropriately enough, the Cold Case Files Division of the Campbell County Sheriff’s Department was located adjacent to the Campbell County Sheriff’s Department file room in the chilly basement of the building, and was devoid of the charms above.
I sat in what was certainly a cast-off green metal office chair beside what had surely been an abandoned green metal office desk out of which Harvey pulled a few file folders about an inch thick; resting them on the corner of the desk, he sat in the twin green chair. “Merry belated Christmas.”
“Any order to them?”
He shook his head. “Not that I can tell, but he had them on the desk just like that.”
I glanced around at the locked cages surrounding the file areas and could see only one window up near the ceiling, where people’s feet, clothed in various winter footwear, walked by on the sidewalk above. “He worked down here alone?”
The inspector leaned back in his chair and placed his pointy-toed boots up on the surface between us on top of the files. “Now you know why he killed himself, right?”
I looked at the folders under his polished wing tips and even went so far as to flip the corners through my fingers. “Pretty skimpy.”
He ignored my remark and glanced up through the abbreviated window. “I started trying to guess what people did for a living by looking at their shoes, but then I figured out they were mostly all cops and quit.”
“There are a lot of them around here.”
“Uh huh.” His eyes returned to mine. “How ’bout you?”
“How about me what?”
“You a cop?”
I smiled, not making it easy on him. “In what sense?”
He didn’t smile back. “Are you one of them, or are you one of us?”
“I’m just me.” I closed my fingers around the files and yanked them from under his boots.
He slipped the lizard skin boots from the desk and stood, and I was standing right there with him, nose to nose.
“Gerald Holman was a friend of mine, and I don’t want his name dragged through the mud.”
I slipped the files under my arm. “Are you trying to tell me something, Richard?”
He didn’t move. “I want to be sure about who you’re working for.”
“That would be my business.”
He nodded toward the files securely compressed under my arm. “Those are now mine and that makes it my business, too.”
“You want to wrestle for them?”
He looked me over. “You think I can’t?”
“I think I’ve got you by about sixty pounds, and the first thing I’m going to do is grab that .357 on your hip.”
“Well, I’ll be grabbing that .45 at the small of your back.”
I glanced around. “Boy howdy, I sure hope no one comes in down here while we’re doing all that grabbing.”
His face was stony, but after a few seconds fissures started to break through the façade, and finally the cracks formed a grin underneath the extravagant mustache and he chuckled. “Gets lonely down here.” He laughed, outright, and then sat on the edge of the desk. “I hear you’re pretty smart.”
“For a Wyoming sheriff?”
He continued to smile. “You get a lot of press.”
He drew a wide palm across the lower part of his face but somehow didn’t disturb the mustache. “Look, Gerald was a good guy . . .”
I sat and leaned back in the guest chair. “We all seem to be in agreement about that, but he’s dead and his wife wants to know why. So, in answer to your question, I’m working for her.” Confrontation largely avoided, I started shuffling through the files. “This is all he was working on?”
“The only things of any importance.”
I nodded and left it at that. “His wife mentioned something about a missing persons?”
“Missing girl from out near Arrosa, a little crossroads east of here along the railroad tracks.” He leaned forward and took the stack from my hands and flipped through until finding the one marked with a name—Jone Urrecha. “Classic case from the Itty-Bitty-Titty Club out there; got off work and disappeared, never to be heard from again.”
He handed the folder to me, and I opened it. “Dancer?”
“Sure, if you say so.”
“Missing five weeks . . .” I glanced up at him. “Not exactly a cold cold case.”
“Nope, but Holman got all the leftovers.” He glanced around the dungeon. “And shit flows downhill.”
I rested my eyes on the photo of the young woman and found her features familiar. “Urrecha, that’s Basque.” I looked up at him. “I met a woman at the Wrangler Motel last night by that name.”
“The sister—she’s been talking to the press and harassing the department about our handling of the case—everybody around here just wants her to go home.”
I glanced up at him. “How is our handling of the case?”
He pointed at the folder. “As near as I can tell the report got filed by another dancer about a week after the incident. A deputy took the statement, a detective followed it up, but there was nothing to indicate foul play. Her apartment was empty, and her car was gone, so it’s a pretty good bet that she flew the coop—something she has been known to do.”
“You contact Boise?” He looked confused. “Where she’s from?”
“Hey, this wasn’t my case until a week and a half ago.”
I gestured with the file. “This one was on top?”
“Any chance that she was involved with Holman?”
He made a face. “You’re kidding, right?”
My turn to shrug.
He thought about it. “I know it’s a reasonable avenue of suspicion, but he was three times her age and just not the type.”
I looked at the next file—a waitress from the Flying J TravelPlaza on South Douglas Highway by the name of Roberta Payne. “Another missing woman?”
He nodded. “Three months ago.”
I flipped to the next file and another missing woman—a housewife from east Gillette from seven months previous, Linda Schaffer.
“These files are all missing women.”
He studied me. “I know what you’re thinking—Powder River serial killer, but there’s nothing to connect them other than the fact that they were women and are missing, and the time span is not consistent.”
“You think he just fixated and burned out?”
He was right, it did happen with an alarming frequency—police officers who grew so close to their cases that they simply couldn’t accept the loss or the failure. I tucked the folders into my chest. “Do you mind if I take these and go through them?”
He stroked a hand across his mustache again and sighed. “Hey, I’m sorry about that, before . . .” He thumped my chest with the back of his hand. “The only thing I ask is that if you come up with anything you get in touch with me first.” He stuck the same hand out. “Deal?” We shook, and I stood. “Where are you going to start?”
I glanced down at the file on top, just as Gerald Holman had left it. “Evidently, at the Itty-Bitty-Titty Club.”
He smiled. “Never a bad place to start.”
“But first I have to go to Kmart.”
Whether from guilt or a sense of retail avoidance, Lucian decided to stick around at the sheriff’s office, while Dog and Iheaded south on the Douglas Highway to the fabled Kmart; I parked and turned to look at him. “You want dog treats, or should I just go over to the meat section and get you a ham?”
His ears went up at the wordham; they say dogs have a vocabulary of about twenty words, and I was pretty sure seventeen of Dog’s were ham.
Having taken his order, I got out and started in. It took me a while, but I found the ham and then the coffee urn. Vowing to get Lucian to reimburse me, I made my way out with the cumbersome box but stopped as I passed the bulletin board at the entryway where a shapely lass in a green Stormy Kromer hat and a vintage plaid hunting jacket was replacing a homemade missing persons poster using a heavy-duty staple gun.
After she secured the eight-and-a-half-by-eleven sheet on the cork with a slap, she turned and looked at me with the remaining posters hanging over her arm and the staple gun at the ready. “I’ve got permission to do this.”
I looked down the barrel of the device and raised my one available hand. “Okay.”
She studied me, probably noticing I wasn’t wearing one of those nifty red Kmart vests. “Do I know you?”
“Walt Longmire, the sheriff of Absaroka County—we met last night. I’m staying at the Wrangler.”
“The Wrangler Motel.”
She nodded as the pneumatic doors opened and closed behind me, ushering in repeated arctic blasts from the outside. “Yeah, yeah . . .”
I pointed toward the poster behind her. “That your sister?”
Her chin came up. “Yes.”
I lowered my finger, gesturing toward the remaining posters. “Can I have one of those?”
The chin remained steady, as did the gaze. “Why?”
The doors continued to open and close, so I stepped to one side to avoid the sensors. “I thought maybe I could help.”
She snorted, and it was an ugly expression on such a pretty face. “Well, if you’re as much help as the rest of the guys that are supposed to be looking for her . . .”
I nodded and took a deep breath. “I think I might’ve discovered why there’s been a little slowdown in the investigation.”
“And why’s that?”
I glanced around with as little drama as I could to make sure that no discount shoppers were in earshot. “The detective that was working on the case is dead.”
“What’d he die of, old age?”
I stood there for a long time, giving her what my daughter used to call the nickel-plated stare. “Evidently it was a suicide.”
She looked back at the poster. “Good, maybe the next guy in line will do a better job.”
I glanced around again, a little embarrassed. “Maybe.”
She stared at me. “You?”
I nodded. “Uh, kind of.”
She didn’t move at first but then clutched the posters a little closer and dropped her arm that held the staple gun. “I’m sorry; that was awful.”
She sniffed and then rubbed the red of her nose with the back of a fingerless wool glove. “The old guy?”
“Yeah, him.” She moved to the side with me. “That’s whythere was a different cop when I went in there last week; Wyatt Earp, the guy with the mustache.”
She stared down at her fur-lined, lace-up Sorels and then handed me one of the posters without looking up. “Really, I’m sorry.”
I took the piece of paper and studied the copied photo of a beautiful young blond woman looking off to the right, laughing at something someone off-camera had said. “Pretty.”
“No other siblings?”
I glanced at the bulletin board. “How often do you change the posters?”
She looked back. “Every couple of days; I use a different photo each time. She was like that; no two photos ever looked the same.”
I waited a moment before asking. “Can I buy you lunch?”
The Flying J Travel Plaza #762 off exit 126 on I-90 isn’t all that different from the rest of the six Flying Js in Wyoming, other than its location next to the Kmart on the Douglas Highway, but it was convenient and had a nice view of the parking lot and my truck, where Dog sat in the driver’s seat looking in at us longingly.
“Where did you get the plains grizzly?”
I sipped my coffee. “The Forest Service, he’s Smokey’s evil twin—at least when he’s around ham.” The truck stop groaned with the wind that had started up, and snow sandblasted the glass, pressing on the casings as I looked down at the poster on the corner table between us. “They said her apartment was empty, and her car was gone.”
Lorea held her hot chocolate close to her mouth and blew in it. “Trailer.”
“She didn’t have an apartment; she lived in a trailer behind Dirty Shirley’s, the place where she worked.”
“The strip club is called Dirty Shirley’s?”
She looked at me over her mug. “Yeah.”
“No one has heard anything from her at all, phone calls, letters?”
“No. We were close and used to text each other all the time and suddenly she just stopped.”
“Credit card receipts—”
I studied the poster some more. “Five weeks.”
She took a sip and looked out the window at the monochromatic landscape of concrete and blowing snow. “Yes.”
I was trying to figure a way of getting around to the subject and could come up with nothing better than just asking. “I hope you’re not going to take offense to this, but—”
“What was a nice girl like Jone doing in a dump like Dirty Shirley’s swinging from a pole with nothing on but body glitter?”
“Something like that.”
Her eyes turned back to mine. “Upward of three hundred and fifty dollars a night, I’d suspect.” She pushed herself into the booth with her back against the window. “She was an education major at State until the money ran out.” As she curled her black legging-clad knees up under her chin, her dark hair draped around her face. “She said she’d gotten a job here in Wyoming with one of the methane outfits, which she said was only until she saved up enough money for next year. But my parents started hearing from her less and less—”
“What do they know?”
“That she’s missing, and that’s all.” She glanced at me, the wool hunting cap casting shadows over her eyes. “They’re older; there’s nothing they can do, and I don’t think they need to know that Jone was—”
“Was dancing all she was doing?”
She was about to answer, and possibly in a vehement way, when the waitress reappeared with a pot in hand. “You need a refill?”
I nodded and slid my mug toward her, glancing at Lorea, who was still giving me a hard look, as I slipped my hand down and opened one of the folders that I had at my side and held up a photograph for the middle-aged waitress to see. “Know this woman?”
She immediately looked sad. “Roberta Payne, she worked here over the summer.”
I stuck out a hand. “Walt Longmire, I’m the sheriff over in Absaroka County.”
She filled my mug, sat the pot at the edge of the table, and extended her hand in return. “Jane Towson. The cops come in here periodically to ask questions and retake statements.” Her face brightened just a little. “You know Inspector Holman? He comes in here a lot.”
We both looked at the young woman seated across from me, and then I turned back to the waitress. “He passed away a couple of weeks ago—”
Lorea’s voice stayed sharp. “He killed himself.”
Jane slowly turned back to me, unsure of what to make of her tone. “I . . . I’m sorry to hear that. He seemed like a nice man.”
Gesturing with the photograph, I brought the subject back to Roberta Payne. “Did you know her well?”
“Um, not really. I mean we worked here together and we were in a book club for a while, but I didn’t know her really well . . . She was only here for a couple months before she disappeared.” She picked up the coffeepot and glanced at Lorea before asking me, “Do you think it’s possible that she’s still alive somewhere?”
“Sure, it’s possible.”
The young woman on the other side of the booth shimmied out and stood there for a moment as she counted out some change, her voice rote. “Reports of missing persons have increased sixfold in the last twenty-five years, from roughly 150,000 in 1980 to 900,000 this year . . . More than 2,000 a day.” Lorea tossed the change on the table but glanced at me. “Nobody gives a shit, lady.” She walked away from the booth, her voice a shadow. “Nobody.”3
Linda Schaffer, the first of the women who had gone missing, had lived in East Gillette in a modest home, but the house was empty, the windows were boarded up, and there was aFOR SALEsign in the yard. There were shingles missing from the roof, and dead, dried weeds jutted out from the snow-filled, raised-bed boxes. A graffiti artist had spray-painted something colorful but illegible on the corner where a few bricks had fallen away—like a place that Vic once said had probably contained a lot of rage.
I thought about what happened when an integral part of a structure was removed, about how things can so easily fall apart. There was a period, after my wife died, when I don’t think I left the house for two months. Dark days that got a little better, but almost drove my daughter away from me—the one thing my wife would not have wanted under any circumstance.
Delicate little families.
One of the members of my family whined, and I turned to look at him. “What?”
He smiled and wagged his tail.
“You and me, pal.” I sliced off a piece of the half-unwrappedham in my hands with my pocketknife and handed it to him. “You’re not going to get married and run off, are you?”
He dire-wolfed the ham and continued wagging, his tail thumping the inside of the door like a leather quirt.
I peeled a piece off for myself, stuffed it in my mouth, and chewed as I looked at the empty house and thought about my daughter, and more important, the trip I’d put on hold for this investigation. Richard Harvey, for all his rough edges, seemed like a competent investigator; with all those years in correction, Albuquerque, Denver, and the Division of Criminal Investigation, he was more likely to break the cases that had led to Gerald Holman’s suicide than I.
The radio under my dash sprang forth with the voice of Ruby, my dispatcher, moral compass, and practitioner of proper radio procedure. Static. “Come in unit one, this is base. Over.”
I plucked the mic from my dash and keyed the button. “Ruby, can’t you just say Walt?”
Static. “Unit one, is that you?”
I growled into the mic. “Yep.”
Static. “I have Cady on line one from Philadelphia, do you want me to patch her through? Over.”
“You mean unit one and a half?”
I keyed the mic again. “Or is it one and three-quarters?”
Static. “Do you want the call? Over.”
“Yes, ma’am, please.”
There was a brief squelch, and then my daughter’s voice came on the line. “Where are you?”
I glanced around. “Gillette.”
“Helping Lucian with a case.”
“Uncle Lucian is retired, so he doesn’t have cases.”
“A friend of Lucian’s, the wife of a man who committed suicide—a sheriff’s investigator.”
“That’s Campbell County.”
I glanced around some more. “My powers of deduction have ascertained that, yes, you are correct in that I am in Campbell County.”
“Why isn’t Sandy Sandburg taking care of this?”
“It always is.” She sighed. “Anyway, it’ll be convenient since you’re flying to Philadelphia out of Gillette.”
“You are; four days, which means Thursday at noon—got it?”
“Noon patrol. Roger that.” I listened to the quiet and got a little worried. “What’s up, punk?”
“It’s nothing.” I waited, and her voice became quieter and carried a different tone; one of those tones that when someone you love adopts, you feel like you’re falling down a mine shaft. “Um, they say the baby’s in a difficult position and that it might cause complications in the delivery.”
I felt feather tips scouring the insides of my lungs. “What kind of complications?”
“I don’t know, but I’ve got a conference with them later today. I’ll call you after.” She paused. “Did Mom have any problems along these lines when she had me?”
As always, I dropped back and punted with humor, even though the panes of my heart were cracking like ice in a warm glass. “No, she dropped you in the field and kept hoeing sugar beets.”
“I know, honey . . . I don’t remember anything like that, butthat was back in the dark ages when they made the father sit on a bench in the hallway.”
She laughed, and I could hear her wiping away the tears. “Well, you’ve got a front-row seat on this one, pal. They said I could have one more after Michael and his mother, and you’re it.”
I swallowed. “Okay.”
“Noon, Thursday. Which means you have to be at the airport an hour early, okay?”
“Okay.” I remembered the first time I held her; how amazed I was that anything that small could contain the amount of love I was pouring into her.
“I love you.”
“I love you too, punk.” The line went dead, and I hung my mic back on the dash and stared at the lifeless windows of the abandoned house.
Delicate little families.
I could just take Dog back over to Durant and drop him off with Ruby and run up to the larger airport in Billings and catch a flight to Philadelphia today, but the weight of my responsibilities held me grounded. I had responsibilities to Lucian, to Phyllis Holman, and in a way to Sandy Sandburg and Richard Harvey.
In a way, I also had a responsibility to Lorea Urrecha, but the real weight lay with Gerald Holman, Jone Urrecha, Roberta Payne, and Linda Schaffer.
I sighed, placed the ham on the dash, and pulled out the aluminum clipboard from the side-door pocket along with the nifty flashlight pen I’d stolen from a highway patrolman a couple of years ago who was also now deceased. I scribbled down the phone number and address of the local realty firmthat had the listing along with the address of the lonely house on East Boxelder Road.
I was about to pull out as a Gillette city cruiser slowed and parked beside me, the driver rolling down his passenger-side window and leaning across the seat to look up at me. I rolled my own down, and I judged his age to be late twenties. “Howdy.”
I smiled back, thinking he looked vaguely familiar. “Depends.”
“You got warrants?”
He laughed. “Nope.”
“You date my daughter?”
“I did.” He blushed up to his blond crew cut. “The first time I came to pick her up you tossed me a shotgun shell.”
“Yeah, you said they went a lot faster after eleven o’clock.”
I nodded. “I used to think I was a tough guy.”
He pulled off a black leather glove and stuck out a hand. “Corbin Dougherty.”
“Your parents the ones that had the place near Spotted Horse?”
“Still do.” He glanced around but mostly at the house. “Why are you in Gillette?”
He nodded. “I figured as much.” I looked at him questioningly, and he continued. “As soon as a cop gets killed in this state, all the old-timers say we need to bring in Walt Longmire.”
I ignored the flattery and threw a thumb toward the house. “Linda Schaffer was one of Holman’s cases?”
He sighed. “And mine.”
“One of my first, and boy did I screw it up.”
“Tell me how.”
He got out of his car and shook his head. “Stupid rookie shit . . . I kept telling the husband and the little boy not to worry, that she’d be back any time.” He looked at the abandoned house, and I could see a shudder run through him. “Turns out they had a perfect reason to worry.”
