“Dad?” Tutu asked. “Connie says there won’t be any school today on account of an accident at Miss Wheaton’s home. Do you know what that’s all about?”
“All we know, Hon, is that the six teachers were having some sort of party and something went very wrong. Mr. Dunlop is the only one who survived and he’s been airlifted to the hospital in Ely. That brings up another subject; since you won’t be going to school today, why don’t you spend the morning on the phone? I want you to call the families of every student and say that school has been canceled until further notice. Will you do that?”
“Sure, dad, but what do I do about the ones who don’t have a phone? There’s Jimmy Foster, and the Dupree twins, and Brenda Scofield.”
“Why don’t you take your van over to the school and wait in the parking lot and give them the word as soon as they show up? That way their ride can take them back home.”
“By the time I finish phoning everyone who has a phone, the rest will be at the school anyway.”
“Well, take the phone book, and use my cell phone. You can make your calls from the school. Will that work?”
“Sure, I guess so. What will you and Connie be doing?”
“I have to drive back to Tonopah and get started doing some autopsies,” Connie said.
“I have to go over to the Wheaton house, and I better get there quick. The under-sheriff told me the crime scene unit left Tonopah over an hour ago. So, if you ladies will excuse me?” He planted a kiss on Connie’s cheek and reminded her to drive carefully.
Lane was the first one on the scene at the Wheaton house. He parked across the street and reached through the broken front door window to unlock the place. In the light of day, the gruesome scene didn’t fill him with dread nearly as much as it had last night. Still, it was sickening seeing all those young people and the hideous way they had died. Come to think of it, there really isn’t any pleasant way to die, not even dying in bed of old age. By that time you’d be lucky if you hadn’t gone senile and been forced to wear diapers because you’d lost control of your bodily functions. How depressing!
Where had those thoughts come from, Lane wondered? Was it the deathly atmosphere of this place? Or did he harbor some secret wish to die quickly? Like in a car crash, or a shoot-out with criminals. His was normally an upbeat kind of personality. Morbid thoughts like this were out of place in his day-to-day affairs. It had to have something to do with the crime scene. He went quickly through the house to the back door and opened it, then opened windows throughout the house as he worked his way back to the front door and into the yard.
A dark blue utility van with the county seal on the side was the first to arrive. Harvey Buckhorn stepped out with his camera in one hand and a small black bag in the other. The black bag held tools of the trade: finger print kit, Luminol, tweezers, magnifying glasses of various strengths, plastic baggies and evidence tags. There were a hundred and one items that law enforcement agents had found useful when conducting their investigations. Some were highly specialized, like the Luminol, which made the most minute traces of blood phosphorescent when exposed to ultraviolet illumination. Others were simply useful like the plastic baggies. Buckhorn took two steps away from the vehicle then remembered something he had forgotten. He went back, reached in, and brought out an olive colored canvas bag. He stopped in front of Lane just before going into the house. “Almost forgot my gas mask. What’s this supposed to be about, Lane?”
“Can’t say for sure, Harvey. I hope the gas mask won’t be necessary. I went through the house and opened all the doors and windows a short while ago. Last night when Dr. Conried and I were here, there was something which affected our thinking. Caused hallucinations, or something. I felt it again this morning, but not as strongly as last night. Still, it might be a good idea to keep your gas mask nearby. Whatever it is can sneak up on you real fast, and I do mean fast. One minute you’re right as rain, not quite puking up your guts at the death scene all around you then, pow! Next thing you know you’re about to pull your piece and blast holes in the wall. Know what I mean?” Harvey nodded. “So if you feel anything strange, put your gas mask on. Do it quick! Okay?”
“Sure thing, Lane.” The driver of the van came up the walk and Harvey introduced him. "This is Ron Aldritch, a medical technician from the hospital. He also assists the sheriff’s office and the coroner’s office. Ron, Lane Mauler, deputy in charge of the Valley Forks area.” Lane stuck out his hand and grasped Aldritch’s outstretched hand. Aldritch was about his age, mid-thirties, but several inches shorter and quite a few pounds heavier.
