Authors: Marcia Muller
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by Pronzini-Muller Family TrustAll rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Grand Central PublishingHachette Book Group, USA237 Park AvenueNew York, NY 10017
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First eBook Edition: October 2008
Sharon McCone Mysteries By Marcia Muller
Chapter 1: Tuesday OCTOBER 23
Chapter 2: Wednesday OCTOBER 24 to Monday OCTOBER 29
Chapter 3: Tuesday OCTOBER 30
Chapter 4: Wednesday OCTOBER 31
Chapter 5: Thursday NOVEMBER 1
Chapter 6: Friday NOVEMBER 2
Chapter 7: Saturday NOVEMBER 3
Chapter 8: Sunday NOVEMBER 4
Chapter 9: Monday NOVEMBER 5
Chapter 10: Tuesday NOVEMBER 6
Chapter 11: Wednesday NOVEMBER 7
Chapter 12: Thursday NOVEMBER 8
Chapter 13: Friday NOVEMBER 9
Chapter 14: Saturday NOVEMBER 10
Chapter 15: Sunday NOVEMBER 11
Chapter 16: Monday NOVEMBER 12
Chapter 17: Tuesday NOVEMBER 13
Chapter 18: Wednesday NOVEMBER 14
Chapter 19: Thursday NOVEMBER 15
Chapter 20: Friday NOVEMBER 16
Chapter 21: Saturday NOVEMBER 17
Chapter 22: Thursday NOVEMBER 22
THE EVER-RUNNING MAN
THE DANGEROUS HOUR
LISTEN TO THE SILENCE
A WALK THROUGH THE FIRE
WHILE OTHER PEOPLE SLEEP
BOTH ENDS OF THE NIGHT
THE BROKEN PROMISE LAND
A WILD AND LONELY PLACE
TILL THE BUTCHERS CUT HIM DOWN
WOLF IN THE SHADOWS
PENNIES ON A DEAD WOMAN’S EYES
WHERE ECHOES LIVE
TROPHIES AND DEAD THINGS
THE SHAPE OF DREAD
THERE’S SOMETHING IN A SUNDAY
EYE OF THE STORM
THERE’S NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF
DOUBLE (With Bill Pronzini)
LEAVE A MESSAGE FOR WILLIE
GAMES TO KEEP THE DARK AWAY
THE CHESHIRE CAT’S EYE
ASK THE CARDS A QUESTION
EDWIN OF THE IRON SHOES
For Melissa Meith and Mike White:Friends through both the good times and the bad.
Thanks to:Marcie Galick, good friend to horses—and to me.Bill, my first editor and best friend.Les Pockell—your suggestions were right on.Celia Johnson—yours, too.
I sat on the bluff’s edge, facing southeast, where a newly risen full moon cast a shimmery path over the waters of Tufa Lake. To my right, the towering peaks of Yosemite had disappeared into purple darkness. Here in the high desert the evening cooled quickly this time of year, but I’d prepared for it, appropriating a shearling jacket several sizes too big for me from the closet at the ranch house. As I’d appropriated it every night since I’d come up here from the city ten days ago.
Behind me, my husband Hy’s twenty-year-old horse, Lear Jet—an ironic name for the red dun gelding, which had never willingly picked up the pace in its life—whickered. I hadn’t ridden a horse in more than a decade. Pretty much disliked the creatures, in fact. Lear Jet was big—about fifteen hands and twelve hundred pounds—with a white star on his forehead and a white snip on his nose. He didn’t like me any more than I liked him. Every chance he got he’d lean hard on me, try to stomp my feet, bare his yellow teeth and snort.
I wasn’t riding the creature for pleasure but in response to a challenge from Hy’s ranch manager, Ramon Perez, who lived on the property and tended Lear Jet and the small herd of sheep Hy kept.
I sat watching the water as the moon rose higher. No longer visible by night or day were the brownish-white towers of calcified vegetation—tufa—that gave the lake its name. Years ago, the siphoning off of feeder streams for drought-stricken southern California had caused the lake’s level gradually to sink and reveal the underwater towers; the brine shrimp that inhabited it and the waterfowl that fed on them had seemed doomed. But they were saved by the efforts of a coalition of conservationists, headed by Hy, and now the streams flowed freely, the lake teemed with life.
I wished I were so alive, but all I felt was burned out and hollow inside.
Last February I’d escaped death by mere seconds when a building where Hy and I had been temporarily living blew up—one of a series of bombings directed at the security company in which he was a partner. I’d solved the case of the Ever-Running Man, as the bomber had been called, but the fear and nightmares lingered; the grinding day-to-day effort of managing a growing investigative agency had sucked my spirit dry. Throughout spring and summer depression dragged me down. I’d tried coping with it myself, eventually resorted to antidepressants, and, when the pills hadn’t worked, consulted a therapist. Therapy didn’t work, either; I’m a private person, and I found myself lying to the doctor whenever she probed too close to the root causes of my condition.
Severe depression is like being at the bottom of a deep, dark pit: you want to put your feet and your hands against the walls and, squirming like an overturned spider, crawl up into the sunlight. Only when you try you find you can’t move your limbs. I dreamed of being in that pit night after night. Finally, at Hy’s urging, I’d come to the ranch for a change of pace—rather than the more familiar environs at Touchstone, our place on the Mendocino Coast. I’d planned to rest, regain my perspective, and rethink my future.
Well, everything but the rest part had so far eluded me.ThatI managed just fine, sometimes sleeping twelve to fourteen hours at a stretch. It wasn’t good, and I knew it.
I also knew the choice of this spot on the bluff that I returned to night after night wasn’t good, but here I sat again. It was the place Hy had come the night his first wife, Julie Spaulding, died of a long, debilitating illness. He’d told me how the sunset had flared above the Sierras, then died on the water. . . .
You’re not coming here tomorrow, McCone. It just depresses you more. Get on with figuring out your life.
Behind me, Lear Jet snorted impatiently. He wanted his alfalfa.
“Okay, you smelly old thing,” I called and got to my feet. “I’m coming.”
The horse, of course, was obstinate. He turned his back on me and tried to pull the reins loose from where I’d tied them to a tree root. I took the reins myself, but when I tried to mount him he sidestepped. I hung on, got my left foot in the stirrup, and threw my right leg over his back. Before I could locate the other stirrup, he began walking; I clung to the pommel until my foot was secure. Then he stopped.
I clicked my heels authoritatively against his sides.
He snorted and put his head down.
“Look, you miserable bag of bones, I’m not in the mood for your antics!” I clicked my heels harder.
Lear Jet took off at a sudden wild run across the mesa.
I lost both stirrups, yanking hard on the reins. “Slow down, dammit!”
And he did—jerking to a dead stop. I flew from the saddle over his lowered head and landed on my butt in an area of soft dried grass.
As the horse turned away and trotted toward the stables, I could have sworn I heard him snicker.
I wasn’t hurt, although I’d probably be sore in the morning, but I stayed where I was for a while, lying on my back, my knees bent upward, cursing Lear Jet and watching the emerging stars.
Whatelsecould go wrong today? That morning I’d nicked myself with a kitchen knife; been snappish for no reason with my office manager, Ted Smalley, who was holding down the fort back in the city; been even more snappish when my sister Charlene, who lived in the LA area, called to see how I was doing.
That afternoon Citibank’s fraud division called to tell me someone was using my MasterCard to make Internet purchases; they’d frozen the account and a new card would have to be issued. I should have been grateful to them for spotting the problem within hours, but instead I grumbled at the representative about the inconvenience of having to change the number on all my automatic payments. Then I called my nephew and agency computer expert, Mick Savage, and asked him to find out who’d made the charges; he could work faster than Citibank, who were bound to have more important cases on their hands than mine. When he said he was swamped, and why not let the bank handle it, I yelled at him and hung up. Then I slept the rest of the afternoon.
Now I’d been thrown by a horrible, hateful horse.
Well, at least you’re not having a bad hair day, my inner voice said.
“Shut up,” I said. “It’s not funny.”
Now I was losing my sense of humor! I’d always depended on it to get me through the rough patches, but it was fading along with everything else.
I got up, brushing dried grass from my pants and hair, and started toward the house. The moon and starlight showed me the way, and eventually I found a familiar well-traveled path.
A bobbing light was coming toward me, I saw then. “Sharon?” Ramon Perez’s voice called.
“Lear came back to the stable without you. I thought I’d better mount a search.”
“The son of a bitch threw me.”
“Are you all right?” I’d come into the circle of Ramon’s flashlight, and he frowned as he looked me up and down.
Ramon Perez was a Northern Paiute, a tribe closely associated and often confused with my own forebears, the Shoshone. A stocky, weathered man in his late forties who spoke little but always had gentle hands for animals and a kind smile for humans. He’d opened up some to me since I told him I’d discovered I was adopted and a full-blooded Indian; since then we’d spent a good bit of time discussing his and my tribes’ commonalities and differences.
Which was what had started this horse thing.
We’d been sitting on bales of hay in the stable two nights ago when Ramon said, “You really should learn to ride.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Your people are good with horses. They acquired them, I think from the Apaches, in the seventeen-hundreds. Earlier than my people.”
“Well then, I’m a piss-poor Shoshone. I took riding lessons in my mid-twenties and did okay, but I quit because I discovered I hate the critters.”
Ramon shook his head. “You just don’t understand them, is all. What you need to do is show them that you’re in control, and that you respect them. Then comes the love.”
I eyed him skeptically.
“Take Lear out tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, Ramon, come on. . . .”
Ah, the games of our childhood . . .
The next morning I’d shown up at nine for my ride. Lear raised his lip in a sneer while Ramon helped me adjust the saddle, bridle, and stirrups, but otherwise he’d walked peaceably enough around the nearby meadow. When I unsaddled him he twitched his tail impatiently.
“Ride him tonight,” Ramon suggested. “Let him get used to you. I’ve seen you walking on the mesa; let him take you there.”
I sighed, “Okay. But isn’t it dangerous to ride at twilight?”
He laughed. “Horse knows every inch of this ranch. He’ll get you there and back just fine. Bring him a piece of carrot as a reward.”
Lear had given me a disdainful look and tried to nip my fingers when he took the carrot, but otherwise the ride had gone well. And then tonight . . .
I took Ramon’s arm as we started walking back toward the cluster of ranch buildings. “Lear’s not getting the carrot I brought for him.”
“No, he shouldn’t. He knows he acted out.”
“And I’m not riding him again.”
Ramon was silent for a moment, and then he said softly, “We’ll see.”
Ten minutes later I let myself into the house through the door to the mudroom, hung the jacket on a peg, and went into the kitchen. It felt like stepping back into the fifties: black-and-white linoleum floor, yellow Formica countertops, old fridge and stove, porcelain sink, enameled cabinets with scalloped bottoms. A chrome-and-Formica table—yellow, with chairs upholstered in red vinyl—stood in a breakfast nook. I liked the kitchen and the fact that neither Hy nor Julie had attempted to remodel it. It spoke to me of continuity and an acceptance of the past.
And now if I can only learn to accept certain things in my past . . .
No philosophizing, I told myself. I was hungry.
I went to the fridge and peered inside. Bag of salad greens—wilted. Tomato—wrinkling. No eggs—I’d fried the last one for my lunchtime sandwich. Milk, but when I picked up the carton and sniffed it, it smelled bad. Ditto the sandwich meat. I’d used the last edible pieces of bread for lunch; the rest of it had turned hard as stone. And in the ice-clogged freezer—they didn’t self-defrost when this one was made, and I hadn’t bothered to do anything about it—I spotted a submerged package of lima beans that had perhaps been there since 2002.
Thiswas what else could go wrong today.
Good God, what was wrong with me? Why hadn’t I noticed this lack of food earlier? I hadn’t come here to starve myself!
I investigated the pantry. Badly stocked, unless I wanted anchovies and garbanzo beans for dinner. No more wine, either.
That did it. In a minute I was back in the shearling jacket and out the door to Hy’s Land Rover.
The town of Vernon, on the shore of Tufa Lake, had changed little over the years since I’d first come there. The red-and-gold neon sign atop Zelda’s—a rustic tavern and restaurant where you could dance on the weekends to country-and-western bands—flashed far out at the end of the long point extending into the lake. The liquor store had a new name, and one of the off-brand gas stations was now a Union 76, but otherwise the small businesses in the strip malls along the main street remained: an insurance broker, real-estate agents, a pizza parlor, a bank, the post office, a haircutting salon, a florist, two bars, and various other establishments that provided the necessities of everyday life. The shabby motel on the lakeshore showed aNO VACANCYsign, which never would have been the case in the old days; but the marginally better and more scenic Willow Grove Lodge was closed and up for sale, following the death of its owner, Rose Whittington. I’d stayed there on my first visits to Vernon, and remembered Mrs. Whittington as a pleasant innkeeper with a passion for gardening and trucker movies.
As always, the Food Mart was doing a turn-away business.
I pulled into the lot, parked the Land Rover, and started for the supermarket. Its windows were brightly lighted, and through them I saw busy checkers, stacks of specials, and shoppers pushing carts along the aisles. The lot and the building’s plain white facade were well lighted too, but there was a pocket of darkness beyond where a soft-drink machine and some newspaper vending racks stood. With a city dweller’s conditioning, I glanced over there.
A young woman—a girl, really, she couldn’t have been more than fourteen or fifteen—stood alone; from the way her gaze darted around the parking lot, I assumed she was waiting for a ride. She wore a thin cotton blouse and jeans and hugged herself against the cold. Her hunched posture reminded me of the victims of sexual and domestic violence to whom I’d taught a self-defense course at San Francisco City College last year. When she swung her head around, her long black hair flared out in the chill breeze; her features, I saw, were Indian. Probably Paiute.
The girl projected such an air of loneliness that I paused. The lights of a car pulling into the lot and waiting for a space focused on her, and she blinked at the glare, then looked away in my direction. Her eyes locked on mine, and I was close enough, the lights bright enough that I saw something besides loneliness: fear.
I wondered if I should go over to her, ask if she was all right. But then she began scanning the other side of the lot. I watched her for a few more seconds before I went inside. As I passed along the aisles, buying enough food to last a week, the Indian girl’s image stayed with me. When I left the store I looked for her, but she was gone.
WednesdayOCTOBER 24toMondayOCTOBER 29
For the greater part of the week after my outing to the Food Mart, I stayed on the ranch—reading, watching old movies on TV, sleeping, and steadfastly avoiding any thought of the future. And every evening, in spite of my vow, I returned to the same place on the bluff to watch the moon rise.
I didn’t ride Lear Jet again, but after a day I did go to the stables at the time that Ramon returned from exercising him. I’d watch while he groomed and fed the horse, sitting on a bale of hay in amicable silence.
Ramon, I knew, had made overtures to Hy about buying the ranch, but out of sentiment Hy didn’t want to sell. He’d grown up there, and it had been willed to him by his mother and stepfather. He’d returned there after a tumultuous stint as a charter pilot in southeast Asia. He’d lived there with Julie and eventually watched her waste away. He’d grieved there, and recovered there. And we’d first slept together there. While we didn’t visit often now, the moments we shared in the high desert were precious. Ramon had understood: sentiment ran thick in his veins too.
Sometimes when he was done with the horse, he’d join me and talk about our heritages. “You know, our tribes generally had good relationships,” he said one afternoon. “Maybe that’s why we get along so well, huh?”
“Maybe it’s got more to do with the fact we’re both quiet.”
“Well, thatisa virtue.” He took out a cigarette, lit it, and doused the match thoroughly. With Ramon, I never worried about accidental fires; he was too mindful a man.
“Sara, God love her, she chatters,” he added. Sara was his wife of thirty-some years. “Of course, when I married a Mexican, I knew she would. And chattering’s not such a bad thing; how else would I know what’s going on in the world? Now, that man of yours doesn’t talk much.”
“He’s getting better at conversation.”
“Since he met you. When I first came to work here for him, about a year after his first wife died, he barely spoke at all. A more depressed man I’d never met.”
We sat in silence for a while, Ramon smoking his cigarette, then grinding it out on the floor and putting the butt in his shirt pocket.
“You’re damn depressed yourself,” he said.
“You want to talk about it?”
“. . . I don’t think so. Not now, anyway.”
“You change your mind, I’m here.”
The next day I brought Ramon a book on Shoshone tribal customs that my birth father, Elwood Farmer, had given me. Lear Jet glowered at me from his stall. Did he think I should’ve broughthimsomething? No way, not after he’d thrown me.
Throughout the week I had contact with the outside world, of course. Daily calls came from my operative Patrick Neilan, to whom I’d turned over administrative matters at the agency, as well as my office manager, Ted Smalley. Just general reports: everything’s okay here, we wrapped up the so-and-so case, three new jobs came in today. It was all I cared to know about a business I’d nurtured lovingly for years. And that unnerved me.
Mick had relented and located the person who’d been using my credit card: a deliveryman employed by a Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood who frequently delivered takeout to us. Citibank and the police were dealing with him.
There was also a daily call from Hy, who was restructuring the corporate security firm—formerly RKI, now Ripinsky International—of which he’d become sole owner after the death of one partner and the decampment of another. He’d moved their world headquarters to San Francisco, turned over marginal accounts to other firms, and closed unnecessary branch offices, and was busy creating a corporate culture that—unlike the old RKI’s—was free of corruption. His calls further depressed me, although I did my best to hide it. I’d never heard Hy so vibrant and optimistic, but could only briefly get caught up in his enthusiasm. His feelings about his work were so opposite to how I felt about mine that once the calls were over, I wanted to crawl into bed and bury my head under the pillows.
Which I did most nights, falling into a restless sleep that was repeatedly visited by the dream of the pit, as well as an odd new one: an Indian girl standing in the cold shadows outside a large white building. She looked at me in the glare of passing headlights, eyes afraid, and then the earth at her feet cracked open and swallowed her up.
I awoke with the dreams heavy upon me, like a hangover. My hands shook as I fixed coffee and my head throbbed dully, even though I’d had nothing alcoholic to drink the night before.
I took my coffee to the living room and curled up under a woven throw in one of the deeply cushioned chairs by the stone fireplace. Unlike the kitchen, this room was pure Hy: Indian rugs on the pegged-pine floor, antique rifles over the fireplace, and in the bookcases flanking it to either side, his collection of Western novels from the thirties and forties and nonfiction accounts of the Old West. Over the time I’d been staying here, I’d read some of the novels, paged through a few of the nonfiction volumes. But this morning my mind was not on history—at least not anything going back more than five months.
This stay in the high desert wasn’t working out as I’d thought it would. I’d managed to fill up empty hours with useless activity, while avoiding the larger issues: Did I really want to go on sitting behind a desk hour after hour, reviewing client reports, okaying invoices and expense logs, interviewing new clients, assigning jobs, and mediating employee disputes? Did I really want to continue taking on the larger, more complex cases that required me to be on the move a lot and that—too often in the past year—had ended in danger and near death?
Over the course of my career I’d been stabbed, nearly drowned, beaten up, falsely imprisoned, held at gunpoint, and once, ignominiously, shot in the ass. I’d killed two people and nearly succumbed to violent urges against others. Last winter I’d come close to being killed in the explosion. Enough, already.
But taking on a strictly administrative role wasn’t an option for me; I’d go crazy confined to my desk. How could I continue activities that had lost their appeal, where I was just going through the motions?
The agency was profitable and well respected. I could sell it for big bucks to another firm looking to grow, negotiate a deal where my present employees would remain on staff. Take the money and . . . then what?