“She went to work one evening and just didn’t come home.” He glanced around the lonely strip of a road, not really country, not really suburbs, but the transition land between. “I would stop by periodically just to see if they’d heard anything, not only from us but from anybody.”
“Nothing.” He shook his head and leaned away from my truck, still holding on to it in a modified push-up to drain some of the anxiety. “I kept coming by to check in, but one day they were gone. I guess it got to be too much for them, waiting for her to come home. I couldn’t stand it and ran a check—they moved back to Spokane, where they were from originally.”
I picked up the file from the center console, glancing through it but not finding the information I wanted. “Where did she work?”
I glanced at the coffee urn on the passenger-side floor and then looked up at him. “You’re kidding.”
“There’s another woman who worked at the Flying J Truck Plaza, which is right across the parking lot, who has beenmissing for about three months, name of Roberta Payne.” I shuffled through the folders. “And then another woman missing about five weeks now by the name of Jone Urrecha out near Arrosa, which is east of town?”
“Yeah, about eighteen miles—just go straight up Boxelder, left on Fox Place Avenue, and then a right on 51. You’ll run right into the middle of the town or what there is of it, ’bout five hundred people.”
I rested the files back on the console. “Thanks.”
“You think there’s a connection?”
I shrugged. “I’m sure they already thought of that what with the two missing women separated by only a parking lot, but the other woman ten minutes out of town—”
“Yep. You never heard about these other women in squad meetings, nothing?”
“No.” I looked at him as he dropped his Oakley sunglasses and glanced in the direction of Arrosa. “Any of this have to do with that strip club?”
I nodded. “The Urrecha woman worked there.”
He whistled under his breath. “Be careful out at that place.”
He threw a shoulder in a half shrug. “We get warrants, do raids, they pay the fines, and nothing seems to happen.”
“All I’m saying is that nobody ever seems to go to jail, you know what I mean?”
He said nothing for a moment and then pulled a business card and a pen from his pocket, scribbled a number on the back, and handed it to me. “You need any help—day or night—you let me know?”
I glanced at the printed number on the front and then the written one on the back with a 509 area code. “What’s this one?”
“Mike Schaffer’s in Spokane, just in case you wanted to talk to him.”
I held the card and noticed the pressure he’d used in writing it, almost as if he’d been engraving the paper. “You have it memorized?” He said nothing, and I watched as he climbed back in his unit, pulled out, did a U-turn, and headed back toward town without another word.
I made my own requisite turns, passing the Gillette Country Club, which I hadn’t known existed, and then backtracked on 51 under the highway to make a quick stop at the Wrangler so that I could drop off the coffeemaker with the disgruntled owner.
As I headed east, the houses began thinning, but there were a few businesses along the way, including the Gillette Lightning Speedway, High Mountain Shooters—with a neon sign advertisingGUNS & AMMOand an indoor shooting range—and then a Wyoming Department of Transportation Office, all of which were overshadowed by a rail yard and the monstrous tipple of the Black Diamond Mine that stretched across the wide valley and up into the sky far enough to be seen from Gillette proper.
I crossed some tracks and pulled up to the only stop sign in town, which was at the Arrosa Elementary School,HOME OF THE MUSTANGS, and the post office, and pulled through the intersection into the parking lot of a small bar with a large sign that readSIXTEEN TONS, BEST BAR IN ARROSA.
Glancing around for any other bar in Arrosa, I gave up, turned off the ignition, and pivoted in my seat to look at my faithful companion. “What do you think—post office or the bar?”
He stared at the dash and the red foil package.
“Ham is not an answer.”
He continued to stare at the dash.
“I bet they’ll let you in the post office.” I opened the door, and he jumped out just as the railroad barrier arms dropped across the road that I’d just passed, the lights flashing and the bells ringing. “Hah, beat you.”
I stood there watching the orange and black Burlington Northern Santa Fe thunder by, shaking the little hamlet of Arrosa like a righteous fist.
Beyond the freight, farther down the road, there was an illuminated sign at the top of a pole of a blond woman with impossibly blue eyes, her fingernail provocatively placed between her smiling teeth, and the wordsDIRTY SHIRLEY’S EXOTIC DANCINGunder her high heels. Down below was a lettered sign that could be changed daily which readTITTY TWISTER TUESDAYand below that,HUMP DAYAMATEUR STRIP-OFF.
I called Dog and walked across the parking lot to the modest post office, pushed open the door, and allowed the beast to go first.
“This is a federal government facility, and dogs aren’t allowed.” The voice came from an area beyond the P.O. boxes to my left behind one of those roll-up steel gates, where a handsome, lean man stood on a stool; he was taking down garland that must’ve decorated the federal government facility for the holidays just past.
“He could be a service dog.”
He looked at Dog and then at me doubtfully. “And what kind of service does he provide?”
I walked to the counter, and Dog followed as I leaned a hip against the edge and pulled out my badge wallet and watched itflip out of my hand again and fall onto the floor. Dog nudged it with his nose and then looked at me.
Stooping down, I scooped the thing up and stood, badging the inspector general with the star of the Absaroka County sheriff. “Obviously, he’s not a retriever.”
He studied my star through wire-rimmed glasses, and I noticed he had a prodigious ponytail hanging down the middle of his back. “You’re in the wrong county.”
“I’m looking for a girl.”
He stuffed the Christmas decorations in a box on the counter. “Aren’t we all?”
“Her name is Jone Urrecha.”
He sighed, walked away into the bowels of the office, and returned with one of those white plastic bins; scooting the decorations box aside, he replaced it with the basket. “I’ve called the number that detective gave me about a half-dozen times but nobody ever answered, so I was about to send them back.”
I looked into the bin. “This is her mail?”
“The last couple weeks of it, yeah.”
“Do you mind if I ask what number it was Detective Holman gave you to call, mister?”
He shook my hand. “Dave Rowan.”
He disappeared again but in a moment was back with one of Holman’s business cards that had a number scrawled across it that looked remarkably like the one the Gillette patrolman had given me. “You didn’t call the office number on the front after you couldn’t get an answer?”
The postman shook his head. “Nope, he was very specific that I only call that number written there. I left messages, but he never came in and never called me.”
I leafed through the pile. “Hmm.”
“Pretty shitty police work if you ask me.”
“Yep, well . . . He’s kind of gotten slowed down lately.” I pulled the tub toward me. “You mind if I take this?”
“Nope, just bring back the bin.”
“Okay.” I read the address on the top envelope—it was from a student loan financier and was markedURGENT. “This her address?”
“4661-A, Highway 51.”
I looked back at him. “You know the address of everybody in Arrosa?”
“For thirty-two years now.” For the first time, he smiled. “They’re my people.”
“What was she like?”
He thought about it for a moment. “Carefree.” He noticed the look, or lack thereof, on my face. “I know; most of them aren’t like that—”
He pulled up the stool and sat. “Most of them are having substance difficulties, psychological problems, you name it . . . But she was different.” He pulled at his ponytail. “You could tell she was smart, that she was going places, and this was just a stopover at the edge of the world where she could make some money and then move on—you know what I mean?”
He adjusted his glasses and looked a little wistful. “Maybe that’s what she did, you know? Just moved on.”
“Maybe.” I didn’t sound convinced, even to myself. “Why here?”
He laughed. “Roses.”
“The town got its name from the Basque word for rose.There are wild rose bushes all over the hills out here.” He glanced out the window at the tail end of the train and the blowing snow that chased after it, almost as if the flakes were afraid to be left behind. “Not that you’d know it from recent temperatures.” His eyes came back to mine. “She said she looked up exotic dancing clubs and saw this one and decided it was a sign.”
“Any other name . . .”
The grin spread on his face. “Would smell as sweet.”
“Anything else you can tell me?”
He shrugged. “Not really; I try not to pry into people’s business—a lot of them are here for that same reason, trying to disappear.” He glanced around. “Not that it’s going to last much longer anyway.”
“This office is scheduled to be closed next year, so I’ll be out of a job.”
“Can’t you just transfer to another office?”
He shook his head. “Too much of a free spirit; I don’t think I can take orders anymore.”
I smiled. “Me either.”
I picked up the basket and started toward the door, booting it open and ushering Dog out. “I’ll get the bin back to you before you close up for good.”
I dumped Dog and the young woman’s mail in the Bullet and trudged along in the hardened snow that was crusted on the side of the road toward the sign for the strip club.
I pulled my hat down a little harder and flipped the collar of my sheepskin coat up around my face in hopes of cutting off some of the wind.
As I got closer to the main building, I could see that it was one of those steel prefab ones with two windows and a small mudroom that gave a break to patrons before they entered the main structure.
There was a string of trailers behind it, an odd assortment mostly the size that hunters took to the mountains. Someone had sprayed letters on the doors, the first one markedB. I wondered whereAwas.
I cut off from the parking lot and waded my way toward the trailers and was about to reach the first one when a voice called out from the back of the brown steel building.
“You lookin’ for something?”
There was an enormous individual in the doorway, almost as big as me, heavily muscled—the kind of muscles you get in a weight room, or a cell block. A black T-shirt spread across his chest as he held the door open with one hand and studied me.
“I’m looking for 4661-A?”
He did the white-guy hair flip, and his long, blond locks flew away from his face. “Gone.”
I looked around as if he might’ve misplaced it. “Really?”
I glanced back at the nearest trailer with theBon the door. “What happened toA?”
“Burned.” Realizing I wasn’t particularly intimidated, he stepped out, still holding on to the door. “You know the whole alphabet?”
“My numbers, too.”
He nodded. “Good, that’ll make it easy for you to find your way out of here.”
I ignored him and continued toward theBtrailer.
“Hey! Hey, I’m talking to you.”
“Yep, and I’m ignoring you.” I kept walking. “And unless I’m mistaken, that door in your hand is like the one at the back of my office, which is not a pass-through, which means if you let it close you’re going to have to deal with me in that T-shirt and then walk all the way around the building to get back inside.”
As I advanced on trailerB, I heard his voice just as the door closed. “Fuckin’ hell.”
I raised a hand to knock, but a frighteningly skinny young woman smoking a cigarette yanked the door of the rickety trailer open before my knuckles grazed it, leaving a shattered, etched glass storm door between us.
“What the hell do you want?”
“Hi, I’m looking for Jone Urrecha?” I threw a thumb toward the large building. “She was a dancer here?”
She pulled a polyester blanket from just inside, draped it over her shoulders, and inhaled. “Gone. You her dad or something?”
“Or something.” I smiled. “Do you have any idea where she might’ve gone, or—”
“Look, Mac, she’s gone, or something. Okay?”
I could hear footsteps crunching behind me and figured I’d better finish up before he got to me, so I gave her a wave. “Thanks for your help.”
The door closed in my face, the second in two days, and I turned just in time to see a fist roundhousing its way into the side of my head. I leaned back in the nick and watched as the big guy, who had put on a blue and gold letterman’s jacket, followed through and swung past, his momentum and a quick push from me sending him sprawling into the snow.
He recovered and moved faster than I thought he would and swung an elbow at me as he stood, but I palmed it over my headand gave him my best shot in the side, figuring that if that didn’t knock the air out of him, I was dead.
He collapsed sideways and fell awkwardly, and it was about then that I felt something very hard hit me in the back of my head. I pushed my hat back up straight and turned to look at the skinny woman with the cigarette between her lips who had been in the doorway but now was holding a cast waffle iron. “Ouch.”
She studied me. “You’re the first one to still be standing after that.”
I rubbed the knot at the back of my noggin. “I’ve got a hard head.”
She held the waffle iron at the ready. “Leave Thor alone.”
“Thor? Really?” I glanced at the big guy, who, having rolled over, was sitting up holding his ribs but showing no sign of wanting to stand, and then looked back at the woman. “He started it.”
“Yeah, well I’m finishing it.”
I held a hand out to the man on the ground. “Help you up?”
He brushed the blond hair away again and frowned. “Can’t—my knee went out.”
“I never understood why they called us offensive tackles; I mean, we weren’t allowed to tackle anybody.”
Sitting on a stool in Dirty Shirley’s bar, I tried to explain the nuanced aspects of our shared football position. “It’s from before, when eleven-man squads used to play offense and defense.”
He massaged his kneecap and manipulated it in hopes of getting the thing to go back into alignment. “Before my time.”
I sipped the can of iced tea the skinny woman from thetrailer had given me as she polished glasses behind the bar and carefully watched me. “Mine, too.”
“And where’d you play?”
I sighed. “Back in the sixties.”
“Wow. What was your record?”
“Undefeated, my freshman year.” I took my hat off and rested it on the bar brim up to make sure whatever luck was there stayed there. “Beat Wisconsin 42–37. Then we didn’t win another big one till the year after I graduated.”
Curtis “Thor” Hansen was from North Dakota and looked like he’d fallen off the road-show truck forLi’l Abner, aside from the Viking haircut and the acne on his neck. I’d thrown his arm over my shoulder and limped him around the building and back inside where he’d offered to buy me a beer. “What about you?”
“The Fighting Irish, Notre Dame—even had a tryout with the Seahawks.” He gestured toward his knee. “Then this thing blew out on me.”
He waved a hand in dismissal. “I scored a thirty on the Wonderlic and they were looking at me for the third round—”
The skinny woman asked. “What the hell is the Wonder-whatever-it-is?”
The kid smiled broadly. “It’s a short-form cognitive abilities test that the NFL Combine uses as a predraft assessment—limited to twelve minutes, only about two to five percent even complete the test.”
I gestured toward the offending joint. “Why didn’t you get it fixed?”
He smiled a sad smile. “No money, and the repair to the damage was iffy at best, so nobody would take the chance.”
I kept my eyes on him, my expression neutral, the same one I used to give my daughter when her explanations for youthful transgressions were found wanting. His eyes darted away but then returned to mine. “What?”
I continued to say nothing, just staring at the acne on his neck leading down his back and into the T-shirt.
The skinny woman called out to him. “Curtis, you sure you don’t want something to drink?”
“No, Kay—I’m good.” He watched her for a moment and then came clean. “Steroids.” He blew air from his lips in an unattractive noise. “Some speed . . . Nothing everybody else wasn’t doing, but I got caught.”
“Are you clean now?”
It really wasn’t my business.
I pulled the piece of paper from my pocket and unfolded it, handing it to him. “Know her?”
He took the poster I’d gotten from Lorea and nodded. “The Basque Rose, Jone, yeah . . . She worked here for a while.” He looked up. “She was kind of hard to miss.” He looked at the poster. “We used to run together . . .”
Kay’s voice sounded from behind me. “Just run, huh?”
He looked past me at the woman, who was finished playing at washing glasses and was now resting an elbow on the bar and pouring herself a stiff vodka without the rocks. His eyes went back to the poster. “Yeah, just running.” The knee pained him again, and he winced as he shook his head. “The sister came by here a couple of times.” He glanced up at me. “That where you got this?”
“I figured you were some kind of cop.”
He looked surprised. “Really?”
I nodded. “I’d show you, but it’s in a new leather holder and I’d just drop it on the floor.” I glanced down at the thick and highly suspect shag carpeting. “And to be honest, I don’t know where this floor has been.”
He glanced around. “I do, and I wouldn’t get too close to it.”
“What happened to her?”
“She just disappeared; got off work late, around two or three, and when I went to go knock on her door to get her to go for a run the next morning she didn’t answer.” He gestured toward the back. “Her car was gone, so I figured she was just out doing errands—but she never came back. A day or two later I busted open the door and all her stuff was gone.”
I leaned on the bar and draped an arm on the surface. “Did a detective by the name of Gerald Holman ever come by here asking questions?”
“Couple of times, yeah.”
I looked at him questioningly. “Only a couple?”
“Just curious. What about another detective by the name of Richard Harvey—tall, thin guy with a handlebar mustache?”
He shook his head. “Well, didn’t talk to me, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t here.”
“What happened to the trailer?”
“4661-A, Jone Urrecha’s trailer.”
Kay interrupted. “Tommy sold it.”
“I thought it burned.” I turned to look at her. “Who’s Tommy?”
She gestured to the building as a whole. “The owner.”
“And where is he?”
She smiled. “Usually comes in around five.”
Curtis gestured with a hand to get my attention. “It’s not what you’re thinking—”
“And what am I thinking?”
“That there’s something going on. Tommy doesn’t charge the girls anything but buys and sells the trailers all the time as a sideline.”
The voice spoke from behind me again. “Tommy has a lot of sidelines.”
I spun my hat. “And burns a few of them, too.”
Curtis smiled. “Space heater; nobody got hurt.”
“Glad to hear it.” I glanced back at Kay, but she ignored me and sipped her drink. I stood and walked over to the kid. “Pick up your leg and put your ankle on your knee.”
“What?” He looked at me for a moment and then did as I said.
“Now push down on your knee and twist your foot and stretch it out with your other hand.”
I could see the immediate relief in his face as his knee popped back in place. “Oh, wow!”
I slugged down the rest of my iced tea like Philip Marlowe, rested the empty can on the bar, and picked up my hat. “You say Tommy shows up around five?”
The kid stood, looking more like his Thor Asgard self. “You want me to say you stopped by?”
“No, I’ll introduce myself.” We shook hands, and I went around a sticky brass railing and down the steps. “Little known fact: offensive tackles score higher on the Wonderlic than any other position.”
“No shit; better than quarterbacks?”
“Better than quarterbacks—average of twenty-six.”
He thought about it. “So, I’m above the average for the highest-rated position?”
He waited a moment before asking. “You ever take the test?”
I slipped my hat on and started out the door. “Not in the NFL.”
I sat in my truck outside the Sixteen Tons, the best and only bar in Arrosa. There wasn’t anything to munch on since Dog had eaten the remainder of the ham, the red and gold foil remnants lying on the passenger-side floor mat.
He looked at me, completely unrepentant.
“You could’ve saved me a little.”
I spent my time on stakeout leafing through the files, looking for something, anything, that would connect the three women. I rested them against my chest, also wondering why it was that Gerald Holman, if he was so upset by the disappearance of Jone Urrecha, had visited her residence and place of employ only twice. It was easier to understand why Richard Harvey hadn’t made the trip to Arrosa, in that he was trapped in a basement with the cry and hue of Inspector Holman’s career coming to rest upon him—like he said, shit rolls downhill.
After a few moments, I saw the inspector general come out of the post office, lock the door, and start toward my truck. I rolled the window down as he stood by the Bullet.
Dave Rowan glanced at theSIXTEEN TONSsign. “The bartender says to tell you that you’re bad for business.”
I rested the files on the center console. “I’m hoping not to be here for much longer.”
“So is he.”
“You know this Tommy who owns the strip club?”
“Some; I’m the one who sorts the mail and puts it in the box for Thor.”
“Seems like a nice kid.”
He stared at me for a moment. “You’ve obviously never seen him knock somebody down and kick their head for five minutes.”
I glanced at Dirty Shirley’s and the lurid blonde on the sign, thinking the kid might not be completely off steroids. “Bad news, is he?”