“Glad to meet you, Lane. I’ve seen several of your cases when they came through the morgue. Sure puzzles me as to what’s going on in your area.”
“Me too, Ron. I want to point out a couple things that Dr. Conried wants collected for analysis. Follow me.” He led the way into the house. He took the two men inside and got them started with the investigation. Harvey began snapping pictures of everything that might vaguely assist in their investigation. Lane pointed out the foreign material in the candle wax and marked evidence tags as Aldritch scraped them up with a pocketknife. He heard a second vehicle pull up outside and left them to carry on while he went out front.
The vehicle he saw was a remote camera truck from KVGS. Pam Demming got out of the passenger seat, showing a well-turned leg and expensive heels as she stepped down. She held a wireless mike in one hand and gave Lane a familiar smile as she walked toward him. Her video man, Frank Cotter, got out of the driver’s seat with his camera and closely followed her.
“Well, Deputy Mauler, we meet again.” Her teeth were flawlessly even, most likely capped. Her smile looked sincere though he knew it went on as easily as lipstick and she used it like any other cosmetic to enhance her appearance.
Lane touched the brim of his hat. “Miss Demming. Pleasure to see you again.”
“Are you going to give me the story on this one, deputy? We’ve heard rumors about orgies and multiple homicides.” Again the forced smile as if perhaps sex appeal could drag information from him.
Lane was saved from answering when another vehicle from the sheriff’s office pulled up. “If you’ll come with me, ma’am,” Lane said as he took her elbow, “I’d like to introduce you to Mrs. Alice Lawton from the county office. She’ll have a statement for you.”
Pam Demming didn’t seem at all happy at being foisted off on an official spokesperson, but what could she do? She shook hands with Alice with all the enthusiasm of a boxer touching gloves before a match. Glad to be free of dealing with the press, Lane busied himself by stringing yellow crime scene tape around the front and rear doors of the house.
Aldritch went out to the coroner’s van and brought in five body bags. After he and Lane had taped baggies around the hands of each body, they bagged them and Lane helped him carry them out to the van. It was a nauseating chore but it kept him away from the press, and out of trouble.
Tim Fulton, a rookie deputy with only two months more time with the sheriff’s department than Lane, had arrived with Alice Lawton. The three deputies and one civilian technician worked steadily while Alice mollified the Demming woman and the video photographer captured his footage. By the time they had finished cleaning up the crime scene the TV truck had departed, evidently in a hurry to get their video back to Las Vegas.
Lane went over and shook hands with the matron from the sheriff’s office. “Nice seeing you again, Alice. Sorry I had to dump La Demming on you, but Noah Denton told me you would give the press the sanitized version of last nights happenings.”
“Thank nothing of it, Lane. It’s my job and I enjoy being politely tactful with the members of the press, almost as much as I would enjoy breaking a chair over their collective heads. Actually, Pam Demming is not as bad as some I get. The TV reporters tend to be the pushiest because they work to shorter deadlines. The press and magazine reporters are more devious. They have days or weeks to get the details of their stories, and some of the antics they pull can be quite original. Last year we had a young lady from a Los Angeles weekly magazine who posed as a relative of a mugging victim. I almost let her sign for the victim’s personal effects before I thought to ask for her ID.”
“You’re too sharp for them, Alice. Your talent is wasted in the sheriff’s office. You should move to Vegas and be a high priced investigator for some lawyer.”
“There’s certainly more money in that, but me and Leonard, my husband, are country folks. We wouldn’t fit in with the busy throngs of the big city.”
“Amen to that. Same reason my daughter and I moved here. Are you going in to look over the crime scene?”
“Me? Heaven’s no! The mere sight of blood absolutely nauseates me. I’ll leave that for you and the crime scene investigators.” She stalked off and took a seat in the cruiser she had arrived in. Lane chuckled and went back to assist the crime scene unit as they finished up.
