Ruth returned and set down the drinks. “Are you ready to order now? Or would you like more time?”
Lane looked at his daughter and nodded that she should order first. She glanced at the waitress and said, “I’ll take the tuna salad and a couple lemon wedges. That’s all.”
Ruth scribbled on her pad and turned to Lane. “And you, sir?”
“The sourdough chili, please, and a bottle of Tabasco.”
The girl scribbled on her pad then looked ‘round the table once more. “Anything else?”
“That’ll do for now, I guess,” Lane said. The waitress collected the menus and went behind the lunch counter where she stuck her order slip on a wheel in a window to the kitchen. She slammed her hand down on a bell in the window. Ding! Ding! “Ordering!” she shouted. A hand came up and grabbed the ticket. Lane saw the head and shoulders of a man with a pudgy face and a toothpick in his mouth. He wore a paper cap over his graying hair. The man looked at the ticket and said something to Ruth that Lane couldn’t hear.
Ruth turned and grabbed a saucer from behind the lunch counter. She set it in her work area and reached down into a refrigerated unit and took out a square, stainless steel pan. She removed four lemon wedges from the pan and put them on the saucer, then put the pan away. She rummaged beneath the counter and came up with a bottle of Tabasco.
She came to their table in moments and set the saucer of lemon wedges in front of Cheryl and the Tabasco in front of Lane. “I see you’re driving a U-Haul and towing a pickup,” she said by way of conversation. “You folks coming up from Vegas? Passing through?”
“Yeah, up from Vegas,” Lane said, “and L.A. before that. Actually we’re new in town here.” He stuck out his hand. “My name’s Lane Mauler. I’m gonna be the new deputy here.”
Ruth shook his hand and gave him a wide smile. “Well, pleased to meet you, sheriff. Valley Forks ain’t a big town, and it’s mostly peaceful. An occasional traffic ticket or something once in awhile, but no trouble. I think you and your family are gonna like it here. Sure enough.”
Lane smiled back. “If all the folks in town are as nice as you, Ruthie, I’m sure we will. The one with the long face over there,” he pointed at Cheryl Ann, “is my daughter. I’m afraid that she has noticed that this town doesn’t have a teen hangout.”
“Oh, but we do,” Ruth said to Cheryl. "Martin’s Video is only a block from here, one street over. He’s got ‘bout a thousand video tapes and half a dozen video games in a play room, and a pool table, and a yogurt bar, and soft drinks. Everybody goes there after school. If anything is happening in town, you’ll hear about it there.”
Cheryl seemed to brighten up. “You mean there’s life in these hills?”
“Well, not like Vegas, or L.A., not even like Tonopah,” Ruth said, “but it’s not boring either. Give it a week or so. I think the town will grow on you.”
“No offense,” Cheryl said, “but that sounds like it’d take a miracle.”
“You’ll see.” Ruth smiled back.
The man in the kitchen rang the bell and shouted, “Order’s up!” Ruth turned and bounced away.
“Nice kid,” Lane said.
“Holy barf!” Cheryl said, with a look of disgust. “Video games yet.”
Ruth returned shortly, a plate in each hand. She set a salad in front of Cheryl and a large plate with a sourdough loaf hollowed out in the center and filled with chili in front of Lane. The cook stepped up behind her and nodded to Lane.
“Art Tyson,” the chunky man said, wiping both hands on a bar-towel stuck into the waistband of his apron. He stuck out a hand to Lane. “Ruthie said you’re gonna be the new deppity here in town?”
“That’s right,” Lane said as he half rose and shook the man’s hand. The grip was firm and the hand callused from hard work. “Lane Mauler. Pleased to meet you.” He pointed across the table. “My daughter, Cheryl.”
Tyson reached over and took Cheryl’s offered hand. “Pleased to meet’cha young lady.” He added to Lane, “You’re gonna like it here, deppity. Not much trouble. Not much work for you. The county provides a house, it’s over on Borax Street. Just that way,” he hitched his thumb across the street, “two blocks. You wanna meet anybody or find out anything in this town, just ask me. Any time. I open at six and close at nine, except Friday and Saturday, then we stay open until midnight, or until the crowd goes home.”
“The crowd?” Lane asked.
“Well, ain’t much. Maybe fifteen or twenty people unless it’s really cold. Winter time, we may get forty or fifty locals when the state plows the road. Couple prospector’s, maybe a sheep rancher or two. O’course we got the school teachers livin’ in town, and a few people with a pension from the state or the government. Couple on social security. Used to be a pretty good crowd when the mine was open. That was the Bellamy Number Four, but it shut down in eighty-four, or five, when the price of silver dropped. Some folks moved away, some stayed. Those that were eligible took social security and retired.”
“Quiet here in the Valley,” he went on. “Toquima Range to the west and Monitor Range to the east. A man can do a little hunting or a little trapping during the season. Still a bounty on coyote in this state, if’n you can outsmart them critters. An’ we got a marsh ten or ‘leven miles south. You can shoot ducks there in season. Or if you hanker for big city action, Vegas is only a hop-skip-and a jump away.”
"I guess a fellow could keep pretty active around here," Lane said.
“I got the gas station and the coffee shop to keep me busy. The wife has her garden and her quilting club. She’s usually in from ten to four minding the kitchen so I can get a little rest before dinner, but she’s shopping over in Tonopah today. Couple of the women folk carpool to the market once a week. Yer wife would be welcome to join with ‘em I’m sure. Makes a long drive shorter when you got company and saves on gas too. They got more’n a dozen women signed up in sort of a co-op. If you’re not going to town this week, you can still turn in your shopping list and they’ll pick up whatever you need.”