“Yeah. Sometimes in the afternoon, if his victims can’t find anyone else to call them a cab or an ambulance, they crawl into the post office.”
I sighed. “Does the owner of the strip club live around here?”
“No, or they wouldn’t have their mail delivered to a P.O. box.”
He glanced over his shoulder at the intersection, where a familiar Cadillac Escalade EXT rolled through the stop sign. “Speak of the devil; you can ask for yourself.” He gestured with a hand and sounded like a sick Ed McMahon. “Heeeeeere’s Tommy!”
I hit the ignition, flipped on the light bar, and pulled out as Rowan stepped away. “Thanks.”
I was on the tail of the Cadillac and even blipped my siren before he could get to the parking lot of the strip club, but I guess he figured he was close enough that I wouldn’t mind if he pulled in there.
He sat, waiting patiently, as I got out of my truck and straightened my hat the way the HPs always did, bringing my aluminum clipboard along just for appearances’ sake.
The motor on the Caddy was still idling, and he had his license and registration hanging out the open window as I approached. I thought it was a little odd that he had on fingernail polish. “Hey, I . . .”
Snatching off the sunglasses, worn despite the cloudy day, the driver barked, “Do you know who the fuck I am?” As it turned out, Tommy was a Tommi with aniand a middle-aged woman with a massive pouf of reddish hair and a formidable chest.
I studied her for a moment, as if I were trying to remember where, exactly, we had met and then gestured toward her sign. “Dirty Shirley.”
She lit a cigarillo and shook her head, unimpressed with my performance; her voice was like a foghorn through 60-grit sandpaper. “Very funny.”
I gestured toward the only crossroad in Arrosa. “You didn’t come to a complete stop at that sign back there.”
She took a drag and blew the smoke toward my face, but the ever-present wind snatched it and forwarded it to the Black Hills. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope, and with it being in the proximity of the elementary school over there, it could be a hefty penalty—”
Tommi interrupted me. “Do I know you?”
She probably wasn’t as old as she seemed, but the alcohol, tobacco, and hard living had rolled up her odometer. “Probably not, and I don’t know you—I thought we’d established that fact.”
She studied my face, and then her eyes dropped to my chest in search of a badge. “You’re really a cop?”
I began copying the information from her ID, just in case the conversation didn’t improve. “I am.”
She sucked on the small cigar again, as if it were life affirming. “Around here?”
“Not for long, bucko.”
It was about then that I decided to give her the ticket. I’d just pulled her over so that I could start a conversation, but the chances of that seemed slim, so I held up a finger before she could continue. “I’ll be back in just a moment.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
I stopped and looked back at her. “Nope.”
“Well then, fuck you, and the horse you rode in on.” The whir of the electric window going up was the only other sound.
I shook my head and climbed back in the Bullet, unhitching the mic from the dash and changing the frequency to that of Campbell County. “Dispatch, this is Walt Longmire, I need a 10-14 on a black Cadillac Escalade, plate number 17—”
Static. “Who is this again?”
I keyed the mic. “Walt Longmire, I’m the sheriff of Absaroka County.”
“Absaroka County, just to the west of you.”
Static. “And how can I help you, Sheriff?”
I read her the plate number along with the woman’s name.“Tommi, that’s Tommi with aniSandburg of Gillette; I’ve got her stopped for a traffic infraction, and I’m writing her up.”
There was a longer pause this time.
Static. “I’m transferring you to the sheriff’s office.”
I keyed the mic again. “I thought this was the sheriff’s office.”
Static. “I meanthesheriff’s office, the office of the sheriff, himself.”
With a sinking feeling, I went ahead and asked. “Why is that?”
Static. “Because she’s his sister.”4
“She’s quite the charmer.”
Static. “Isn’t she though? She was worse when she had all her teeth.”
I keyed the mic while looking at the smiling face on her ID. “She has teeth on her license.”
Static. “Fake, some boyfriend or another knocked out the others.”
“I’m giving her a ticket on general principles.”
Static. “Well, she won’t pay it, and I’m the one that’s going to get the screaming hissy fit . . .” The airwaves over northern Wyoming went silent.
“You mind telling me why you didn’t say that your sister owned the strip club on the edge of town?”
Static. “Didn’t seem pertinent to the investigation; I thought you were working on Gerald Holman’s suicide, not the case of the supposedly missing dancer—”
There was a pause. Static. “You think there might be a connection?”
“It was the last case he was working on.”
Static. “You want me to lean on my sister?”
“It might be helpful.”
Static. “Take your time writing her up, and I’ll call her on her cell phone and make up some bullshit about you being some kind of special investigator for the state.”
I took awhile writing the ticket by noting in great detail the conversation between us, practicing my cursive handwriting with special attention to the curlicues, dots, and assorted design factors, which were being eroded by the digital age. After a few minutes, Tommi Sandburg exited her vehicle, slammed the door, and crossed in front of mine, still puffing a cigarillo as she yanked open my passenger-side door.
“Not in here.”
She stared at me, plucked the fresh one from her mouth, and made a show of dropping it from shoulder height onto the gravel; then she stamped it out with a full twist, the cigar being what I was pretty sure she wanted to be my head. Tommi with anithen climbed in my truck and closed the door behind her. “Well, you’re a big fucking deal, aren’t you?”
I paused writing her ticket. “It’s on all my business cards.”
“I find it hard to believe that you have business cards.”
“I made that part up.”
She glanced back at Dog, having edged away from the diminutive woman to go behind me; say what you will about canine intelligence, he knew when he was out of his weight class, teeth or no teeth. “This your girlfriend?”
I ignored her and got to the pointed end of the stick as I continued writing. “Jone Urrecha.”
Absently, she pulled another cigarillo from the pocket of what looked to be a very expensive leather jacket, and tapped the end on my dash. “God, I wish I knew; that sister of hers is driving me up a wall.” She pulled a Zippo from the same pocket and started to light up.
I stopped writing and looked at her.
With a long sigh, she repocketed the combustibles, turned in the seat to look at me, and nodded her head toward the winking sign down the road. “You know how many girls I go through on a yearly basis?”
I aimed the point of the flashlight pen above the ticket docket. “How many girls do you go through on a yearly basis?”
She stared at me with hazel death rays. “A shit ton.”
“Define ‘shit ton.’”
“Shit as in lousy, ton as in a bunch.”
For absolutely no reason, I was beginning to like her.
She slumped in her seat and studied the 870 Wingmaster locked to the transmission hump of my truck and then turned her attention to the barren hills a couple of hundred yards up the road. “I mean, it ain’t exactly the Folies Bergère around here—you know what I mean?”
I didn’t say anything.
“We’re on the circuit between Rapid City and Billings; I mean how are you gonna keep a naked girl down on the farm once she’s seen those two cities of light?” She scratched her head. “The usual tenure is about six weeks or so, but she lasted longer than most—all of the summer and through the fall.” She thought about it. “Smart kid, smart enough to not be doing this stuff, but I get ’em now and then—the ones that are having money problems, substance problems, personal problems . . .”
I watched as she extended a hand toward Dog as a peace offering. “Which one was she?”
Dog sniffed her hand and then turned and looked out the window. “Not very friendly, is she?”
She examined Dog a little closer. “Jone never said, and when they don’t say and you can’t see any evidence of the other two, it’s usually personal problems.”
“Who did she spend her time with?”
“Nobody. She was a loner.”
I started writing again.
She watched me and then spoke up. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Every time you lie to me, I get the urge to finish writing this ticket.”
“Who says I’m lying?”
“Just about everybody I’ve already talked to today.”
She fumed for a while and then threaded her fingers into her hair, and I noticed her whole scalp moved, confirming my thought that it was a wig. “She used to pal around with Thor.”
“I think they used to run up and down the road and shit.”
I stopped writing. “Any business on the side?”
She huffed again and then answered. “If there was, it wasn’t through me—that shit leads to trouble, so I discourage it.” She shrugged. “Which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen, but if it does it’s not on my time or my books. Look, I’m no saint, but I try to keep the girls safe; it’s in my interest, you know?” She tugged at the front of the hair, straightening it not unlike the way I straightened my hat. “Sometimes they’ve just had enough and they move on.”
This was squaring with everything everybody was saying. “No contact then—no idea where she might’ve gone?”
“Nope. I still owe her a hundred and sixty-three dollars, so if you hear from her, let me know, will you?”
I thought about it as I studied the sign down the road and could see another coal train heading our way. “Don’t you find it funny that a person with financial troubles would light out overnight without waiting for the money owed to them?”
“Honey, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m in a funny business.”
“I’m getting that. What about Gerald Holman?”
I started writing again.
She stretched a leg out and bumped my knee with a gold boot. “C’mon, I honestly don’t know who the hell you’re talking about.”
“The sheriff’s investigator who came around asking about Jone, the one who killed himself.”
“Oh, him.” She nodded. “Thor talked to him once, I guess. I wasn’t there.” She studied me. “Are you thinking . . . ?”
I ripped the blue warning ticket from the docket and handed it to her as the train sounded its air horns while passing through the crossing. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m in a funny business, too.”
The bartender at the Sixteen Tons had never seen anybody eat one of the pickled eggs from the bar in the three years he’d owned the place, and neither the postmaster nor the BNSF high-line driver said they’d ever seen anybody eat one in the thirty years before that.
“Slow movers, huh?”
The thickset railroad employee with the shaved head and tattoos nodded. “You could say that.”
I glanced at the bartender. “What else have you got?”
I studied the off-color ivory orbs floating in the reddish liquid. “I’ll go with the pizza.”
He glanced over his shoulder at the illuminated Olympia clock on the wall. “Happy Hour, you wanna beer?”
The cheery man glanced down at Dog—the monster was lying next to my feet. “Something for your dog?”
“No thank you, he just had a ham.”
He extended a hand. “Neil Pilano.”
“Walt Longmire. Nice to meet you, Neil.” We shook. “So, you live around here?”
“I live over on South Douglas Highway.” He glanced down at Dog. “What’s his name?”
“Easy to remember.”
The high-line driver stretched a hand out as he finished his beer. “Greg Fry.”
“Good to meet you, Fry; you work the spur into Arrosa?”
He adjusted his American flag do-rag. “For a while now. You want a tour of the Black Diamond Mine sometime, just mention my name.”
I watched as he walked out the door; the bartender searched through the coolers for my beverage of choice, and the postmaster moved down to the stool next to me. “You gave Tommi Sandburg a ticket?”
“A warning; her brother seemed to think she’d bite me if I gave her a real ticket.”
“That or fall down out there on the road and start biting herself—she’s had a rough life.” He sipped his beer and nodded. “About a half-dozen marriages and counting.”
The bartender sat a bottle of Rainier in front of me and lowered a plastic bowl of water down to Dog, who immediately stood and began lapping it up.
“The ham must’ve been salty.” I turned back to the postmaster and took a sip of my beer. “Anyone next in the lineup?”
“Me, I hope.”
I swallowed carefully, so as not to spray the beer all over the bar. “You’re a very lucky man.”
“I know. Crazy, huh?”
“Have you ever been married before?”
“A short period of time back, but I don’t think either one of us took it very seriously—like my great grandfather used to say, nobody misses a slice off an already-cut cake.”
I sat my beer back on a coaster that advertised Dirty Shirley’s down the road and spread my fingers across the smooth wooden surface of the bar. “I think Tommi might be the kind that counts her slices.”
He nodded as he sipped his Coors. “You could be right.” He smiled to himself and, looking for a ring, studied my hand. “You married?”
“One, a daughter in Philadelphia getting ready to have one of her own—due at the end of the week. That’s where I’m supposed to be, but instead I’m here.”
He lifted his bottle. “That’s the way most folks feel about Arrosa.”
I lifted my own, and we toasted.
“Any word on Jone?”
He eyed me through his funky glasses. “Any, you know, leads? From her mail maybe?”
He lowered his beer and looked thoughtful. “Isn’t that what you guys call ’em, leads?”
“Sometimes.” I sat my Rainier back down. “No, just the usual junk forwarded from her previous address in Boise and some new stuff. But you must’ve noticed that.”
The postman shook his head, the ponytail wagging back and forth. “Nope, I just sort ’em—I don’t read ’em.”
I thought about it. “No personal correspondence, nothing.”
“Kids these days, they text, tweet, or use e-mail.” He pointed to the USPS patch on his shoulder. “That’s why we’re going out of business.”
“You’d think there would be something, though. Weeks of mail and not a single letter . . . Not even a postcard.”
A youngish woman came through the door and looked around, pausing for a moment and then walking straight to me. Careful to avoid Dog, she stood a few steps away in her business suit, long wool coat, and sensible shoes. “Are you Walt Longmire?”
I glanced around the almost empty bar for comic effect, a move which was lost on everybody except Dog. “I am.”
“Can I speak with you?”
She glanced around, perhaps for her own comic effect, and jiggled her car keys. “Somewhere else?”
I pointed toward the back. “I just ordered a pizza.”
“This won’t take long.”
I stood and raised my voice so the bartender could hear me. “Mr. Pilano, have you already put that pizza in?”
A voice came back. “Just now.”
“Can you take it out and put it back in when I return?”
His head appeared in the swinging doorway. “No problem.”
Dog and I followed the woman out the door and were surprised when she kept walking toward the Arrosa Elementary School across the street—at least I was surprised. The parking lot was vast enough to allow the buses to make a full circle but right now held only a solitary blue Volvo. Beyond was a chain-link fence and a playground with equipment painted red and white, the school colors. We followed her through a gate in the fence, across the playground, and entered a door in the large, older stone portion of the building, which was, it turned out, the gymnasium.
She stood alongside the gleaming wooden surface of the basketball court, and turned to look at me, a large canvas satchel hanging from her shoulder. “I’m Connie Holman.”
She nodded. “I know who you are.”
I studied her, clocking her age at late thirties. “Have we met?”
“No, but I’ve read about you in the newspapers, magazine articles, WyoFile . . . Sheriff Walt Longmire, they talk about you like you’re some inevitable form of justice.”
I smiled a tight smile and threw a thumb back toward the bar. “I stop for a beer and pizza every now and then.”
She glanced through the metal grating of the multipane window and looked out onto the playground and past. “I’m sorry, but I’m a teacher here and on the school board, and it isn’t good for me to be seen hanging around in bars.”
I smiled. “That’s okay. It’s not so good for my reputation either, but I do it anyway.”
She volleyed a smile back. “I’m not stalking you.”
“I don’t suppose that would be good for your reputation either.”
“We had an in-service here, and I talked to my mother on the phone; she said something about having hired you.”
“To look into my father’s death?”
I walked to the window, and the clicking of Dog’s claws on the gleaming wood as he followed me echoed as I leaned against the massive stones and looked up at the hand-forged girders. “This is one heck of a building for an elementary school gymnasium.”
She glanced up, and I noticed she was thin and appeared to be stretched just a bit too far. “It was the old bus barn for the eastern part of the county.”
The girders looked to be about twenty feet from the ground. “Not much headroom.”
She shrugged. “Fortunately that’s not a problem with elementary school basketball—not many granny-shot three-pointers.” She swung the canvas satchel and hugged it to her chest, I guess to feel a little more secure, and then walked out onto the court. “I used to dance here when I was a kid.” She did a half twirl and looked back at me. “I teach here now. It’s actually the third evolution of the school; the first was an old one-room that got moved back up the valley.”
I nodded and reached down to pet Dog’s broad head. “Um, your mother didn’t actually hire me.”
“I figured that, seeing as how she doesn’t have any money. Iguess I should’ve said, played on your good nature and foisted this situation upon you?”
“Well, it isn’t exactly that, either—she wasn’t the one doing the playing or the foisting.”
She shook her head and turned back toward the dying illumination of the day, albeit at four o’clock in the afternoon, which allowed me to enjoy the picture-perfect profile with the skin drawn tight across her face like some Degas painting. “Lucian Connally?”
“I don’t mind . . .” I wasn’t sure of what to say next, so I just let it trail off.
Her eyes stayed on the grime of the unwashed windows, and I have to admit that I wasn’t prepared for her next question. “Do you think those two had a thing?”
I waited a moment more before responding. “I really couldn’t say, and in all honesty it isn’t any of my business.”
“He was in the car when she broke her back.”
I sighed and nodded, dropping my head to look at the shiny, lacquered surface of the court, polished to within an inch of its grain. “Well, that was before my time.”
“Mine, too.” She looked up at me. “And hopefully before my father’s . . . Look, I’m really sorry my mother or Lucian dragged you into this, but there really isn’t anything to investigate.” She sighed. “My father was not a happy man, never was, and I think it was just a case of his unhappiness catching up with him.”
“So you think it was a suicide?”
She studied me. “You don’t?”
“Actually, I do.”
“Well, at least we agree on something.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, why was he so unhappy?”
“Are you just being nice or do you really want to know?”
I tilted my head, as if in thought. “It might be both; I’m kind of playing the niceness and foisting the need to know.”
She smiled but then cut it short as Dog misinterpreted and took a few steps toward her. “Is he friendly?”
“Overly.” She reached a hand down, and I watched as she petted him, scratching behind his ears. I leaned in a little. “I’m thinking that’s the reason your mother contacted Lucian, because she doesn’t understand why your father did it.”
“My father, Gerald Holman, never broke a law in his life; I mean it, never.” She stood back up straight and folded her arms, dropping her head in thought. “Can you imagine what it’s like, living with a man like that—let alone what he had to do to live with himself?”
“I understand he was a little inflexible.”
She walked a few steps farther onto the court and stopped, her feet naturally falling into fourth position. “I wasn’t allowed to speak to a boy on the phone until I was a senior in high school.”
“I bet you got good grades.”
She turned and looked at me, Dog beside her. “I’m just giving you formal notice that you don’t have to do this—that it’s not your problem anymore.”
“Giving me my walking papers?”
She shook her head. “I’m relieving you of the responsibility of the sad ending of a very unhappy man’s life.”
“Are you planning on having this same conversation with Lucian Connally?”
She smiled. “I was kind of hoping you’d save me from that.”
“Not knowing him very well, I was hoping I could just talk to you.”
“You’ve discussed this with your mother?”
The smile faltered. “Not at length; I thought I would speak with you first.”
I folded my arms, listening to the creaking of my sheepskin jacket sounding like bark tightening. “I’ll tell you what, you get her to tell either Lucian or me to drop it and we’ll call it off.”
She studied me and for the first time I noticed she had brown hair and chocolate eyes—not sweet chocolate, but the bitter kind that bakes. “Why can’t you just take my word on this?”
“Because we agreed to do this investigation with her. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it works; she has to call it off.”
Her eyes flared a bit, and the chocolate bubbled. “Some kind of code you sheriffs have?”
I smiled back. “Something like that.”
“I’ll speak with her tonight.” She paused for a moment more and then walked past me to the door. “You might want to think about it . . . I’ve seen what those codes can lead to.”