Aldritch and Buckhorn were carrying out the last body. Lane was glad he wouldn’t be driving ninety miles down the road with five bodies in the back of the van. He could only surmise that Aldritch was used to transporting the dead. Highway 95, from Vegas north to the Humboldt Sink where it joined with I-80 is the main north-south artery in the state. Since Nye County was so large, its law enforcement officer’s could barely cover a small percentage of the speeders on the highway. Rollovers and head-on collisions were common. Most cars traveled at such high speeds that survivors were few. It was one of the reasons why the sheriff’s office had a number of officers living at widespread locations throughout the county, where they could quickly respond as situations required but remained under the centralized control and direction of a headquarters a hundred miles away.
When Tim Fulton had finished his investigation inside, he came out and told Lane to go ahead and lockup. Lane did so. “Looks like they had one hell of a party,” Fulton said. “Shame it had to get out of hand. I used to see Dana and Paul in Tonopah occasionally, shopping, having dinner at the Palace, or maybe just a few drinks and dancing at one of the local nightspots. Nice looking couple. I’d have thought they would be getting married soon. I had no idea they were into anything like this.”
“We can’t be sure exactly what anyone was into here, Tim. Dr. Conried thinks they may not have intentionally been using drugs. It could be something they were accidentally exposed to that drove everybody over the edge and caused the party to end in a nightmare.”
“Yeah, well, whatever.” Fulton gave a wave of his hand and went down the walk to his cruiser where Alice Lawton was waiting. “Keep in touch, Lane. See you at the next staff meeting.”
Lane responded with a wave of his own. “Drive careful. I don’t want to have to call Aldritch back to stuff you in a plastic bag.” Fulton got into his cruiser and started the powerful engine. As he pulled out his rear tires spun on the dirt and threw gravel across the lawn.
Lane got into his cruiser and decided to drive over to the school and see if Tutu might still be there. The circular drive in front of the building was empty so he figured she was probably at home. With nothing pressing on his schedule, Lane decided to show the colors so to speak. It was a good way to clear his head, organize his thoughts, and let a police presence be shown along the highway.
He drove the cruiser north at a steady sixty-five until he linked up with Highway 50, sometimes called The Loneliest Highway in America. It was also the northern limit of his home territory. There he turned around and headed south until he reached Belmont. His watch showed twelve-forty. He decided to head for home and a lunch break.
It was one-thirty by the time he got back to the city limits. The day had grown cloudy and the air had a chill bite to it. He passed Art’s Exxon and was just beginning to turn onto his own street when the radio crackled.
“Seven-one-nine this is base, over.”
Lane picked up the mike and gave his response. “Sounds of a disturbance and shots fired reported. See the man at mile four on Live Oak Road.” Lane answered with a “Roger,” and hung a U. Back on the main road he turned on his lights but left the siren off. He pushed the cruiser to eighty-five and held it there.
Live Oak Road was six miles north of the town limits, just past the turn off to the Esposito place, except Live Oak angled off to the right. Mile four would take him about to where Russ Kingman lived. Lane pulled off the asphalt as he reached Live Oak Road and raised a cloud of dust behind his cruiser. For safety, he slowed to just sixty miles per hour. Russ was the only barber in town. He owned The Bushwhacker and charged eight dollars for a straight haircut and razor trim around the ears. No styling, please! He opened at ten in the morning and closed at six in the evening, except that he stayed closed on Thursday and Sunday. Partly because he knew everyone in town, but mostly because he was well liked, Russ was also chairman of the Valley Forks Town Advisory Board and had been for twelve years. This Thursday Russ had been watching a National Geographic video from Martin’s. Nature study was a hobby of the sixty-five year old, and today’s object of study was the Harp Seal and how it was making a comeback under strict protective regulations of the Department of the Interior. Russ had been disturbed by the sound of shots coming from his nearest neighbor, Joel Yancey, who lived across the road and a quarter mile further off the highway. Russ had left his television set and stepped out on his front porch where he could also hear screaming coming from Joel’s place. His neighbor had a teenage boy at home who suffered from cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheel chair. Not wanting to be too inquisitive and risk a chance encounter with a stray bullet, Russ had decided not to investigate in person but to call 911 and let Deputy Mauler investigate. He was standing down at the fence where his drive met Live Oak Road when Lane arrived in a cloud of dust and quickly braked to a stop.
“Afternoon, Russ. Got some trouble out this way?”