“My wife died some time ago,” Lane said quietly. He didn’t add that the punk who had killed Anne had never been caught. He didn’t add that the dark blue Nissan had been dumped in Corona less than an hour later. A god-damned joy ride had been the cause of Anne’s death. No, not the cause. The cause of her death had been a teen-aged punk with a three-eighty auto who had needed a car for less than an hour before abandoning it forty miles away. The senseless death that had obliterated a man’s family was the main reason he’d brought Cheryl Ann to live in this small town. He didn’t want her to be exposed to that kind of violence any more, not if he could prevent it. In fact, he admitted to himself, he was nearly paranoid on the subject. What good was law enforcement when a sharp lawyer could get a punk kid out on bail in an afternoon, and the kid would be six states away before midnight? Or, if you were lucky enough to get the kid to trial and win a conviction, the scum would get sentenced to six years and be out in eighteen months on parole and ready to rob or maim innocent people again. Lane hoped he was getting away from that kind of rut. He wanted to get about as far away from a big city as one could get while remaining close enough for Tutu to get good schooling and have medical and dental care nearby.
“Oh, sorry to hear that,” Art said. He appeared to be at a loss for words. “Well, if your daughter will be your housekeeper, I’m sure the women would love to meet her.”
“Thanks, we’ll welcome their help. But I’d like for Cheryl Ann to be able to spend most of her time just being a teenager. She’ll only be young once, you know. There’ll be time enough for house keeping when she’s older.”
“Well,” Art said again while backing away toward the kitchen, “You folks enjoy your lunch. If there’s any incidentals you need when you get moved into the house, remember I’m open ‘til nine. I don’t carry a large selection, just a few things you might get caught short of and need before the next shopping day.”
“Thanks, Art. Cheryl will probably send me back with a list this evening before you close.” Lane took his seat again and picked up his spoon. Art and Ruthie went away to let them eat in peace. “Friendly people,” Lane said as he pushed aside the phantom thoughts in his mind, thoughts still too painful for him to live with.
“So were the Beverly Hillbillies,” the young girl observed. She squeezed a lemon wedge dripping juice onto her salad. An errant drop spurted into her eye. “Oww,” she said.
Lane chuckled. He shook salt into his chili and started adding Tabasco. The smell of vinegar permeated the air. A few minutes later, with his chili half-finished and Cheryl toying with her salad, Ruth returned with the coffee pot. “A little more?” she asked. Lane’s mouth was full but he held his cup out to her.
When he had finished, Lane dropped a couple singles on the table and walked to the front door with Cheryl. He stopped at the cash register to pay the bill.
“Sure enjoyed the chili, Ruthie. Especially the sourdough bowl.”
“I’ll tell my dad,” she said. “He bakes the bread fresh every morning. Sure gets your heart going in winter when there’s a foot of snow on the ground.”
“You get much snow here?” he asked.
“Not so’s you’d notice. Couple inches in October, couple more in November and December. But it sticks around on account of the elevation. Might get ten or twelve inches in a typical winter. If it’s a real heavy winter, maybe we get as much as two or two and a half feet. The state plows the main road right away, but the few side roads we have in town don’t get the plow. Deputy Foster, the one that retired to San Diego a few months back, he used to plow the side roads with a blade attached to his sheriff’s truck.”
“I guess that’s a chore I’ll inherit,” Lane said. “It’s been nice talkin’ with you, Ruthie. I hope you and Cheryl will get along well.”
“No problem there, deputy. In Valley Forks you either get along or move along, as my dad says. Most folks here get along just fine.”
“Thanks again, Ruthie. Be seein’ you.”
“Take care,” she called as he and Tutu went out the door.
Cheryl had already crawled up in the passenger seat of the U-Haul truck. Lane climbed up and started the engine. After checking for traffic he put on his signal and pulled out onto the highway.
He turned left on Rhyolite and found Borax one block past Pyrite.
He paused a moment to get his bearings. The house provided by the county was supposed to be at 106 Borax, but there was no indication of which way the numbers ran and he couldn’t see any on the few houses and mobile homes visible from where he sat. On a hunch he turned left, figuring that street numbers would begin at the edge of town as folks drove in from Las Vegas to the south.
He was wrong. When he did spot a few house numbers they were in the four and five hundreds. “Figures,” he told Cheryl. “Las Vegas was just dust flats when the mining boom hit this town. Stands to reason the rail road came in from Fallon and Reno north of here.” He turned left and drove around the block until he was back on Borax again. This time he turned right and three minutes later he was pulling into the drive of number 106 Borax.
The house set on a steep slope about ten yards up from the street. There was no curb. He set the parking brake and got out. Cheryl climbed down from the passenger side and they walked to the steps leading up to a covered porch that ran the full width of the house and continued around the side opposite the carport.
The Maulers ascended the stairs and Lane dug into his pocket for the key he had been given three weeks ago in Tonopah when he’d been interviewed and hired for the job. He opened the door and Cheryl pushed her way in and raced up the stairs to pick out her room. Lane heard her racing around upstairs, opening doors and closets as she explored.
Lane poked around the ground floor. There was a living room overlooking the porch and open also down the right side of the house. The furniture was sparse. Well, Lane thought, they said it was partially furnished. He and Cheryl had moved from an un-furnished apartment in Long Beach, and they still had the furniture that Lane and his wife had picked out years earlier. The sofa and love seat would look nice flanking that coffee table someone had left. His recliner would go here, he pictured the view in his mind’s eye. The TV and entertainment center would sit just along side the fireplace. It would be a comfortable place to spend an evening.