I wasn’t cut out for everyday leisure. I didn’t play golf or tennis or bridge, take classes, have hobbies, or enjoy most of the activities retired people do.
My God, I was in my early forties! Given the life expectancy of my birth family—relatives on both sides had lived into their nineties—that was a lot of time to fill up. And that’s all I’d be doing—just filling it up.
Okay, begin a second career. Lots of people did that. But what? My college degree was in sociology, and that hadn’t gotten me anywhere even when my diploma was freshly minted. Consult? That would only put me back in the thick of things. Write a book on investigative techniques, as I’d recently been asked to? No. I’d rather become a neurosurgeon, train as a master chef, or apply to NASA and fly to Mars. None of which was going to happen either.
Investigation was what I knew how to do—and do well—but I didn’t want to work at it any more. At least not now. Maybe not ever.
Hy had suggested I come in as a partner with him, but that wouldn’t work. We’d take our business home with us, and ultimately it would consume our marriage. Besides, an executive position in corporate security wasn’t to my liking; it didn’t provide much involvement with the clients, one aspect that I used to enjoy.
I went to get some more coffee. My headache had faded, and my hands were steady. Back in my chair by the fireplace, I told myself that at least I’d seriously considered the issues I was facing, even if it hadn’t solved anything.
Didn’t have to be done quickly anyway. The business was in good hands, and I had all the time in the world. A solution would come to me eventually. In the meantime, why not fill up the rest of today with pleasurable activity?
I would have liked to go flying, but Hy had needed our Cessna 270B, so he’d dropped me off at Tufa Tower Airport and flown back to the Bay Area. The airport had a couple of clunker planes I could rent for a nominal fee, but Hy had told me they were untrustworthy, and from a cursory inspection I’d concluded he was correct.
Maybe a picnic. Pack a good book, pick up a sandwich from the Food Mart deli, and go—where? Well, the old Willow Grove Lodge had nice grounds and a dock overlooking the lake. It was closed and isolated. The only people likely to show up there would be real-estate agents with prospective buyers, and I doubted that would happen. If it did, I’d concoct some story to explain my presence and leave.
The main lodge and six cabins that were scattered over several cottonwood- and willow-shaded acres looked shabby. True, the cabins had never been in great condition, but their nineteen-fifties-vintage furnishings, smoke-stained woodstoves, primitive kitchens, and underlying odor of dry rot reminded me of the resorts where my financially strapped family had stayed on summer vacations during my childhood. And even after the death of her husband, Rose Whittington had worked hard to keep the place up. Now the cabins’ green trim was blistered and faded, dark brown wood splintered and cracked, composition roofs sagging. Graffiti decorated their walls. Rose’s garden had long gone to the weeds. A developer’s dream: bulldoze it and put up condos or a luxury hotel. The hell with the love and care that the Whittingtons had put into this place over their fifty-year marriage, let alone the happy memories of all the people who’d stayed here.
Of course, it was hard to argue with a would-be buyer’s logic; these buildings were not salvageable. I only hoped that whoever bought the acreage would leave the trees.
I parked behind the lodge where the Land Rover couldn’t be seen from the highway, carried my deli lunch down the rocky slope to the rickety dock, and spread an old blanket on its planks. Sat down, feeling the pale autumn sunshine on my face. The lake rippled on the stones below, and in the distance I could see plovers doing touch-and-goes on the massive central island. The lake is a major stop on the Pacific Flyway, along which approximately a hundred thousand migratory birds travel, and over the years I’ve seen most every kind there. If the lake had not been saved through the efforts of dedicated environmentalists like Hy, the birds would have had a long journey to their next stop.
A natural wonder restored, a man-made resort dying.
Suddenly I didn’t feel as sad about the Willow Grove Lodge’s demise. Long after whatever replaced it was gone, the lake would endure.
The book I’d brought along wasn’t very engaging—a long-winded narrative about a former alcoholic holed up in the woods to contemplate what he claimed wasn’t a midlife crisis, but that damned well sounded like one, as I should know. After I finished my lunch, I dozed off while reading and woke to a chill wind gusting off the lake. The shadows of the trees had moved over me.
I sat up, disoriented. In my peripheral vision, something moved through the dark grove to the right. I turned my head, narrowed my eyes. Nothing there. Then I saw it again—a figure that darted from trunk to trunk, creating a ripple effect.
An animal? A person? Either way, I was the interloper here. Time to get going.
I folded the blanket, grabbed the book and the sack of leavings from my picnic. At the Land Rover I looked back at the grove. No more motion, but a prickly sensation arose at the base of my spine, spread up to the back of my neck. Something colder than the wind washed over me.
My old woolen peacoat was in the Land Rover and before I drove out I put it on. As I stopped at the top of the drive, I saw the yellow-leafed aspens in the declivities of the hills to the far side of the highway swaying softly in the breeze; the late afternoon sunlight made them gleam like a river of molten gold.
There had been gold in these hills long ago and some poor veins remained. Normally the beauty of this view would have entranced me, but now its glow was dimmed by the aura of what I’d felt at the lodge. I thought of the ravages that cyanide—which the big mining companies had used to extract gold from the waste dumps and tailings of played-out claims—had wreaked upon the land.
The thought took me back to the case I’d been working here when I met Hy, investigating a conglomerate that planned to start up a large-scale and environmentally unsound mining operation above a semi-ghost town called Promiseville. I remembered us fleeing hand in hand from a dynamite blast that took out a part of a mountain. And Hy saying, as we lay on the ground gasping and panting from our flight, “. . . You’ve got even more of a death wish than I do.”
Not any more.
I waited for a logging truck to pass, then turned left toward town. The highway topped a rise, then began a gradual descent into Vernon. Halfway down I saw an old brown pickup truck, its paint spotted gray like a piebald horse. It was pulled onto the opposite shoulder and, as I approached, its passenger-side door flew open and the figure of a woman hurtled out into the ditch. The truck’s driver—bearded, with a knit cap pulled low on his brow—got out and stood on the edge of the ditch, yelling down at her.
Reflexively I U-turned across the highway and pulled onto the shoulder. As I jumped out of the Rover the man turned, his features mostly obscured by his hat and turned-up collar.
“Just a family fight, lady,” he said in a rough voice. “No need to get involved.”
“The hell you say!” I started forward just as the woman clawed her way up the incline. It was the Indian girl whose face had been haunting my dreams. Now her long hair was tangled, and she looked dazed.
The man made a menacing gesture toward me. I braced for an attack, feet spread wide, arms flexed. He stood still, studying me, then muttered something that sounded like “Ah, fuck it!” He whirled and got into the pickup, revved its engine, and sped off, spraying gravel.
I went over and helped the girl to her feet. I couldn’t tell if she recognized me or not; her expression was blank.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“. . . Yes, I’m okay. No big deal.” She brushed at her clothing, smoothed down her hair. She was dressed more warmly than she had been the last time I saw her, in a quilted jacket, jeans, and hiking boots.
“What happened here?”
She shrugged. “I said it was no big deal.”
“Do you need a ride someplace? I can—”
“Look,” she said, “it’s none of your business. Okay? I take care of myself, nobody else does.” Then she turned and began walking the way the truck had gone.
I watched until she disappeared over the rise, berating myself for trying to intervene in a private matter. It was as if I had a compulsion to get involved in things that didn’t concern me—just as I’d often involved myself too deeply in cases I’d handled. Dammit, why couldn’t I leave people alone? That was what I wanted to do, wasn’t it? It was what I’d been telling myself.
I got back into the Land Rover. A fight with a relative or her boyfriend, I thought. They live someplace up the highway and by the time she gets there he’ll be sorry.
But the way she shot out of that truck, it looked like he pushed her. He’s an abuser and all abusers feel sorry—until they do it again.
As she said, it was none of my business. She didn’t want my help.
I could ask around in Vernon. . . .
No, I couldn’t. Or, more correctly, wouldn’t. That kind of uninvited snooping had no place in the new life I was hoping to create.
I stopped by the Food Mart because I was getting low on milk. And only for that reason.
But as the tired-looking woman at the checkstand was ringing up my purchases—I can never go into a grocery store and buy just one item—I said, “There was an Indian girl waiting for a ride outside here last Tuesday night. I wonder if you know her?” I described her and what she was wearing.
The checker nodded and began bagging my groceries. “That’s Amy Perez. She stocks shelves here a couple days a week. What d’you want with her?”
Don’t go on with this, McCone. Don’t.
“She . . . dropped something, and I’d like to return it.” God, the lies that rippled off my tongue after so many years in my business! It had gotten to the point that I didn’t need to think them up ahead of time.
“You can give it to me, I’ll see she gets it.”
“Actually, I’d like to return it in person. It’s a bracelet, and I want to ask her where she got it, so I can buy one for myself.”
The checker shrugged. “Well, I don’t know where she’s living these days. She moves around a lot, you know what I mean?”
I asked, “Is she any relation to Ramon Perez up at the Ripinsky place?”
“A niece maybe, I’m not sure. There’re Perezes all over Mono County, some related, some not. But, yeah, I think Ramon’s her uncle.”
I thanked her, paid, and left.
It wouldn’t hurt, I thought, to ask Ramon about Amy, tell him what I had witnessed that afternoon. If she was in trouble, maybe her uncle could help.
“Yeah, Amy’s my niece.” Ramon was sitting on the bale of hay inside the stable door.
Lear Jet was already in his stall. I glared at him, and he glared back.
I said, “Tell me about her.”
His gaze shifted to the darkness gathering in the empty stalls beyond Lear Jet’s. “My sister-in-law’s youngest. She was such a beautiful little girl, and she loved her Uncle Ramon.”
“She’s still beautiful. You saw that.”
“And she still loves you?”
He sighed heavily. “Who knows? Who knows anything these days?”
I couldn’t debate the latter question. “She’s in trouble, Ramon.” I told him what I’d seen that afternoon, and Amy’s reaction to my offer of help. “The clerk at Food Mart said she ‘moves around a lot.’”
“One boyfriend, another boyfriend, sometimes she crashes at my sister-in-law’s house.”
“How old is she?”
“Eighteen in three months. She looks a lot younger.”
“Still underage, then. Can’t her mother rein her in?”
He looked at me, eyes sad. “Look, Sharon, it’s not that simple. Her mother has her own problems.”
“There’s no father in the picture?”
“My son-of-a-bitch brother Jimmy took off when Amy was a year old. Miri—that’s his wife—did her best by all five kids, but it wasn’t good enough. Her older girl left town nine years ago, before she finished high school. We don’t know where she is. Last I heard was a postcard from Las Vegas, and that was over a year ago. The two older boys’re in prison. The younger boy was killed in a car wreck—his fault, he’d been drinking.”
“And now Miri’s in danger of losing Amy, too.”
He looked down at where his thick-fingered hands were spread on his denim-covered thighs. “I don’t think she’d even notice if Amy was gone.”
“Drugs? Booze? Men?”
“You got it. When Vic—the youngest boy—died, Miri totally fell apart.”
“What about the kids’ Uncle Ramon? Where do you fit into the picture?”
“I don’t. Miri and I had a big fight, four, maybe five years ago. The times I came around to apologize, she ran me off with a shotgun.”
“D’you think Amy might listen to you, let you help her?”
“Like I said, I don’t know how she feels about me these days.” He paused, and in the silence Lear Jet whickered. “You say this guy pushed her out of a pickup?”
“Yes. Brown, probably a Ford, with a lot of Bondo on it.”
“You see him?”
“Yes. He has a dark brown beard; I couldn’t really tell about his features. After he threw Amy out of the truck he went to the edge of the shoulder and was shouting at her. When I intervened, he thought about attacking me, then took off.”
“Boz Sheppard. That asshole. If she’s hooked up with him, it’s statutory rape.”
“How old is this Boz?”
“Late twenties, maybe thirty. Hard to tell. Too damn old to be messing with a young girl like Amy.”
“Who is he?”
“Local lowlife—not that we haven’t got plenty of them. Claims to be a carpenter, but he’s usually so stoned he couldn’t drive a nail in straight if his life depended on it.”
“He from around here?”
“No. Showed up in Vernon one day, took a trailer at that crappy park up the highway. Does odd jobs, but I hear mostly he deals drugs. Rumor is he’s got a record.”
If he did, I could get Derek Ford, Mick’s assistant at the agency, to access it. “Definitely not good company for your niece,” I said.
“Yeah. Which way you say she was going when she walked off?”
“North from town.”
“Toward that trailer park.” Ramon stood. “Think I’ll take a run out there, pay a visit. Want to ride along?”
“Ramon, it’s a family matter—”
“One that could use a woman’s touch.”
Well, why not? I had nothing else to do that evening.
The park extended from the edge of the highway to the hillside—two dozen or so old-model trailers up on cement blocks. No amenities such as a rec center, plantings, or even paved parking areas. No trees. Only a sagging barbed-wire fence between it and the outside world.
Personally, I’d rather have lived in a cave.
Ramon stopped the truck in front of a one-windowed shack with a sign sayingOFFICE. Got out, but came right back. “Nobody there.”
I looked around, pointed out a woman walking a dog. Ramon nodded and approached her. When he slid into the truck he said, “Last trailer, last row in back. From the look the lady gave me, I’d say Boz’s dealing, all right.”
We drove back there in silence, gravel crunching under the truck’s wheels. The rows were dimly lighted—minimum county requirement—and most of the trailers were dark. Boz Sheppard’s was by far the worst of them all—ancient, small, humpbacked, its formerly white paint peeling off to reveal gunmetal gray and rust. There was a glow in its rear window.
Ramon took a deep breath. “I don’t know what to say to her.”
“Tell her you love her and want to help.”
“What if she doesn’t think she needs it?”
I pictured the look of defiance in Amy’s eyes before she’d turned her back on me that afternoon. Underneath there had been fear—and not of me.
“She does, whether she knows it or not,” I said. “This Boz—he’ll try to intervene. We should separate them.”
“Leave that to me.” I didn’t have a plan, but once we confronted Boz, my instincts would tell me what to do.
We got out of the truck and went up to the door. Ramon knocked.
He knocked again, rattling the flimsy door in its frame.
“See if it’s unlocked,” I said.
“That’s not legal—”
“You have probable cause to be concerned for your niece.”
“Damn right I do!” He turned the knob and pushed the door inward so hard it smacked into the wall behind it. Moved up the two low steps and inside.
A growl. At first I thought it came from a watchdog, then realized that Ramon himself had made the sound. I pushed around him. And stopped.
The room was tidy, the pullout bed made up into a couch. A woman lay collapsed beside it, her arms outflung on the bloodstained carpet, long dark hair covering most of her face. Freshly spilled blood. It pooled beneath her, and the front of her black silk dress was torn and scorched where a bullet—or bullets—had entered. The scent of cordite was strong on the air.
Before I could stop him, Ramon went to the woman and brushed her hair from her face. Gasped and recoiled.
I went over and pulled on his arm. “Go outside. This is a crime scene. We can’t disturb anything more than we already have.”
He hesitated, then went, shaking his head.
I looked down at the woman’s face. Not Amy, but someone older who closely resembled her. The dress looked expensive, her costume jewelry gaudy. One red spike-heeled shoe had come off her foot and lay on the carpet. I glanced at the breakfast bar on the counter: a half-full shaker of martinis and two glasses, one lying on its side, broken, liquid pooling beside it.
I backed up, left the trailer without touching anything. Ramon was leaning against his truck, trying to light a cigarette with shaking hands.
“You know her?” I asked.
“Who is she?”
He took a deep drag on the cigarette and exhaled. “Hayley.”
“And Hayley is . . . ?”
“Amy’s older sister. The one I told you sent me a postcard from Las Vegas.”
How the hell did I get myself into this? I came up here to make plans to leave this kind of thing behind me—the stench of death, the flashing lights, the paramedics, the radios and official voices droning on and on and on . . .
I should’ve told Ramon to bring Sara along with him if he felt the situation required a woman’s touch. I should’ve stayed home, waited for the agency calls, phoned Hy. I should’ve jumped into the Rover and gotten the hell out of Mono County.
Well, you’re involved now, McCone, whether you like it or not. At least you’re an outsider, an observer with professional judgment, rather than a torn-up family member like Ramon. . . .
He was in one of the sheriff’s department cars now, giving his statement to a deputy, but before they’d arrived he’d been crying in my arms. Later he’d be embarrassed by that, I knew, but at the time he’d needed comfort. I’d never mention his tears, and neither would he, but eventually they’d either put up a wall or forge a stronger bond between us.
Another deputy approached me. “Ms. McCone, I’m Deputy Drew Warnell. Can we talk?”
He was young, so smooth-faced that I’d bet he didn’t shave but every other day, and he turned his hat in his hands as he spoke, his dark hair falling in a thick shock over his forehead. I suggested we go sit in Ramon’s truck.
When we were settled, Deputy Warnell took out a notepad. “I understand you were with Mr. Perez when he discovered the deceased?”
I explained how I’d encountered Amy under disturbing circumstances that afternoon and told Ramon about them. “The man who rented the trailer, Boz Sheppard, was the one who threw her out of his truck. Ramon decided to come here and talk with him. He asked me to come along.”
“He said the situation needed a woman’s touch.”
“It wasn’t because you’re a private investigator?”
“No, I came as a friend.”
“So Mr. Perez entered the trailer and found the victim?”
“Why didn’t you take steps to ensure that he didn’t disturb the crime scene?”
“Because he moved too fast. I’d only seen the body seconds before he touched it. I did get him outside as quickly as I could.”
“Mr. Perez has identified the young woman as his other niece, Hayley Perez, last known address Las Vegas.”
“Did you know Hayley Perez?”
“I don’t know any of the family, except for Ramon and his wife, Sara. He’s foreman at my husband’s and my ranch.”
“The Ripinsky place?”
For a moment his official facade slipped and Drew Warnell seemed even younger. “I used to ride horses up there. My mom and dad were friends of Hy’s and Julie’s.”
“There’s only one horse left now—Lear Jet.”
He shook his head. “Must’ve come after my time. And I don’t think Mr. Perez was working there then.” He paused, seeming at a loss for further questions.
I asked, “D’you have any idea how long Hayley Perez has been dead?”
“Not long. The ME said within the last hour.”
Shortly before Ramon and I had arrived, then. “Shot at close range. How many times?”
“Once, straight into her heart—” He broke off, then said, “Ms. McCone, I’m sorry, but I shouldn’t be giving you these details.”
“And I shouldn’t’ve asked—professional habit.”
“You work for what agency?”
“I own McCone Investigations, in San Francisco.”
Something flickered in his eyes as he put it together. There had been huge publicity earlier in the year on the serial bomber case.
“Sorry,” he said. “I must be slow tonight. I didn’t make the connection until just now.”
I held up my hand to forestall yet another apology. “As I indicated earlier, I’m not here in a professional capacity. I see your colleague’s done with Ramon, and I really should be getting back to him. If you need to ask any further questions, you can reach me at the ranch.”
Ramon wasn’t fit to drive yet, so I took the wheel of his truck. As I turned onto the highway, he said, “I told the cops I’d break the news to Miri.”
“Where does she live?”
“You don’t want to go with me.”
“Remember what you said before? A woman’s touch?”
He was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Make a right turn on the first street this side of the Food Mart.”
After I’d driven into town and turned off, he said, “This won’t be pretty.”
“It never is.”
But the small gray clapboard house in the middle of the block was dark, and no one answered when Ramon knocked.
He said, “Miri’s probably at one of the bars or the motel—or passed out inside.”
“You have a key?”