“Not me, Lane, but somethin’s goin’ on over at Joel’s place. I heard his shotgun four or five times already. There was some screaming a while ago, but it’s quieted down now.”
“Okay, Russ. You did the right thing calling it in. I’ll go take a look; you stay here where you’ll be safe.”
“Okay, Lane. I’ll head back up to my easy chair and watch my movie. You stop by for a cup of coffee before you leave, hear now?”
“Thanks, Russ.” Lane put the cruiser in gear and sped down the road and turned in at Yancey’s drive. He pulled in to the front yard and skidded to a stop.
Joel Yancey had farmed sixty acres of alfalfa over the years, and had worked as a maintenance man at the mine until it closed. Since losing that job, the only income he and his wife had was from farming alfalfa and the disability check the government sent to help with the cost of taking care of their son, George. An older boy was away in the Air Force, and a daughter was married to a rancher in Utah.
The house in front of him was old, it had a few sagging shutters and genuinely needed a new coat of paint, but was otherwise sound. Joel repaired whatever he could around the place, making old wood do for new and using screws and nails salvaged from other projects. Two huge cottonwood trees shaded the house and front yard; several more grew around the side and in the back. Fifty yards to the side of the house was a rickety barn where Joel stored his hay until it could be sold. He rented the combine which baled the hay, and traded his mechanical labor for the use of a tractor in planting his fields. Joel and Shirley had never been well off when he was still working at the mine. Things were much worse now.
Before Lane stepped out of his cruiser he raised headquarters on the high frequency radio and reported his location and status. Then he got out and went to the Yancey’s front door. He knocked, listened, waited, and knocked again. “Joel!” he called out. “Shirley! Anybody home?”
After waiting a polite length of time he put his hand on the doorknob and turned. The door opened and he poked his head in. The first thing he noticed was a stale odor. The smell was reminiscent of burning hemp, but not quite as sweet smelling as marijuana. He looked around the door and saw a man’s legs lying in the hallway.
Lane pulled his Browning and jacked a round into the chamber. He ran to the body with the intention of checking the throat for a pulse. Instead he found a gaping hole, ripped flesh and bloody, almost pulverized bone. Joel Yancey had been shot in the neck with a shotgun at close range. His throat was blown away exposing the severed cartilage and vertebra of the neck. All that was holding his head to his body was a thin flap of muscle and skin along the right side of the neck. His head lay in a vast pool of blood. He was dead but his body was still warm. Lane didn’t think George, the palsied son, could have done this so he decided to look for Shirley. Warily he recalled that Russ had said he’d heard several shotgun blasts.
Lane looked left and right in the hallway before stepping over the body and checking the bedroom immediately to the right. It was empty.
Moving in a crouch Lane slid past an empty bathroom to another bedroom. This one had to be George’s. There were crayon pictures tacked to the wall, mostly just scribbles and jumbled lines. There were bottles of prescriptions set on a dresser just beyond the reach of anyone in the bed. The room had that musty odor of urine and meals eaten in bed that tells you it is a sickroom, but there was no one here. Lane backed out, went down the hallway, stepped over Joel’s body and went through the living room to check the kitchen. He felt an uncomfortable presence emanating from somewhere in the house. It was a nameless feeling, something he couldn’t identify but which, nonetheless, filled him with a sense of foreboding evil. He had felt it before. It still terrified him.
A fire was burning in the fireplace and the aroma of fresh pine scented the air, not quite overpowering the other, strange aroma. Lane began feel that tingle of dread that he had felt so vividly last night at the Wheaton place. What in hell was going on here?
He kept the pistol in his hand extended well in front of him until he got to the kitchen door. Then he pulled the pistol tightly to his body until he could just peer around the door. Christ, another body! Nailed to the wall this time. Crucified. Lane glanced in the corners and under the kitchen table. He could see nothing.
He eased into the room and moved sideways toward the body with his back pressed to the wall. It was George Yancey, the handicapped son of Joel and Shirley. His outstretched arms had been nailed to the wall with kitchen forks driven through the wrists. Evidently the body had been too heavy for the killer to lift completely off the floor for the knees were slightly bent and the feet were still touching the linoleum. Blood trailed down the wall. George’s throat had been cut and the head lolled forward with the chin touching the chest.