Lane backed out of the living room and found a parlor just across the front hall. The small room had been converted to an office and there was a computer workstation (minus computer) sitting on one side of the room. The other side held a broad desk made from an unfinished door laid across two double-drawer filing cabinets. A phone and florescent lamp topped the table, which was empty except for IN and OUT boxes and a third marked HOLD. A green, three-ring binder lay next to the phone with Nye County Sheriff’s Office, Standing Operating Procedures labeled on the front. Above the table was a three by four bulletin board with half a dozen notices tacked on it. He’d have to take a look at them first thing after getting moved in.
A second door led from the parlor to the kitchen. In the kitchen he found a counter top with built-in sink facing a window overlooking the yard at the rear of the house. Across from the sink was a propane range and conventional refrigerator. One end of the room had a dinette set and a broad window facing the north side of the property. It would have been more scenic facing any other direction. East would have made a nice place for breakfast, with the sun coming over the mountains across the highway. South would look across a side street to the neighbor’s house. West would have yielded a fantastic view at sunset. The back yard sloped gently up to woods behind the property and leading to the mountains in the middle distance. Looking north, however, there was only a narrow strip of lawn and a chain link fence dividing this property from their neighbor. Lane saw a plastic Big Wheel on the neighbor’s lawn, along with a child size two-wheeler and surmised that his new neighbors had at least two children.
Across the kitchen from the dinette, a sliding door called a “pocket door” led back into the living room with its formal dining table. At right angles to the pocket door another door opened into a walk-through pantry that opened in turn on a screened in back porch. Lane admired the size of the pantry and felt that it could easily store enough food to last an entire winter. Logical, he admitted, since there would have been no electric refrigeration when this boomtown had been constructed. In summer, ice had probably been brought by railroad from Virginia City or Reno.
Cheryl had come down stairs and was talking a mile a minute about ‘her’ room and the size of the master bath upstairs between her room and her dads, the spare bedroom across from hers, the extensive built in closets, and the half-bath beneath the stairwell.
“And the view out my bedroom window is unbelievable! The ground slopes gently up to the hills behind us and there are pines everywhere. Dad, I’ve just got to have a horse so I can go riding in the mountains. There’s plenty of land behind us, and you can build some stalls out back. And there’s a small greenhouse and a space for a garden already fenced off, and we can shovel the manure into the garden, and it’ll be really fabulous…”
“Whoa, Tutu! Hold on,” her father said. “The closest you’ve ever been to a horse is that Mustang coupe the O’brien kid drove when we lived in Long Beach. And he was much too old for you anyway.” For the second time today he was reminded that Cheryl Ann was the reason he had responded to a want ad in Law Enforcement Monthly and had interviewed for the job of deputy sheriff in this small town in Nevada’s largest county, actually the second largest county in the US.
Cheryl Ann had always been a good girl. She didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and didn’t use drugs. She got good grades in school, but people in the city grow up with different ideas of which things in life are the important ones. Lane wanted his daughter to learn that family, and the things you accomplish yourself, were the real ideals in life.
“Looks like I’m going to have to get used to a gas stove again,” Cheryl said. “And I had just gotten used to the electric range in Long Beach.”
“Electric might be inconvenient up here in the winter, hon. You get ice on the power lines, a pole goes down, and you eat cold beans until the power company gets it fixed. Might be two or three days. That’s why there’s a fireplace in the living room and ceiling registers so the warm air can rise up to the second floor.”
“Are you going to play Paul Bunyan and keep us stocked with firewood for the winter?” she asked.
“Me? Not hardly! When I was a kid on grandpa’s farm in Pennsylvania, that’s where the winters are really cold,” he gave her a wink, “we heated our home with coal. Instead of burning hot and fast, coal starts out slow but burns longer and more evenly. We could build a fire in the evening and still have plenty of heat come noon the following day.”
“But coal is smelly!” his daughter put in.
“Not really,” he said. “We’ll install an airtight fireplace insert so as to stay warm inside while all the smell goes up the chimney. In the long run, coal is cheaper too, compared to buying wood for heating, and you don’t have to keep the coal out of the snow and rain to keep it dry.”
“Well, that’s your business,” his teenage daughter admitted. “The kitchen is mine. Do you suppose we can get the gas company to turn on the gas this afternoon?” she asked.
“There is no gas company. We get propane home delivered. There’s a two-hundred and forty gallon tank next to the carport. I’ll go out and turn on the propane then come back and light the pilots for the stove and the hot water heater. And I’ll check the indicator on the tank and see how soon we’ll have to order propane.”
“I’ll go with you, dad. I want to begin bringing my things in from the U-Haul.”
“Fine,” he said. “If it happens that your things are packed behind household things, you might give a hand bringing those in also. Omigosh! I haven’t checked to see if the power is on yet.”
“What’s the big deal, dad? We can pretend like we’re camping out, just like we did up at Big Bear last year. I'm sure you can get some candles down at Art's store.”
“What I mean is that we don’t have city water here. We have a well somewhere out back. No electricity, no water pump for the well.”
“Oh, how primitive,” she said, as her dad flipped on the kitchen lights and she breathed an audible sigh of relief when the kitchen brightened.
“You'll have to see about getting a sample of our well water tested," she said. "We don’t want to come down with the creeping-crud or never-get-overs, or something.”