“You want a cup of coffee?”
I glanced over at the brand-new urn at the bar-back of the Aces & Eights. “No thanks, but I wouldn’t mind a beer.”
His fans at the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office had dropped off the old sheriff, and I’d found him seated on a bar stool when I got back from Arrosa—I was going to have to find something to distract him as I investigated or every appliance on the high plains would be in peril.
“Hey, Haji.” He raised his voice to the Indian bartender who had replaced the morning Hispanic girl in an attempt to be heardover the small crowd that had filtered into the tiny bar, mostly workers from the nearby oil refineries, their companies seeking lodging wherever they could, the tang of petroleum and dirt strangely comforting. There were four of these men seated by the door, who were laughing loudly at a story one of them was telling.
I leaned into him. “Lucian . . .”
He gave me the horse eye. “What?”
“You can’t go around giving people names according to their nationality.”
The small young man, dark-haired, with an enormous if crooked smile, approached from the back, and the old sheriff gave him the high sign for two more before leaning into me and whispering fiercely, “Damn it, his name really is Haji.”
The bartender in question, who indeed had a name tag that saidHaji, sat two more Rainiers on the bar along with a bowl of stale peanuts. “How are you?” He smiled an enigmatic grin and disappeared into the back as I took a sip of my beer in an attempt to wash down the nutty meal in my mouth.
“Where the hell did you go all day?”
I pointed toward the coffeemaker as the bartender reappeared and studied the oil workers with a worried grimace. “Kmart, for one . . .” I sipped my beer again. “Met with Richard Harvey, Gerald’s replacement.”
He nodded. “The pointy-head from New Mexico?”
“Never have figured out why they call that state by that name, it ain’t new and it ain’t Mexico—am I right, Haji?”
The bartender nodded and smiled again.
“What’d pointy-head have to say?”
“We just discussed the cases Holman was working on.”
He pursed his lips and readjusted his prosthetic leg on the bar stool. “Like what?”
“A couple of missing persons; three women from this vicinity and all in the last year.”
He grunted and gave the oil workers a dirty look as another outburst of braying erupted from their table. “Hey, you assholes wanna keep it down over there? We’re tryin’ to have a conversation.”
They all looked at him, somewhat thunderstruck, and then waved him off and went back to yowling among themselves.
Lucian turned back around and grumbled. “Campbell County?”
“Gillette proper and within a ten-mile radius.”
“Sandy know about all this?”
“I’m assuming, since it’s his detective’s reports I’m working from.”
The door opened, and the oil workers hooted and howled even louder. I’d just about made up my mind to go over and badge them when I turned and saw that the biggest of the men was holding Lorea Urrecha’s wrist.
Once again, the missing stripper’s sister was holding a stack of posters and a staple gun, obviously intent on putting a fresh one up on the bar’s bulletin board near the door.
The large man was trying to engage her in conversation even though she was attempting to pull away. He was kind of in shape but carrying a lot of beer fat and wore a jacket that readFOREMAN.
I slipped off the stool and turned, walking over to the table, catching only the tail end of the oil worker’s statement:something about him, her, and a meaningful relationship of about three minutes. “Let her go.”
He glanced up at me. “What?”
“I said let her go.”
The nearest man turned in the booth, and I now had the attention of all four. The big guy pushed the bill of his greasy welding cap back and looked at me. “Hey pard, we’re just havin’ a little conversation. The lady and I know each other, so how ’bout you just run along?”
I glanced at the young woman, but she wouldn’t make eye contact with me. “I don’t think the lady appreciates the attention.” I let my arms drop to my sides, my face growing cool and my hands still. “Let her go.”
It probably would’ve ended there, maybe with a few parting barks, but it was at that moment that Lorea dropped the photocopies, raised the staple gun, and slapped a round in the guy’s forehead.
I don’t know how deep the thing went, but she’d put a lot of emphasis into the action and I had a sneaking suspicion it was going to take a pair of needle-nose pliers or a quick visit to the emergency room to get the thing out of the thin layer of skin that covered his thick skull.
The staple to the head had the expected response in that he let go of her wrist and grabbed his head with a roar, trying to get a fingernail underneath the staple to pry it from his face. He shouldered her as he lumbered around, and she fell backward into the wall where she bounced against a coatrack, taking it down with her.
I made a move to catch her, but the three other guys started climbing over the bench seat, possibly thinking that I was theone that had damaged the foreman, who was now trying to get his hands on me but was impaired by the blood flowing into his eyes.
He managed to slam an elbow down on my shoulder, and one of the others grabbed my right arm before I could get loose. Another grabbed the back of my coat and propelled all of us through the glass door onto the sidewalk, where we landed with a thump in the snow that had been piled in the handicapped spot.
I pushed off, but the three of them were still attached to me as the staple guy pulled my head back and swung, glancing a fist off the crown of my ducked head and busting a few knuckles in the process. I forced one of my assailants down and then got an arm loose just enough to push one of the others back into the one of the four who seemed undecided about the whole melee.
Getting my feet under me, I was half standing when the big guy brought a knee up, sending me flailing backward into the ice-capped snow. I started to get up, but he was on me pretty quick and was winding up with his left hand in a fist when, in the echoing chamber of the concrete alcove, there was the thunderous report of a gunshot.
The foreman froze, and as I forced my eyes to focus, I could see the four-inch barrel of a Smith & Wesson service revolver stuck in his left ear.
He slowly raised his hands as Lucian Connally spoke as though holding a pistol against someone’s earlobe was an everyday occurrence. “You know, you look like one of those guys that lifts weights and I bet you are strong as a bull-ox.” He leaned forward into the big man’s line of vision, his grin in the half light looking like a death’s head. “I been workin’ out a lot latelymyself—you know, gettin’ in shape.” He continued to smile. “But mostly I been exercisin’ this finger enough so that I can pull the couple of pounds of pressure on this trigger that’ll scatter your chickenshit brains all over this parking lot.”
“Do I need to set up a sheriff’s substation over here at the Wrangler Motel to keep you two out of trouble?” Sandy Sandburg looked at the two of us as though we were truants. “And remind me again about how the two of you are over here to make my life easier?”
“Lucian started it.”
The old sheriff looked at me. “And how the hell’d I do that?”
“You called them assholes.”
“Just introducin’ myself, and I’mnotthe one who went over there and attempted to single-handedly take on Marathon Oil’s second shift.”
I adjusted my hat, held the bag of ice Haji had given me against the swelling on my head, and addressed Sandy. “How’s Lorea?”
“We disarmed her and cut her loose.” He looked over his shoulder at the big guy, now seated in the back of a Campbell County cruiser and being ministered to. “Damn, did you see the staple in that guy’s head? I mean that was one of those big industrial jobs—”
“I think she wanted the thought to stick.”
“One of my deputies is trying to pry it out with a Spyderco knife.” He smiled. “The guy’s got some priors, a battery and a few controlled-substance abuses; you want to press charges?”
“Well, he does.”
“No. On her, but I think I can dissuade him if you want.” He blew his breath out between his teeth. “I’m half a mind to let him have her and then send her butt back to Boise, she’s been such a pain.”
“She’s just concerned about her sister.”
He shook his head. “The stripper, the one that evidently packed up all her stuff into her car and drove off without telling anybody, the one that we haven’t found any sign of foul play, the one that has a history of packing up her stuff and heading out for the road less traveled?”
“Just like Linda Schaffer and Roberta Payne.”
He captured his lip with his teeth and then released it. “Who?”
I readjusted the ice pack on my head and stretched my jaw against the tightening there. “Linda Schaffer vanished from the Kmart parking lot seven months ago, and Roberta Payne disappeared from the Flying J truck stop three months ago.” I studied him. “You didn’t know about those women?”
“They were in Holman’s reports?”
He looked over his shoulder at the cruiser again. “I need to see them.”
“They’re your reports.” I waited a moment before continuing. “You really didn’t know about them?”
His hand brushed the brim of his hat. “Vaguely, but I rely on my men to tell me the things I need to know.”
“Why wouldn’t Gerald Holman have told you about two missing persons cases?”
“I’m not saying he didn’t, I just don’t recall.”
“What about Richard Harvey?”
The sheriff of Campbell County inclined his head. “We don’t talk much.”
I nodded but left it at that. “I’ll run the reports by tomorrow. I want one last look at them.”
“I’ll make you some copies.”
“There’s an idea.”
Things had quieted down, and I had even made the effort of going over and saying hey to the oil refinery workers, especially the one with the multiple holes in his head. They’d gotten the staple out, and an EMT had him bandaged up. We shook hands, and I wondered about the nature of things as I stooped to pick up the scattered posters on the floor of the bar/café.
I stared at another photocopied version of Jone Urrecha and wondered absently how many photographs her sister had of her. I crouched there by the booth and asked myself if my fixation on this particular young woman was irrational. The statistics said that all three women were most certainly dead, even though Jone was missing only five weeks. They say statistics by their nature don’t lie, but in my opinion they sometimes do and damnably at that.
Scooping up the posters, I stood and was confronted with Haji, who was also holding a collection of the copied sheets. “Hey.”
“These slid over near the bar, and I think you want them.”
I shuffled the papers and placed them under my arm. “Where are you from, Haji?”
He smiled the crooked smile. “Mumbai, just to the south.”
“You related to Rankaj Patel?”
“He is my father’s brother.”
“Mind if I ask how you ended up here?”
His face darkened as he stood the coatrack back upright, pushing it against the wall. “I worked the summertime in Yellowstone Park and then found job here with my uncle for the winter.” He studied me. “All of my papers are in order—”
I raised a hand in supplication. “I’m sure they are; I was just curious.”
He glanced around. “With the oil and gas industry, no one wishes to work at bar job. I am of hopes to buy motel self?”
“Buy a motel yourself?”
“Yes, in attempt of the American Dream.” I started out the door, but he stopped me. “You are a sheriff?”
“And the old man with you, he is sheriff, too?”
He nodded. “Lots of sheriffs in Wyoming.”
“I guess that’s true, as of late.” I reached a hand out, and we shook and I held on to his hand while percolating an idea. “Hey, you don’t happen to play chess, do you, Haji?”
He stared at me for a moment. “Why you ask that?”
“Well, it’s where the game originally came from . . .”
He smiled. “The Gupta Empire in the northwest in the sixth century; no one knows this . . .” He folded his arms in an attempt to look stately. “I am champion of the South-Western Administrative Province.”
“Do you have a board around here?”
I nodded, figuring I was in for another trip to the Kmart. “I’ll get you one.”
“You wish to play?”
“No, not me . . . But if I get you a board, would you set it upand leave it there on the bar?” He looked at me strangely as I handed him my ice pack and exited the Aces & Eights.
It was really getting cold out, but I knocked on the door of room 6 and waited. There was some noise inside, and she shuffled toward the door before finally speaking through the cheap wood. “Who is it?”
“Walt Longmire, the sheriff who just got his ass kicked?” The door opened just a little, the chain still holding it secure, sort of. I held out the posters and slid them through the opening. “I thought you might want these.”
She took them and then placed her face closer to the opening—I could see that she’d been crying. “They took my stapler.”
“Yep, well . . . You have to have a concealed/carry permit for those things here in Wyoming.”
She smiled. “I nailed him, didn’t I?”
“Stapled him, to be exact. Don’t feel so bad about it. I did something like that in Vietnam once.” I waited a moment. “I’ve got to go back to Kmart tomorrow to pick up a chess set with which to distract my old boss, and I can pick you up another one. Smaller caliber, perhaps?”
She laughed again and tossed the posters behind her.
There was an awkward silence.
“Well, I just wanted to drop those off and make sure you were all right.”
“Thanks.” I started to turn but heard her unhook the chain, and she opened the door a bit more. She was wearing a pair of blue nylon shorts and a Boise State T-shirt with the snorting pony on the front. In deference to the cold, she hugged herselfto cover the protruding aspects of her anatomy and placed one foot over the other. “I mean it, thanks. Look, I’m kind of vulnerable right now and I need a good word.”
Her head dropped, and the tears collected in her eyes. “I’m coming to the end of my rope, and I need something to hold on to, something to give me hope—tell me you’re going to find my sister.”
“I, well . . .”
She sobbed. “Tell me you’re going to find her alive.”
“I . . .”
Her face grew fierce and then slowly lost all emotion. “Please.”
Usually capable of reading a dangerous situation, recent activity excluded, I stood there like a tower of crumbling stone, the only strong keystone in me, the two words I knew were the wrong ones to say. “I will.”
She watched me to see if I was telling the truth and then wiped her eyes with the back of a hand. “You wanna come in?”
I stood there, making sure I was hearing what I was hearing. “Um, thanks but no . . . My head hurts, and I’m pretty tired.”
“That’s okay, it’s an open invitation.” She stepped back in, closing the door behind her.
As I stepped over to room 5, I noticed a handwritten note taped to the door that readYou have been changed to room 4. The writing looked familiar, especially the emphasis on the period, which had stabbed a small hole in the paper, but I was too tired to analyze it, figuring Lucian and Dog had grown weary of my night-owl tendencies and had given me the boot.
It was just a few steps to number 4, and I found it conveniently cracked open.
I pushed the door the rest of the way in but then, fumbling for the light switch, I had my right hand caught in a reverse wristlock that turned me around and pulled me into the darkened room. A Browning tactical boot slammed the door closed behind us as my assailant dragged me back onto the bed, wrapped her legs around me, and bit my ear from behind, releasing it only long enough to whisper, “Good thing you fucking said no.”
Lucian sipped his coffee and smiled, watching the two of us talk like it was Wimbledon.
“How was Belize?”
“I got a tan.”
“So I noticed.”
The old sheriff choked, swallowed, and then interrupted. “Got any lines?”
Victoria Moretti pushed a handful of blue-black hair back from her face and sipped her own coffee, sat the mug down, placed an elbow on the table and leaned in, looking back at him with a full load of tarnished gold. “You wanna try and find them, old man?”
He blushed, and I believe it was the first time I’d ever seen him do it. “I don’t know if my heart is up to it.”
“Maybe if you’d stop looking at my tits and look me in the face you could work up the nerve.” She grinned at him, showing the elongated canine tooth. “Don’t feel bad—many are called, but few are chosen.”
“I didn’t take you for a Sunday schooler.”
She reached over and took a piece of my bacon, along witha little bit of my heart. “That’s where the phrase is from—damned if I knew; I’m schooled in other stuff.” She bit into the bacon and narrowed the aperture of the cannons. “Why, you need a little teaching?”
He cocked his head as he slid out of the booth the oil workers had occupied last night and glanced at me for a moment. “I think I’m gonna go walk your dog.”
Vic watched him slip on his coat. “Stay warm out there, thinking about me.”
He pushed through the glass door and then stood still, frozen by her words for an instant. “I believe I’ll do that.”
I watched him head back for what had been our communal room and Dog. “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen him scamper.”
“I want to talk to you alone.”
She slid out and switched over to the other side and took another piece of my bacon, being, after all, a carnivore. As she chewed I took the time to drink her in. She had gotten a tan and the blond streaks in her hair were incongruent in the depth of the Wyoming winter—a look I was more used to in the summer. Studying her was something you had to handle with care; volatile, like nitroglycerine.
“So, miss me?”
She chewed and studied me. “Are you going to say something other than yep?”
“Yep.” She waited, her eyes widening in comic expectation as I finally spoke.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’ve got a great scar.”
“I know; I’ve seen it.”
She nodded with a smile, staring at me in a way that made me think she hadn’t had a really good look at me last night; not a feeling I was comfortable with. “Don’t you think scars make better stories than tattoos?”
I fingered that little piece of my ear that was missing and draped an arm over the back of my seat. “If that’s the case, then I’ve got a whole library on me.”
“I’ve read it.” She continued smiling and chewing. “And I really liked the ending.”
She leaned back in the booth and looked out the fogged window of the Aces & Eights, a corpuscle-colored fingernail coming up and chipping at the frost cornering the edges. “The windows in Belize don’t do this . . . Shit, who am I kidding, they don’t have windows in Belize.”
A quiet spread out over the table between us like a blank page covered with abandoned plates, glasses, and cutlery—but no words. “You stay at Jim Seale’s place?”
She nodded. “Hotel del Rio, yeah. He’s from around here, right?”
“Banner, over in Sheridan County.”
“You ever been to Belize?”
“Nope. I think he’s had that place for twenty years. He keeps asking me down . . . But I just never get away.”
A smirk traced itself across her lips. “Look who I’m asking—you never go anywhere there isn’t snow.”
“I’ve spent some time in tropic climes.”
She dismissed me with another flap of the hand. “The Vietnam War doesn’t count.”
“I spent six weeks on Johnston Atoll.”
She stopped moving and then slowly turned her face toward mine. “After Vietnam?”
Her eyes sharpened to flints. “Okay . . . That’s a month and a half of the two lost years unaccounted for after Vietnam in the saga that is the life of Walt Longmire. Where the hell is Johnston Atoll?”
I sipped my coffee, enjoying her full attention. “Seven hundred and fifty nautical miles west of Hawaii on a coral reef platform; it’s one of the United States’ minor outlying islands—about 1.3 square miles.”
“A postage stamp in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a single palm tree like you see in those cartoons in theNew Yorker?”
“Something like that.”
“What, were you shipwrecked or something?”
She glanced around, enjoying the illusion of covert activity. “What’s there?”
I leaned back in my seat and studied her. “An air base, a naval refueling depot, and a weapons testing area, but not anymore.”
“What kinds of weapons?”
“Nuclear, among others.”
She leaned in. “No shit?”
“A dozen thermonuclear weapons were exploded there before the ban in ’63, but they also had a twenty-five-acre landfill full of Agent Orange, PCBs, PAHs, dioxins, and sarin nerve gas from East Germany.”
“Nope, it was beautiful . . . Well, not the landfill so much, but the rest of it was an island paradise.”
“What’d you do there?”
“Swam, ate fish, fed the sharks, and sunbathed.”
Her head kicked to one side. “For the government—you must’ve still been working for the military.”
“Security.” I shrugged. “I was on medical leave from the Marines and still attached to the Air Force through the provost marshal, so they shipped me off to a quiet place for the rest of my tour.”
I blinked. “What?”
I thought about it. “For a while.”
She wiggled on her seat. “Okay, let’s hear about it—”
“Maybe some other time.”
I laced my hands behind my head. “So, how did Lena like Hotel del Rio?”
She whined. “C’mon.”
“I want to hear about your trip, not mine; I know how mine was, and it didn’t end well.” I glanced out the window at the snow, the ice, and the cold, which was seeping through the windows in an attempt to freeze us solid. “I need a break from the winter; tell me about the sand, the surf, and how you got your tan . . .”