“Nope.” He tried the knob, but unlike at the trailer where we’d found his niece’s body, the door was locked. “I better check the bars. Something like this, news gets around fast. A deputy goes off duty, he starts talking. That’s no way for Miri to find out.”
“Okay, where do we start?”
He looked away from me. “Not we—me. I’m okay now. You take the truck back to the ranch, get some rest. It’s almost midnight.”
I felt a flash of relief, but still felt compelled to say, “I don’t mind—”
“Sharon, I appreciate all you’ve done tonight. But Miri—I’ve got to handle her myself.”
“How’ll you get home?”
“I’ll call Sara when I’m done, ask her to come and get me.”
“Okay, then. Good luck with Miri.”
The phone was ringing when I let myself into the ranch house. As I went to pick up, I noticed the time on the old-fashioned kitchen clock: 12:23.
“Happy Halloween, McCone.” Hy.
“And the same to you.” I’d completely forgotten what the date was.
“Where’ve you been all this time? I’ve left messages on the machine, and on your cell.”
“Sorry I haven’t checked either. Where I’ve been is an awfully sad story.”
His voice sharpened when he asked, “What’s wrong?”
I went over the events of the evening.
“Jesus,” he said when I’d finished. “Poor Ramon. How’re you?”
“I’m handling it.”
“That’s all. I was there for Ramon when he needed me. Now the county sheriff can deal with it.”
“. . . Right.”
“What does that mean?”
“You think this is going to suck me in, don’t you? You think that next thing I’ll be prowling around, trying to find out who killed that woman.”
“Well, good, because it’s not going to happen. That part of my life is over.Over.”
“I hear you. Have you made any decisions yet? About your future?”
“No, not yet.”
We went on to discuss his day, our cats, and his coming up here on the weekend. After we ended the conversation, I took a hot shower and crawled into bed.
All I wanted was to blot out the events of a long, horrible day. Maybe if I could do that, even for a few hours, I’d be able to distance myself from Ramon’s trouble.
At around ten-thirty that morning I was washing out my coffee cup at the kitchen sink when Sara Perez’s SUV drove in and parked next to Ramon’s truck. She got out, looked inside the truck. Then she spotted me through the window, waved, and moved toward the house.
Sara was a short, heavy woman with gray hair in a long braid that hung nearly to her waist. In spite of her girth, she moved gracefully. A native of Oaxaca, Mexico, she was a midwife and concocter of herbal medicines, assisting at births and dispensing natural panaceas in remote towns all over the county, as well as a writer of children’s books aimed at the state’s soon-to-be-dominant Latino population.
When I met her at the mudroom door, I saw that her eyes were worried, her full lips cracked and raw as if she’d been nibbling at them.
“Ramon didn’t come home last night,” she said. “I heard about Hayley. The radio said he found her body and that you were with him.”
Damn! Why did they have to give out that information? No privacy—
I motioned her in from the cold. “Ramon asked me to drop him off in town, and that he’d call you for a ride home. He had to break the news to Miri.”
“He go to her house?”
“Yes, he had me drive him there, but—”
“She was off someplace, or passed out drunk.”
“That’s what he thought.”
“Well, I’ve tried calling Miri’s. No answer there.”
“Last I saw him, he was going to look for her in the bars.”
“May I use your phone?”
“Sure.” I motioned toward it, went to pour her a cup of coffee.
“Bob?” she said into the phone. “Sara. Did my man come in there last night looking for his miserable sister? . . . Yeah . . . Right, about what time? . . . Thanks, Bob, I appreciate it.”
To me she said, “He went to Zelda’s, Miri hadn’t been in.” Sara dialed again and left a message on a machine. Made another call. “Jenny, it’s Sara. Did Ramon . . . ? Right. She wasn’t . . . I see . . . Will you call me if . . . Thanks.”
She turned to me, took the cup of coffee I held out. “Those’re the only bars in Vernon,” she said, “and the one where I got the machine has eighty-sixed Miri so many times she’d never go there. Ramon was at the other two a little after midnight, asking for her. She hadn’t been in.”
“Maybe he went back to Miri’s and found her there.”
“And now nobody’s answering the phone?”
“Thatisstrange. You should go down there.”
Sara shook her head, her braid switching from side to side. “I can’t. The last time I tried to reach out to Miri, she threatened me with her shotgun, said she’d kill me if I ever came near the place again. Now, with Hayley dead, she’ll be ready to take on the world. Will you go for me?”
No, a thousand times no.
Sara’s dark eyes pleaded with me.
Please don’t suck me into this. .. .
“I don’t have anybody else to ask,” she said. “None of our other friends want anything to do with Miri.”
She looked so alone. If I could bring Ramon back to her . . .
“I’ll go,” I said, “and call to tell you what I find out.”
Before I left the ranch house, Ted phoned. After he gave me his daily report he asked, “Any idea when you’re coming back to the city?”
“We miss you. The place isn’t the same without you.”
And I wasn’t the same without it. But I wasn’t the same when I was there, either.
“Look, we’re doing what we can to hold this agency together, but we need you.”
“The agency seems to be doing fine without me.”
Long pause. “You sound so . . . cold.”
I supposed I did. A frozen shell around my emotions was the best way to distance myself from the people I’d known and cared for all these years.
“I’m sorry, Ted. I’m . . . preoccupied this morning, that’s all.”
“Shar, this is me you’re talking to. Ted, from the old days at All Souls.”
The poverty law cooperative where we used to work, he as secretary and me as staff investigator. When I’d first met him he’d been sitting with his bare feet propped on his desk, working aNew York Timescrossword puzzle in ink. Those had been good years: filled with camaraderie, poker and Monopoly games in the off hours, and long soul-baring discussions late into the night as we sat around the big oak table in the kitchen of All Souls’ Bernal Heights Victorian. Since the co-op had been dissolved and I’d formed my own agency—taking Ted and Mick with me—the camaraderie had continued and enlarged to embrace new people. But these days we were so caught up with a huge caseload and an upscale image—to say nothing of large earning power—that much of the excitement and closeness had bled away.
I said, “I know who I’m talking to, Ted.”
“Then really talk. Tell me what’s going on with you. Maybe I can help.”
Tears stung my eyes, as they had all too often over the past months.
“I can’t do that now,” I said. “There’s someplace I have to be.”
Hy’s comment about it being Halloween had made me wonder how the locals celebrated. As I drove into town I noticed jack-o’-lanterns on nearly every doorstep. Several bales of hay had been trucked into the Food Mart’s parking lot, and beside them stood a scarecrow. Big deal in a small town. The decorations must’ve been there days before, but I hadn’t been attuned to the holiday.
As I hadn’t been attuned to so many things.
I turned onto Miri Perez’s street and drove along, bouncing in and out of potholes, to her small gray house. The yard was fenced with chain link, its browned grass littered with takeout containers, soda and beer bottles; an old rusted bicycle that was missing its front wheel lay on its side under a juniper bush. No vehicles out front or in the driveway. As I went up the walk to the concrete stoop, I heard nothing.
I knocked on the door, waited. Knocked again, called out to Mrs. Perez and Ramon. No response.
The windows to either side of the door had their blinds drawn. I went along the driveway, noting that the windows there were too high to see through without a ladder. The backyard was the same as the front: browned grass, dead plants, more litter. A decrepit swing set sat near the rear fence.
The windows here were also covered by blinds. Another concrete stoop led to a back door. I climbed it, looked through the single pane. Straight ahead were an old refrigerator and a counter, to the right an archway.
I reached for the doorknob, pulled my hand away.
Don’t do it, McCone.
But Ramon and Miri have gone missing, and Sara asked me—
Don’t do it!
Holding fast to my new resolve, I didn’t.
It was noon, time for the watering holes to open their doors. I decided to stop in at the bar on whose answering machine Sara had left a message. Hobo’s was your typical tavern, the kind I’d visited over and over in the course of my investigations. At night it would be dimly lighted and its scars wouldn’t show; by day the shabby booths and chairs and tables and banged-up walls were more obvious. Three old men hunched at the long bar, staring up at a TV that was broadcasting a replay of last weekend’s Forty-Niners game. The bartender—white-haired, with a thick beard and a large gut—was setting out bowls of popcorn.
As I took a stool at the bar, I thought of all the hours I’d wasted seeking information in such establishments.
“Help you, ma’am?”
“Maybe. Sara Perez sent me.”
“Oh, yeah, I haven’t got around to returning her call.” The man picked up a rag and began wiping the surface in front of me.
He added, “Reason I’ve been putting it off is that I had an ugly scene with Miri Perez in here last night, and then this morning I heard the news about Hayley from one of my delivery drivers.”
“Did you know her?”
“Hayley? Not really. She was just one of the kids who would come in to drag their drunken parents home. She ran away before she even finished high school.”
“What kind of ugly scene did you have with Miri?”
He frowned at me. “You a friend of the Perez family?”
“Ramon’s the manager on my husband’s and my ranch.”
“You’re Hy Ripinsky’s wife.”
“Well, then.” He leaned forward on the bar, lowering his voice and glancing at the patrons. They were absorbed in watching a ’Niners pass completion. “Miri came in last night about nine-thirty. I’d permanently eighty-sixed her a year ago, on account of she’s a problem drunk. But she was sober and behaving herself so I let her stay. My mistake.”
“She was alone when she came in, but Miri’s never alone for long. Not because she’s particularly attractive—not any more, anyway—but because she has this reputation.” He stopped, probably abashed at having said that much to a friend of Ramon and Sara.
“I know about Miri’s problems,” I said. “Go on.”
“Well, there was a bunch of guys down from Bridgeport. Not bad guys, but they get kinda rowdy when the wives aren’t around. One of them started buying Miri shots and she got rowdy too. Started making nasty remarks to the people at the next table, lobbed some popcorn at them, then threw a drink in one woman’s face. Was cussing me out and swinging at me when I cut her off. I had to escort her out. The guy went with her.”
“What time was this?”
“After eleven, but not much. Ramon came in looking for Miri around midnight.”
“You know the name of the guy she left with?”
“His friends called him Dino. Like Dean Martin, the singer.”
“What about his friends? You have a full name for any of them?”
“Only Cullen Bradley. Owns a hardware store in Bridgeport.”
“Any idea where this Dino and Miri might’ve been heading?”
“Her place? The motel? That’s the usual deal with Miri. No, wait a minute.” He touched his fingers to his brow. “Before I escorted them out the guy said something to her about the Outhouse.”
He smiled. “It’s a tavern, up the highway about fifteen miles. Used to be a gas station. They’ve got the best fried chicken in the county.”
Somehow I doubted Dino and Miri were headed there for the food. “Did you mention this to Ramon?”
“Yeah, I did. He wasn’t happy about it.”
“You say this place is fifteen miles up the highway?”
“Give or take.”
“Ramon couldn’t have followed them—he didn’t have a vehicle.”
“Miri did. I saw her old van in the lot when I showed them the door. But they didn’t take it; they got into a red Jeep Cherokee. And the van was gone when I closed up.”
“You notice the license plate number of the Cherokee?”
“My eyesight hasn’t been that good since 1992.”
“So you think Ramon might’ve taken the van?”
“It’s unlikely he had a key; he and Miri haven’t been on speaking terms for years.”
“Ramon wouldn’t’ve needed a key. Not old Magic Fingers.”
“What does that mean?”
“Ramon’s been hot-wiring cars since he was a kid. Made the mistake of getting caught after he was eighteen, did a stretch in prison for it.”
As I drove up the highway toward the Outhouse, I thought about the assumptions we make about people and how sometimes they’re totally wrong. Hardworking, upwardly mobile Ramon Perez—a car thief? An ex-con? Did Hy know about his past? Most likely: Vernon was a small town, and Hy had grown up there.
Why hadn’t he mentioned it to me? Probably because Ramon had turned his life around and his misdeeds weren’t relevant any more. Hy was big on giving people second chances; God knew he’d received more than his fair share of them.
It was a beautiful day, and I tried to enjoy the drive. The lake spread below me as I negotiated the road’s switchbacks, its placid surface reflecting the clear blue of the sky. In the distance I could glimpse the dark, glassy mound of Obsidian Dome, one of the many distinctive formations created by the volcanic activity that shaped this land. In 1982 the U.S. Geological Survey issued a hazard warning that an eruption the size of the 1980 Mount Saint Helens disaster could occur here at any time. The warning is in effect to this day.
After I reached the ten-mile mark, the road—still climbing—veered to the east and cut between rocky slopes to which scrub pine clung. Five miles more, and the Outhouse appeared on my left. It was a typical old-fashioned gas station with a roof over the pumps, but the main structure had been considerably enlarged; the pumps were antiques— Socony before it became Mobil Oil—and lighted beer signs hung in the front windows. I parked in the gravel lot and went inside.
In spite of being far from any town, the place was doing a good business: most of the tables and booths were taken. I found one of the last empty seats at the bar. The air was heavy with the smell of frying; my stomach rumbled in response. The best fried chicken in the county, huh? I hadn’t had really good fried chicken in ages.
The bartender was working hard; I waited, looking around at the decor: old automobile license plates from various states; signed celebrity photos from the forties and fifties; mildly amusing signs such asIN GOD WE TRUST. ALL OTHERS MUST PAY CASH; mounted animal heads wearing party hats. I’d been in other supposedly vintage places and knew decorations of this kind could be purchased new as a package from restaurant-equipment firms, but the Outhouse’s seemed to be the real thing.
When the bartender finally got to me, I ordered a Sierra Nevada and a basket of chicken and fries. The beer came quickly, the chicken much later. “Sorry about the wait,” he said as he set it down.
“No problem. You’re busy.”
“Swamped and shorthanded.” Someone down the bar called out to him, and he hurried away.
I ate slowly. The chicken was some of the best I’d ever tasted. The seats around me gradually emptied, as did the booths and tables. I was toying with a french fry when the last customer left.
The bartender—a youngish guy with long hair pulled back in a ponytail—went to the door and turned the sign toCLOSED. Came back around the bar to me and said, “Anything else, ma’am?” Clearly he hoped I’d say no.
“Some information, if you don’t mind. You hear about Hayley Perez being killed last night?”
“Yeah.” He shook his head. “Tough break, but Hayley always lived dangerously. One wild child.”
“You knew her well?”
“No. We went to high school together, but she was older and we didn’t run with the same crowd.”
“Who did she run with?”
“The wrong people. Druggies, dropouts, you know.”
“Why the interest?”
“I’m a friend of the family. I’m helping them get a list together for the memorial service.”
That satisfied him. “Well, let’s see. She was tight with a girl named Loni . . . something, but I haven’t seen her around in a long time. Her boyfriend was Tom Mathers; he’s married now, runs a wilderness supply and guide service. And then there was Rich Three Wings; they had a thing going too, was what broke Hayley and Tom up. You can forget about him, he’d never come to a service.”
“Because him and Hayley left town together and he came back alone three years later. Wouldn’t ever talk about what happened. Now he lives alone in a cabin on Elk Lake. I hear he’s got a girlfriend who lives in Vernon, spends weekends at the lake with him.”
“You know her name?”
He shook his head.
“I take it Three Wings is Indian.”
“Paiute.” He studied my features. “You’re . . . ?”
“Well then, maybe you can get through to Rich. You people have a way of communicating, even if you’re from different tribes.”
I’d been hearing that all my life, even back before I found out I was adopted, when I’d thought I was seven-eighths Scotch-Irish and my looks a throwback to my Shoshone great-grandmother. I counted to ten—well, seven, actually—and said, “I understand Hayley’s mother may have come in here last night. Were you working then?”
“Yeah. I’m doing a triple shift. Like I said, we’re shorthanded.”
“And Miri . . . ?”
“She didn’t come in. I’d’ve noticed, because she’s on our watch list. Terrible, mean drunk.”
“What about her brother-in-law, Ramon?”
“He was here. Asked me about her.”
“When was this?”
“Around one. I told him I’d call if she turned up, and then he left.”
“He say where he was going?”
“Nope. He seemed kind of . . . I don’t know. Angry, but keeping a lid on it. Now I understand. If my niece had been murdered, I don’t know what I’d do.”
I paid for my lunch, including a substantial tip, and left.
Bridgeport, the county seat and the town where the man who had left Hobo’s with Miri lived, was some thirty miles northwest on Highway 395. I knew of a cutoff that would take me there from this road. It was early yet, and I didn’t feel like going back to the ranch—there would surely be a call from Ted pleading for me to open up to him—so I decided to drive up north and see if I could find the hardware store owner, Cullen Bradley.
Bridgeport is a charming town, with its stately eighteen-eighties courthouse, old homes, and steepled churches. Once known as Big Meadows because of the vast grazing land around it, it’s also an outdoor person’s paradise, surrounded by pristine lakes and streams for fishing or boating. Its greatest claim to fame is that it was used as the location for many of the scenes in the classic 1947 film noirOut of the Past.Hy disputes that; he says its claim to fame is being the only place that a drunken young man succeeded in lassoing and pulling down a street lamp from the bed of a moving pickup. The young man, of course, was Hy—whose reward for his feat was having to perform community service and pay for a new light pole. Every now and then when we’re there we visit it, and he says someday he’s going to mount a plaque on it.
I found Bradley’s Hardware on a side street two blocks from the courthouse. It had a graveled parking lot in back; I pulled in, left the Land Rover there, and entered through the rear door. I love hardware stores and this smelled like a good one: not the sanitized, filtered odor of a Home Depot, but a mixture of wood and metal and paint and other unidentifiable but appropriate items. The bare floors were warped, the shelves sagging under their wares. I had to weave my way through a warren of aisles to get to the front. Immediately a friendly young clerk appeared and asked if he could help me find anything.
“Is Mr. Bradley in?”
“He’s in his office, but . . . If you’re selling something, I wouldn’t bother him today.”
He leaned forward and said in a whisper, “Bad night. He had me bring him some of what he calls ‘hair of the dog’ a while ago.”
“Well, this is a personal matter. I’ll take my chances.”
“Back that way.” He jerked his thumb toward a door behind the sales counter. “Good luck.”
The door was slightly ajar. I knocked and called out to Bradley.
“What?” A shade irritable, but not too bad. The dog’s hair must have been working.
“May I come in?”
“If you must.” As I moved through the door, he added, “Who the hell are you?” He was a red-faced, fortyish man with a shock of gray-blond hair, and his skin had that flaccid look that a night of hard drinking will produce.
I introduced myself, said I was looking for a friend of his who had been with him at Hobo’s in Vernon the night before. “The bartender said you called him Dino.”
“Dino Martin. His parents named him for the singer. Funny thing is, he can’t hold a note. Sounds like my old hound dog when he tries.”
“Where can I reach him?”
“Why do you want to?”
“A friend of mine left the bar with him. She hasn’t come home, and I’m worried.”
“You must mean Miri Perez.”
“Well, she’s probably shacked up with him someplace. It’s kind of what she does.”
“Still, I’d like to talk with him.”
He hesitated. “Okay. Try Martin Realty, a block west.”
I thanked him and left him to his hangover.
Martin’s Realty was a small storefront whose windows were plastered with fliers featuring their listings. There were two desks arranged in the front room, but no one was seated at them. A pair of doors opened to the rear, one of which bore a placard sayingDINO MARTIN. I knocked and a gravelly voice said to come in.
Martin could not have less resembled the famed singer after whom he’d been named. He was bald except for a badly dyed fringe of black hair and a short, sparse beard. His eyes were red and puffy; purple veins stood out on his large nose. I judged him to be on the far side of fifty. As I stepped into the office, he picked up a coffee mug with a shaking hand and gulped its contents.