Lane grabbed her shoulders and planted a kiss on her forehead. “Of course, Tutu. But, I’m sure the well is fine. This house has belonged to the country for a couple decades at least. Still, I’ll have to look at the equipment and see if we need to stock up on any kind of spare filters or water conditioning salt, or whatever. I’ll take care of it. C’mon, Tutu, we got a truck to unload. Not to forget about my pickup.”
Father and daughter left by the front door. He unlocked the rear door to the U-Haul for Cheryl before checking the propane tank and turning on the gas. The gas indicator said sixty percent, so he figured they would have plenty to last them until he found out who made the deliveries and set up an account with them.
Cheryl was already half way up the steps with a box labeled ‘kitchen’ when he finished with the tank. Lane grabbed a similar box and sprinted after her, opening the door and propping it open with the box he held. They would leave it open until they finished with the unloading.
“Guess we might have to put up with a few flies or mosquitoes tonight," he said. "They’re bound to sneak in anyway with us going in and out all afternoon.”
Cheryl deposited her box on the kitchen counter and went outside to fetch another. Lane took a disposable lighter from his pocket and lit the stove pilots then went through the pantry to the back porch to light the hot water heater. He didn’t smoke, hadn’t in more than fifteen years, but he considered a lighter to be an important survival tool. You could never tell when you would need a brief light in the darkness. Or, up here in the mountains, you could be stranded on a side road some night and have to make a fire to keep warm or signal for help. He carried the lighter as well as a folding pocketknife, just in case.
From the back porch, he surveyed the rear of the house and the slope leading up to the tall pines and the mountains behind them. It gave him a feeling of space, of openness. Something he’d never felt east of the Mississippi. Even in Pennsylvania, at the home of his father, and grandfather before that, the land was never open. Even on a four hundred acre farm, you didn’t have to go far before you came to a fence and the farm of your next-door neighbor.
Once he’d been sitting in his recliner in the apartment in Long Beach, reading a book, while Anne watched a home decorating show on cable TV. The New York decorator was trying to describe to his audience how western décor differed from eastern décor and eastern furnishings. He found weak analogies and ended by falling back upon a description in words, saying that western décor gave one a feeling of openness and durability; heavy furnishings, bright open rooms, and a spaciousness that couldn’t be found in the east. Looking upon the scene at the rear of his new home, Lane knew what the man had been trying to convey. It seemed as though the whole world lay at his doorstep. Immense was too small a word to describe the impressions he felt.
He unlatched the screen and stepped down two rickety wooden steps, making a mental note that they should be replaced. There was indeed a small fenced garden that Tutu had mentioned, with a twelve by sixteen greenhouse on the right hand side. The pump and captive air tank for the well were inside the greenhouse and Lane admired the simplicity of the setup. Rather than build an insulated shed and install heating to keep the water lines from freezing, the builder had known that, in Nevada, even winter days are usually sunny. The south-facing greenhouse would absorb solar heat and store it in the soil to be slowly released during the night. It would be rare if the interior temperature ever dropped below freezing, and then only for short periods, not long enough to allow freezing of the exposed pipes or the captive air tank.
Lane stirred up the soil of the small garden plot with his boot and stooped to grab a handful, just as he’d seen his father do so many times back in Pennsylvania. He sniffed the soil, tasted it. Although he wasn’t the expert his father was, he judged the soil would provide a fine garden.
Tutu had stepped down off the porch and walked across the lawn to join him.
“See, dad? Just like I told you. And if we built a small stable just over there,” she pointed, “with a lean-to for feed, we’d have manure right close to our garden. If I had a horse, I’ll bet I’d really feel at home here.”
He had to admire her persistence. Of course she knew he’d give in, eventually. “Well, I’ve always sort of wanted to have a mule, myself. I know they still have wild horse and burro roundups here in Nevada, but I think that a condition of adoption is that the animal has to be removed from the state. It’s a Bureau of Land Management program to cut down on over grazing or something. Remind me to check into the particulars. I guess we might be able to work something out.”
Tutu smiled. “And I’ll really help, dad. I will.”
“Yeah, you’ll shovel the crap into a wheel barrow and I’ll haul it to the garden. I can see it now.”
“Oh, no dad. You’ll shovel and I’ll do the hauling.”
Lane scratched his chin. “I dunno, Tutu. A wheel barrow can get pretty heavy when it’s fully loaded. Why don’t I do the hauling?”
“’Cause, dad, you’re the boss, and the boss don’t take shit from nobody!”
Lane feigned a bullet through the heart. He chuckled. “You got me that time, Tutu.” He mussed her short hair then put an arm around her shoulder. “At least riding is something that we can do together, and you know that I wanted to make this move so that I would have more time for you now that…I mean since we’re…”
“I know, dad. Alone. On our own. By our selves. I miss her too, and I guess I always will.”
“Yeah, me too, little one. But, about livestock, I’d rather have a mule than a horse,” he said.
“Why, dad? All the cowboys ride horses. Nobody rides mules, they’re for pulling a wagon or a plow, aren’t they”
“Lots of times, yes. You want to know why most cowboys rode horses?”
“Sure. Tell me, dad.”
“’Cause a mule won’t let you ride him less’en you’re smarter than he is!”
“You’re teasing. Aren’t you?” She gave him a questioning look.
“Only a little. See, a mule is too smart to drink so much when he’s heated that he’ll founder. And he won’t eat so much that he’ll get colicky. And mules just naturally have more stamina. What a westerner calls bottom. Fact is, back around ’72 or ’73, as I recollect, the American Quarter Horse Association sponsored a cross-country race. Open to the finest breeds of four-legged animals. Arabians, appaloosas, you name it. If it had four legs and you could ride it, you were eligible. The race covered twenty-two hundred miles, starting somewhere back east and ending out here in the west. Would you believe that race was won by a mule?”