“Okay, but this isn’t over.” I sat there not looking at her and listened as she settled into her seat. “Mom stayed for a week but then got tired of watching me drink and went home.” I turned back, and her eyes were now drawn to the frozen wasteland of the parking lot and the glaciers of snow piled against the building by the plows. “It was incredible; we had this cabana on the second floor where you could look at the ocean between themangrove trees—the water was all shades of turquoise.” She sighed and closed her eyes. “After the stitches healed up, I’d go lie in the salt water at the end of the pier and just soak in the warmth.”
I thought back about a conversation I had had with her uncle Alphonse and his description of the teenage Vic who, walking down Christian Street in a one-piece bathing suit, had enticed most of the men back in her native Philadelphia onto the stoops when she’d sauntered by. “Sounds pretty great.”
Her eyes remained closed. “These guys would come by with conch fritters and cashews, so you didn’t even have to get up for lunch—just roll over and hand them some of that Belizean Monopoly money.”
Her eyes opened with an ore wagon full of tarnished gold. “You weren’t around and most people bore the shit out of me, so don’t make it an issue.”
“I got enough of that crap from my mother.”
“I dove the Great Blue Hole.”
I was surprised by the revelation. “You scuba dive?”
After a brief warning look, the eyes closed again. “They have this beer, Belikin, that comes in these really heavy, recyclable bottles—I did my part.” Her head cocked to one side. “There was a little place about a quarter mile down the beach in San Pedro, The Sandbar—best pizza south of South Street . . . I’d go down there in the evenings and eat and drink. Sometimes I’d have mai tais, but mostly I drank the beer.” Her eyes opened, and she reached down, gathering our plates and stacking them at the end of the table where Haji could retrieve them. “I’d get toasted, andthen Brittney and David, the owners, would drive me back up to the hotel in a golf cart and carry me up the steps.”
“Sounds pretty nice.”
“Yeah, I only had one rough spot.”
I reached out and enclosed one of her hands, but her eyes remained closed. “What was that?”
“Well, like I said, they’d drive me home most nights, but they warned me that I needed to be careful walking home that late because there were a few bad characters around.”
I squeezed the hand. “What happened?”
“Oh, they had a wedding at the restaurant, so I stumbled up the beach on my own; some guy got fresh and I told him to buzz off, but he got physical . . .” The eyes opened again, and she pulled her hand away as she slumped back into the bench seat. “I told you how thick those beer bottles were, didn’t I?” She shrugged. “Turns out he was the police chief’s nephew.”
I nodded and then waited a permissible amount of time before bringing the subject up. “I’ll ask again, how are you feeling?”
“I figure I’m just a hair’s width away from havingsyndromeattached to the end of my name.” Her eyes came back to me, and she cocked her head. “Now, huh?”
“We’re going to have this conversationnow?”
I shrugged, thinking about the actions that had led us to thenow—a very bad man, a knife, revenge, the loss of a child she may or may not know that I was aware of, her inability to ever have children, and a tsunami load of water under the bridge. “Why not?”
Her voice took on an authoritarian tone as it had with Lucian. “Question.”
“Tell me Tomás Bidarte is dead as Kelsey’s nuts.”
The very bad man.
I reached in the inside pocket of my sheepskin coat and tossed a long horn-handled switchblade knife that I’d been carrying for months with a clatter onto the table between the plates and us.
She looked at it for a moment and then picked it up, sliding back the safety and pushing the button, the eight-inch blade slapping open with a deadlysnik. “Tell me he’s dead.”
I said nothing.
She put a fingertip at the point, something she was wont to do in any circumstance. “If this is when we’re going to have this conversation, you’re going to have to do more in holding up your end.”
“Gone as in to the hereafter and buried by you and Henry in a shallow grave for a coyote buffet and then carried away in tiny, antlike bites, or simply gone?”
She stared at me, incredulous. “Henry Standing Bear couldn’t find him?”
She smiled and shook her head. “There’s no way I missed that son of a bitch with that many rounds.”
She looked back out the window and set her jaw. “Maybe he is a ghost.” She took a deep breath, and the eyes returned to mine. “So, where do you think he is?”
“Far, far from here.” I waited a moment before adding, “Isn’t that where you’d be?”
She laughed a laugh with no joy in it. “I’d like one more shot at him.”
“Personally, I hope that never happens.”
She sat forward and placed her hands between her knees, her voice suddenly low. “The doc says I can’t have kids, not that I was looking to have any anyway.” She stared at the leftovers on Lucian’s plate. “I’ve got four brothers, so it’s not like the Moretti name is at stake . . .” Her face came up, and her eyes were washed with salt water. “I just would have liked to have a say in the thing, you know?”
I slid out and moved around the table to sit beside her. “I know.”
She wiped her eyes and laughed. “So much for hearth and home, huh?”
I gently placed an arm over her shoulders and pulled her into me where she pushed the lapel of my jacket away and stuffed her nose into my chest, and we stayed like that for a long time, her muffled voice finally rising up to my ears. “You smell good.”
“That’s because I smell like you.”
“You could always adopt.”
She laughed again, thank God, and then snorted and hiccupped as she tried to stop, even going so far as to playfully pound my chest with a fist.
“Heck, seems like you adopted me years ago.”
She pulled me in closer, and we stayed like that, but nothing more was said about the very bad man, the knife, revenge, her inability to ever have children, the tsunami load of water underthe bridge—or the losing of a child I was now sure she thought I knew nothing about.
She nudged the blue plastic bag at her feet as I pulled from the parking lot. “Tell me again why we went to Kmart?”
I glanced down at the bundle I’d put on the floor in front of her seat as she held out a wrist for Dog to lick. “I needed a chess set to distract Lucian so that he stops driving me crazy, and I can’t count on you because he might take you up on one of your offers.”
“To coin one of your phrases, a dime’s worth of me and a Fresca would kill him.” She slid the files from the center console and began perusing them.
I cocked my head to one side. “He’d die happy.”
She propped her boots up onto my dash, and I felt a surge in my heart at having her there. “So, what are we working on?”
I told her about Gerald Holman, the missing women, and about the sheriff of Campbell County not being particularly informed about the situation, resulting in a predictable summation.
“Fuck me.” She thought about it. “What’s the Clod Case replacement investigator’s name?”
“Did you just call itClod Case?”
She brushed my question away with a flap of the Dog wrist. “A Philadelphiaism.”
“Inspector Richard Harvey.”
“What’s he like?”
I lowered my voice. “A dick.”
She seemed preoccupied by the files. “A what?”
Her eyes widened in mock horror as she turned to look at me. “Oh my, Sheriff . . . Did you just call someone adick?” She placed her chin in her palm. “Adick.” She marveled, pretending to adjust a pair of make-believe glasses. “Adickby your reserved standards means he is some kind of colossal prick of proportions unlike we’ve ever encountered.”
I shrugged and drove, trying to keep from smiling.
She glanced through the windshield and postulated in a pseudoscientific voice like some film you watched on a projector in high school. “Perhaps at one time he was a normal cock, but through contact with radioactive material in the deserts of New Mexico—”
“One of those blue-line guys.”
Her hands flew up and out, measuring. “He grew to colossal magnitudes of dickdom!”
Dog barked, and I sighed. “I just think that he’s more concerned with making sure that Holman’s name goes unsullied than finding out why the man might’ve killed himself.”
“Dickdom of a scale noticeable even to the demure sheriff of Absaroka County.”
I mumbled, “Oh, good grief.” But she ignored me.
“Dickzilla!” She shook her head, grinning as her attention, thankfully, returned to the files. “I gotta meet Dickzilla.”
“Good, because we’re on our way to the sheriff’s office to give these files back to Sandy so he can read them—and did I mention that Tommi, female, by the way, and owner-operator of the strip club, is the sheriff’s sister?”
I drove on, my diversion not having worked.
I laid the files on Sandburg’s desk. “Richard’s not here?”
“Probably out rogering the countryside.”
I glanced at my undersheriff, then back to Sandy, and continued. “If you could make copies of these files for us, that’d be great.”
The sheriff smiled at Vic and buzzed a secretary in, handing her the files. “One copy of all of these, Brenda.”
He nodded to the woman, swiveled in his leather chair, and looked at Vic. “So, is there anybody working over in Absaroka County?”
She propped her feet onto his handsome, vintage mahogany desk. “We’ve got people for that, kind of like you’ve got people to read your reports for you.”
He stared at her boots but gave it up when it had no effect. “Well, we have a little more business over here—”
“Obviously more than you can handle.”
He glanced up at me. “You wanna call her off?”
“I wish I knew how.” I went ahead and sat in the other visitor’s chair, not putting my boots on his desk, figuring there was only so much the poor guy could take. “Sandy, how involved do you think your sister is in all of this?”
“All of what?”
Vic interrupted. “Whatever.”
He cleared his throat and thought about it as he pivoted back and forth in his chair. “She’s a rough cob, believe me I know, but I don’t think she’d be involved with anything that had to do with putting her girls in danger.” He laughed. “I ever tell you about the time we raided the place and brought everyone down hereand arraigned them—she posted their bail and paid their fines with singles; the girls in accounting put on plastic gloves to count all the one-dollar bills.”
“Any other women ever disappear from there?”
He shook his head and kept his eyes on me. “You’re sure there’s a connection between Gerald Holman’s suicide and this missing stripper?”
“No, but I’m sure there’s a connection among the three missing women.”
His voice was derisive. “A serial killer?”
“I didn’t say that.”
He sighed and dropped a hand onto his blotter. “Because you know what a shitstorm that’s going to cause.” He shook his head. “I can see the stories in theNews Recordnow—”
“I could be wrong.”
“You’re not.” Vic’s voice was sharp. “It’s possible that whoever he is, he hasn’t worked himself up to serial level, but he’s working on it; he’s borderline, one more and it’s official.”
Sandy shook his head. “He, huh?”
“Only fifteen percent of serial killers are women.” When I turned in my chair to look at her, she glanced back. “I assisted on a few cases in Philadelphia when I was going for my shield—before I gave it all up to herd cows with a cruiser.” She studied Sandy’s worried face. “Look, we could be wrong, but we’d be idiots not to approach this as a possibility in the investigative process.”
The door opened and Brenda returned, placing the original files with the copies on the sheriff’s desk and then quietly leaving in the silence.
Sandy shoved them toward me, picked up the originals, and dropped them in his lap to look through them. “Whydidn’t Gerald report this to me, and why the hell didn’t Richard Harvey?”
Vic turned to me. “The dick?”
I nodded. “The dick.”
Sandy’s head came up. “Excuse me?”
Vic stood, stuffing her hands in her jeans, and walked to her right where a large, matted, framed map of Campbell County hung on the wall. Her fingernail traced an area south and just a little east of Gillette. “All three are missing from this area; no more than twenty miles in radius.” She turned to look at him, her fists now on her hips. “You’re going to have to check and see if there are more.”
“Don’t put Richard Harvey on it.”
He turned to look at me. “You really think Harvey is compromised?”
“Do I think he’s involved? No—but he’s not doing his best to come up with any answers, either. Is there anything you can do to get him out of our hair for a few days?”
He thought about it. “I’ve got an extradition of prisoner down to the psychiatric hospital in Evanston; that’s at least a day down and a day back.” He looked up at me. “Two days do it?”
I scooped the copies up from his desk. “Yep.”
“Or I could fire him.”
“Don’t do that. I think he’s a good man, just the wrong one for this job—maybe a little too close to Gerald or maybe somebody else?”
“But we’ll be a man short.” Sandy thought about it. “I could pull one of the guys from—”
“Actually . . .” They both looked at me as I thumbed thebusiness card from my shirt pocket and held it out to him. “I’ve got someone in mind.”
Patrolman Dougherty was surprised to be placed on loan from the Gillette City Police Department to the Campbell County Sheriff and had been doubly confused when we told him he could show up in jeans and a sweater.
He glanced between Vic and me, standing in the tomb of the cold case files and looking through the wire mesh into the room proper. “Have you checked with my shift sergeant on this?”
I leaned on the chain link that protected the file area and pushed my hat back to get a little light on my face in an attempt to let him know I was serious. “I didn’t, but the sheriff spoke with your chief of police and he said we could have you.”
His eyes stayed on the rows and rows of dented, green metal file cabinets. “To do what?”
I handed him the three folders and stuffed the other set of copies under my arm. “We need you to look for any cases that might pertain to the individual who we think abducted Linda Schaffer, Roberta Payne, and Jone Urrecha.”
He looked at me. “You’re serious.”
Vic sat on the edge of Harvey’s desk and punched Dougherty’s cell number into her own. “As a heart attack.”
He glanced at Vic as she handed him back his cell phone. “You really think it’s the same guy?”
She shrugged. “Why not?”
Walking over to the grating that held the mountain of files captive, he threaded his fingers into the wire. “How long do I have?”
“About forty-eight hours.”
His eyes widened. “Please tell me you’re kidding.”
I handed him the keys to the door. “You said you wanted to help . . . By the way, if a tall guy with a handlebar mustache should show up, tell him you were sent down from administration to straighten the files.”
As Vic and I started for the steps, he called out after us. “What kind of connections am I looking for—what kind of suspect?”
Vic stopped and spoke over her shoulder. “Probably white, thirties to fifties, a loner with a reasonably high IQ involved with a menial job that he considers beneath him.”
His voice echoed after us as we climbed the stairs. “That would be me!”
She shouted back, “Well, then, put yourself on the list.”
At the top of the stairs, we buzzed ourselves out and turned the corner only to be confronted with Investigator Richard Harvey, standing in the hallway talking with another plainclothes officer.
As we approached, Harvey broke off the conversation and turned to face me, but Vic stepped between us and raised her hand. “Dick, so glad to meet you.”
He glanced at me, but then took her hand, looking more than a little confused. “Richard Harvey, sheriff’s investigator.”
“Special Agent Vic Moretti, I’m supervising the sheriff here.” She looked past him toward the outer office. “No offense, but you better scoot it up to Sandy Sandburg’s office; I think he’s got an assignment in connection with the Bureau that’s of utmost importance.”
He nodded, still looking a little off balance. “Okay, but I need to go down to my office and—”
She physically turned him around and escorted him back theother way in a slow walk. “I think you better talk to the sheriff very first thing, he mentioned something about a high-priority situation that was going to need special handling and that you were the man for the job.”
He paused for a moment. “Excuse me, but what did you say your name was?”
“Moretti, Victoria Moretti.”
He nodded and then glanced back at me. “Sheriff.”
Without another word, he turned and continued down the hall.
Vic called out. “Nice meeting you, Dick.”
He kept walking. “Richard.”
After he was gone, she turned and looked at me. “What?”
I shook my head as I walked past her.
“Don’t you think I’m special?”
We stood at the door zipping, buttoning, fastening; it’s what people in Wyoming do before they go outside in late December.
“What could these three women have in common?”
She snapped her fingers at me. “They’re all missing.”
We climbed into my truck and the atmosphere of Dog breath that had clouded all the windows. “I just keep going back to Gerald Holman.”
“Maybe there’s no connection at all; I mean, maybe he’d just had it.”
“Why shoot yourself twice?”
“He was a lousy shot?” She tugged at her jacket. “Start this thing up and get the heat going. My blood must’ve thinned while I was in Central America—I’m freezing to death.”
I fired the Bullet up and flipped on the heat. “A housewife, a waitress, and a stripper.”
“Walk into a bar . . .”
I shook my head at her, and she rested her chin in the palm of her hand and smiled. Against my will, I smiled, too.
The Browning tactical boots lodged themselves onto my dash. “You did miss me.”6
“So nobody’s died since Holman’s suicide?”
I turned and looked at her as we sat in the parking lot of the Kmart, within eye-view of the Flying J Travel Plaza in the aftermath of an afternoon storm as a plow service pushed the never-ending snow over to the dividers. “As far as we know.”
She skimmed through the reports. “I’m just sayin’.”
I gripped the steering wheel of my truck with one hand. “He doesn’t fit the profile at all.”
She flipped a page. “Wouldn’t be the first.”
“Read to me about Linda Schaffer.”
She shook her head and dropped the files in her lap. “If I know you, and I think I do, you’ve already read it to yourself about forty-seven times.”
“Maybe forty-eight will be the charm—anyway, I like listening to you read.”
She picked up and reshuffled the reports and held a hand out for the ubiquitous quarter I always paid her for the service.
I deposited the coin from my pocket into her palm as she began her dramatic interpretation. “Housewife with a full-time job at Kmart; worked there for three years . . .” She flipped apage. “I’m assuming after her son Michael was old enough to go to first grade. There are lots of notes . . .” Her face turned toward mine. “Was this Patrolman Corbin Dougherty’s first investigation?”
“He kind of fixated on it, huh?”
Her eyes widened as she looked through the file. “Maybe we should take a look at him.”
“He used to date Cady.”
“So that means he’s innocent?”
“I think he just got . . . too close.”
“And now we’re dragging him back into it?”
“Yep.” I sighed. “If we need anybody to contact them, I guess we could have Corbin do it; I think he keeps in touch.” I thought about it. “The husband . . . The one that moved to Spokane with his son?”
“Where did Mike work?”
“High Plains Energy, Inc. He’s an engineer; designed coal mining equipment or modified it for use in HPE’s three divisional operations here in Campbell County.”
“How about the waitress, Roberta Payne?”
She flipped the pages again. “Divorced.”
“Anything on the ex-husband—where he worked?”
“Phone it in to Dougherty.”
She pulled out her cell and pressed the number. “He’s going to love you.” I listened as she relayed the request to the patrolman and then waited. “Corbin says her ex, Bret Bussell, works at a gun shop/shooting range on Boxelder Road, back toward Arrosa—High Mountain Shooters?”
“He still there?”
She conferred. “Corbin, the font of all knowledge, says yes.” There was a brief pause, and Vic looked back at me. “And, stroke of luck, he says that Schaffer is here in Gillette signing papers to sell his house. He says he can talk to us at four.”
I looked at the clock on my dash. “In the meantime we can go over to High Mountain Shooters.”
Vic nodded and turned back to her phone. “Hey, Corbin, do you have a girlfriend?” There was a pause. “Well, you need to get one.” She ended the call and looked at me as I started my truck.
“No thanks, via nonelective surgery, I’ve chosen an alternative life plan.” She grinned at me, but it was thin. “You can laugh—that was a joke.” She studied me for a moment more and then went back to the pages. “No children at the time of her disappearance.”
“Linda Schaffer had a son—how old?”
“At the time of his mother’s disappearance, nine.” She looked through the windshield at the skiff of snow swirling through the parking lot and dusting the cars with gray rime as I slipped into gear, circled around, and headed back toward Boxelder Road. “I don’t know where you’re going with the kid stuff, because the stripper didn’t have any children.”
“Far as we know.”
Her tone became exasperated. “What, you think they’ve got day care over at Dirty Shirley’s or they hitch ’em to the pole?” She sat the files on the console. “And she didn’t have a husband, either.”
I caught the end of a green light. “Far as we know.”
“Will you stop saying that?”
I remained silent.