More dog hair?
I introduced myself, said I was a friend of the Perez family.
“And who the hell’re they?”
“Miri Perez’s relatives. You were with her last night in Hobo’s—”
“Oh, that crazy bitch.”
“You left with her, said something about going to the Outhouse.”
“Yeah. I figured it was the only bar between Vernon and Bridgeport she hadn’t been thrown out of yet.”
“But you didn’t go there.”
He put a hand over his eyes like a visor, as if it hurt to look up, and motioned for me to sit down on the chair across from him. “No, we didn’t. I was reasonably sober when we left Hobo’s, but after what happened, I tied one on when I got back to town. The wife’s ready to kill me.”
“Wait a minute. Why’re you so interested in Miri?”
“She hasn’t been seen since you two left the bar together.”
“Hey, I don’t know where she is.”
“No? Why’d you tie one on after you got back here?”
“. . . I . . . She . . . Oh, dammit!”
“Why don’t you just tell me?”
“Why should I?”
I took out one of my cards and slid it across the desk to him. “Legally I’m bound to report what I know to the sheriff’s department. The deputies will get around to you soon.”
“Oh, God. Okay, okay. We were a ways out of town. She was getting cozy, putting her hands on me, you know what I mean? I thought I was gonna get lucky, take her to a friend’s cabin near there that I’ve got a key to. But all of a sudden she’s screaming for me to pull over. I did, right quick—thought she was gonna puke.”
“Across the highway there’s this rundown trailer park. Cop cars all over the place, and an ambulance was pulling out. Miri went nuts. Jumped out of my Jeep and ran across the highway without even looking. Lucky there wasn’t anybody coming.”
“Did you follow her?”
“Shit, no. I don’t mess with cops if I can help it. I’ve already had two DUIs. And if what was going on was as bad as it looked, I sure didn’t want to get involved. The wife—”
“So you just left Miri there.”
“Damn right. I didn’t owe her a thing. She was just this bitch I picked up in a bar.” He took a vodka bottle from the shelf behind his desk, poured into the mug, and drank, flashing me a childishly defiant look. “How much would it cost me to keep you from telling the sheriff?”
“No sale, Mr. Martin. It doesn’t work that way.”
For some reason my cellular was out of range in Bridgeport, so I found a phone booth—one of the few of that endangered species—and called Drew Warnell, the sheriff’s deputy I’d talked with last night at the crime scene. He confirmed that Miri Perez had run across the highway as the ambulance containing her daughter’s body was pulling away.
“She went into a total meltdown when I told her what had happened. Assaulted me and another deputy.” He sounded as if he were still shaken by the incident. “We had to restrain her, and now she’s up here in the Bridgeport psych ward on a seventy-two-hour hold.”
I took down the information about Miri, then called the Perez house. Sara answered and said Ramon had come home shortly after I’d left.
“The fool went all the way to Bridgeport and checked out some bars and a few off-hours places he knows about, but Miri hadn’t been to any of them. Then he started back, but was too tired to drive all the way and fell asleep in Miri’s van at a rest stop.”
That was a relief. Now Ramon could deal with the mess I’d uncovered.
I said, “Well, he can stop worrying about Miri. I’m in Bridgeport, and the sheriff’s department tells me she’s in the psych ward up here.” I explained what Drew Warnell had told me. “She wouldn’t give them any information about next of kin, so they couldn’t contact you.”
Sara sighed deeply. “Maybe now she’ll get the help she needs.”
“Yes.” But I doubted that, knowing how our broken health-care system works—especially for the poor.
“I’ll let Ramon know,” Sara said. “Thank you so much, Sharon.”
“I’m happy to help.”
But as I hung up, I realized the words were false. The day had cost me, a reminder of too many years of visiting sleazy bars and talking to sleazy characters. Now I had a long ride home, and nothing but an empty evening to look forward to.
The lights were out in the Perez house when I arrived at the ranch; probably they were up in Bridgeport dealing with Miri. Damn! Amy missing, Hayley murdered, Miri out of control—how could so much bad happen to good people like Ramon and Sara?
I glanced at the stable, wondering if Ramon had had time to feed Lear Jet. Probably not. I might as well do it.
The horse was in his stall. When he saw me he snorted and looked away.
I said, “Look, you damn creature, I’m here to do you a favor.”
I went to the bin where Ramon kept the alfalfa, measured out the amount I’d seen him give the horse, and started back toward the stall.
Lear Jet moved restlessly, snorted.
I tensed and stopped. “Hey, there. Take it easy.”
The horse reared and let out a high-pitched whinny. His hooves smacked the stall door, splintering its brittle old wood.
I dropped the food and backed toward the outer door.
What you need to do is show them that you’re in control.
Move away slowly.
Something I’d read in an article about how to behave in an encounter with a mountain lion.
Get the hell out of here.
Before I could turn tail, Lear Jet kicked free from the stall and charged at me.
I sidestepped, then scrambled backward toward the outer door. The horse came on. I feinted the other way, momentarily confusing him. As he passed I felt a sharp blow on the back of my head. My eyes lost focus. The last thing I remembered was grasping the wall and sliding down. . . .
“Sharon.” Sara’s voice, commanding. “Wake up.”
“Unh.” I could hear, but not see, her.
A sharp, unfamiliar scent in my nostrils. One of her native remedies? But why couldn’t she let me sleep?
“Wake up.” Insistent.
I opened my eyes. Her round face came into focus.
She held up her hand. “How many fingers do you see?”
“Good. Do you know where you are?”
“Mmm.” I felt the ground around me. Wooden floor with scattering of straw. Now I remembered. That damn horse! “Stables.”
“Very good. Let’s sit you up now.”
She took hold of me under my armpits, eased me up till my back was against the wall.
“Ramon and I saw the horse running free. I thought I’d better check in here.”
“What time is it?” I asked.
I’d come out here at about 8:45. I couldn’t’ve been out more than a few minutes.
“Let me look at your head.”
It was already bowed forward. I felt her fingers probing, winced when they touched a tender spot.
“Not so bad,” she said. “No cuts or abrasions, but you could have a mild concussion. I’ll take you back to the house in a few minutes and stay with you tonight. If there are any complications, we’ll go to the emergency clinic in the morning.”
Hooves clopping. I jerked my head up, wrenching my neck. Ramon, leading Lear Jet into the stable.
“Get him away from me!” I said. “He tried to kill me.”
Ramon frowned and looked at Sara. She shook her head.
He said, “The horse was spooked—”
“Damn right he was!”
“But not by you,” Sara added.
“What d’you mean?”
“The bump on your head isn’t anything he could have inflicted. I’d say someone else was here, possibly antagonizing him. When Lear Jet bolted, whoever it was hit you.”
“But why . . . ?”
“I don’t know,” Ramon said.
I thought—fuzzily—of the people whom I’d come in contact with the whole day. Of others who might have felt they had reason to harm me. Of the rippling shadow at Willow Grove Lodge.
No. Not again. That part of my life was supposed to be over!
When I awoke, Sara was sitting in the rocking chair in the corner of Hy’s and my bedroom, her hands manipulating knitting needles and red yarn. She looked up when I stirred.
“Good morning, Sharon. How’re you feeling?”
I took inventory, touching my head. There was a fair-sized lump behind my right ear, but strangely it didn’t hurt much. “Not bad.”
“I put some ointment on your scalp last night. It must have helped.”
Vaguely I remembered the earthy smell and oily feel of it. “It did. One of your concoctions?”
“Of course. Are you seeing all right?”
“No headache, or sickness in your stomach?”
“Then I prescribe twenty-four hours bed rest, and you’ll be fit as ever.” She finished a row of knitting and began putting the needles and yarn away in a brightly colored tote bag.
“Thank God you were there last night, Sara. When I didn’t see any lights at your place I thought you and Ramon had gone to Bridgeport. That’s why I was trying to feed Lear Jet.”
“We’d planned to go up there, but when we called the sheriff’s department they said Miri couldn’t have any visitors until this afternoon. And Ramon made the . . . arrangements for Hayley by phone, and then we went out for dinner at Zelda’s. We thought we owed ourselves a nice meal—”
A knock at the bedroom door, and Ramon entered, eyes downcast as if he was afraid I might be scantily clad. No chance of that—Sara had enveloped me in a big terry cloth bathrobe of Hy’s. She’d seemed somewhat scandalized that I didn’t possess a proper nightgown.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Fine. Sara’s given me a clean bill of health.”
“Only if you stay in bed today,” she said.
I raised my hands in a gesture of surrender.
Ramon said, “I’ve been thinking about what happened last night. I’ve been around horses all my life. I can feel what they’re feeling. Lear’s been testing you, but he would never attack—especially when you were bringing food to him. Somebody else had to be there. Somebody hewouldattack.”
“One person comes to mind: Boz Sheppard. He did some work up here a while back, rebuilding part of the pasture fence. He deviled the horse, and when I told him to stop, I suspect he kept on doing it behind my back. Lear landed him a good kick on the shoulder the last day he worked here.”
“But what would Sheppard be doing here last night? And why would he hit me?”
Didn’t add up, any of it.
I kept my promise to stay in bed until noon. Then restlessness got the better of me. I got up, showered, and dressed. Had some toast and coffee. Sara’s remedies had worked their magic, and I decided to do something nice for her and Ramon: I’d spend the afternoon making a casserole for them for when they returned, stressed and tired, from Bridgeport.
Trouble was, I have a limited repertoire of specialties that runs along the lines of garlic bread, spaghetti, stuffed sourdough loaves, and dressing for the holiday turkey. Hy cooks more than I do; we eat out frequently; I’m the expert on prepackaged foods and the microwave.
When I got back to the ranch house I located an old cookbook—The Woman’s Home Companion—that I recognized as being one of my mother’s bibles, my grandmother’s before her. There were a couple of simple recipes for noodle casseroles that I decided to combine, but I didn’t have the ingredients; I made a list and set out for town.
Day after Halloween: smashed pumpkins in the streets, trees draped with toilet paper; some windows soaped; candy wrappers on the sidewalk. Simple, old-fashioned mischief, the kind we haven’t had in the city in some years. For safety reasons, trick-or-treating doesn’t happen in most neighborhoods there, and pranks are usually on the vandalous side. Many times Halloween parties end in injuries and fatalities.
Of course, the day before Halloween here had been fatal for Hayley Perez. A reminder that no matter where you are, the world is a dangerous place.
The scarecrow in the Food Mart’s parking lot had been dismembered: its head lay on top of the bales of hay, its clothes strewn around. Black spray paint on the white wall saidTHE DEVEL MADE ME DO IT!No one ever said graffiti artists can spell.
I went inside, made my selections, and took them to the same checker I’d spoken with last Tuesday night. While she was ringing the order up she asked, “Did you find Amy Perez?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“You hear about her sister, Hayley?”
“The woman who was murdered? Yes.”
“I’m wondering: Amy didn’t come in to work today, and nobody’s seen her. Maybe she and that scumbag Boz Sheppard killed her sister and took off. Nobody’s seen him, either.”
“Why would they do such a thing?”
“Money. I hear Hayley had a big life-insurance policy.”
“Oh, yeah? How much?”
“Not sure, but they say Amy was the beneficiary.”
“Who says this?”
“Well, everybody.” She swung out her arm to include the whole store, maybe the whole town.
Small-town gossip. One misleading remark, and everybody thinks it’s gospel.
Still, I asked, “D’you know what company insured her?”
“There’s only one broker in town—Bud Smith. He represents a lot of companies.”
“But Hayley had been gone a long time; she must’ve taken out the policy somewhere else.”
“She’s been back long enough. Was staying with Boz Sheppard out in that trailer where she was killed. Didn’t show her face in town much, though.”
The clerk shrugged. “Ashamed because she ran off and came back with nothing to show for it? Didn’t want to run into her mother? I mean, whodoeswant to run into Miri? You should ask Bud Smith.”
Bud Smith was in his mid-forties and losing his blond hair; a short military-style cut couldn’t disguise it. He was lean and wiry, dressed in a loud plaid polyester jacket that was decades out of date and a shirt and tie of the same era. Obviously a fan of vintage clothing. He was on the phone when I entered his office in a lakeside strip mall, but greeted me with a smile and waved me toward a chair.
The smile faded as he said into the phone, “No, stay there. Stay right there. I’ll come as soon as I can.”
For a moment after he hung up he stared down at the desk. Then he looked at me and said, “What can I do for you?”
When I said I was helping the Perez family deal with the details of Hayley’s death, his face grew even more somber: he reminded me of an eccentrically attired funeral director.
“Such a tragedy,” he said, “such a waste.” His sorrowful expression looked genuine.
“We understand Hayley had taken out a life-insurance policy with you. And that the beneficiary was her younger sister, Amy.”
“Uh, yes, she did.” He began fiddling with a stack of papers on his desk, tapping them into a neat pile. “Are you putting in a claim? If so, Amy should be the one—”
“Amy’s out of town and we haven’t been able to reach her. Basically, all we want to know is if the policy exists and what its terms are.”
“Hayley should have had the policy in her possession. She picked it up”—he flipped backward through his desk calendar—“on September twenty-sixth.”
So she’d been in town for quite a while. Why, as the clerk at the Food Mart had said, hadn’t she “shown her face”?
I said, “Perhaps she put it in a safe place. The trailer where she was staying wasn’t very secure.”
“Apparently not, since she was murdered there.” Smith hesitated, running his hand over his clean-shaven chin. “I’m not sure I should be discussing the policy with you. Are you a relative?”
“A good friend. Ramon Perez is manager at my husband’s and my ranch.”
“Oh, you’re Hy Ripinsky’s new wife. I heard he got married again. Forgive me. I’ll be glad to tell you anything you need to know.”
I love to ask questions in small towns where I’m an insider. Hate it when I’m an outsider and they raise the bar against me.
Bud Smith went to a file cabinet and came back to his desk with a slim manila folder. “She came in on September seventh. Said her mother was unreliable—which is true—and that her other siblings, except for Amy, were either dead or in prison. She wanted to provide for Amy should something happen to her. We agreed on a fifty-thousand-dollar whole-life policy, which would accumulate a cash value that could be withdrawn at any time if Hayley, as owner of the policy, needed money.”
“Why fifty thousand?”
“The premiums were affordable, and Hayley felt it was enough to give Amy a new start in life.”
“She explain what she meant by that?”
“No. And I didn’t ask. I don’t pry into my clients’ personal affairs.”
“Did Hayley have to undergo a medical exam to get the coverage?”
“Not at twenty-five. She filled out the usual health disclosure form; that was enough.”
“And what address did she give you?”
He consulted the file. “Her mother’s, but she asked the policy not be sent there, which is why she picked it up.”
“This type of policy—is there a double indemnity clause, in case of accidental death or murder?”
The right corner of Smith’s mouth twitched. “Yes. Of course. Unless she was killed by the beneficiary . . . Not that Amy would’ve done such a thing. The girl’s a little wayward, but not bad.”
“How d’you know?”
“My avocation is volunteering as a life-skills coach. Helping kids who are at risk. My friend Dana Ivins, who runs the organization, had several sessions with her. She—Dana—thought Amy had great potential.”
“This organization is called . . . ?”
“Friends Helping Friends. The name is designed to let troubled teens know we coaches don’t consider ourselves superior, but just people who’ve undergone and overcome the same obstacles they’re facing.”
“Sounds like a good program.”
Bud Smith’s smile was a shade melancholy. “We try. That’s all we can do—try.”
Friends Helping Friends operated out of a dilapidated cottage on an unpaved side street at the west end of town, across the highway from the point where Zelda’s was situated. A sign on the door saidCOME RIGHT IN, so I did. A short hallway opened in front of me. To my left was a parlor full of shabby but comfortable-looking furnishings; in the room to my right, a thin woman with short gray hair and round glasses that gave her face an owlish look sat at a desk. She saw me and smiled.
“What can I do for you?”
I introduced myself. “I’m interested in speaking with one of your coaches, Dana Ivins.”
“You are in luck.” She got up and extended her hand across the desk to me. “I’m Dana.”
“Bud Smith told me you’ve been working with a girl named Amy Perez.”
She frowned. “Sit down, please. I’m afraid Bud shouldn’t have revealed that. Part of our success is that we keep our clients’ names confidential.”
“Would you explain to me how the organization works?”
“Well, the name describes it. We pair young people who are at risk with coaches who have had similar problems earlier in life. They can meet here in our parlor if the clients’ homes aren’t a supportive environment—which in most cases they’re not—or if they aren’t comfortable being seen with their coaches in public. Or they can pick another meeting place—so long as it isn’t the coach’s home; that’s inviting trouble from parents who resent our intrusion. We listen to the clients’ stories and tell them ours and what we’ve learned from them. It’s strictly a volunteer program with very little overhead, and what there is is funded by donations from local businesses. This is my house, so we don’t have to pay for offices.”
“Are you licensed therapists?”
“No, just amateurs who’ve learned from our past mistakes.”
So they couldn’t legally claim therapist-client confidentiality.
“Ms. McCone,” Dana Ivins said, “what is your interest in Amy Perez?”
I told her the same story I’d told Bud Smith, explaining my relationship to the Perez family.
“I see.” She pushed away from her desk and swiveled slightly to her left, toward the front window that overlooked the street. “Are you sure Amy is missing?”
I wasn’t. Right at this moment she could be with Ramon and Sara, but some instinct made me doubt that. I’d formed a tentative connection with the young woman the first time I looked into her eyes in the Food Mart parking lot, and it had been strengthened by the fear and defiance I saw in them after Boz Sheppard threw her out of his truck.
I said, “She didn’t contact her family about Hayley or go to work today.” Then I described my encounter with Amy alongside the highway.
Dana Ivins took off her glasses and chewed thoughtfully on one earpiece, still looking toward the window. “I knew your husband’s first wife. Julie was a wonderful person; in spite of her health problems, she did a lot for the community. After she died, I was sure Hy was done for—the environmental protesting with a nasty edge, being thrown into one jail after another. Then, because of another special woman, he settled down. That, apparently, was you.”
“Then I’m inclined to trust you. And I will tell you about Amy Perez.”
Amy, Dana Ivins said, was highly intelligent but struggled with low self-esteem. “Her home life is chaotic—it’s not easy being the daughter of the town slut. I know, because that’s what my own mother was. Amy’s response was the same as mine: she dropped out of school and set about creating the kind of life she thought she deserved, which included alcohol, drugs, and bad choices when it came to boyfriends. She was arrested once for underage drinking and put in an alcohol education program, which did no good whatsoever. There was another arrest for possession of marijuana, but the charges were dismissed because the quantity was so small and Amy claimed it must have been her mother’s.”
“Great family dynamics working there.”
“I’m inclined to think she was telling the truth: the jacket she was wearing belonged to Miri. Anyway, the home situation became intolerable. Amy stopped living there, began moving from one boyfriend’s place to another’s. She had two abortions in as many years. The boyfriends invariably abused her and then threw her out. When she came to us, she was squatting in one of the cabins at Willow Grove Lodge.”
“And how did she come to you?”
Dana Ivins smiled. “Very directly, if unintentionally. I went to my car one morning and found her passed out in the backseat. If there was ever a candidate for Friends Helping Friends, Amy was the prototype. I woke her and took her into the house. Got her cleaned up—she’d thrown up on herself—and loaned her a pair of my sweats. We talked.”
“And then . . . ?”
“I found her a place to stay with a friend who rents out rooms. Talked the manager of Food Mart into taking her on part time as a shelf stocker. And she began to work on getting her GED. She stayed clean and sober and didn’t see any of her old boyfriends. But then she started to backslide.”