“Nahh, you’re kidding me?”
He raised his right hand in a boy-scout oath. “Gospel truth! You can look it up in old newspaper files. Or maybe find it on the Internet. I kid you not.”
“Well, I still would rather have a horse. Sounds more romantic to me.”
“I know, knights in shining armor and all that. Dashing Spanish caballeros.”
The conversation was cut short by the sound of a very loud bell designed to alert anyone outdoors that the phone was ringing. “Well,” he said to his daughter, “at least the phone is working. Guess I better see what’s going on and we can talk about building a stable and tack room some other time.”
The girl smiled at him. “But we will, won’t we, dad? And soon, too.”
“You betcha, Tutu. Come on now.” She beat him to the back door and sped through the house and out the front door to bring in more household things.
Lane went through the kitchen to the office and answered the phone.
“Mauler,” he said.
“Sheriff? Ruth Tyson here, down at the Exxon. Ed Bromley came in a minute or so ago. He’s a local, ya’ know? He says somethin’ bad happened over to Larry Winscott’s shack. Ed wanted to call the sheriff down in Tonopah, but it would take them more than an hour to get here. That’s why they have a deputy here. Well, Ed didn’t know that you was here to replace Deputy Foster, so I figured that I better call you. Can you come down here to the diner and take charge of this? Ed seems pretty upset.”
“Sure, Ruthie. I’ll be there in five minutes.” He hung up and pulled a spiral notebook and pen from his pocket. He wrote down his home number and headed out the front door where he found Tutu bringing in another box.
“Looks like I’m going to have to get on the job right away, Short Stuff. I’ll be back as soon as I find out what’s going on. I’ve got the phone number here written down so I can call you if I get delayed more’n an hour or two. I’ll give you a call if I’m going to be gone longer. You won’t burn the house down or anything while I’m gone, will you?”
“Of course not, daddy. Although I might call you in the truck if you’re gone longer than I think you should be. Don’t get in over your head,” she cautioned him. “There’s no backup just a radio call away. You don’t even have a radio yet.”
“I have my cell phone, and you know the number. Don’t worry, Tutu. I’m always careful. Bye.”
* * *
Groom Lake, known in UFO circles as Area 51, lay one hundred and thirty-five miles to the south east of Valley Forks. Less than half that distance, but still part of the same government reservation, was Site 4-Fox. 4-Fox took advantage of the same high tech security that the government provided for Area 51. It had barbed wire fencing with small signs every fifty meters that said “US Government Reservation, No Trespassing, Use of Deadly Force Authorized.”
At intervals, remote TV cameras with low-light capability were positioned. Between them were PSID’s, or Personnel Seismic Intrusion Devices, that would sound an alarm when a footfall heavier that a fat jackrabbit passed near. There were also Magnetic Anomaly Detectors that would react to the proximity and motion of ferrous metal. These were to foil the approach of anyone in a vehicle or carrying anything made of iron or steel. All the devices were linked by UHF and EHF data links to a central security post manned by no less than one watch commander and three security technicians twenty-four hours a day. The watch commander had immediate response teams standing by in Humvee’s on call at all times. He also had a hot line to nearby Nellis Air Force Base and could scramble a fighter strike team with three minutes notice. The strike team, a pair of armed F-18 Eagles, could be overhead in just twelve minutes.
Most of this hardware had been installed shortly after World War II to provide a secure facility for testing prototypes of top-secret aircraft. It was also used as an aid to security of the Nevada Test Site where hundreds of above and below ground nuclear tests had been performed before the treaty banning such tests went into effect.
Site 4-Fox was administered by the US Army and was home to a small detachment of scientists, technicians, and security personnel under the direction of Colonel Victor Augustus Manleigh, US Army Chemical Corps. Even though the United States had widely and publicly denounced the development and stockpiling of chemical and biological agents of war, the mission of the personnel at Site 4-Fox was to test and evaluate chemical and biological agents for defense. It was referred to in ultra secret communications as Test and Evaluation Center, Biological Agent Defense Unit, or TECBAD-U.
Col. Manleigh served principally as chief administrator and liaison between his civilian charges and the Pentagon. He had a doctorate in organic chemistry and additional training in ORSA, Operational Research and Systems Analysis. He did no research. His job was to pass information back and forth between the technical specialists at Site 4-Fox and the non-technical military brass. His principal assistant was an Army major by the name of Charles Bricker.
Maj. Bricker, familiarly called ‘Brick’, was an Infantry officer with paratroop and ranger training. He exercised direct authority over the security forces at Site 4-Fox. Mostly he conducted drills, mock breaches in security, and evaluated the response of his security troops. Where possible, he identified weak points and instituted improvements. It was a thankless job since there was rarely anything more dangerous than a coyote or wild burro attempting to crash through the site’s elaborate defensive measures. He considered those odd occasions when uninformed rock-hounds, dirt bikers, or picnickers set off the alarms as amusing diversions. Years ago, before Brick’s time, the occasional nuclear activist would attempt to sneak inside the perimeter to protest or disrupt nuclear testing. None of them had ever succeeded nor been in any danger of interfering with scheduled tests. Nowadays, about the most Brick could hope for would be a die-hard UFO fan trying to gain entry to Area 51. They had never been lucky either.