She stretched her arms out and laced her fingers, pivoting the arms and popping her knuckles. “Maybe they all shopped at Kmart, or maybe they all ate at the fucking Flying J . . . I don’t know; it’s like trying to find a needle-dick in a whorehouse. I hate cases like this.”
Her arms dropped. “Gerald Holman.”
“What did he know that made him kill himself?”
She chewed on a thumbnail. “Something bad.” Then she completed the statement. “Far as we know.”
“High Mountain Shooters, really? I mean, as near as I can tell we’re hours away from any friggin’ mountains.”
We both leaned forward and looked up through the top of the windshield at the smiling mountain man holding a rifle. “I guess they’re trying to capture the spirit of the thing.”
We got out, and Vic gazed at the towering twenty-five-foot giant, complete with coonskin cap, beard, and a musket the length of a car. “I used to see these things over in Jersey when I was a kid, and they have always creeped me out.”
She looked up at the slightly smirking face that all the statues displayed. “That is the classic expression of a child molester.”
“They’re calledmuffler men.”
“Why is that?”
I looked at her for a while. “Because they started out holding mufflers.” Walking over, I rapped the giant’s leg with my knuckles. “Fiberglass; there was a boat maker who started puttingthese things out in the sixties, and they used to hold all kinds of things, mufflers, tires, axes, you name it . . .”
As she pushed open the glass door, she shrugged. “I’ve never seen one holding a muffler, but you should see what the one in front of the XXX Theatre in Camden is holding.”
It was a well-lit, tile-floor sort of place done up in weenie-wood, which for the uninitiated is the bark-covered cast-off slabs from local, rough-cut sawmills. There were glass cases of pistols and revolving racks of modern rifles, but it was easy to see that High Mountain Shooters’ heart lay in supporting the habit of reenactors; there were numerous assorted black-powder rifles on the walls, along with period clothing and accessories including a lot of coonskin and other assorted fur hats that mountain men might, or might not, have worn.
Vic plucked a fur hat from a mannequin head on the nearest counter and plopped it on her own, the fluffy tail and forearms draping onto her shoulders. “How do I look?”
She glanced around, finally locating a full-length mirror between the counters. “I look like a badger is humping my head.”
“Umm, can I help you?”
We turned to find a middle-aged man in spectacles and a gray cowboy hat squeezing his way down behind the counters. “I’m looking for Bret Bussell?”
Vic took the hat off and placed it back on the mannequin backward. “We’d rather discuss that with Mr. Bussell.”
The pleasant man adjusted his glasses and smiled. “Well, you are; I’m his father, Jim.”
I went to badge him, but my new wallet flipped from my grasp and once again fell on my boots as he and Vic watched. Ibent over, picked it up, and stood, stretching my star out for him to read. “Absaroka—”
He finished the introduction without looking at the wallet. “County Sheriff’s Department.” He gestured toward some monitors in the back corner. “Saw your truck when you pulled up in front of Jeremiah.”
“The giant out front.” He squinted his eyes at me. “Are you Walt Longmire?”
“Saw you on the television last month, K2 out of Casper.”
I shrugged. “You want to look at my badge, since I went to all the trouble of pulling it out?”
He nodded. “We’ve got a mirror over there if you want to try your quick draw; looks like you could use some practice.”
He gestured toward a leatherworking bench in the next room. “Want me to loosen it up for you?”
I removed the badge and handed it to him. “I’d appreciate that.”
He flipped the piece of leather back and forth. “Cardboard.”
I made a face. “It’s supposed to be leather.”
He held the edges up for me to see. “On the outside, but inside is cardboard; cheap Chinese shit. It’ll fall apart before it breaks in.” He dropped it on the counter. “I can make you a new one, but I’ll need the badge.”
“I’m afraid I’m working and need it.”
He folded his arms and looked at me. “Working on what?”
He nodded to himself and then raised his face to look at the two of us. “You find her?”
I studied him back. “No.”
He waited a moment and then responded, sort of. “Twenty minutes.”
He smiled. “I’ll make you another badge wallet in twenty minutes, thirty if you want basketweave. I’ve got dark brown leather on the bench right now that’ll match that holster you’ve got high on that right hip.”
I smiled back at him and handed him my badge, something I rarely did with anybody. “Basketweave.”
He nodded and looked at my star as if he were memorizing it. “Bret’s in the back putting the finishing touches on a holster for a genuine Colt Walker—you can go back there if you want.” As we followed him through the swinging saloon doors in the rear, he called after us, “I can make one to match that Glock that you’ve got, too, young lady.”
Texas Ranger and then captain of the United States Mounted Rifles Samuel Hamilton Walker wanted a handgun for the war with Mexico, a weapon that would kill both man and horse at a hundred yards, and as the story goes supposedly sent the specs for just such a pistol to Sam Colt.
He made roughly 1,100 of the famed Colt Walker .44s, which in many ways turned out to be a touch too big, even for the great Captain Walker. End to end it is fifteen and a half inches long and weighs just less than five pounds, smokes a lot when fired, and was even known to blow out the chamber walls when loaded with sixty grains of black powder. The much-vaunted Sharps .45-70, with which I had a long and storied past, has a .45 round loaded with seventy grains of black powder; the ColtWalker has a .44 caliber round holding sixty, and the Walker held six of them.
Full discharge of a round usually resulted in the loading lever dropping and effectively jamming the gun by sending the ram into a chamber’s mouth. You had to check the lever every time you fired the thing, which proved more than cumbersome, but old-timers learned to loop a piece of rawhide around the rod and the barrel to hold it in place.
Later, the pistols were downsized and there were dozens of reproductions, but the one in Bret Bussell’s hand when he turned to meet us was the genuine, unadulteratedShooting Iron.
Bret was a small man, kind of a miniature Grizzly Adams, which did nothing but make the big Walker in the custom, four-point shoulder holster look even larger; the fact that he was dressed in buckskins from head to moccasined toe completed the incongruousness. “Can I help you?”
He pulled some blond hair from his face and glanced at Vic. “Yes?”
“Undersheriff Victoria Moretti.” She gestured toward me, and I was just glad she’d correctly and legally identified herself this time. “And this is—”
He slowly extended his hand. “WaltLong-Arm-of-the-LawLongmire.”
I shook the hand as I looked through the wooden stands at the walls of stacked tires that protected the tin building’s shooting area. “Have we met?”
“Nope, I saw you shoot once, though. I’ve got an uncle who’s with the Highway Patrol and got to see you qualify for your certification down in Douglas when I was twelve.”
I suddenly felt very old. “How did I do?”
He smiled a sad smile through the fur on his face. “Passable.” With a quick spin, he twirled the big Colt like the protagonist of some Saturday gunslinger serial and slipped it into the patterned holster, complete with matching powder flask and a possibles box.
“Ahh.” I pointed at the Colt Walker. “Is that thing real?”
He slipped it back out and held it toward me, handle first. “The genuine article; had a guy on the Internet offer me $11,400 for it about a month ago.”
“I’m not touching it then.”
He shifted toward Vic and held the big revolver out to her. “Go ahead, it doesn’t bite.”
He gestured toward the lubricants, percussion caps, box of lead balls, and bits of deer antler lying on the surface of the shooting bench, comprised mostly of the same weenie-wood as inside. “No, I was just getting ready to run a few rounds through it, but you can have a look first.”
She took the magnificent weapon and held it up, marveling at the patina on the thing.Hog Leg,Horse Pistol, andSmoke Wagonare some of the names coined for the 1847 Colt Walker, the first commercially produced large-caliber revolver that then gave birth to the Colt Dragoon, named for the famed French dragon guns, and the 1873 Peacemaker—a couple of relatives of the semiautomatic I had high and tight on my right side.
Mexican soldiers, mistranslating the meaning of the wordrevolver,believed that the rounds fired from the weapon could actually turn corners and change directions, following the intended target as he ran.
“You actually fire this fucking thing?”
He nodded. “That’s what it’s for.”
My undersheriff handed it to me. “Where in the world did you get it?”
“An old cowboy my dad knew out on the Powder River called him up one day and then brought it in. I told him I couldn’t pay him what it was worth, but he insisted that he wanted to sell it to me, so my dad made me a loan for about half of what it was worth, and I bought it off him.” I handed the Colt back; he twirled it again and placed it in the holster. “So, you needing some leather or hardware?”
“Actually, we’re here to talk to you about Roberta Payne.”
He looked like he could’ve been tipped over with ten grains of black powder. “You found her?”
The exact thing his father had said. “No, I’m afraid we haven’t, but there are some other women who may have gone missing, so—”
“But nothing on Robby?”
He leaned against the shooting bench. “Would it be all right if I sat down?”
“Sure.” I took his elbow and seated him. “You okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m just . . .”
I glanced at Vic, who made a face and then covered it with a hand. “Sorry about that; we just need to ask a few more questions, knock on a few more doors, just to make sure that nothing was missed in that initial investigation.”
“Yeah, I understand.” He took a few deep breaths. “I just wasn’t ready for that, you know?”
My undersheriff wandered off to a different shooting station, just to give the young man some space as I folded my arms and stood in front of him. “I do.”
He took a moment to collect himself and then spoke into his lap. “Every time I think I’ve come to terms with it, something happens and I feel like . . .” He pulled the Walker back out and began disassembling it by rote in a mindless fashion. It seemed to settle his nerves, and the words started falling from his mouth as he clicked each empty cylinder. “When I was younger and just getting started in period shooting, this guy at a local gun shop told me I should top off every black-powder load with a couple of grains of Bullseye just to keep the fowling down; blew the nipple off and blasted the hammer back to full cock—still can’t hardly hear anything out of my right ear.” He looked up at me. “Three months, and it still feels like that whenever I hear about Robby.”
I nodded and studied my boots. “My wife died a number of years back, and I still start conversations with her in our empty house till I remember that she’s not there anymore.”
He scraped his bottom lip through his teeth. “At least you know what happened to her.”
“That’s the worst part, not knowing.” He shook his head. “Wondering what happened . . . I like to think that she’s okay; that she just decided to go somewhere else, you know? Like Florida or Hawaii. I like to think that she just got tired of her life, of me—and is laying on some beach somewhere.”
Vic had wandered back, and I glanced at her, but she wouldn’t make eye contact with either of us.
The kid kept talking, and I was really glad that the Walker wasn’t loaded. “I mean, we were divorced for about six months, and she even went back to her maiden name, but I kept hoping that we’d get back together.” He glanced around. “That’s why I went in with my dad on the family business, you know, in hopes thatshe’d see that I was settling down and getting my shit together . . .” His eyes shot to Vic. “Sorry about my language, ma’am.”
“Don’t worry about it.” She moved in closer. “When was the last time you saw her?”
“At the restaurant, the Flying J. I’d sometimes go in there just so I could look at her—nothing creepy, I just missed her, you know?”
Finally, Vic glanced at me. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“It was lunchtime, so she didn’t have any time to talk, but we made plans to maybe go see a movie later in the week—but then she never called.” He reassembled the pistol and reholstered it. “She’d rented an apartment downtown, and I went by to check on her. Her car wasn’t there, so I went over to the Flying J and her car was sitting in the parking lot, covered with dust, so I knew it hadn’t been moved. I asked the manager to check the schedule, but he said she’d punched out two nights before and hadn’t been back since.”
“So, wherever she went, she went there from work and without her car.”
Vic leaned in. “Did she have any new friends, hobbies, or occupations?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“No new people in her life?”
“No. I mean, not that I knew of.” He sighed. “We were divorced, so it’s possible she wasn’t telling me everything.”
Vic cleared her throat. “Was she seeing anybody else?”
“You sound pretty certain.”
He stood and walked a little away from us. “I kept a pretty close eye on her after we split up.” He turned and inclined hishead. “Look, I know how that sounds, but I was just worried about her. Robby was good-looking, and you should’ve seen how those guys at the truck stop would hit on her, even when we were married.”
I interrupted. “So you followed her?”
“I did. I know that sounds bad, but I’d just started lightening up on it when she disappeared. Can you imagine how that feels? I mean, if I’d been there the day she . . .”
I waited a moment before asking. “Did she have any friends or family out of town?”
“She had an aunt and uncle in Wisconsin, but she didn’t like them.”
Vic interrupted. “What were her hobbies?”
The question surprised the young man, and he took his time answering. “She did plays with the local theater groups—she wasn’t very good but she was pretty and always got cast.” He thought about it. “She worked out and she ran, cooked; she was a really great cook.”
My undersheriff leaned against the shooting stand beside me. “Are there any family members here in town that we could talk to?”
“Her mom—Sadie’s got a place on East Eighth Street, next to the Mount Pisgah Cemetery, which is where the old she-devil belongs.”
I smiled at the age-old war of son-in-law and mother-in-law; surprisingly, I’d gotten along famously with mine. “I take it you two don’t get along?”
“Robby and her mother didn’t get along.”
Vic added. “Father?”
He looked at her and smiled. “Dead; that, or hiding out from Sadie. The old bat got hold of me about a month ago, trying to get a petition together for a . . . I don’t know what they call it—one of those things where they declare you dead without finding your body?”
“Death in absentia?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“The state of Wyoming usually calls for the individual to be missing for five years before you’re allowed to petition for a declaration of death.”
“It didn’t seem right to me, either. Anyway, she wanted me to sign a bunch of stuff and I wouldn’t do it and I haven’t heard from her since.”
Vic pulled her duty notebook and a pen from inside her coat and mumbled to herself. “Sadie Payne? Sounds like a character fromDamn Yankees . . .”
Vic snorted as she wrote. “A musical where people sell their souls to the devil.”
He nodded. “That’s Sadie, all right.”
“We’ll go talk to her.”
“Is there anything else you can think of that might help us, anything at all?”
“No.” His voice broke. “I wish I could.”
Vic handed him one of her cards. “If you do think of something, give me a call, okay? Unlike some other members of the Absaroka County law enforcement community, I have what they call a cell phone, a bastion of modern technology.”
We stood there for a moment more, and it was as if he didn’t want us to go, his hand dropping to the Colt Walker at his side. “You sure you don’t want to try it?”
I stared at him for a second and then raised both hands. “I’m not going to be responsible if that thing blows up.”
He turned toward Vic. “You?”
She shrugged and looked at me and then back to him. “Fuck it, why not?”
Shooting a black-powder pistol is a process that can’t be rushed, which is why a lot of the old hands in the day carried five or six cap-and-ball revolvers so that as soon as they emptied one they could grab another or another in the face of a couple thousand Indians.
We watched as Bret dumped three nozzles’ worth of powder into the cylinders and then stuffed each with a .457 round ball, before adjusting each cylinder to use the loading ram and pressing each round home. He thumbed off the tiny ring of lead from each chamber, indicating an airtight seal, and then applied some lubricant to each round to grease it up but also, he said, to guard against a chain fire.
“What’s a chain fire?”
I continued to watch the young man work. “A loose spark that causes all six rounds to go off at once.”
“I bet that’s exciting.” She watched as he picked up some of the smaller pieces of antler. “What the hell is that for?”
“Using it to press the percussion caps onto the nipples.”
“I am all about nipples.”
“If you don’t get them seated tight, you get that chain fire.”
“I am all about getting the nipples seated right.” She pivoted toward me. “These chain fires, they happen a lot?”
I shrugged. “Not only will you have crippled your shooting hand, but you’ll also have blown up an eleven-thousand-dollar piece of frontier history.”
She spoke out of the corner of her mouth. “Bill me, chicken shit.”
Bret held out the Walker to her again, handle first. “You ready?”
About fifty yards away was a standard 7-8-9-X silhouette target hanging from a guide wire and anchored at the bottom with clip-on fishing weights. Holding the revolver with the barrel in the air, she sidled into the stall, raised it, and held it up close to her face. “Born ready.”
I mumbled to myself. “Boy howdy.”
Bret and I, keeping a watchful distance, looked on as she reached down and moved the ear protection headset on the counter away. The mountain man called out to her. “You sure you don’t want to use those?”
I had to smile, being familiar with my undersheriff’s shooting tendencies.
She shook her head and called out over her shoulder. “I always like to hear the first one.”
It was like thunder—very long, loud thunder. Black-powder guns don’t tend to snap or jerk like modern weapons, but rather they give a strong and sustained push that resonates from your shoulders down through your spine and into your solid organs like a mortar.
I leaned forward enough to spot a rupture in the black silhouette of the paper target at the center of the forehead, and it didn’t take much imagination for me to know that her target was Tomás Bidarte.
My undersheriff turned in the halo of white smoke with an undimmed and dazzling smile, almost as if she’d just arrived as a Faustian apparition—the kind you’d gladly trade your soul to. “Shoots about two inches high; I was going for the mouth.”
I carried the Colt back into the gun shop proper, the cross-draw holster hanging from my shoulder. Jim was seated behind the main counter at the leatherworking bench and held out a beautifully crafted badge wallet when he saw me coming.
Vic stood at my side as I examined the workmanship, opening it up to see my star mounted in the basketweave setting. “It’s beautiful.”
He nodded. “Thank you.”
I slipped the holster from my shoulder and handed it out to him. “Bret said to bring this in and give it to you.”
“He’s out there sitting on one of the benches. He said he wanted a little time to himself.”
Bussell didn’t take the holstered weapon, so I laid it on the counter. He removed his glasses and rubbed the spots where the pads rested on his nose with a thumb and forefinger. “I was afraid of that.” He replaced the glasses and reached out to move the weapon. “You shoot it?”
I glanced down at Vic. “She did.”
He smiled at her. “How’d you like it?”
“A lot.” She looked behind us out the swinging doors that led to the range. “He gonna be okay?”
The leathersmith thumbed the loop off from the hammer and slipped the elegant-looking revolver from the holster. “You don’t clean these things after you shoot ’em, they start corroding and pretty soon they’re useless—I’ve told him that a thousand times.” He disassembled the Walker and began cleaning the weapon very carefully, as befit the museum piece. “Loaned him the money for this thing, and you’d think it was his kid or something . . .”
“It’s quite a weapon.”
“Bret fell in love with it at first sight—kind of like he did with Robby.”
I looked down at Vic as she leaned against the counter and reached out to put a hand on his shoulder.
“He’s never been the same since she’s been gone.” He looked up at us, and it was one of those moments where you wished you did anything else but this for a living, like wash cars maybe. Bussell gestured toward the swinging doors as he cleaned out the barrel of the Colt. “I found him out there about a month ago with this gun in his hands; he’d been drinking . . . He said that he just couldn’t put up with it anymore and that the pain was about to kill him and he’d rather do it himself.” The gunsmith quietly reassembled the revolver, the barely audible clicks of the metal justifying the workmanship of its original manufacture. “He said that if he was going to do it, he might as well do it with the best gun he had . . .”
Neither Vic nor I said anything.