“It’s difficult to pinpoint, because it was subtle at first. A month ago? Maybe even six weeks. At first she’d miss scheduled appointments, but she always had a good excuse. Then she slacked off on her work for the GED. She kept working at Food Mart, but the manager told me her attitude wasn’t good. And finally she moved out of her room at my friend’s house without giving any notice.”
“To go where?”
Ivins shook her head. “My friend didn’t know. When I asked Amy, she said she’d moved home because her mother needed her. But she never would have done that; she hates Miri.”
“People like Miri are good at emotional blackmail. Maybe—”
“No. Amy had come too far for that. I know; I’ve been there. Besides, I could tell she was lying. When she lies she gives it away by letting her eyes slide away from yours so they’re looking at your left earlobe.”
Everybody, except for the most accomplished sociopath, has some mannerism that gives him or her away in a lie. Not every lie, but if the stress level is high enough, it’ll manifest itself. I’ve seen it thousands of times: eye movement, facial tics, changes in vocal pitch, tapping fingers, crossing and recrossing of legs—you name it. Once you pinpoint it, you have a better tool than a lie detector.
“When was the last time you saw Amy?” I asked.
“At least a week ago.”
“And how did she seem?”
“I didn’t really speak with her. She was stocking the bins in the produce area at Food Mart, and I was in the checkout line.”
“This was someone you’d been counseling and had cause to be concerned about, and you—”
“One of the philosophies of our organization is that the clients must be motivated to come tous; otherwise the process doesn’t work.”
I wasn’t so sure that was such a good approach, but then, I had no real background in their brand of therapy. Look at how miserably my own recent attempt had failed. “Okay, the time before that . . . ?”
“Weeks before. Amy came here, and we talked in the parlor. She was having trouble with one of her GED courses—algebra—and it was frustrating her. I’m no whiz at math myself, so I advised her to reread the materials and go slowly. I told her if she was still having trouble, I’d locate someone who could tutor her.”
“And did you?”
“Yes. I referred her to Bud Smith. Anyone who can figure out insurance-rate tables should be able to explain algebra.”
But Smith hadn’t mentioned that to me when he spoke of Amy.
“Did she contact him?”
“I don’t know. I never heard from her again.”
Bud Smith’s office was closed. A sign on the inside of the door said he wouldn’t return till two. I considered my options, then headed for Zelda’s for a burger and a beer, where the owner, Bob Zelda, and I caught up on our personal current events. Afterward I went back to Smith’s office. The sign still said back at two, but he wasn’t there.
The provisions I’d bought for the Perezes’ casserole had been sitting in the Land Rover too long; I drove back to the ranch and cooked. The process of grating cheese, slicing ham and mushrooms, and blending a sauce soothed me. I put the casserole in the oven along with a smaller one for my own dinner, set the timer, and went to the living room to read. After a few pages I dozed off in the comfy oversized chair. It was almost time for the casserole to come out when the phone woke me.
Sara. “Sharon, how are you?”
“Doing splendidly, thanks to you. How’s Miri?”
“Going through the d.t.’s. The seventy-two-hour hold is still on; they want to evaluate her and recommend treatment.”
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?”
“It’s happened before, and nothing’s worked.” She paused. “Ramon wants to talk to you.”
Ramon sounded weary. “You’re all right?”
“Yes. Did you talk with the sheriff’s deputy about Hayley while you were up there?”
“Yeah. There’s somebody new in charge of the case—Kristen Lark.”
“So she’s still with the department. How come I didn’t see her at the scene the other night?”
“You know her?”
“From a long time ago.”
“Well, she was on vacation. Got handed the case this morning.”
“If you like, I can contact her and try to find out more about the investigation.”
“Sharon, you’re up here for a vacation—”
“It’s no problem. I just fell asleep reading. I think I’m getting bored.”
“Well, then . . .”
“Ramon, have you heard from Amy?”
“Uh-uh. Don’t know where she’s gone off to and, frankly, I’m worried. Her sister’s murder has been all over the news; she should’ve called us by now.”
“Did Lark ask you about her?”
“She probably will.” I explained about the life-insurance policy.
Ramon groaned. “Little Amy. She couldn’t’ve—”
“No, I don’t think so. But I’m worried about her, too.” To change the subject, I told him about the casserole I’d made and said I’d bring it over.
“Sharon, thank you. Sara’s in the kitchen trying to defrost some chicken in the microwave, but it’s not going so good. But don’t bother to bring the casserole over; I’ll come get it when I feed Lear Jet.”
“No, let me feed him and then bring the food over.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them.
“You sure you want to?”
I couldn’t back down now. “Yes.”
“Okay. But take him a couple of pieces of carrot if you have any. Treats are the best way to make friends with a horse.”
The horse was in his stall, looking dejected. I approached cautiously, and he whickered. When I offered the first piece of carrot, he looked at it for a moment, then reached forward and gently took it from my fingers. I waited, then offered one more. Again he was gentle.
“I’ll feed you in a minute,” I told him. “I suppose I should clean your stall, but I’d better leave that to Ramon. Tell the truth, I’m afraid of you.”
The horse regarded me solemnly.
“Who spooked you?”
Lear shifted his feet, thrust his head forward. And then he nuzzled my hand. After a moment’s hesitation, I stroked his nose. He nuzzled some more. Probably hungry, I thought.
I fed him and left to deliver the casserole to Ramon and Sara.
This dozing off is dreadful.
It was the first thought that came to me when I woke an hour after I’d eaten and sat down to read the book I’d been trying to get through for over a week. I’d dreamed. . . .
Not of the pit or Amy this time—something else, a line of poetry over and over again. It still reverberated in my mind. . . .
I tossed the paperback on the floor. To hell with the former alcoholic and his non-midlife crisis!
In the kitchen I grabbed the keys to the Land Rover from the counter, took down the shearling jacket from its peg in the mudroom. Then, heeding an instinct I’d many times before recognized to be sound, I went to the bedroom, where we kept a .45 automatic—Hy’s weapon of choice—in a locked cabinet. Checked its clip. Put it in the jacket’s deep pocket, and set out for Willow Grove Lodge.
Home is the place where . . .
The line from Robert Frost’s “Death of a Hired Man” was what had echoed in my dream and now filled my mind as I drove.
Amy hadn’t had a real home in years—maybe ever—but Willow Grove Lodge, where Dana Ivins had said she’d been squatting in one of the cabins, was the place she’d be most likely to return to after giving up her rented room. And it was only a short way up the highway from where Boz Sheppard had pushed her out of his truck.
I pulled into the driveway there, coasted down the slope, and cut off the headlights as I tucked the Land Rover out of sight behind the main building. Dark and silent there, no lights showing in any of the cabins, not even exterior security spots. I leaned over to take a powerful flashlight from the pocket behind the seat.
The outside air was chill. The moon had waned, but when I looked up I saw a thick cluster of stars that were part of the Milky Way. The wind rustled the leaves of the cottonwoods and willows. I began walking upslope to the lodge’s entrance.
It was solidly padlocked, the windows secured by shutters. I walked around the main building, shining my light, then went to the first of the cabins, the one where I’d stayed years ago. Also padlocked and shuttered. Silver phosphorescent letters were sprayed on the wall next to the door:APRIL & KEITH 4 EVER.
I wished the couple luck, whoever they were.
I shone my light around, picking out the shapes of the other cabins. If I were going to squat here, I’d choose one far from the road, but not too near the lake, where passing boaters might spot evidence of my presence. A tiny one-room cabin surrounded by trees stood right over there, not thirty yards away. There was no outward sign of habitation, but that didn’t mean anything. Amy would hardly make a fire in the woodstove or open the shutters if she didn’t want to be detected.
Slowly I moved toward the cabin, flashlight in my left hand, right hand on the .45. I doubted Amy would be any threat to me, but if someone, say Boz Sheppard, was with her—
I started, heard the flapping of wings. An owl speeding away with its prey.
Laughing softly at my edginess, thinking of how such a sound wouldn’t begin to penetrate my consciousness in the city, I went ahead toward the cabin.
The shutters were secure, and there was a hasp and padlock on the door, but when I touched the lock, it swiveled open. I removed it quietly, slid back the hasp, eased open the door—
A dark figure rushed at me. I tried to dodge, but the person came on too fast, hunched over, head slamming into my chest so hard that I expelled my breath with a grunt and reeled backward. My feet skidded on the layer of slippery fallen leaves. And down I went on my ass.
Stunned, I took a few seconds to realize that my assailant had run off, was thrashing around in the dark grove. I pushed up, and—holding the gun in both hands—ran toward the source of the sounds. My breath tore at my lungs and sharp pains spread out from my tailbone.
Suddenly the sounds stopped.
I stopped, too, looking around. Nothing moved. The only thing I could hear was my own panting.
Whoever it is, they’re hiding. That’s all right; I can wait them out.
I crept over to a thick tree trunk, leaned against it, getting my breathing under control. My lower back throbbed, and so did my head. What if I really had sustained a concussion last night, and my heavy fall to the ground had made it worse?
It was frigid under the trees: I could see my breath. Staying still was an invitation to frostbite. After a few minutes I moved in the direction where I’d last heard the thrashing sounds, placing my feet carefully, as silently as possible. I’d dropped my flashlight back at the cabin, but that didn’t matter; using it would have given away my position.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep. . . .
Frost again. But these woods weren’t lovely. They were silent, full of potential hazards.
The hell with it.
I retraced my steps to the cabin, where I located the flash and shone it through the open door.
What I saw made me raise the .45.
More wreckage like that at Boz Sheppard’s trailer: overturned furniture, broken glass, linens pulled from the bed, pillows and mattress slashed, drawers in the tiny galley kitchen emptied. A door to the bathroom stood partway open.
I slipped inside and across the room. In the bath I found more broken glass and a torn shower curtain, its pole slanting down into the tub. The lid of the toilet had been removed and smashed on the floor. Otherwise the cubicle was as empty as the main room.
No one here, dead or alive.
I tried the light switch beside the bathroom door. No power, of course. My flash’s beam was strong, but it wouldn’t allow me to examine the place thoroughly. Besides, that was a matter for the sheriff’s department.
I moved back into the other room. Stepped on something soft. When I looked closely I saw it was the quilted jacket Amy had been wearing the day Sheppard had thrown her out of the truck. My light illuminated other objects that had been strewn around: T-shirts, costume jewelry, makeup, jeans, underwear, other teenage-girl attire.
And on the wall above them, a blood spatter.
I leaned against the Land Rover, bundled in the shearling coat, watching Lark’s team examining what she’d termed a “possible crime scene.” For a remote county that was probably operating on an insufficient salary budget, the deputies seemed well coordinated and knowledgeable. I’d seen less thorough initial investigations in the city. Not that that was any surprise: the SFPD has been through up-and-down cycles as long as I’ve lived there.
Lark finally approached me—a slender woman in her mid-thirties with blonde curls, worn long now, and freckles on her upturned nose. We’d spoken only briefly when she arrived and entered the cabin, not at all since her backup showed minutes later.
Now she said, “McCone, this scene looks bad. The place was tossed, there’s blood in the main room, the girl’s gone, and you say she’s Hayley Perez’s sister. How come you came here?”
“Someone told me—”
A man called out to Lark, and she held up a finger. “My forensics guy wants me. When I’m done with him, I’m going off duty. Let’s meet at Zelda’s, knock back a couple, and you can tell me what I need to know.”
The cavernous interior of Zelda’s was strangely quiet for a Thursday night. A couple of late diners lingered over coffee in the room to the left, and only a few drinkers gathered at the bar. Bob Zelda was absent—he’d told me he’d turned over the weekday-evening shifts to his son Jamie; Bob worked the weekends because he liked to listen to the country-music bands he employed.
I took one of the tables by the lakeside windows in the bar area and waited for Kristen Lark to arrive. After ten minutes I went to the bar and got a glass of white wine. Sipping it, I realized why I usually ordered beer at Zelda’s. Five minutes later Lark came through the door.
She pointed questioningly to my half-full glass. I shook my head, and she went to the bar; a minute later she was seated across from me with her own drink—a double bourbon.
“So, McCone, I hear you married Ripinsky.”
“I’m married, too.” She held out her left hand; a wide gold wedding ring circled her third finger.
“Who’s the lucky guy?”
“Fellow officer—Denny Rabbitt.”
“You look good,” I said. “Marriage agrees with you.”
“Marriage to another deputy, yes. Anybody else couldn’t’ve put up with the crazy schedule. Hy up here with you?”
“No. I’m taking some time off, but he’s busy with a corporate reorganization.”
She nodded, clearly having asked only for politeness’ sake, placed a tape recorder on the table, and asked, “So what were you doing at the lodge tonight?”
I outlined everything that had happened since I spotted Amy Perez outside the Food Mart, while Lark taped the conversation. “I didn’t mean to get involved in a police matter,” I finished. “It just occurred to me that Amy might be squatting at Willow Grove, and I thought I might be able to persuade her to go to her aunt and uncle’s.”
Lark shrugged. “Seems we’re having a regular crime wave this week. You want to help me on an official basis? You did before, remember.”
I solved your case for you and nearly lost my life in the process, you ingrate.
Lark waited for my answer.
I didn’t want to help out. I didn’t even want to be here talking with an officer of the law. But maybe I could find out some inside information about Hayley’s murder that I could pass on to Ramon and Sara.
“Okay, but I told you everything I know; it’s got to be a two-way street.”
Lark turned off the tape, got up and went to the bar for another drink. When her back was turned I switched on the sensitive voice-activated recorder in my purse. The deputy hadn’t asked if I minded being taped, and I wasn’t going to ask her, either. She was fair, and a good law officer, but I was aware that our arrangement could backfire if I didn’t have documentation.
“Okay,” she said as she sat down again. “We didn’t have the info on the sister having taken out the life-insurance policy. Hadn’t really looked at Amy yet because we were concentrating on the Boz Sheppard angle. So far we haven’t located him.”
“You have any background on Hayley?”
Lark smiled. “Nowthatis where it really gets interesting.”
On my drive back to the ranch, I didn’t dwell on the facts that Lark had confided to me. She’d insisted on buying another round before we’d left Zelda’s at twelve-thirty, and even though I’d left most of my wine in the glass and was under the legal limit, I needed to pay close attention to my driving. High-desert people are generally hard-living folks, but it seemed to me that Lark, a law-enforcement officer and supposedly happy woman, had been pushing the envelope with her three double shots of bourbon.
The country around Tufa Lake is largely devoid of traffic at that time of night, and no wildlife sprang into my headlights, so I arrived home unscathed. There was a message on the machine from Hy: “Just wanted to let you know my ETA tomorrow—four p.m. See you then.” Pause. “Does your absence indicate you’ve been ‘sucked in’ by the Perez murder?”
Damn! He knew me all too well.
But sucked in I was—and with official sanction. I curled up in the armchair in the living room and listened to the tape I’d made of Kristen Lark’s confidences.
Haley and Rich Three Wings ran off nine years ago, ended up in Reno. He dealt blackjack at Harrah’s, she worked someplace as a waitress, but pretty quick she started turning tricks on the side. . . .
Around three years after they got to Reno, this high roller came to the casino. Hayley was waitressing there by then, and next thing she ran off with the guy, leaving Rich with only his old car and the clothes on his back. . . .
No, we haven’t found out who the high roller was. Rich claims he doesn’t know. We’ve got an inquiry in to the casino, though. . . .
That’s another thing we don’t know—where she was during the period between when she left Reno and three years ago when she turned up in Vegas. Living off the high roller, no doubt, but it didn’t last. . . .
In Vegas, she worked cocktails in a casino—the Lucky Sevens. Kind of downscale and dingy, LVPD says. So she went out on the streets again, got busted a few times, but always brought in a high-powered attorney who got the charges dropped. . . .
How could she afford the lawyer? Damned if we know. . . .
Name’s Brower. Frank Brower. With a big firm that’s rumored to be connected—Brower, Price and Coleman. Of course, everybody in Vegas is rumored to be connected. . . .
No, we haven’t been able to get hold of him. He’s on a cruise, or some damn thing. . . .
Yeah, we checked out the address on Hayley’s driver’s license. A mail drop. We’ve got no idea where she was living in Vegas. . . .
Apparently nobody here knew she was back in town, except for that insurance agent you told me about. And Boz Sheppard. And maybe Amy. We’ve questioned everybody, including Rich Three Wings and her high-school boyfriend, Tom Mathers. . . .
Here’s something: you might take another crack at Three Wings. I mean, he might open up more to you. . . .
I turned off the recorder. When, I wondered, would people stop assuming that because you’re Indian, other Indians will feel a natural connection with you? There are hundreds of tribes in this country; historically some have been mortal enemies, and today they’re squabbling over gaming rights. It’s like saying any American ethnic group—be it blacks, Chinese, Italians, Irish, Japanese, or Germans—is drawn together because of its background. Ridiculous. The Scotch-Irish family who adopted me at birth frequently fought like they were out to kill each other. Still do, sometimes.
But what the hell, in the morning I’d take a crack at Rich Three Wings. Tom Mathers, too.
It was the least I could do for the sake of the Perez family, I told myself.
Well, yes, for their sake, but also for my own. Cases change both the investigated and the investigator. Maybe one last effort would show me the way to the new life I was reaching for. It wouldn’t be any worse than dreaming of trying to climb out of a deep, dark pit.
Elk Lake was a small, placid body of water surrounded by forest, some twenty miles southwest of Vernon. Dirt roads led into clearings where rustic cabins stood. Many of them had cutesy names: Gone Fishin’, Bide a Wee Longer, My Lady and the Lake. Rich Three Wings’ had no such sign and was one of the shabbier: warped shingles, sagging roofbeam, rusted stovepipe. A large prefab garage sat next to it, and an old International Harvester truck was pulled close to its side. From the rear I could hear the sound of someone chopping wood.
I rounded the cabin, and a spectacular view of the lake opened up: close to shore waterfowl swam and dove for food, far out two fishermen floated in their rowboat, the opposite shore was rimmed by tall pines. The scene was so peaceful that it stood out in sharp contrast to the man wielding the axe.
Wide-shouldered and narrow-waisted, he was without a shirt on this chilly day, and the muscles in his back were strong and sculpted. He attacked the log as if it were an enemy, with hard, rhythmic strokes and frequent animal-like grunts. He didn’t hear me approach until I was halfway to him, and then he whirled, axe upheld. I stopped, braced to run.
“Rich Three Wings?” I asked.
“Yeah. Who’re you?” His face was beaded with sweat, his long black hair trapped in a damp red bandana.
I introduced myself, taking out one of my business cards. He lowered the axe and leaned it against a larger log. At that I covered the rest of the distance between us and handed the card to him.
“I’m working in cooperation with the sheriff’s department on the Hayley Perez case,” I added.
He looked at the card, then crushed it in his large fist. His face twitched, as if he felt a sudden pain.
He asked, “They send you on account of you’re Indian too?”
“That was the general idea.”
“And you don’t like it.”
“I hate it. And so do you.”
He studied me for a moment, then nodded, having made a judgment. “Come inside, we’ll drink some coffee.” When I hesitated, he added, “I’m harmless. I didn’t kill Hayley and I’m sure as hell not gonna do anything to you.”
No, he wasn’t. That much I sensed. As to whether he’d killed his ex-wife I couldn’t hazard a guess yet.