At 1638 hours on August 23, Col. Manleigh and Maj. Bricker were seated in a conference room with a civilian, Dr. Ross Pribotte, a fifty-two year old man with iron gray hair trimmed in a military crew cut who headed up the research arm of TECBAD-U. Also attending was Dr. Wayne Fresno, Pribotte’s deputy, and a very pretty brunette, Dr. Fawn Enderman. Dr. Enderman stood five-foot even in her bare feet and weighed ninety-three pounds. She had received her doctoral degree in psychology and her bachelors and master’s degrees in organic chemistry. She was twenty-seven years old and had published three monographs relating to chemical effects of various substances on the human body. Her job with TECBAD-U was the first one she had accepted after graduation. The salary was adequate for her needs, but the equipment and funding for her research was what had attracted her, for it was nearly unlimited. At the present time she was commenting on a video-tape being shown on the monitor in the conference room.
“As you can see, gentleman, the rats testing 2-PPME exhibit marked increases in aggressiveness, and enhanced stamina and strength. This is exactly what we’ve been attempting to achieve with agent 2-PPME. The adverse effects, you can see now. After dosing two control groups with 2-PPME, the rats were then put in a single communal cage. It was anticipated that group one would identify with the other members of its community and attack the members of group two. The reaction desired from the second group was that they would form a group and defend themselves against the attacking rats.”
“Unfortunately, neither group reacted as planned.” The TV scene began with two wire cages about two-foot square being wheeled in on two separate carts. One cage bore the letter A on a large white card affixed to it. The other cage was labeled B. The cages were shielded with opaque Plexiglas so that none of the rats in either cage could see the others. Disembodied hands lifted one cage and fastened it to one side of a larger cage, which had removable partitions affixed on two sides. The partitions could be lifted by a person standing outside the cage and allowed the test animals’ access to the larger cage in the center. Next, the other cage of rats was fastened to the opposite side of the cage.
“Food and drink have intentionally been withheld from the test subjects for twenty-four hours. Now, you can see the 2-PPME agent being added by syringe to the drinking dishes in each cage. After ten minutes, during which time each group drank of the water and time was allowed for the agent to take effect, the partitions to the cages were removed allowing both groups to enter the larger cage.”
The disembodied hands on the video display lifted the metal dividers separating the two smaller cages. At first, one or two rats from each group cautiously ventured into the arena provided by the larger cage. Then bedlam seemed to ensue. Rats within the smaller cages began attacking each other without entering the test area. The few rats in the larger cage also began fighting, biting, clawing and scratching each other. But there were no clear distinctions between the two groups. Rats from group A were just as likely to attack each other as to attack rats from the B group. In shortly under four minutes there were eleven dead rats in the three cages. One rat, the king of the hill, was still staggering around on all fours, but it soon dropped and died of wounds.
Dr. Enderman continued her remarks without comment on the gladiator rats that had died. “The 2-PPME achieved partial success in that it enhanced the physical and psychological characters of all rats. It was unsuccessful, however, in fostering any team cohesiveness in either control group.” She used a remote to stop the VCR then got up from the conference table and moved to a light switch. She flipped it on, flooding the room with harsh florescent lighting.
“Comments?” Col. Manleigh asked, surveying the others.
Dr. Fresno raised his hand and without waiting to be called upon addressed Dr. Enderman. “Fawn, can we be sure that these rats identified with each other as a group before they were allowed to intermingle?”
“As much as possible, Wayne, although there is no way to be absolutely certain what goes on inside a rats brain. On previous occasions, when a strange rat was introduced to either group, there was hostility indicated, but not as intense as we have just observed. If one rat was introduced to another that had been dosed with the 2-PPME, the drugged rat attacked and killed its opponent every time, and it did so with no additional encouragement.”
“Then,” Col. Manleigh interjected, “we can say that the 2-PPME test drug does provide for physical and psychological military enhancement of the individual rat, enhancements we want to reproduce in combat soldiers, but the rats don’t exhibit any tendency toward group identification or group loyalty. They simply attack anything whether they perceive it as an enemy or not.”
“Yes, sir,” Dr. Enderman replied. “We may be on the right track as 2-PPME brings about significant increases in aggressiveness of the rats, but we have yet to demonstrate group loyalty.”
“In which case,” Dr. Pribotte said, “the agent is totally useless to the Army. There’s no benefit in making your soldiers more aggressive if they kill each other as often as they kill the enemy.”
“More often,” Dr. Enderman put in. “The rats in the smaller cages made no effort to attack other rats in the large cage until all the rats in the smaller cages were dead. In other words, they simply wanted to kill the first thing they could sink their teeth into.”
Col. Manleigh asked Dr. Pribotte, “Do you think pursuing this agent could lead to more promising results?”
“Perhaps if we could move up the evolutionary ladder to test subjects which already demonstrate increased group identification. Maybe baboons? Or dogs?”
“Okay, give it a try. If we don’t have any results along these lines in another four weeks, we’ll have to abandon 2-PPME and rush the development of 3-PPME. Agreed?”
Major Bricker abstained from voting since security was his only area of expertise. The rest of the group glanced at each other and nodded.
“Very well, then,” Col. Manleigh said. “Dr. Enderman, thank you for your presentation. Please feel free to call another conference as soon as you have anything additional to report.”
She smiled faintly. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”
With a scraping of chairs, each member pushed his chair back on the tile floor and stood. A few of them worked their legs to restore circulation. The conference had been going on for nearly two hours. Major Bricker brought up the rear while they filed out of the conference room. He stopped at the VCR long enough to eject the tape and take it with him before he punched the off button on the TV and turned off the overhead lights. The room was left in darkness with only the soft sigh of the air conditioning remaining.