The table was set for three and Lane assumed that the Yancey’s had been eating lunch. George’s wheelchair was overturned at one side of the kitchen table. There was no sign of Shirley. He checked the small pantry and broom closet next to the stove. Empty also.
Lane went to the back door and pushed it open slightly so he could get a clear view into the back yard.
He felt his cheek stung by flying splinters before his ears registered the bellow of the shotgun. He dove through the door and rolled down the steps and to the side where he could take cover behind several trashcans. There was another blast and the side of one of the trashcans crumpled inward. Lane’s ears were ringing from the blast and he didn’t hear the pellets as they impacted the can. He glimpsed the muzzle flash of the shotgun coming from an opening in the front wall of the barn where one of the planks had fallen off. In the shadows behind it he thought he could make out the vague form of a person. He fired low, three quick shots. If the person were crouched perhaps his shots would catch them center of mass. If the person were standing, his shots might strike in the hips or thighs.
As soon as he fired he rolled to the side, gained his feet and sprinted for shelter behind the thick trunk of a walnut tree a little further to the right and halfway to the barn. Another blast of shotgun pellets smashed one of the trashcans against the rear wall of the house. When Lane reached the protection of the tree he threw himself prone to minimize the size of target he presented. With great caution he peered around the right side of the tree until he could see the ugly black snout of the shotgun pointing from the barn. The barrel appeared to be drooping, pointing at a spot on the ground halfway between the barn and the rear door of the house.
Lane rolled twice to his right and bounded to his feet. He covered the remaining distance to the barn running flat out and pressed his back to it. The rough textured lumber felt good against the thin khaki covering his shoulder blades. It gave him a small amount of protection and a sense of security.
Moving as quietly as he could, he edged his way to his left until he could peer around the corner of the barn. He was looking for a window or another door but there was none. He would have to go to the rear of the building and hope to surprise his attacker from there. He felt pretty sure that the person with the gun was Shirley Yancey. He hadn’t found her body in the house so where was she?
Moving on cat feet he reached the rear of the barn and quietly edged around the corner. He ducked past a rusting horse-drawn hay rake and edged his way to the rear door. Peering into the barn he found he couldn’t see a thing in the shadows. Cloudy as the weather was, it was still much too bright for him to see anything inside the barn until his eyes adjusted to the dim light. He crossed the open doorway, almost expecting a blast from the shotgun to blow him in half, and sought shelter behind a few bales of hay that had been brought in out of the weather.
Slowly his eyes adjusted to the dim surroundings and he could see her leaning against the front wall of the barn. With both hands gripping the pistol he steadied it dead center in the small of her back as he crept up to her. She was only thirty feet away, then twenty-five. He approached a vertical post supporting the loft and moved behind it. Slowly he continued to close the distance until she was only fifteen feet away. She hadn’t given any sign that she’d heard him and seemed to be focusing her attention on something close to the house. Perhaps she thought she had hit him when he lay behind the trashcans and hadn’t seen him dash to the tree?
He was watching her so intently he failed to see a rake lying across his path. His right toe caught under the rake and he pitched forward into the dirt and straw that served as a floor in the barn. When he hit the ground he pushed away with his left hand and ended up in a crouch with his pistol again leveled at her back. She still hadn’t moved and continued to watch the house.
“Shirley, I’ve got a gun pointed at your back,” he said. “I want you to drop the shotgun and raise your hands.” He waited for a response. When none came he approached her more closely. Now he was standing only five feet from her. If she tried to turn around and swing the shotgun in his direction he should be able to knock it from her hands.
“Drop the gun, Shirley. Raise your hands.” Still she gave no reply. Cautiously he reached under his gun arm with his left hand until his fingers gripped the butt of the shotgun. He jerked and it easily came away in his hand. His fingertip grip wasn’t enough to hold the weight of the shotgun and it clattered to his feet. At the same time Shirley was spun clockwise and he found himself staring into her sightless eyes.