I followed him to the cabin and into a spotlessly neat room with beautifully hewn wooden furnishings and woven rugs like the ones we had at the ranch. Rich Three Wings noticed my surprise and said, “Appearances can be deceiving, huh?”
“I’ll say. This is beautiful.”
“Thanks. Have a seat.” He motioned at a small table that gleamed with polish and shrugged into a sweatshirt that was draped on a chair. “How do you like your coffee?”
“Me too.” He went through a doorway, returned with two pottery mugs. “This place, I inherited it from my grandfather, who was a real traditional guy. Material possessions didn’t mean a thing to him.”
“Sounds like my . . . father.” I still couldn’t call Elwood Farmer my father without hesitation. “He’s an artist and lives very simply on the Flathead rez in Montana.”
“You born there?”
“No. It’s complicated. This furniture . . .” I motioned around us.
“I made it. I’ve got a shop in the garage. And the rugs—my girlfriend weaves them. Between the two of us we do pretty well, sell on the Internet and a few shops down in Sacramento and the city.”
“But that’s not what you came here to talk about. Your card says investigative services, and the county sent you.”
“I’m a friend of the Perez family, but the deputy in charge of the case said it was okay to talk with you.”
“How’re you their friend? I haven’t seen you around.”
I explained my relationship with Ramon and Sara.
“Ripinsky’s wife. I’ll be damned. He was my hero, back when I was in high school. Real rabble-rouser, but the good kind. If it hadn’t been for him, Tufa Lake’d be nothing but mud and crumbling towers by now.” He paused. “So what d’you want to know about Hayley?”
“Why don’t you give me a chronology of your relationship with her.”
“Okay. She was in high school. Dating this asshole, Tom Mathers. I’d come back from a stint in the army; I’m six years older than her. I’d seen her around while I was growing up, but didn’t pay her much notice. Then we met at a party. Mathers passed out in the bathroom, so I took her home. She told me how much she hated it here, one thing led to another, and a few weeks later we were on the road to Reno to get married.”
“Yeah. Crappy little wedding chapel, plastic flowers, JP and his wife were both weird. That kind of start, it’s natural the wedding vows didn’t take. Plus we didn’t have much money and fought about it all the time. Three years later she split and I decided to come home. I couldn’t take the crap I had to deal with at the casino and this place was waiting for me.”
“Kristen Lark told me Hayley was hooking.”
“Yeah, she was. I should’ve realized it, but I didn’t—not till it was too late.”
“I understand she took off with a high roller, but you don’t know his name.”
“I just told Lark that to keep the guy from getting in trouble. I mean, he couldn’t’ve cared enough about Hayley to follow her here and kill her. His name was Jack Buckle. From someplace in the Pacific Northwest. I should’ve guessed what was going on with them, but I never thought . . . well, Hayley was not in this guy’s class at all.”
“He was rich, smart, and seemed educated. Hayley was just a small-town slut. I know that now, but at the time I was blind in love with her. But a lot of these rich guys, they either don’t care or don’t look farther than the end of their dicks.”
“Did you hear from her again?”
“Only through the divorce papers six months later. By then I’d come back here, started woodworking. After that I never gave a thought to Hayley.” He paused. “Well, that’s not true. I thought about her some, sure. I hated her for what she did to me, but when I met Cammie—my weaver girlfriend—and things started working out with us, I cooled down.”
“You didn’t look so cooled down when I got here earlier.”
He clasped his hands around the coffee mug, looked into its depths. “Yeah, well, when somebody you once loved is murdered—no matter how much bad they did to you—you get angry. I take my anger out on logs, not people.”
“And you didn’t know Hayley was back in Vernon?”
“No way. I’m pretty isolated out here. I make a point of going to town only when I need to. Maybe Cammie knew; she lives in Vernon, spends the weekends here, working on her loom in the shop. But if she did, she didn’t tell me.”
“I’d like to talk to Cammie.”
“I’m sure she won’t mind. She works part time at the flower shop in town. In fact, she should be there this morning.”
There was only one flower shop in Vernon—Petals, on the main street two doors down from Hobo’s. When I walked in I breathed deeply of the fresh and fragrant scents; although a bell rang as I passed through the door, no one appeared, so I studied the simple arrangements in the cold case. Roses, carnations, the usual types. Not much variety, but they probably had little call for anything out of the ordinary.
As I was examining a shelf of houseplants, a woman came through a curtained doorway. She was around thirty, blonde, wearing red-rimmed glasses and a sweater to match. Dimples flashed when she smiled.
“Are you Cammie?”
“That’s right. Cammie Charles. And you are?”
I gave my name, handed her my card, and said, “I just had coffee with Rich Three Wings. He said you might be able to help me out.”
“Sure. What d’you need?”
“Information. I’m cooperating with the sheriff’s department on the Hayley Perez case.”
A shadow crept into her gray eyes. “Poor woman. Rich was really upset when he heard she’d been murdered. I mean, they’d had some bad times, but she was his first love.”
“He didn’t know she was in town. Did you?”
Her gaze slid away from mine, down to an open book of FTD offerings. “Yeah, I did. Bud Smith mentioned it to me when we ran into each other on the street. I figured it was best not to tell Richie.”
“Selfishness, mainly. I didn’t want him to see her and maybe get involved again. She was so pretty. . . .”
“You knew her, then?”
“No. I’m not from around here. I came up from the Bay Area for a vacation, met Richie, and never left. But Hayley came into the shop a couple of weeks ago—the day after Bud was here—to order a funeral arrangement to be sent FTD. I recognized her name from her credit card. She’s not as pretty as the picture of her I found in a box at Richie’s place, but still . . .”
“You have a record of that sale?”
“Somewhere. Is it important?”
“Okay.” She rummaged in a drawer under the counter for an order book and paged through it. “Here it is—Jack Buckle, address in Olympia, Washington.”
Jack Buckle sounded very much alive when I called the phone number from the flower shop’s order form. Amused, too.
“Hayley’s idea of a joke,” he told me. “She’s sent me a funeral arrangement each year on the anniversary of the death of our relationship. I pass them on to the local cemetery.”
“So you broke up on October . . . ?”
“October nineteenth, three years and some months after she came up here with me.”
“And you’ve received an arrangement every year since?”
“The first arrived five days after the split. But why does your flower shop need that kind of information?”
I hadn’t told him I was a flower shop employee, had just given him my name. Now I explained myself.
“Hayley’sdead?Murdered?” He sounded genuinely shocked.
“Yes, Mr. Buckle. I’m sorry.”
“. . . Poor kid. She was a whore, and greedy like they all are, but she didn’t deserve that.”
“Tell me more about her.”
“Let’s see. . . . I was in Reno for an annual high-stakes poker game at a friend’s home. Hayley was serving catered food from the casino to us. Pretty little thing, and afterwards I asked her to come back to my hotel with me. In the course of things she told me that she was with this guy who abused her, that she hated Reno and wanted to get out. So I said, why didn’t she come along home with me? When I took her to their apartment she packed her stuff in fifteen minutes. I brought her back here to Olympia and we had fun till the fun ended.”
“And why did it end?”
“Like I said, whores are greedy. She behaved for a couple of years, acted like a lady even, but I caught her sneaking cash from my wallet. As if I wasn’t footing the bill for everything and also generous with an allowance. Finally, my maid told me Hayley’d been going through my home office, probably looking for the combination to the safe, and practicing signing my signature so she could forge checks.”
“So you threw her out.”
“No, ma’am. I politely told her to leave and asked her where she wanted to go. To tell the truth, I felt sorry for the kid; she’d had a miserable upbringing. I didn’t want to throw her onto the streets with nothing. She said she guessed she’d go to Vegas. So I bought her a plane ticket and gave her a little money to tide her over till she found a job—or another man. She must’ve done all right on one front or the other, because this year’s funeral arrangement was an expensive one.”
“Do you know an attorney in Vegas, Frank Brower, of Brower, Price and Coleman?”
“I’ve heard of him, but I’ve never made his acquaintance.”
“He got Hayley off on a few charges of prostitution.”
“Hard to imagine how she could afford that firm. They’re corporate lawyers for some of the bigger casinos.”
“One other question, Mr. Buckle, and then I won’t take up more of your time: what is it you do for a living?”
“I’m chief counsel for the Northwest Council of God.”
“The . . . ?”
“Northwest Council of God.”
“. . . Oh.”
He laughed. “I said chief counsel, Ms. McCone. I’m not a member, and I don’t abide by their beliefs, nor do they expect me to. They simply want good legal representation and they pay me a significant retainer.”
“I see.” The pragmatic approach to faith, or lack thereof. “The Mono County Sheriff’s Department will be in touch with you shortly.”
“I’ll cooperate in any way I can.”
Immediately after I ended my call to Jack Buckle, my phone rang. Lark.
“We’ve designated the cabin at Willow Grove as a possible homicide scene,” she said. “We’re asking local pilots to help us out with an air search for a body tomorrow. Would you be willing to join in?”
I wanted to tell her she’d do better with cadaver dogs. It was unlikely a killer would have placed Amy’s body out in the open where anyone could see it, and to a pilot flying at legal altitude over that thickly wooded terrain, a concealed corpse would be damned near impossible to spot.
But to keep on her good side I said, “Sure. Hy’s coming up this afternoon: we’ll both join in. One more thing: this Tom Mathers—I’d like to talk with him.”
“No problem. He’s at Tom’s Wilderness Supplies and Vacations, about five miles out on the Rattlesnake Ranch Cutoff.”
The terrain off Rattlesnake Ranch Cutoff was barren, like Mineral County over in Nevada. A few volcanically created formations stood out in the distance, but otherwise the land was flat and covered by coarse grass and sagebrush. Tom’s Wilderness Supplies and Vacations, an orange-and-purple-trimmed stucco building with racks of rowboats and canoes at the back of the parking lot, was a bright, if gaudy, spot in the surrounding bleakness. A pair of dune buggies were pulled close to the building on the other side from the parking lot.
The building’s interior was fairly large and crammed with all sorts of outdoors gear: backpacks, tents, stoves and lanterns, life jackets, fishing equipment, heavy-duty clothing—if you needed it, it was there. Tom Mathers was also a weapons dealer: guns gleamed in locked cases, in others knives glittered evilly under the fluorescent lights.
Guns I know, understand, and respect for their lethal potential. Knives scare the hell out of me.
The man behind the counter was in his mid-to-late twenties: sandy-haired, sun-freckled and -tanned, with wide shoulders and biceps that bulged beneath his T-shirt. A bodybuilder, I guessed, as well as an outdoorsman. A cheerful one, too: he smiled as if his best friend had just walked in.
“What can I do you for?”
“Are you Tom Mathers?”
“The one and only.”
I went through my friend-of-the-Perez-family, cooperating-with-the-sheriff’s-department routine. Mathers’ smile faded and he shook his head.
“Hayley. What a shame.”
“Do you have any idea who might have killed her?”
Something moved deep in his eyes. He looked down at the knives in the case between us. “No idea at all. Everybody loved Hayley.”
Bad body language; I didn’t believe him. “Tell me about you and her.”
“We went together all through high school. She never even looked at another guy. I thought we’d get married, have kids. Then this older guy shows up at a party, and a week later she’s gone.”
“I understand she left the party with him because you were passed out in the bathroom.”
He shrugged. “That was no reason to run off with him. We partied pretty hard in those days. But she knew I would’ve straightened up. I mean, I’ve got a great business here, I’m married, own a house on the property.” He jerked his thumb, indicating the house was behind the building. “No complaints from the wife, either—”
“A wife who was second choice and you’re never going to let me forget it,” a voice said from behind me.
I turned. A woman with long reddish-blonde hair had come inside. She was trim and well muscled, wearing only a short-sleeved T-shirt and running shorts. Not pretty, as Hayley Perez had been, but strong-featured. Her mouth was bracketed with lines of disappointment—and she must have been all of twenty-five.
No complaints from the wife. Right.
“T.C.,” her husband said, “this is a private conversation.”
“Not if you’re talking about me.” She came over and extended her hand to me. “T.C. Mathers.”
Tom Mathers said, “Ms. McCone’s cooperating with the sheriff on Hayley Perez’s murder.”
T.C. rolled her eyes. “The sainted Hayley Perez. What I wonder is why somebody didn’t shoot her years ago.”
Tom’s face reddened. “Theresa!”
She winked at me. “When he gets mad, he always calls me by my given name. Knows I hate it. When he’s really mad, he calls me Theresa Christina. Gets to me because it reminds me of my goddamn reactionary Christian parents who saddled me with it.”
I was not at all pleased that I’d walked into this situation. I looked at my watch. Nearing two-thirty, I hadn’t had a bite to eat all day, and Hy’s ETA was four.
I said, “I’d like to talk with both of you again, but there’s someplace I have to be soon. May I call you here or at home?”
“We’re in the book. Call or drop in. Just keep following the driveway to the house.” Tom Mathers was trying to regain his former composure, but his stance radiated fury at his wife.
“I’ll be in touch,” I said, and walked away from their domestic conflict.
In town I bought a sandwich and a Coke before I made the drive to Tufa Tower Airport at the northwest end of the lake. It wasn’t much: a single runway, a dozen or so planes in tie-downs, a hangar that hadn’t housed a resident mechanic in years, and a shack where the manager—a garrulous septuagenarian named Amos Hinsdale—monitored the UNICOM and hoped that some fool would come in and rent one of his two dreadful planes. Normally I tolerated Amos, but today I wasn’t in the mood for one of his monologues about the good old days when flying took a realman’sskill. Forget Amelia Earhart; forget the Powder Puff Derby participants and the women who ferried planes for the military during World War II. Forget the fact that many women, including myself, frequently flew into Tufa Tower. In Amos’ mind, aviation was a man’s world—although he also thought that the current crop of male pilots, who used up-to-date computerized equipment, were “a bunch of sissies.”
I parked behind the hangar where I couldn’t be seen from the shack and ate my late lunch. Thought about the case—my absolute last one—and where it was going, where it might lead me. I came to no conclusions about either.
After half an hour I began watching the hills to the north. Hy’s and my beautiful red-and-blue Cessna 170B appeared above them; soon I heard the drone of its engine. The wings dipped from side to side, then he executed a barrel roll—showing off, knowing I was waiting for him. Afterward he angled into the pattern, took the downwind leg, and turned for final. I was at our designated tie-down when he taxied over.
He shut down the engine and got out. As always, I felt a rush of pleasure.
This man is my husband; we’ll be together the rest of our lives.
Silly thought, because we’d already spent years together before we impulsively flew to Nevada and were married by a judge in Carson City. But those years hadn’t been easy. Neither had the past one. I’d had many moments of doubt, and a recent serious crisis that I wasn’t sure the union could survive. But through it all, he’d been steady and true and honest. No more doubts. Not now, not ever.
I ran over, threw my arms around him. Kissed him and held on tight. When I stepped back he smiled, even white teeth showing under his swooping mustache. He wasn’t classically handsome, with a hawk-like nose and strong, rough-hewn features. His unruly dark-blond hair was now laced with gray. But his loose stride and long, lean body drew the attention of women as he walked through a room. And he possessed one of the finest asses I’d ever seen.
He raised an eyebrow at me and said, “Jesus, McCone, you must’ve missed me.”
“Let’s tie down this plane and I’ll take you home and show you how much.”
“Now, that’ll be pure heaven.”
That night I did not dream of being trapped in a pit.
Numerous official choppers and private planes from surrounding counties were available for the air search. Hy and I flew together in our Cessna. The morning was crisp and clear, and we’d bundled up in down jackets, jeans, and fleece-lined boots. Hy had brewed an extra pot of coffee, and we took it along in a thermos. I piloted, since he’d had that pleasure on the trip up here.
It had been a while since I’d flown, and on liftoff I’d felt a tremendous rush. It made me realize how important not being earthbound was to me. My depression—these days always a background to whatever I was doing—slipped away, and I settled happily into what felt like a cocoon that only Hy and I could inhabit.
“You realize,” I said through our linked headsets as we lifted off, “that this is an exercise in futility.”
“Yeah, but you can’t tell that to the sheriff’s department. And it makes people feel like they’re doing something to help. Besides, maybe somebody in one of the choppers’ll spot something.” Helicopters are authorized by the FAA to fly at lower altitudes than fixed-wing aircraft, and thus are better for searches.
Hy removed a pair of binoculars from their leather case, and I set course toward the area we’d been assigned to search—a barren plain southeast of Rattlesnake Ranch, some ten miles from where Tom Mathers had his wilderness-guide business. The thousand-plus acres, Hy had told me, used to be a working cattle ranch, but had been sold off a decade or more before to a family from the East Coast, who tore down the existing buildings and put up a luxurious vacation home.
As we flew over the ranch, I saw a sprawling house—had to be a minimum of twenty thousand square feet—with a tile roof, various outbuildings, an airstrip, a tennis court, and a swimming pool.
“Who the hellarethose people?” I asked.
“Don’t know their name or much about them. The property sale was handled by a law firm, and the local real-estate agent who represented the sellers is mum on the subject. They fly in on a private jet, don’t come to town at all, hire local staff who’re sworn to secrecy about what goes on there. It’s rumored that they’re anything from exiled royalty to Mafia. I say they’re just rich people who value their privacy.”
“Well, sure.” Hy was scanning the place with the binoculars. “Nobody in residence today—too chilly for them. They’re probably off at a similar retreat on St. Bart’s or Tahiti this time of year.”
“By the way, that trip to Tahiti my travel agent wants to book us—”
“Will happen as soon as I get RI up and running properly. And after you decide what to do about your future.”
We’d talked late into the last night about both subjects. Hy was committed to seeing Ripinsky International through the reorganization and then remaining at the helm. I’d told him I still didn’t know what to do about my life or McCone Investigations. Maybe wouldn’t know for quite some time. He’d reassured me: as long as the agency was running properly in my absence I had no problem.
“You know,” he said after a moment of scanning the land beyond Rattlesnake Ranch, “a killer would have to be an idiot to abandon a body out here in the open.”
“Exactly what I’ve been thinking.” I switched the radio to the frequency designated for the search. Negative reports on all fronts.
I let the plane glide to a lower altitude, following a southeasterly course, to an area where snow-like volcanic ash covered the ground, peppered with small obsidian outcroppings and Jeffrey pines. Ash and glass, relics of an ancient conflagration; stubborn pines, reminders of nature’s life force. Hy and I had often flown over here—
“Take it lower,” he suddenly said.
I pulled back on the throttle, raised the nose to slow the plane. “You see something?”
“I’m not sure. Bank left.”
I dipped the wing to a medium angle.
“Over there.” He gestured, handed me the binoculars.
I peered through them, made out a brownish mass. “Dead pine. Or maybe a large animal.”
“Pines and animals aren’t shaped like that. Besides, look over there, behind that outcropping. It’s a white truck.”
I studied the terrain some more. “Right.”
“Can you put down someplace nearby?”
“Not too far from the truck, yes. It’ll be a rough landing, but—”
“We’ve made them before.”
Itwasa rough landing, the wheels bumping over rocks and uneven ground—the kind that makes your heart race and your adrenaline surge, knowing that you’ve got whatever it takes to be a good pilot. As I braked to a stop, I thought, So aviation’s a man’s world, Amos? Hah!
We got our bearings and started off, boots crunching on the ashy, pebbled ground. The watery fall sunlight bore down, but the day hadn’t warmed much; I wished I’d brought along some gloves. We topped a slight rise, where Hy raised the binoculars and looked around. “Over that way.”
At first all I recognized was a sleeping bag. Olive drab—which had looked more like brown from the air. Then I made out the shape inside it. A large one.