* * *
Lane was out the door before she could say more. He unhooked the trailer wiring between the U-Haul truck and his pickup, then disconnected the tow bar and locked it in the stow-away position. His weapon and leather were locked in the console between the bucket seats. He belted on the Browning nine millimeter before sliding behind the wheel and turning the key.
The Dodge pickup with the Magnum diesel engine was Lane’s pride and joy. While it might be slow in acceleration, as most diesels were, Lane felt certain it would pull a mini-mall up a twenty percent grade if required. He turned the key and cranked the engine as soon as the GLOW PLUG light was extinguished.
The trip back to the diner was a short one. Lane could have walked it if he hadn’t felt sure that his ultimate destination would not be the diner. He pulled up in moments and shut the engine off then went inside.
When he pushed his way through the front door Ruth stepped out from behind the counter and led him to a man seated three booths down, drinking hot black coffee while surrounded by a handful of locals.
“Ed,” she said, “this here’s Deputy Lane Mauler. Just got into town today and he’s moving into Foster’s place. I called up to the house and he came right down.”
Lane pushed his way up to the table and stood over Bromley. The man was in his late fifties with thinning gray hair on top that would begin balding in another year or so. His shoulders were wide and his chest deep. That Bromley had been used to heavy labor for a good part of his life was obvious. Lane stuck out his hand and winced when it seemed that Bromley was about to crush the bones in his grip.
“Lane Mauler, Mr. Bromley. Ruthie said you reported some kind of trouble at a friends place?”
“Trouble? Yeah, I guess you would say so.” He fixed Lane with a piercing gaze of his light gray eyes. “Blood ever’ where, deputy,” he said while waving his hands about. “An’ Larry layin’ there on the floor with a sharp stick pokin’ out’n his back.”
“Did you check for a pulse? Do you know if he was dead?”
“Nossir. I never went in the house. I could see him layin’ there through the front window. I never saw so much blood in one place afore. I guess he must’a been dead. I’ve dressed a deer here and there; and a hog a time or two, and I ain’t never seen so much blood. He must’a been dead. Lord, it weren’t no pretty sight.”
“All right, Bromley, what I’d like you to do now is get in the car with me and show me how to get there. I’ll have to check into this, officially, you know.”
“Yessir, I’ll be right happy to go with you. Ol’ Larry was always a friend to me and I’ll do what I can to catch whoever done this. But please don’t ask me ta go inside with ya.”
Lane turned to Ruth Tyson. “I’m driving my own vehicle tonight, I don’t have a county car yet. But I’ve got a cell phone and the number for the county sheriff in Tonopah. If I have to have them send someone out I’ll tell them to stop in here first. You’ll be able to give them directions, won’t you?”
“Sure ‘nuff, Mr. Mauler. You can depend on me. But it’s going to be closin’ time in little more than an hour. If you find you won’t need me, would you give me a call and let me know so’s I can go on home?” She thrust a matchbook into his hand. “The phone number‘s on the bottom.”
Lane looked at the inexpensive advertising. ‘Tyson’s Restaurant and Exxon’ it said. ‘Valley Forks, NV.’ There was a number beneath the advertising with a seven-seven-five area code.
“I’ll be sure and call, Ruthie. Within the hour.” Lane motioned for Bromley to precede him out the door and followed on his heels. Outside he pointed to the dark blue pickup and got behind the wheel while Bromley slid into the other side.
As he turned the key the glow plug light came on again. The short trip to the restaurant hadn’t been enough to warm up the engine fully. When the light went out Lane started the engine and looked at Bromley. “Which way?”
Bromley pointed down the road from which Lane and Cheryl Ann had driven into town that afternoon. “That way. South. Winscott’s place is ‘bout six miles down and then you turn right just past where a dry wash cuts under the road.”
Lane backed out of the diner and faced the car south. He pulled forward with a spray of gravel from tires. The posted speed limit in town was thirty-five, but Lane pushed it up to forty-five. Not having an emergency flasher or siren he didn’t want to go much faster and risk running into local traffic without warning. Besides, if Winscott was dead, all the speed in the world would make no difference.
“Sheriff?” Bromley asked as the trees flashed by in the shadows on either side of the road. His voice had a humbling tenor to it. “You going to poke around Larry’s place much? I mean looking for evidence and such?”
“Well, of course I am, Ed. That’s what the county pays me for. I have to make a preliminary judgment as to the cause of death. If I decide that it’s death by other than natural causes, foul play they call it on the television, I’ll have to investigate. Did Winscott have any obvious enemies here about?”
“Well, not so’s you would say so, sheriff. But,” he stammered and paused as if looking for the precise words he wanted. “…well, you see, Larry grew a few plants in a greenhouse of sorts. Out behind his shack, I mean.”
“Plants? You mean dope?” Lane fixed him in the intense glare of his eyes for a moment, then gave his attention back to the winding road before him. “Is there any reason for me to assume that there are drugs involved in what ever has happened?”
“Nossir! Every one in these parts and nearby knew Larry raised a little weed. But he only smoked it hisself! He never sold any or gave any to anyone else. Even Deputy Foster knew about Larry's weed, and he never done nothin’. You see, he and Larry was both Viet Nam vets. An’ I guess the agent orange give Larry cancer or sumpin’. Anyway, he was always hurtin’ fierce like. The VA give him painkillers, and put him on a disability, but Larry said them pills made him plumb sick most of the time. So he rolled some weed and after a few puffs, he was right as rain. You know?”
“Okay, Ed. I’m sure I wouldn’t hold that against him either. But could it be reason enough for someone, either local or from out of town, to want to harm him? Steal his stash?”