Bussell finished fitting the Walker together, loaded it, and then set after it with a polishing cloth so as to remove every fingerprint from the metal surfaces—almost as if he wanted to remove any traces of a human hand ever touching it. “Gave it back to him this week, and then you two walk in the door; I swear to God the thing is cursed.” He slid it back into the holster, relooped the rawhide hammer retainer, and looked up at me. “Would you do me a favor, Sheriff?”
He glanced at the big pistol. “Take it.”
I stood there staring at him but thinking about another vintage weapon, another suicide, and another lost and confused soul. Finally, with nothing to say, I laughed, but it was hollow and I desperately strung two words together. “I can’t—”
“A loan; I just want to get it out of the shop and out of his life for a few weeks.”
I glanced at Vic and then back to him. “Look, Mr. Bussell, I can understand your reasoning—”
His head jogged toward the shooting range. “He knows every hiding place, every combination to every safe, and has since he was eleven years old—do me a favor and just take it with you for a few weeks.”
I sighed. “What if I lose it?”
“It’s insured; anyway, you won’t. I didn’t say you had to use it—just lock it away for a while so that he can’t.”
Vic, her hand having slipped from his shoulder, slid the holstered weapon toward me. “That won’t stop him.” She glanced around. “There’s always another way.”
The gunsmith nodded. “Maybe, but it’ll save him from using this one.”
I raised my hand slowly and placed it over the weapon, careful not to touch the spotless metal. “What was the man’s name?”
He looked up at me through the reflection in the tops of the lenses that covered his eyes. “What man is that?”
“The one who sold you this antique?”
He smiled for the first time in the conversation. “I figured you’d put two and two together faster than Noah—his name was Vanskike, Sheriff Longmire. Hershel Vanskike.”
Outside High Mountain Shooters under the shadow of Jeremiah, Vic pulled at my arm. “So, Hershel Vanskike?”
I glanced up at the twenty-five-foot statue. “You remember Mary Barsad?”
“The woman from out in Absalom that ended up not killingher husband; the one who had the horse that Cady rode at the wedding?”
“Wahoo Sue. Yep, that’s her. Hershel was this old cowboy who worked for her, the one that Wade Barsad, her husband, killed.”
“Oh yeah, the one who gave you the old rifle.”
“The Henry in the office safe, yep.”
“Next to the Cheyenne Rifle of the Dead.” She reached up and fingered the holster on my shoulder. “You’re putting together quite a collection of antique weapons.”
As we climbed into my truck, Vic pulled the duty notebook out of her coat and looked at the address that we had gotten for Sadie Payne. “So, I’m assuming we’re headed over to the she-devil’s house?”
I carefully wrapped the leather straps around the four-point holster and opened my center console, gently placing the Colt Walker on the foam padding. “We are—after we meet with Schaffer at Jack’s Tavern.”
“Payne’s daughter has been missing for only three months and she’s trying to get her declared dead? I don’t think we’re going to be well received.”
I tried to close the console, but the bulk of the Colt, powder flask, ammo box, and surrounding leather was more than modern truck designers possibly had had in mind. “Probably not.” I suddenly felt very weary and slid my gloved hands onto my lap.
Vic attached her seat belt and then reached back and petted Dog before looking over at me. “You all right?”
“Hmm? Yep, I’m fine. Just thinking about that Bret Bussell.”
She looked through the frost that had accumulated again onthe inside of my truck windshield from Dog’s breathing. “A little young for that shit, isn’t he?”
“Maybe—sixty-five and older have a 14.3 rate per 100,000, but young adults from twenty to twenty-four are pretty close behind at 12.7.”
She stared at me. “Why do you memorize that shit?”
“My father had a photographic memory, and I got some of it.” I started my truck and pushed down on the lid with my elbow and it somehow clicked shut. “It’s just that it sometimes takes a while for it to fully develop.”7
As per Mr. Schaffer’s request, we were to meet him at Jack’s Tavern, a sprawling watering hole on the south side of town that housed a massive dance floor, pool tables, and dartboards. There was a spot for motorcycle parking that was under cover, which probably hadn’t gotten much use since October, so I parked the Bullet and Dog there just to keep from having to push off the six inches of snow that were likely to be covering it when we got back.
“Don’t you ever worry about him getting cold?”
I was confused by the question. “No . . . No. He’s got a coat on him like a Kodiak; the only time I worry for his comfort is in the summer.” I pulled open the door to Jack’s Tavern and ushered her in. “He’s tough, like me.”
“You’re not so tough.”
I held a finger to my lips. “Ssh . . . Don’t tell anybody.”
Vic and I picked a corner booth on the unused dance-floor side of the place and quietly sat, unnoticed by the bartender. “Iguess he didn’t want the thin blue line showing up and queering the deal with the buyers.”
She leaned in, even though we were the only ones in the bar, which was as big as a warehouse. “A biker bar?”
“Maybe he’s a biker.”
Ten minutes later, the man who slid in the booth with us was a young forty with a cleft chin, a little Dizzy Gillespie cookie-duster under his lower lip, and lots of ink. Mr. Schaffer wore a do-rag, sunglasses, a black leather jacket, and biker boots, and wasn’t what I was expecting any more than the bar he had chosen.
“Hi.” He immediately stuck a fingerless gloved hand out to Vic. “Mike Schaffer, how are you, Ma’am?”
She smiled, and I could see why he’d focused his attention on her first. “I’m good—you ride your bike over?”
The corner of his mouth kicked up, having taken no offense. “Too cold, even for me.” He took off his sunglasses as his eyes shifted to me and he extended his hand. “Mike Schaffer. You the sheriff?”
I shook the hand as somewhere in the bowels of the massive building the Marshall Tucker Band began trying to get us to see what their women had done to them. “That’s me.”
“Corbin said you guys wanted to talk to me?”
“You’ve gotten to know Patrolman Dougherty pretty well?”
Schaffer nodded. “Oh yeah, he’s a great guy. My son, Michael Junior, thinks he’s like T. J. Hooker or something.”
I glanced at my undersheriff, who waved me off. “Cop show on TV in the eighties where they specialized in sliding over the hoods of cars and shooting without the benefit of aiming.”
Mike nodded. “He has a lot of contact with Michael on e-mail, but I didn’t want to take him out of school to come over here, so I left him with my sister; that, and I just didn’t want him reminded about what happened to his mother.”
Vic tapped the file that rested on the table between us with a fingernail. “Linda?”
“Yeah.” He looked a little unsure for a moment. “Corbin said there were some developments but that you hadn’t really found anything more?”
“No, we haven’t specifically, but there have been a couple of other women who’ve gone missing and we’re wondering if there might be a connection.”
He leaned back in the booth and caught the waitress’s attention, her smile brightening as she approached.
“Mickey, how you doin’?”
“Tracy, are you playing the Marshall Tucker Band for me?”
“I am.” She placed a hand on her hip. “It’s slow enough that I’m waitin’ tables myself, so I thought I’d cater to the clientele.”
He gestured toward Vic and me. “Chief cook and bottle washer Tracy Jacobs, this is Sheriff Longmire and his fine partner Vic; they’re looking into Linda’s disappearance.”
She looked at us. “You find her?”
“Um, no . . . We’re just continuing with the investigation.”
She pulled a pad from her apron. “Something to drink?”
Schaffer made a grand gesture. “Beer and a bump all around—I sold my house today.”
I started to interrupt, but Tracy pursed her lips, looking a little downcast. “Damn, I thought you were maybe moving back.”
“Nope, the check-cashing place bought it. I guess they’re going to tear it down and add on to their parking lot.”
I nodded toward Vic. “Just a couple of coffees for us, thanks.”
She walked away, and I turned back to Schaffer. “No offense, but we’re still on the clock.”
“That’s cool.” He pulled a pack of cigarettes and a lighter with an Airborne insignia on it from the inside pocket of his leather jacket. “You guys mind? It’s one of the only bars in Wyoming that still let you smoke, and I’m a little edgy from all this talk about Linda.”
I changed the subject, just to give him a chance to settle himself. “Airborne?”
He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke skyward. “Fifth—Special Forces; you?”
“Marines, Military Police.”
Vic asked. “Why is that?”
He smiled. “General enormity.” He studied me. “Vietnam?”
“Iraq for me; you ever been?”
“Don’t.” He took another drag on the cigarette. “Got married, did two tours, then I quit, went back to school, and got a real job where I didn’t have to get shot at.”
I smiled back. “Sounds familiar.”
He slid down his side of the booth and put his legs along the bench. “Maybe, but I bet you didn’t lose your wife.”
“In fact, I did.”
“Sorry.” He looked out at the empty dance floor, and I watched the sadness overtake him like a pack of hounds; I knew those hounds and had felt their gnawing. “Sometimes I get towhere I feel like I’m the only one getting it in the shorts in this life, you know?”
Vic waited a few seconds and then asked, “You mind telling us about Linda?”
“What do you want to know?”
My undersheriff thumbed the files. “We’ve got reports, but we think that really knowing these women might give us more opportunities to catch whoever it is that’s doing this.”
He took another drag on the cigarette. “Met her here, right out on that floor; she was an incredible dancer.” He grinned. “She had the shittiest laugh; really high and funny sounding . . .” He took a deep breath and then stuck the cigarette in his mouth again. “I’d give just about everything I’ve got to hear that laugh just one more time.”
Vic snorted. “You’re kidding.”
“Kata and mixed-style, even Randori.”
She made a face. “What the hell is that?”
“Random attack competitions; she was really good at it. She could kick some serious ass if you came at her; she whaled on me a couple of times.”
My undersheriff and I looked at each other before I turned and asked Schaffer, “Did you tell Patrolman Dougherty that?”
“I don’t know, maybe.” Thinking, he stretched his jaw. “I don’t know, man; it was months ago.”
Vic opened the folder and searched the file. “Not in here.”
“What’s the big deal—is it important?”
Tracy brought the drinks over, sliding Mike his Coors and a shot of amber happiness and then setting the two coffees in frontof us, along with a bowl of cream containers and sugar before addressing the biker. “You want a tab?”
“Please.” He waited until she was gone and then asked again, “Why is jujitsu a big deal?”
“If it was an abduction . . .” I leaned forward and took a sip. “It tells us something about the abductor—that either he was incredibly powerful, capable, or . . .”
Vic dumped her requisite three creams and five sugars into her coffee and stirred it with her pencil. “Or she knew him.”
Schaffer nodded his head for a few moments, and I was pretty sure he wasn’t even aware that he was doing it, and then downed the contents of the shot glass in a swallow, followed by a deep draught from the can of beer.
“Tell me about the night she went missing.”
His eyes came back to mine. “She was supposed to meet me here for a drink, but she never showed.” His eyes diverted to the table again, and he sounded like he was reading from a script. “It was a Thursday night, and I waited till an hour after she was supposed to be here and then drove over to Kmart where she was working, but by that time they were closed. I got one of the cleaning guys to let me in, but they said that all the regular employees had already left.”
Vic leaned closer. “What about her car?”
He shook his head. “Wasn’t driving one; walked everywhere, when she wasn’t running.” He drank some more of his beer. “I figured she’d just forgot we were supposed to meet and went home. I found the babysitter and Michael watching a movie, and I asked them if they’d seen her, but they hadn’t so I drove back over here.”
I turned my cup in the ring it had made on the table. “Then what?”
His voice rose, and he called out to the waitress/bartender/owner/operator. “Hey, Tracy, can I get another one over here?” His eyes came back to mine. “I ran into some buddies who were playing pool, and we had a few drinks . . . Later on, I just headed home and went to bed.”
“What about the babysitter?”
“She had a car, drove herself.”
“Remember her name?”
He thought as Vic worked her way through the files. “Shit, no.”
Her face came up. “Would Michael?”
Schaffer laughed. “Yeah, he probably would.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. “Just a sec.” He punched in the numbers and waited, and when he spoke his voice changed instantly. “Hey buddy, how you doin’?” He waited. “Yeah? Hey, I’ve got a question for you; you remember the babysitter you had here in Gillette?” Another pause. “Yeah, her.” He listened. “Yeah . . . you remember her last name?” He stubbed out the cigarette. “No, I’ll be back when I said, I promise. Love you too, buddy.” He punched a button on the cell. “Ashley Reich.” He spelled the name for Vic, and she wrote it on the outside of the folder.
“Sounds like you have a pretty good relationship with that son of yours.”
He looked back at me. “Why do you say that?”
“He said he loved you—in my experience you have to get that out of your kids with a crowbar.”
He sat the phone down on the surface of the table, turned it, and slid it over to me. On the screen was a handsome boy withan enormous smile, holding up a pretty good-sized rainbow trout. “That, right there, is my life. He’s all I’ve got left . . .” He swallowed and straightened up in time for the waitress to bring him another round. After she left, he spoke to the surface of the table, but it was meant for us. “Do me a favor?”
“If you find him, whoever he is . . .” He glanced at Vic and then back to me. “Don’t kill him right off; make sure that he suffers—a lot.” He slammed back the second shot, and his head started bobbing again as he picked up the phone. “He looks like her.” He sipped the beer and put the cell away, along with some of his thoughts. “And if you need any help with that, you just let me know and I’ll be happy to get some guys to assist.”
Some of the thoughts were put away but not all of them.
Mount Pisgah really isn’t much of an ascent and ranks as the 1,336th highest mountain in Wyoming, but the real puzzle is that although the cemetery that has its name is in Gillette, the mountain itself is actually near Newcastle and is not even in Campbell County.
Mount Pisgah Cemetery is the crown jewel of the County Cemetery District and is located in the heart of the city. Atop one of the highest points in the town, the sprawling, fifty-seven-acre resting place is a beautiful spot in a not-so-lovely city with enough majestic old cottonwoods towering over the place that when they release their seeds in May and June, you would swear it was snowing. With rolls containing 5,600 burials, it has monuments dating back to 1879 and graves older than anyone can remember.
As I parked the truck in front of the large, Victorian-style house next to the cemetery, Vic turned and looked around the place. “Mount Pisgah in a pig’s ass—this is a hill at best.”
“It and the slope near Newcastle are named for a mountain in the Bible that’s in a region directly east of the Jordan River and just northeast of the Dead Sea, usually referred to as Mount Nebo, the highest of the Pisgah range, a cluster of hills to the west of the Trans-Jordanian Plateau.” I dredged up the chapter and verse. “‘And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho.’ Deuteronomy, chapter thirty-four, verse one.”
She pulled the door handle and slipped out, holding the suicide door open for Dog. “Jesus.”
“No.” I did my best Yul Brynner imitation.“Moooooses.”
“Was your mother some kind of religious fanatic?”
“No, but my grandfather spent most of his dotage reading and memorizing passages from the Bible, and since I spent most of my summers on his place it rubbed off.” We looked up at the gate of the cemetery, and, as Dog did his business, at a strong snow beginning to curtain the landscape. “Pisgah is actually Hebrew for ‘high place,’ but lost its meaning over time and became the name of the range.”
She thumbed through the files, holding them close to her chest and moving Roberta Payne to the top. “More developments from the photographic mind?”
“No, I had a Jewish girlfriend in college; you’d be amazed at what you can learn when motivated and with the right teacher.”
“I bet.” She glanced up; it was silting snow, which usually meant a foot or two before you knew it. “Have you checked the weather lately?”
I glanced around and noticed, indeed, that the landscape was sporting a contiguous white cloak. Never one to ignore the obvious, I nodded. “It’s snowing.”
She trudged toward the gate of the cemetery. “It’s snowing a lot, and this looks like one of the ones that’s going to last for a few days, bury everything, and shut down every airport on the high plains.”
It looked as though the snow was smothering the land, almost as if the flakes were holding their breath in a snow globe. “It’s a strange snow.”
She glanced back at me from the gate, the tarnished gold embers dampening as if she were a centurion looking across Hadrian’s Wall. “Yeah . . .”
A voice called out from behind us. “You people are supposed to have that dog on a leash, and he’s not allowed on cemetery property!”
We turned in tandem and could see a tall woman wrapped in what looked to be an afghan who was standing on the extended porch of the Victorian.
“I’ll get him, ma’am, but do you mind if we have a word with you?”
She stood there for a few seconds more, stooped to pick something up, and dusted the snow away by slapping whatever it was on her leg; then she eyed my truck with the stars and bars, about-faced, and went back in her house.
Vic looked at Dog, still irrigating the fence. “I’ll give you a biscuit if you go shit on her lawn.”
He came when I called him, and I popped open the door, allowing him ingress into his home away from home, and led the way toward the mansion with Vic trailing behind. “How ’bout I shit on her lawn?”
Stepping up onto the porch, I glanced back at her as I removed my hat and slapped the accumulated snow off. “I don’t suppose you’d like to wait in the truck with Dog?”
“And not play with the radio? No thanks. I don’t want to miss any of the fun, and anyway, I do get cold.”
I reached up, knocked the heavy knocker, and noticed that the grand old lady of Eighth Avenue West was in need of a coat of paint, along with a puttying and sanding. After a moment, I could hear someone moving inside the house, then the sound of the chain being put on the door, then it opening about four inches. “Hello, Mrs. Payne, I’m Sheriff Walt Longmire and this is my undersheriff, Victoria Moretti . . .”
She wedged her face into the opening to get a better look at me through the thick lenses of her bifocals, and I figured her vintage to be somewhere in her eighties, a little old to have a daughter Roberta’s age. “I don’t know where she is.”
I waited a moment before responding. “That would be your daughter?”
There was a noise from back in the house, and she glanced in that direction. “She’s dead.”
I gestured toward the papers in Vic’s hands, as if they had something to do with what we were talking about. “I understand you’re petitioning the courts for a declaration of death in absentia, so we were wondering if you’d come across some information as of late that might’ve led you to believe that she was deceased?”
“No.” She looked past me, trying to read the words on my truck as the noise from within grew louder. “What county did you say you were with?”
“I didn’t, ma’am, but we’re with the Absaroka County department.”
“And what are you doing here?”
“There have been some other women who’ve gone missing, and we’re thinking there might be a connection between them and your daughter.”
The noise had reached a pitch to where I could now tell that it was a teakettle. “My daughter is dead.”
“So you were saying, but if you’d allow us inside—”
“I don’t have to allow you people in my home.”
I listened to the screeching and figured I had an opening, so to speak. “No, you don’t, but I was hoping we could ask you a few more questions, and it’s kind of cold out here.” I looked past her. “Is that a teakettle on?”
She paused for a moment and then, in a disgusted manner, disconnected the chain and pulled the door open, allowing us in. It was a large entryway with a sweeping staircase that led to the second floor. It had been a beautiful house in its day, but peeling paint, worn carpets, and distressed furniture indicated that the place had gone to financial seed.
Looking down just a little at Sadie Payne, still with the afghan wrapped around her shoulders, I got more of an idea of just how tall she was. “Beautiful home.” I paused as I noticed the condensation from my breath was almost the same inside the house as it had been outside. “You can get that kettle, if you’d like.”
She nodded her silver head and then started down a short hallway. “You people stay there, and I’ll be right back.” She exited through a heavy, swinging door with a window in it.