I said, “It’s not Amy. She’s much smaller than whoever that is.”
Hy moved toward it, and I followed. The bag was zipped to the top. I squatted and pulled the zipper down.
Sandy hair, a freckled face—formerly tanned, but now bluish white in death. No marks marred his features; he looked as if he’d crawled into the bag, zipped it up, and gone to sleep.
Tom Mathers, Hayley Perez’s former boyfriend.
The man who, the last time I’d seen him, had been engaged in bitter conflict with his wife, T.C.
Hy stayed with the body while I went to the plane and contacted the search team’s headquarters. They said they’d have a chopper there in ten minutes.
“When was it you last saw Mathers?” Hy asked when I returned.
“Around two-thirty yesterday afternoon.”
“Well, he must’ve been here since last night or early this morning. There’s no odor; the cold’s pretty much preserved the body.”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to disturb the scene any more than we already have.”
I looked around at the ground: faint tire tracks, no drag marks near the body. Of course, the ash had either drifted in the persistent winds or was hardened by thousands of years of exposure to the elements.
Hy said, “I’ll check out that truck. Why don’t you wait for the sheriff’s people?”
“Okay.” As he walked away, I stared down at the shrouded body. Tom Mathers had been a big man; in death he would have been hard to move.
I pictured T.C. Mathers. She’d appeared very strong. And then there were all those guns and knives gleaming in their cases at the wilderness supply. What if the argument I’d triggered by asking about Hayley Perez had spun out of control . . . ?
The drone and flapping of a chopper came from the north. It hovered, then set down nearby. Kristen Lark got out and, ducking her head, ran toward us.
It was after six when we finished giving statements to Lark at her office in Bridgeport, nearly seven when we got back to Vernon. We’d had no lunch, so we headed to Zelda’s, where a country band whose members must’ve been tone deaf were playing. Bob Zelda, who had heard about our discovery via the small-town grapevine, gave us a table in the bar area, as far from the noise as possible, brought us complimentary glasses of white wine, and took our orders.
“They turn up any traces of the Perez girl?” he asked.
“No,” Hy said, “the search was called off at dusk.”
“Bad enough what you found. Tom Mathers was a good kid.”
“Somebody didn’t think so. He was shot in the back.”
“God.” He turned toward the kitchen.
Hy swirled the wine in his glass, breathed in its aroma, sipped, and made a face. “I’d rather have paid for a really good vintage,” he muttered.
Being one who had spent much of her life opening screwtop bottles, I shrugged.
“Come on, McCone. You’ve got a better palate than that.”
I sipped, and my lips puckered. “You’re right. Any potted plants we can pour this into?”
“We’ll have a bottle of Deer Hill with dinner.”
Deer Hill—my favorite chardonnay, which would go perfectly with the golden trout we’d both ordered. Then my mind flashed back to the night last February when RKI’s building on Green Street in the city had been bombed; I’d walked out with a bottle of that particular wine to take to a dinner at my half-sister’s place in Berkeley just seconds before the former warehouse blew up, killing three people.
Hy studied my face, accustomed by now to my sudden shifts in mood. He put his hand on mine. “It’s over, McCone.”
“That threat, yes. But what about the next? I still have nightmares—”
“About that and lots of other things, I know. I have them too. Things like that leave scars, but if you don’t have scars, you haven’t really lived. Someone like you needs to put herself out on the line.”
“I’m not sure that’s true any more.” I picked up my water glass, drank half, and dumped the sour white wine into it. “You order us a bottle of Deer Hill, and let’s forget about crime for tonight.”
In the morning Hy slept in and I went to visit Lear Jet, a few carrot pieces in my pocket. Ramon apparently hadn’t been there, and the horse was hungry: he took the first carrot eagerly. I offered another, then gave him his morning’s ration of mixed hay. While he ate, I watched him. This gentle creature bore no resemblance to the one that had charged me Wednesday night.
I said, “You haven’t been getting your exercise, have you, guy?”
“We could go for a short ride, if you cooperate. But if you play games, there’ll be no alfalfa tonight.”
As if he could actually understand me, he bobbed his head.
It was probably a mistake. No one knew I was taking the horse out, and if he threw me again, I’d have to limp my own way back to the house.
So why’re you doing it, McCone? To prove some unimportant point?
No. This one feels important.
Lear Jet allowed me to saddle and mount him with no problem. He trotted sedately toward the mesa overlooking the lake, and by the time we got there I felt as if we’d tentatively formed a rapport.
“You know what?” I said, stroking his mane. “You need a new name. Lear Jet—even if that’s what Hy called you—is undignified. How about King Lear? Now that’s strong, speaks of a horse with self-esteem.”
Also speaks of insanity, but it’s not likely he knows his Shakespeare.
The horse bobbed his head again.
“It’s settled, then. I’ll call you King for short.”
When we got back to the stables, King only stepped on my foot once while I was grooming him. And I was pretty sure that was an accident.
When Hy came out of the ranch house, King was in his fenced pasture and I was cleaning out his stall. Hy stared in astonishment, shook his head, and said, “Never thought I’d see you tending to Lear Jet—or any other horse.”
“His name,” I said, “is now King Lear. King for short. We’re almost friends. In fact, I think he likes me better than you. At least I come to the stable bearing carrots.”
“Fickle animal. Since the two of you are on your way to becoming buddies, I just may have to buy myself another nag.”
“King is not anag.”
“Oh yeah, the two of you have bonded big-time. If I ever get to ride again, I’m definitely going to have to spring for a new nag—I mean, horse.”
“King could use some company.”
“Do we have onions?” Hy asked.
“Yes, in that wire basket.” I sat at the table, thumbing through a report Kristen Lark had faxed me.
“How fresh are these eggs?”
“Check the sell-by date.”
“Fresh enough. What’s Lark got to say?”
“Not much. Nothing on Boz Sheppard. The sleeping bag Tom Mathers was wrapped in belongs to him; his wife says he kept it in the truck. She’s got an alibi for the time of the killing: she slammed out of the wilderness supply a short while after I left; a customer saw her leave, and spent at least an hour afterwards with Tom, talking about a fishing trip he wanted to line up. T.C. went directly to Zelda’s, drank and danced for hours, then spent the night with a good old boy at the motel.”
“Canned mushrooms all right?”
“They’ll have to be; we don’t have fresh. The good old boy is Cullen Bradley. I interviewed him at the hardware store he owns in Bridgeport. Glad-handing small-town guy with a serious hangover. Those Bridgeport men really get around. I wonder if— What?”
“In anomelet? Are you insane?”
“Just trying to get your attention, McCone.”
“I’m paying attention.”
“No you’re not. And that’s a sign you’re getting better.”
I spent a good deal of Monday morning on the phone to the agency, going over the week’s schedule with Patrick Neilan. Two new clients had set initial appointments with him for the afternoon: one was a deadbeat-dad case, which he’d probably assign to Julia Rafael; the other concerned identity theft. In the past Patrick himself would have taken it on, or it would have ended up on the desk of Charlotte Keim, my chief financial investigator.
But Keim, once my nephew Mick’s live-in love, now worked for Hy; after the acrimonious breakup of their relationship, I’d asked Hy to hire her in order to preserve peace within the agency. Her replacement, Thelia Chen, a former analyst for Bank of America, was working out splendidly. She ought to be able to handle the case.
The agency was practically running itself in my absence. Patrick was working out well as a partial stand-in for me. Ted and his assistant, Kendra Williams, were a superefficient pair. Mick and Derek made short work of the increasing number of computer forensic jobs that came in, and weren’t averse to doing mundane searches when nothing complex was on the table. Julia Rafael was bilingual and could deal well with Latino clients with limited English; former FBI agent Craig Morland had wide-ranging contacts with government agencies. And for a good all-around operative I could always call on the freelance talents of Rae Kelleher, who was now writing novels with a strong crime element and welcomed keeping her hand in the detective business.
Once this state of affairs would have made me feel distanced, left out. Now I merely felt relieved. I’d created a great team and, if I accomplished nothing else in my career, it had been worth the effort.
Still I felt restless, the empty day ahead weighing heavily upon me. No leads, no new information. Unless . . .
I dialed Glenn Solomon, a high-powered San Francisco attorney for whom I’d done a great deal of work—and who was also a good friend.
“Glenn, d’you know a Las Vegas firm—Brower, Price and Coleman?”
“Sure. They handle the legal work for at least three major casinos.”
“What about Frank Brower?”
“Lousy golfer, but a nice guy.”
“So you know him well?”
“We get together down there two, three times a year.”
I explained what I needed to know and asked, “Can you get him to tell you who was footing the bill for Hayley Perez’s legal work?”
“If I go about it the right way.”
“Will you do it for me—as a favor?”
“Yes, my friend. But I thought you were taking a long vacation at that ranch you and Hy have.”
“I was. Severe case of burn-out.”
“And you’re over it now?”
“No, I’m just helping out some friends.”
I booted up my laptop and Googled Bud Smith. Good luck, with a name like that. I narrowed the search down to insurance brokers, Mono County, California. No Bud, but there was a Herbert in Vernon. His record was clean—no complaints to the state department of consumer affairs. I then searched for more information on Herbert Smith of Vernon, California. Nothing. Apparently he wasn’t important enough to the gods of Google. Finally I logged on to one of the search engines that the agency subscribes to—even though I’m averse to availing myself of company resources for personal reasons—and came up with some revealing information.
Herbert Smith of Vernon, California, was a registered sex offender.
To confirm the information I visited a site that posted the whereabouts of registered sex offenders. He was on it.
How, I wondered, had a community of not more than four hundred people failed to pick up on his status? How could Dana Ivins have arranged for him to mentor young men and women?
I dialed Ivins’s number. She picked up, sounding crisp and professional. I told her what I’d found out and asked, “How could you put your clients at risk like that?”
Calmly she replied, “Bud’s case was unusual. He never confirmed it to me, but even the prosecutor over in Mineral County thought he was covering for someone else.”
“So this happened in Nevada.”
“Yes, twenty-six years ago. A girl of thirteen was raped, sodomized, and abandoned in the countryside near the munitions storage site outside of Hawthorne. She managed to crawl to the road and flag down a passing car. There was evidence pointing to Bud—tire tracks from his truck in the sand, a piece of cloth she’d ripped from a shirt belonging to him. Unfortunately, the girl was extremely traumatized. She couldn’t even speak, much less identify her attacker.”
And over a quarter of a century ago, there wouldn’t have been any DNA evidence. DNA testing was in its infancy then.
“So why did the prosecutor think Smith was covering for someone?”
“Bud had a younger brother, Davey. He was sixteen, something of a child prodigy—math, I think—but considered strange by his teachers and peers. Bud raised him after their parents died and was overly protective of him. Originally the police focused on Davey because he’d been seen in town talking with the girl, but then Bud confessed. And stuck to it.”
“So Bud did his time and . . . ?”
“And moved back here to Vernon, where he was born and raised till the family moved to Hawthorne during his teens.”
I was a little surprised that Smith could have gotten a California insurance broker’s license. Many types of licenses are unavailable to sex offenders—such as real estate, because the agents have access to keys. But then with insurance, if the person is registered and up-front about doing time, the state is more lenient. And Bud had apparently been honest about his record.
“Is Bud’s status common knowledge around here?” I asked Ivins.
“Not really. I suppose some people may have stumbled across it on the Internet. But Bud’s very civic-minded and well liked, so if they have they’ve kept it to themselves. I know only because he confided his past to me when he applied to become a mentor. Then I did some research on his case.”
“What happened to the brother, Davey?”
“I don’t know that, either. All I’m really sure of is that Bud has been good at mentoring our clients.”
“Does he tell them he was in prison, and why?”
“Whatever goes on between friends who help friends is strictly confidential.”
It seemed to me she didn’t know a hell of a lot of things she should know about what went on between her organization’s clients and their mentors.
“Is Bud aware you told me he might have been tutoring Amy Perez in math?”
“. . . I mentioned it to him. He called shortly after you left me that day.”
“Why did he call?”
She frowned. “I don’t really know. I told him about your visit, but then someone called on his other line. He said he’d get back to me, but he never did.”
“Is he still living on Aspen Lane?” It was the address listed for him on the registered sex offenders site.
“. . . Yes.”
“Do you have a phone number for him?”
“I can’t give out—”
“Never mind. I’ll get hold of him.”
Irresponsibility, I thought. Sheer irresponsibility. I’m all for giving sex offenders a second chance, but given the high rate of recidivism, that chance shouldn’t be in a sensitive area involving young people. And I wasn’t sure I bought the rumors of Bud Smith’s false confession—even if the Mineral County prosecutor had had his or her doubts.
I called Smith’s office, got a machine. Thumbed through the slim local directory; his home number wasn’t listed, under either Bud or Herbert. Better to speak with him in person anyway. I’d drive out to Aspen Lane and—
The phone rang. Glenn Solomon.
“I talked with Frank Brower. His instructions to represent Hayley Perez came from a Mount Kisco, New York, law firm—Carpenter and Bates.”
“You know anyone there?”
“No, but Frank was on theHarvard Law Reviewwith Bates. He’ll get back to me later.”
“Thanks so much, Glenn. I’m leaving now and my cellular might not work where I’m going. If it doesn’t, please leave a message on the machine here at the ranch.”
“Certainly.” He paused, the silence full of meaning.
“What?” I asked.
“What I always tell you when you embark on one of your quests, my friend: be clever and careful.”
Aspen Lane was three miles out the road to Stone Valley—a place I hadn’t visited for years and didn’t even like to think about. The horrific events that had happened in the valley back then had ultimately brought Hy and me together, but I didn’t want to relive them, even in my head. The vision of the mountain exploding, our frantic flight—
So stop reliving them, all right?
The lane was well named: golden-leafed aspen spread out to either side and clustered around the small, mostly prefab homes. Bud Smith’s was at the very end, where the pavement stopped—a double-wide trailer with attractive plantings and a deck with an awning over it. A fishing boat was up on davits, ready to be prepped and tarped for the winter. Usually I think of child molesters as unsavory types who live in squalor and lurk in dark places seeking their prey, but I couldn’t reconcile either the man I’d met or his tidy home with such an image.
No one answered the doorbell. I walked around the structure calling out to Smith. No response, but I sensed a presence nearby. Finally I went back to the deck and saw what I hadn’t noticed before: the door was slightly ajar.
Not breaking and entering, just trespassing. And trespassing for a good reason: now I’m worried about the man.
The excuses I use to justify my actions . . .
I eased the door open, listening. Silence. Strong smell there, but it wasn’t sinister—cooked garlic and onions. Still, I drew Hy’s .45 from my bag before I went inside. The living room and galley kitchen were empty. The meal must have been cooked yesterday, since the stove and all the counter surfaces were clean.
I moved along the hallway. Three bedrooms and a bath opened off it, all of them deserted. In one of the smaller rooms, the bed had been left unmade. Otherwise everything was neat.
Why didn’t Bud Smith sleep in the larger room with the queen-sized bed? Perhaps he shared the trailer with someone who was tidier than he?
Well, that information could be had online. But while I was here . . .
The master bedroom’s closet contained a man’s clothing—mostly vintage and odd, as I’d seen Bud wear. So it was his room after all. The bathroom didn’t tell me much. A Water Pik and two electric toothbrushes, some first-aid supplies, aspirin, and sinus headache pills. No prescription drugs. A razor and shaving cream on a shelf below a mirror in the shower stall. Third bedroom, mostly empty—a guest room that hadn’t been used in quite a while, judging from the layer of dust.
Back to the room with the unmade bed. The closet held some newish-looking woman’s jeans. A couple of sweaters were draped across a chair, and there were a few tops hanging in the closet. Woman’s underwear in the bureau, and a flannel nightgown tossed on the bed. Makeup items and a pair of earrings on the bureau.
So Smith had a female roommate. She was probably at work.
I moved back to the living area, looking in drawers and cupboards, gave the whole trailer another once-over, then left and started back to the ranch.
I sat at my laptop, thinking about Bud Smith—a convicted child molester who may have been covering for his younger brother. Smith, who had told me he knew Amy Perez and, if Amy had followed Dana Ivins’ advice, may have tutored her in algebra. Who had sold a life-insurance policy to Hayley, with Amy as beneficiary. Had he known Hayley before she bought the policy? Probably not, given their age difference.
I logged on to Mono County property records and learned the land and the double-wide had belonged to Smith for seven years. When I went to the state insurance brokers’ registry, I found that he’d received his license the same year he’d purchased the land. The California Registry of Sex Offenders showed he’d contacted them within a day of his arrival in the state, and reregistered when required.
Which proved . . . ? Not much.
TheMineral County Independent Newsin Hawthorne didn’t have online issues going back twenty-six years. I could drive over there and check their archives, but it was getting on toward five o’clock. Better to wait till morning.
Well, what about the paper in Reno? A controversial rape case would have warranted mention. I checked, found their online archives didn’t go back twenty-six years, either. Tomorrow I’d have to visit Mineral County.
But now I’d take a ride on King, who was probably waiting for me. Tonight I’d cut a path across open land where our small herd of sheep grazed. Hy had told me the sheep had something to do with a subsidy or lower taxes—I forget which—but I suspected he kept them out of sentiment. His stepfather, to whom he’d been considerably closer than to his birth father, had been a lifelong sheep rancher.
The ride was without event, and I felt a growing kinship with the horse. I’d been traumatized by the events of the night when he’d charged me, but so had he. Animals are essentially innocent, until we humans treat them badly and give them cause to fear. King needed my reassurance.
As we retraced our steps, I wondered if this caring for the horse indicated a caring for other things in my life.
Ramon was at the stable when King and I got back, cleaning out the stall. He said hello and went on with what he was doing, allowing me to tend to King on my own.
When I finished rubbing King down and led him into the clean stall, I noticed Ramon’s dark eyes were shadowed and puffy. He attempted a smile, but it didn’t quite come off.
“How’re you doing?” I asked.
He made a wobbly gesture with his hand. “We buried Hayley up in Bridgeport today.”
“Oh, I wish you’d told me. I would’ve—”
“Not necessary; you didn’t know her. It was a nice turnout, though. Even that wild man she ran off with and his girlfriend came. The girlfriend brought beautiful flowers. She works at Petals.”
So Rich Three Wings and Cammie Charles had paid their respects to Hayley. Rich, because he still loved her, and Cammie, probably because she felt guilty that her imagined rival was dead.
I asked, “Did Miri attend?”
Ramon’s eyes narrowed, the lines around them deepening. “No.”
“Why not? She was only on seventy-two-hour hold at the psychiatric ward.”
“Yeah. And then she checked herself into a rehab facility they recommended. By this morning she was gone. She’s probably in Reno or Vegas, helling around or selling herself. I’ve washed my hands of her. Sara’s real broken up about this, but she’ll get over it. You gotta go on.”
“And what about Amy? Anything from her?”
“Not a word.” He leaned in the doorway, and for a moment I thought he’d sag to the ground. “I loved that little girl, Sharon. I should’ve never let Miri run me off. I should’ve stayed and fought for the last of my nieces and nephews.”
I went to him, took his hand, and drew him over to the nearest bales of hay. As we sat, I said, “You couldn’t have known what would happen.”
“Anybody could’ve read the signs that she was headed for bad trouble. But not me, I was too offended at Miri, too dug down into my own unhappiness. Sara and I had two boys, you know—Peter and Raymond.”
“I didn’t know. Neither of you has ever mentioned them.”
“They’ve been gone a long time. Peter died in a gang shootout over in Santa Rosa. Raymond died of a drug overdose. I didn’t do so good by them, either.”
Sadness welled up inside me—guilt, too. “I’m sorry,” I said, “and I understand how you feel. I had a brother, Joey. Always was a rebel and a loner. After he graduated high school, he took off and very seldom came home. Ma—my adoptive mother—got postcards occasionally, but that was it. And then he died all alone of a drug and alcohol overdose in a shack up near Eureka. Ever since then I’ve wished I’d done more. That any of us had done more. But we just . . . let him go.”
“I’m sorry, Sharon. Us people, we’re all so careless. I don’t want to let go of Amy.”
“Neither do I. I promise I’ll find her.”
That night I dreamed of the pit again—only this time it was bigger. Impossible to place both my hands and feet on its sides and climb into the sunshine like a spider. I woke in a near panic, sat up, collapsed back on the pillows.
Told myself,I will not allow this to get the better of me.
Tomorrow I’d keep my promise to Ramon. Start an intensive search for Bud Smith who, my instincts said, was at the center of Amy’s disappearance.
Maybe that would keep my nightmares at bay.
The Nevada sky was cloudless as I coasted past the red-and-white sign welcoming me to Hawthorne, population 3,311. Larger than Vernon by far, and the county seat, but still a small town. Laid out on a grid, so I had no difficulty locating theIndependent Newsbuilding on D Street.
The man I talked to was pleasant and friendly. Back issues on microfilm? No problem. They were going to put everything online someday, but who knew when that would be? Soon I was seated in a dusty room fitting reels onto a machine with fumbling fingers. How could I be clumsy at the act I’d performed so many times before I’d become computer literate? Another symptom of burn-out?
I returned the films an hour or so later, having learned too few new details to justify such a long drive, except that Smith’s rape victim had remained too traumatized to identify her assailant.
It was after two in the afternoon, so I asked about someplace to eat lunch. McDonald’s; everyplace else had stopped serving. I hadn’t had a Mickey D’s burger in years, and it was a strange experience: not what I now think of as a burger, but a different substance entirely. I blocked out thoughts of what that substance might be and ate it anyway.
Back in the car, I checked my cell to see if it worked here—which it did—and consulted my notes. Got the number for the prosecutor in the Smith case from Information. Warren Mills, now retired, was home and willing to see me once I assured him that I was an investigator, not someone planning to write a book on the case. “Too damn much of that sensational crap going around these days,” he told me.
Mills lived only a few blocks away on East Eighth Street. The house was a low-slung rancher, one of a number on that block that were probably built in the late forties before developers realized that the wartime boom in the Hawthorne economy—due to activity at the nearby munitions depot—was dropping off. I parked out front and went up a concrete walk bordered on either side by cacti and polished rock. Westernized, I believe it’s called, for yards that don’t require much water or maintenance.
Warren Mills answered the door—a tall, erect man with thick gray hair and black-rimmed glasses who, according to the newspaper accounts, must now be in his late seventies but could have passed for mid-sixties. He led me inside to a den with a big-screen TV. The furnishings were overstuffed and looked comfortable; framed photos hung on the walls—color shots of Walker Lake to the north, he told me.
“Coffee, Ms. McCone? A soda?” He had a deep, rich voice that must have resonated in the courtroom.
“Nothing, thanks. I’ve just come from McDonald’s.”
“I should have offered you an Alka-Seltzer. Please, sit down.”
I sank into a brown chair that enveloped me in an embrace that made it hard to sit up straight.
Warren Mills settled on the couch, propped his moccasin-shod feet on a scarred coffee table in front of it. “You said on the phone that you’re a private investigator and interested in the Herbert Smith case. Why?”
“He may have recently been involved in the abduction of a young woman over in Mono County. I’ve read all the newspaper accounts of his case, but there’s so much that seems . . . unsaid. And a friend of Smith’s claims that you yourself were uncertain Smith was guilty.”
Mills nodded. “His confession was as false as I’ve ever heard.”
“Then why did you accept his plea bargain and send him to prison?”
“It was as if Smith was trying to talk his way behind bars. He insisted on his guilt, refused a lie-detector test when his public defender wanted to order one. I didn’t need to build a case against him; he built it for me. And of course the district attorney was hot for a quick trial and conviction. The rape and sodomy of a thirteen-year-old . . . small towns like this need to put crimes like that behind them and move on.”
“I can’t tell you her name. But she was a nice girl from a decent, hardworking family. Too friendly and trusting, that’s all.”
“What happened to her?”
“The family moved away. She was severely damaged by the assault. And as you must know, you can keep the victim’s name out of the newspapers and court records but word gets out anyway and then it’s blame-the-victim time.”
“Smith’s friend claims he was covering for his younger brother, Davey.”
“The friend’s likely right. Davey Smith was a genius, had just graduated high school at fifteen, with a full scholarship to some college back East. My thinking is that Herbert—Bud, everybody called him—didn’t want to see Davey’s promising future disrupted, even if it meant going to prison for something he didn’t do.”
“Why? If Davey was a rapist—”
“You have to understand the way it was with the two of them. The mother died young. Father raised them well, but he had a fatal heart attack when Bud was sixteen. A young man, just starting out in life, and he could have put his little brother in a foster home, but he didn’t. Instead he quit school, picked up where the father left off, took whatever jobs paid best to support the two of them. That’s sometimes the way some family members are. Bud loved Davey, and I think he saw his brother’s promising future as a kind of a way of ensuring the family would go on.”
“And where is this genius today?”
Mills shrugged, shook his head.
I said, “Bud Smith is working as an insurance broker in Vernon, on Tufa Lake. He lives in a double-wide trailer in the country—nice property, but nothing fancy. And he’s a registered sex offender. I guess his brother—wherever he is—didn’t have the same sense of family.”
“He could be dead. Or incarcerated somewhere else.”
Mills was silent for a long moment. Then: “I imagine in your profession, Ms. McCone, you’ve had reason to regret certain of your actions.”
Oh, haven’t I. Mr. Mills, you’ll never know how much I regret them.
“So have I.” His eyes, behind their black-framed glasses, grew pained. “I regret not pushing harder to prove Bud Smith’s confession was false. I regret not looking more closely at Davey Smith. Whatever’s happened over in Mono County is not Bud’s fault.”
“And Davey . . . ?”
“My biggest regret: that I may have let a monster walk free.”
He paused, seemed to listen to his words. “Talk with an attorney named John Pearl in Carson City.” He reached for a pad and pencil on the scarred coffee table and scribbled. “This is his office address and phone number. I’ll call ahead to say you’ll contact him. He may be able to tell you what I can’t.”
I took the paper. John Pearl: Bud Smith’s former public defender.
The munitions depot occupied a vast expanse of land on the outskirts of Hawthorne. Standard military buildings and cracked and weed-choked pavement were visible from the road, although I’d read on the Net that its golf course and officers’ clubhouse had now been turned into a public country club. Storage bunkers covered the land to the east like Indian mounds, and the landscape was stark and uninviting. I passed through the town of Babbitt, which had once been a bedroom community for base workers, and eventually came to Walker Lake.
I drove north along the shore of the elongated body of water that was rimmed by sand-colored hills to the east. It was currently in ecological crisis, as Tufa and Mono Lakes in California had once been, primarily because the waters of its feeder stream, the Walker River, had been overallocated for agricultural use. Hy had done some work with the organization trying to preserve Walker, one of only five deepwater lakes in the world that are able to sustain a good-sized fishery, and had told me that if the water levels continued to drop, increased salinity would destroy its fish population.
Today there were few boats on the lake, and its surface was flat and glassy. The weather had changed: dark clouds hovered over the distant hills—storm clouds that looked to be coming this way. Depression stole over me again, reminding me of all the things I didn’t like about my business: the long solo drives and flights; the empty nights in hotel and motel rooms in strange cities; the waiting. Particularly waiting for facts to surface that would allow other facts to materialize and establish the final connection. When that happened, the rush was unbelievable—better, even, than the first time my former flight instructor had put the plane into a controlled spin and the earth had seemed to rush up at us as we plummeted down. . . .
It was an addiction, plain and simple. And addiction, unless it’s treated, inevitably ends up in self-destruction.
I wasn’t going to become victim to mine. Never again.
So what the hell am I doing here in Nevada?
You promised Ramon you’d find out what happened to Amy.
Carson City: the state capital, and a pleasant town. Not much of a gambling mecca; its big casino, the Ormsby House, had closed down well over a decade ago and since then cast a derelict shadow over the downtown. Renovation by new owners had seemingly been under way forever, as the project hit delays and snags of all kinds. If it hadn’t been so late in the afternoon I’d have driven by to see how much progress had been made, but I was more concerned with locating the law firm of John Pearl, on Fairview Drive, a couple of blocks from the state office building where Hy and I had said our vows before a judge.
At first, when I stepped inside John Pearl’s office in a two-story stucco house that had been converted into suites for attorneys, I thought no one was there. But when I called out, a high-pitched, nasal voice that reminded me of a cartoon character—I couldn’t place which one—answered. With a voice like that, Pearl couldn’t have been too successful at trial work.
He emerged from his inner sanctum: a short, chubby man in a rumpled blue suit. His face was round, his hair a grayish-brown mop that flopped over his forehead; his eyes were too soft and kind for a criminal defense attorney.
“Ms. McCone,” he said, pumping my hand heartily, “Warren Mills said you’d be stopping by, so I stayed to catch up on some paperwork. Come in, sit down, please.”
I followed him into his office. It was in minor disarray, like his clothing.
“I’d offer you coffee but my secretary drank the last cup and forgot to turn the machine off. The carafe’s scorched. You can probably smell it.”
Now that he mentioned it, I did. “That’s okay,” I said. “I had lunch at McDonald’s and I’m still recovering. Coffee could cause a serious relapse.”
“McDonald’s.” His eyes—so help me—became nostalgic. “I haven’t had one of their burgers in years. When they first opened up in the town where I was born, I was in my teens. My friends and I used to go there and order two or three each, and before we’d eat them we’d splat the pickles.”
“You know, splat. Take the pickles—they were terrible—out of the burgers and try to drop them out the car window so they’d land flat on the pavement. You never did that?”
“Uh, not that I recall.”
“Oh, well.” Pearl leaned back in his chair. “It was pretty stupid, but so were we at the time. Amazing, though: one of the splatters is now a state supreme court justice; another invented some gizmo that allowed him to retire at thirty-five; a third is a big financial planner in Reno. Then there’s me: I was the best pickle splatter, but I’m just a small-time lawyer.”
It was a set and well-practiced speech, but I couldn’t figure what it was designed to accomplish.
“I doubt that,” I said. “You have your own practice; you’re your own boss. What type of litigation do you do?”
“Whatever comes my way. Family law, mainly.” He paused. “No criminal law. I quit the public defender’s office down in Mineral County after the Herbert Smith case. Which, Warren Mills told me, is why you’re here.”
“Yes.” I explained why I was interested in speaking with those who were involved in it.
When I finished, Pearl said, “The opinions of Herbert’s friend and Warren Mills are essentially the same as mine. Herbert—Bud, as he was called—struck me on first impression as a badly frightened but innocent young man; he stood by his confession with the tenacity of a bulldog. He resisted all my efforts to help him. Tried twice to fire me.”
“And this confession came how long after the rape?”
“About three days, after the investigative officers identified the tire tracks at the scene as having been made by his truck. When they took him in for questioning, he gave them a plausible explanation: he’d been out there taking photographs of the munitions bunkers for an article a friend was writing on the history of the depot. But no one could locate the friend—if he ever existed—and when the sheriff obtained a search warrant for Bud’s home, there was only one camera, in a closet, covered in dust and containing no film. And in the trash was a bloody shirt with a piece ripped from it that matched the fabric the girl had torn from her rapist’s clothing.”
“So they arrested him—”
“Not immediately. The shirt was a size smaller than most of Bud’s, and his brother, Davey, had been seen talking to the girl in town that day. The investigators began to focus on Davey and that’s when Bud confessed. He didn’t ask for an attorney, so the public defender’s office assigned him to me. From the beginning he was stubborn and uncooperative. I voiced my doubts to the DA and Warren; Warren was willing to listen, but the DA at that time—he’s deceased now—was a real hardnose. I arranged for the best plea bargain I could, but it was still too much prison time for an innocent man.”
Like Warren Mills’ eyes when he spoke of his regrets, John Pearl’s were bleak. “That was the end of my illustrious career as a crusading defender of the poor and powerless. I couldn’t stomach the hypocrisy. So here I am.” He spread his arms out at his disheveled office.
“Is there anything else you can tell me about the case?”
He considered. “Not really. Except that Davey Smith acted the wide-eyed innocent throughout, and as soon as his brother went to prison, he took off for some college where he’d been given a full scholarship. One thing I do know: if he ever shows his face around here again, I myself may be in need of a public defender.”
The rain broke as I was passing the munitions depot. There were a number of motels in Hawthorne, and the man in the newspaper office had recommended a casino that served a great chicken-fried steak—a favorite of mine—as well as an old-time saloon. I’d stowed a small travel bag in the Land Rover, in the event I’d have to stay over.
Well, why not? First the motel, next a good meal, and then a chance to elicit some gossip from the townspeople.
Slim’s Tavern, across the street from the casino where I ate, was definitely old-time—decorated with genuine mining, railroad, and military artifacts from the town’s colorful past. At ten o’clock it was reasonably crowded and noisy from both the patrons’ voices and the clank and whir of the small bank of slot machines. I chose a seat at the bar between two lone men in cowboy hats who looked to be in their midforties, and ordered a beer. You don’t drink wine in a place like that, not if you want any of the locals to talk with you.
The man to my left stared straight ahead, hunched over his glass of whiskey. Not a talker, I thought, and probably brooding about something. The man to my right gave me a friendly glance, then threw a few dollars on the bar and left.
I nursed the beer, trying not to breathe too deeply of the smoky air—one of the drawbacks of Nevada casinos and drinking establishments—and checking out the place in the backbar mirror. It was mostly an older crowd, forties on up—my target age group. The brooder ordered another whiskey and continued to stare. A leather-faced, strong-jawed man in a baseball cap squeezed onto the vacated stool to my right and ordered a beer and a shot, calling the bartender by name. Then he looked at me and asked, “You new here, or just passing through?”
“Passing through. How can you tell?”
“I know all the locals who come to Slim’s. You want another beer?” He motioned to my empty glass.
“Sure. Thanks. Sierra Nevada.”
He waved at the bartender and pointed at my glass, turned to me and, after giving me a long, slow look, said, “I’m Cal McKenzie.”
“Sharon McCone.” We shook hands as our drinks arrived.
“Where you from, Sharon?”
“I’ve been staying over at Tufa Lake, trying to figure out where to go next.”
He knocked back his shot. “Kind of a wanderer, are you?”
“Kind of. I came up here to Hawthorne looking for an old friend, but I can’t find a trace of him.”
“Well, I’ve lived here all my life. Maybe I can help you.”
“His name is Herbert Smith, but everybody calls him Bud.”
Cal McKenzie’s expression became guarded. “How long since you’ve seen your friend, Sharon?”
“I hate to admit how many years. We lost touch, but I thought since I was in the area . . .”
“Well, Bud’s long gone. How close a friend of his were you?”
“Oh, it was just one of those summer things. You know.”
“You’re lucky that’s all it was. Your friend Bud’s a criminal. Raped and sodomized the little Darkmoon girl and left her for dead out by the munitions bunkers. She survived and they put him away for a good long time. He hasn’t been back here since.”
“My God!” I feigned shock, gulping some beer. “When was this?”
“Twenty-six years ago.”
“Hard to believe Bud was capable of something like that, even as a kid.”
“Some folks around here don’t believe it to this day. Nice guy, never in trouble before, everybody liked him. But the evidence was all there, and he confessed.”
“This Darkmoon girl—does she still live here?”
“Family moved away right after. Paiutes.” He looked more closely at me. “You Paiute, too?”
“Well, the Darkmoons were really a nice family. Very religious, too. One of those strict, small sects—I forget which one. Shame what happened to their little girl.”
“How old was she?”
“D’you recall her first name?”
He thought, shrugged. “No, I don’t. They had a bunch of kids, I can’t remember what any of them were called.” He gestured at my glass. “Another beer?”
“No, thanks. This has been . . . quite a shock, and I think I’d better be getting back to my motel now.”
“The evening’s young—”
“Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow night, Cal. It was good to meet you.” I slid off the stool before he could protest and made my exit.
A Paiute family named Darkmoon who’d lived in Hawthorne twenty-six years ago couldn’t be too difficult to find. If the Internet couldn’t lead me to them, I’d use the moccasin telegraph.
The moccasin telegraph beat out the Internet.
After I drove home from Hawthorne that morning, I found plenty of listings on Google in the name of Darkmoon—a magazine, a design company, a publisher, even a Wiccan temple—but none of them individuals. There were three on the search engines the agency subscribed to, two in Washington State and one, coincidentally, on the Flathead reservation in Montana, where my birth father, Elwood Farmer, lived.
I could have run more sophisticated searches, but on the moccasin telegraph I could access far more detail. The listings for the three Darkmoons hadn’t revealed much about them, other than their whereabouts, and that wasn’t surprising: a great many Indians are out of the mainstream and don’t own property, have credit ratings, or hold real jobs.
My friend Will Camphouse, creative director at an ad agency in Tucson whom I’d met while searching for my birth parents, had explained the moccasin telegraph as a coast-to-coast Indian gossip network that worked with amazing speed. It was an accurate description. I’d gotten a lead to Elwood from a Shoshone man in Wyoming, and by the time I reached the Flathead Reservation everyone, including my birth father, knew not only that I was on my way, but also the basic facts about me. Phone calls, interfamilial connections, accidental meetings in such places as the grocery store, and a background check on the Internet had told them a private investigator from San Francisco was coming to town.
For this investigation, George Darkmoon in Arlee, a town near St. Ignatius, where my birth father lived, would be the obvious person to start with. The problem was, I would have to call Elwood.
Elwood was not an easy man to deal with on the phone—or in person. The first two times I’d tried to talk with him he’d rebuffed me—telling me to come back to his house when I’d had time to “assemble my thoughts.” Then he’d grudgingly allowed me into his simple log home and acknowledged that I was his daughter. Since then we’d established a tentative relationship, but it had its rough edges: on my part because he’d suspected all along he had a child, but had made no effort to locate me; on his part because I’d disrupted his quiet, traditional life as an artist who volunteered to fund and teach art workshops in the schools at various area reservations.
I steeled myself and dialed his number.
“Elwood, it’s Sharon.”
“How are you?”
“Doing well. How are you?”
Long silence. I asked, “How are the workshops going?”
“Excellently.” Excitement lightened his voice. “Those young people are amazing. Their enthusiasm . . . it makes me feel young again.”
And where were you, when my enthusiasm could have made you feel young?
Not fair, McCone. At the time he wasn’t even certain that you existed.
“I haven’t heard from you in a while,” he added. “Are you sure everything’s all right? Those bombings . . .”
Did he really want to know? I decided to lay it on him; talked about my burn-out and my flight to the ranch, my doubts about my professional future.
He didn’t speak immediately. I heard puffing sounds—he was lighting a cigarette.
“It may be a time for change, Daughter. That kind of empty feeling is a signal that we need to use our gifts in different ways. Me, when I was making all that money from my art in New York City and living high, I felt the kinds of pressures you were feeling. When I met Leila and we came here, I could let go of the things I thought were important back there, and get on with what really counted.”