Vic took a step and pushed one of the partially open doors that led to the parlor a little further. “It’s fucking freezing in here.”
“Welcome to Miss Havisham’s.” I glanced up the steps but couldn’t see anything. “I don’t think she’s got any heat on.”
Vic glanced back at me and then rolled her head to indicate that I should have a look through the doorway where she stood.
With a quick take to the kitchen, I stepped back and peered over my undersheriff’s head into an empty room. There were a few sheets lying on the floor, but other than that, there was nothing. We heard some noise and both stepped toward the chair and sideboard, the only pieces of furniture in the entryway. The noises continued, but she didn’t reappear.
My attention was drawn to the mail that was lying on the table—it was a little wet and obviously what she had picked up from the porch. One piece was opened, and I noticed that it was from First Interstate Bank notifying Roberta Payne of her withdrawals from a trust account and dating back to the beginning of last month.
At that moment, Sadie reentered from the kitchen with a mug of tea, but I turned and leaned against the sideboard so that she wouldn’t notice my snooping. “Mrs. Payne, you say you haven’t had any contact with your daughter since her disappearance?”
She sipped her tea from a coffee mug, the tag from the bag fluttering in the drafty house. “No, none whatsoever.”
Wishing that I’d had time to look at the statement a little more closely, I quickly made up a story. “Well, I was talking to Chip King over at First Interstate, and he said there had been some activity in Roberta’s trust account as of late.”
She dropped the mug, and we all watched it bounce off the floor with a loudthunk,the contents spilling on the hardwood floor, teabag and all.
I stooped and picked up the pottery, which somehow had not broken, and scooped the teabag as well. “Here you go.”
Sadie Payne stared at me for a few seconds and then snatched the cup from my hand. “I want you people out of my house.”
“Okay, but I’m going to be back pretty quick with a representative of the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office and—”
Her voice became shrill. “Out! I want you people out of my house.”
“And somebody from over at First Interstate Bank.” She held the mug as if she might throw it at me, but I’d had things thrown at me before and wasn’t that intimidated. “Maybe if you tell me what’s going on with your daughter . . .”
Her head dropped, and she placed a hand on the table for support. “I’ve asked you people to leave my house, and if you don’t leave I’m going to call the Sheriff’s Department ofthiscounty and have you removed.”
She stared at me. “I mean it, mister.”
“Sheriff, Sheriff Walt Longmire.” I waited a moment before adding. “That’s fine—I’d just as soon get some more people over here to get to the bottom of this.”
She took a deep breath and sat the mug down, pulling the afghan around her a little closer. She gripped the blanket in a distracted manner, her fingers poking into the holes of the thing as she pulled it tighter.
Vic had given a name to the technique that we both used when questioning suspicious persons; I called it waiting, whereas she called itrunning the Zamboni, a term she’d brought from Broad Street, Philadelphia, where her beloved Flyers played—ask your question and then let the machine polish the ice.
Her voice had been so small I had to ask. “Excuse me?”
“I’m the one that’s been making the withdrawals.”
I glanced at Vic and then back to her. “You.”
“Yes, me. I thought that if I kept the amounts under two hundred dollars that no one would notice.”
I thought about the statement that showed that most of the withdrawals were well above two hundred dollars and let my eyes scan the decrepit house. “The money is Roberta’s?”
She kept her head down. “A trust that her father left for her, but I’ve been using it to live on.”
“For how long?”
“For a month now. There isn’t any other money than what’s in that trust.”
“And that’s why you’ve been trying to obtain a certificate of death in absentia for the last few weeks?”
She nodded and took off her glasses, wiping what I assumed were tears. “Yes.”
I could feel Vic’s eyes on me. “Mrs. Payne, it’s clear that you’ve gone through a lot of difficulties lately, and we’re not really here to add to your burdens but we need answers. We’re just interested in your daughter, her disappearance, and the connection it might have with these other women.” I pulled out one of my cards and placed it beside the stacked mail and then shoved my hands in my pockets. “We’ll leave your home now, but if you do think of anything that might help us in the investigation, I’d appreciate it if you would give us a call.”
Vic stepped in front of me and picked up the card, writing her cell number on the back and then handing it to the old woman. “Mrs. Payne, call this number and you’ll get a faster response.”
We walked out of the house and down the steps as my undersheriff punched my arm. “Okay, that’s two visits that make me want to cut my wrists . . . Is Campbell County always this uplifting?”
“You should’ve seen what it was like before you got here.”
“I improved your spirits?”
“I have that effect on people.” She pulled out her phone and looked at it. “Uh oh . . .”
I pulled up, and we looked at each other from across the hood of my truck. “What?”
“No, your daughter.”
I froze, both figuratively and literally. “Cady?”
She thumbed the device. “Wait, there’s a text.” She read it and looked at me. “You’re in trouble.”
“Bad bad, or just bad?”
She began reading from her phone.
“Dad, where the hell are you?! I’ve been calling the office! The doctors are talking about inducing and wanted to know if I had a magic number as a birth date for the baby, but I told them I was waiting till my father got here! The doctor I want for the delivery is only available one day this weekend and I want to make sure you’re here! Would you please call me right now? Signed, your very pregnant daughter!”
Vic looked up at me.
I climbed in my side as she opened the door on the other. “That’s not so bad.”
Closing the passenger-side door behind her, she continued reading.“PS:Now, or I’m going tokillyou!”She glanced at me. “Thenowand thekillare underlined.”
“PPS: Imeanit!”She lowered the phone and studied me.“PPPS: Ireallymean it!”She smiled. “Speaking from a personal standpoint, whenever a woman uses more than a half dozen exclamation points, four underlines, and three postscripts—you are in deep fucking shit.”
“Gimme the phone.”
She dialed the number and handed the device to me.
I put the thing to my ear and held it there as I fired up the truck and hit the wipers, barely able to move enough of the snow to clear the windshield. “Did I see an Office Depot back near the Douglas Highway in our travels?”
“Why, you want to go buy a chair to hit Sadie Payne with?” She thrust her chin toward the house we’d just left. “Little hard on the old broad, weren’t you?”
I listened to the phone ring as I pulled a folded piece of paper from the pocket of my coat and studied it. “It was quite a performance.”
“You’re not buying it?”
The phone continued to ring. “Not particularly.”
She studied me for a moment and then shrugged. “So why do we need an Office Depot?”
The phone rang some more. “So I can make a copy of this bank statement that says most of these ATM withdrawals in the last month were made at the Buffalo Gold Rush Casino in Deadwood, South Dakota. Some very large withdrawals . . .”
I turned to look at her just as somebody, a very angry somebody in Philadelphia, answered the phone in a tone of molten righteousness and wounded indignity.
I could almost hear the exclamation points as I put on my best nonchalant voice. “Hi punk—you looking for me?”8
“So, bad bad.”
I nodded. “Pretty bad, yep.”
“Have you called her since the one-legged bandit waylaid you?”
“Once, twice with just now.”
Vic cradled her face in her hands. “Oh, Walt.”
“I kept thinking I’d get out of here.” I looked past Dog, now sitting between us. “Which is why I have to get this wrapped up by the end of the week when the two of us are going to have to get to Philadelphia.”
She raised her head, brushing a wide swoop of black hair from her face, and looked at me. “Do you have a ticket?”
“An airline ticket?”
She glanced at the clock on my dash and tapped it. “If you take the bus, you’re going to have to leave now.”
I nodded and took a right on 85 onto the snowpack that was Main Street and then headed down the hill into Deadwood. “She says I have one for noon.”
Vic shook her head and looked out the window at the snow that was continuously falling along with some freezing fog.“We’ll need to get me one.” She looked up at the curtains of flakes falling gold in the illumination of the streetlights. “That is, if anybody’s flying.”
Deadwood, South Dakota, is a tourist town and, like most tourist towns, doesn’t look its best off-season, but the architecture has been preserved here, and when snow covers the globed streetlights, I can almost see Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Seth Bullock sauntering down the avenues of my imagination. “You’ve never been here?”
“No, but I saw the TV series.”
“There was a TV series set in Deadwood?”
“Yeah. I liked it—they said ‘fuck’ a lot.”
It had been a hard-fought battle getting here, and a South Dakota highway patrolman had pulled me over near Spearfish only long enough to tell me I was nuts. I crept up Deadwood’s snow-covered brick streets and pulled my truck in front of the Franklin Hotel as a valet came out to meet us; he looked at the stars and bars. “You’re in the wrong state.”
Vic and Dog were already at the door of the hotel when I handed him the keys. “I think of myself as having a wide-reaching jurisdiction.”
Inside, I caught up with the dynamic duo at the registration desk where Vic was arguing with the young woman on duty, wearing a name tag that readBrittany, as to whether Dog would be allowed to lodge with us.
“He’s house-trained.” Vic glanced back at me. “Which is more than I can say for this one.”
I put my billfold and my new badge wallet on the wooden surface of the antique counter and had to admit that my badge looked a lot better in the hand-tooled leather holder that Bussell the Elder had made for me, and I liked the fact that it wasn’tflopping around on the Turkish carpet like a dying trout. I thought about the big Colt Walker in the center console but then remembered that I’d locked it and flipped it back so as not to draw attention. “Brittany, I’m Walt Longmire, and I’m working a case and need a room—for the three of us.”
Vic smiled and pulled out her own wallet, multi-badging the young woman. “With a tub, please, and don’t make me get Dog’s badge out, too.”
Brittany blinked once and then took two keys from a drawer and handed them to us as I gave her a credit card. She stood on tiptoe, looking at the beast. “He doesn’t bark, does he?”
“Not unless I sing, and I promise not to sing.” I reached down to ruffle Dog’s ears, letting him know I was abandoning him to Vic. “I’m going to head over to the Buffalo Gold Rush and spot the ATM—can I have one of the photos of Roberta Payne?”
She fished into the folder under her arm and brought out the most recent picture—the one from her employee-of-the-month plaque at the Flying J. “I’m going up and taking a bath. I’d be willing to take a shower if you’d join me, but I know you won’t, so I’m going to sink into nice, warm bubbles and await your return.”
“I won’t be long.”
She pulled at Dog’s ear. “C’mon, Rin Tin Tin, let’s see what we can find in the minibar.”
I watched her lay a hand on the brass railing and flounce up the stairs with Dog in tow and wondered what the heck I was doing staking out ATMs at close to midnight in a blizzard.
Turning and tugging my hat down, I flipped up the collar of my sheepskin coat—the valet opened the door and watched me walk out into the fogged-over blizzard. Fortunately, the casino was only across the street about a block up, but I still had a quarter inch of snow on my shoulders and hat by the time I got there.
I shook off in the entryway and looked at the hello-officer redCorvette that somebody could win if he or she wrestled the one-armed bandits to the ground. Continuing into the din of electronic gambling, I made my way toward the cage that readHOUSEand asked the man sitting on a stool where the nearest cash machines might be.
“Whole bank of ’em behind this wall and around the corner. I can run a debit card from here though, if you need money.”
I shook my head. “That’s okay.”
Walking as he’d directed me, I studied the half-dozen cash machines, then spotted a blackjack table within eyesight and decided to set up camp as long as the eighty-seven dollars and forty-three cents in my pockets held out.
Having returned Roberta’s original bank statement onto the threshold between the storm and regular doors of the Payne home in hopes that Sadie would think she’d dropped it, I pulled the copy and noted the days of the week and the times of the withdrawals. There were a number of transactions in Gillette, but they were within the amounts that Sadie had mentioned, whereas the withdrawals that had been made here in Deadwood were much more substantial and growing more so. I pulled out my pocket watch. The days of the activity were random, but the times were not—all of them pretty much this time of night and within twenty minutes of each other.
Making a quick trip back to the cashier, I watched my real money transform itself into colorful plastic chips, and I strolled across the thick carpet back toward the vantage point I’d assigned myself at the blackjack table.
There was a chubby croupier with a beard, a bowtie, sleeve guards, a brocade vest, and a name tag that readWilliedealing cards to an east-of-the-Missouri-River farmer type, abrassy-looking blonde, and a broad-backed Indian. There were two guys sitting over at the bar, but other than that the place was deserted.
Covertly slipping my holstered sidearm off my belt, I stuffed it into the sleeve of my coat and draped the sheepskin over the back of a stool next to the Indian, took off my hat, tapping it against my leg just to make sure that I didn’t drip onto the elaborate red felt, and took a seat. “Mind if I join you?”
Willie smiled a baby-face smile, probably wishing that we would all go home so that he could follow suit, and announced, “New player.”
I piled my chips in separate stacks and nodded toward the farmer and the blonde, who, I assumed, was his wife, and turned to look at the big Indian, who had the most chips; he in turn looked at the dealer and nodded toward me. “I do not like his looks; he seems like the kind of man who cheats at cards.”
I anted up. “Willie, has this Indian been drinking?”
The chubby man looked a little worried. “Um . . . No, sir.”
“Well, let’s get him started—give him a red wine, he looks like a red wine kind of guy.”
Willie raised his hand, motioning toward a middle-aged woman—her name tag saidStar. “What’ll it be, gentlemen?” She was dressed in a kind of French maid outfit and uncomfortable spike heels and didn’t look any happier than Willie at our reluctance to leave the table.
The big Indian spoke to her first. “Cabernet Sauvignon,s’il vous plaît.”
She glanced at me, and I stared back at her. “Um, beer.”
I took a moment to respond, then straightened my chips and took a calculated guess. “You got Rainier, Star?”
I smiled. “Iced tea then.”
The croupier announced the game and began dealing cards. “Blackjack, ladies and gentlemen—five-dollar minimum bet.” He tossed the farmer’s wife a king, the farmer a seven, me a three, a nine for the Indian, and finally a nine for himself, adding to his 25-to-2-percent advantage. “Lady has a king.”
She grinned, her dentures shining. “Hit me.”
He threw her a seven, and she sat pat. The next was an eight for the farmer. He brushed his fingers on the felt and was obliged with another eight, which carried him over the hill.
I stabbed the three, and the dealer laid a jack on it. I tapped again and was rewarded with a six. I looked at his ace, and decided what the hay. I tapped, and he sent me along with the farmer with a seven. “Ah, well . . .”
The dealer pitched an eight to the big Indian, who stared at his cards and then pointed at the dealer with his lips. The croupier paused for a moment and then flipped him another that skimmed along on a carpet of stale air—a deuce.
He looked up at the dealer with a smile as thin as a paper cut.
Willie gave himself a seven. The next card was a ten, and he followed the farmer and me down the road.
I watched as he deposited the chips in front of the Indian’s pile; the farmer and his wife rose, and the older man laid a hand on my shoulder. “You high rollers are too much for us, we’re headed for bed.”
I smiled back at him. “Good night. Be careful out there.”
“Oh, we’re just down the street in a hotel—we’re walking.”
“Still, be careful. You could cut sheep out of the air with a pair of shears.”
I watched the older couple pull on their coats as the waitress arrived with our drinks, and I gave her a chip as a tip. “Keep us topped off, would you?”
The dealer was getting anxious as he looked at the Indian and then at me. “Another hand, gentlemen?”
I nodded and turned to Henry Standing Bear as we both anted up. “What the hell are you doing in Deadwood?”
The Cheyenne Nation nodded his head at Willie. “I am feeling lucky.” As the croupier dealt cards to the three of us, the Bear smiled at me. “And besides, both Vic and Cady left me messages this afternoon. They worry about you.”
We played a few more hands, and he explained. “Since I was already in Pine Ridge . . .” He gestured around him. “I decided to stop by.”
Willie interrupted, ready to unload a few more cards. “Five for the cowboy, king for the Ind— Native American, and a three for the house.”
Henry sipped his wine. “Why, if you do not mind my asking, are you here?”
I tapped the five and got another one. “Looking for a missing woman.” I tapped again and landed an eight. “Hold.” I pulled the photograph from my coat pocket and unfolded it on the table between us. “Roberta Payne—ring any bells?”
He studied it and then nodded his head toward the other room. “I would say she bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman with the man at the ATM machine over there.” The Bear pursed his lips at the dealer again and got a three. He lip-pointed once more and got an eight, smiled the razor smile, and passedhis hand over the cards as a blessing. I turned to see a tall, bald man, muscular in build, holding on to said woman’s arm as she made a withdrawal.
I flipped my cards over. “That would be she.”
Willie threw himself a jack and then a six. He looked at Henry, who paid him no attention, and then turned over a ten. He sighed and scooped up the cards, once again depositing the Bear’s winnings in front of him. “You’re lucky tonight.”
The Cheyenne Nation stacked his chips. “Yes, I am.”
Willie stepped back and dusted his hands together. “Would either of you gentlemen mind if I ran to the bathroom? It’s right over there, and it’s been a long shift.”
We said nothing, just watched him go. Henry, speaking under his breath, turned back to me. “You do realize that he is going to warn this Roberta Payne and friend?”
I stood and reached for my coat, careful to reattach my holstered weapon, as he joined me in putting on his black leather duster. “I’m counting on it.” We watched as Willie slipped behind the cashier booth through a door beside the cash machines. With one quick look back at us, he spoke through the cage to the couple at the ATM, opened another door, and allowed them inside.
We hustled across the floor, only to find that the heavy security door was fashioned with a large metal keyboard. I leaned back and motioned toward the man in the cashier booth. “Hey, would you mind—”
There was a thunderous crash, and I looked back and saw that the Cheyenne Nation had decided not to wait for approval and had let himself in with a size-twelve Caterpillar chukka boot; he extended his hand. “After you?”
We two-at-a-timed it down the steps and were immediately confronted with a hall. “You go that way, and I’ll go this—first one to find something, sing out.”
He nodded and disappeared to the left—I moved quickly to the right, finding another door, which readWOMEN’SDRESSING ROOM. I turned the knob, but it was locked. I was about to do a Bear when a young woman in one of the waitress outfits opened it and then stepped back, her hand to her chest. “Oh, my God.”
I started to go around her, but she held up her arm. “This is the women’s dressing room.”
“I know, and I’m looking for a woman. Roberta Payne?”
“Never heard of her.” The arm stayed on the door. “And you can’t come in here.”
I pulled out my badge wallet. “Yep, I can.” I pushed past her, and across the room, I could see another door hanging open and moving. I threw what my father had called my field voice over my shoulder. “Henry!”
Hoisting myself up the steps, I threw the door open into the snow-covered alley behind the casino which, with the proximity of the surrounding buildings and the thickness of the fog, felt claustrophobic. I cranked my hat down tight and looked at the ground, where three sets of tracks went to the left toward the middle of town.
I felt the breath of someone next to me. “They are together.”
“Yep.” I stepped back and let the expert take over the tracking duties, watching as his left shoulder humped up and his right hand hovered over the ground like it always did when he was bird-dogging, and he loped off down the alley. I tried to keep up but was at a disadvantage running with the leather soles of mycowboy boots in comparison with the Vibram ones of his boots—at least that’s what I told myself.