“I ‘spose anythin’s possible, sheriff. But Larry didn’t have no visitors that I knowed of. And I don’t ‘spose he got to see many out of towners. So I don’t think anyone from out of town would have driven up here to do him harm. I might be wrong, but most folks around here seem to know when someone not local is passin’ through. Maybe you’ll find out something if you ask around, but I couldn’t say fer a fact.”
Lane drove on in silence for a while and began to digest the newest information provided to him. Could whatever trouble had occurred have anything to do with a drug deal turned sour? Off hand, it didn’t seem likely. Marijuana wasn’t as fantastically profitable as cocaine, crack, heroin, or the more modern designer drugs. It was too easily and cheaply obtained to be of much interest to major crime players. Still, arguments did occur over petty things, and people had been killed for much less than a few potted plants.
“There,” Bromley pointed as the headlights picked up the white painted posts and guard rail marking a short, two lane bridge. “Just past the bridge. See where the brush widens out? Drive right through there.”
Land braked hard but still over shot the turnoff and had to back up and go at it again. He hoped the road wasn’t too rutted. The high ground clearance of the pickup, combined with four-wheel drive, would handle just about any situation he might expect to find himself in. But, when repairs, shock absorbers and wheel alignments came out of his pocket, he didn’t like to subject his vehicle to any more abuse than necessary.
He found the house about two hundred yards off the road. It was up a slight rise just where the dirt track began to enter the woods. Even on high beam his headlights didn’t show him much of the surroundings. He decided that ‘house’ was much too generous a word. Even ‘shack’ might have been pretentious. Lane felt that ‘dwelling’ adequately described the Winscott place.
Larry Winscott lived in a twenty-four or –five foot trailer, to which a lean-to had been attached. At some later date sides and a front had been added to the lean-to. There was a wide picture window and a screen door on the front side of the lean-to. A small window was let into the side of the lean-to that corresponded with the front of the little trailer. The lean-to was about ten foot by twenty, running the length of the trailer. A second, lower roof extended from the far end of the lean-to. It was open on the sides and seemed to have been added as a roof for a stack of firewood. A pipe chimney stuck up from the corrugated sheet metal roof of the lean-to indicating that Larry Winscott probably got the firewood from the nearby woods and used it to heat his home.
He had to admit, it was simple and logical. If a person bought or leased property in the area, a travel trailer provided immediate livability. While it would certainly seem crowded after awhile, the added lean-to would give more living room outside the small trailer. With walls and a source of heating added, the owner would have an inexpensive and draft-free addition to his home. Winscott, he surmised, was a bachelor. The trailer would give him basic sanitation, cooking, and living conveniences, and the lean-to would give him added room. The additional shed beyond the trailer allowed for storage of tools and equipment that Winscott didn’t care to keep in his front room. It would also give him room to grow a few indoor plants while protecting them from the harsh winter weather.
Lane stopped the truck with the headlights pointing toward the front door of the lean-to. He shut off the engine but left the lights on. As he opened the door he cautioned Bromley not to walk around behind the trailer, there could be evidence that must not be disturbed.
Lane sidestepped a redwood picnic table with two mismatched benches and approached the picture window cautiously. He peered inside where a florescent shop light flooded the single room with cold, white light.
It was just as Bromley had said. There was blood everywhere. On the walls, the ceiling, the floor. It had pooled heavily where the body lay face down with something sharp protruding from the back. Lane looked more closely and saw that a stool had been over turned in front of a kitchen table. Evidently Winscott had been sitting on the table when he died, probably falling upon the broken stool. The room was a shambles. Winscott had been sitting on the table when someone had used a chain saw to cut off both legs above the knee. The mutilated legs were lying on the floor immediately in front of the table.
Then Winscott had sat there, bleeding to death. The chain saw, with its grisly looking teeth lay on the floor not far from the severed legs. When the man had lost consciousness, his body had either toppled or been pushed forward, impaling him through the chest on one broken and jagged leg of the upturned stool.
Lane had been too young for Viet Nam. He had joined the Army in ’81 and spent the better part of three years as a military policeman assigned to the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC. Frequently, in the barracks or over a beer at the division NCO club he’d listened to the veterans talk about firefights and ambushes along jungle trails or in small, outlying villages. A bullet to the head or torso was spotlessly neat compared to the carnage Lane saw through the front window of Winscott’s lean-to. The sight of dismembered bodies blasted apart by shrapnel wasn’t as gruesome as the one he saw now.
“See? I tol’ you how it was, sheriff. Somebody took Larry’s chain saw and cut his legs off. Then they pushed the body over and it landed on the broken leg of that stool. Rotten bastards! Ol’ Larry was a harmless coot who just liked to yarn away the hours, drink a little bourbon with a beer chaser and toot on his weed now and then. Why would somebody do this to him sheriff?”
“I dunno, Ed. Now you wait out here while I go inside. Don’t go wanderin’ around messin’ up my crime scene. You hear?”
“Yessir, sheriff. I’ll stay right here.”
Lane found that the front door was unlocked. He opened the screen and held it while he pushed the inner door open just enough to stick his head in. The stench was oppressing. The same smell of death he’d become sickeningly familiar with at the scene of gang shoot-outs in Long Beach and Los Angeles.
You read about ‘the smell of death’ in crime novels and adventure stories, but until you’ve drawn it deep down into your lungs, you never really understand what people are talking about. And you never, ever, forget it. When the human animal dies, the bowels and bladder, controlled by the voluntary nervous system, let loose. It makes no difference whether you are a doctor or lawyer in a fifteen hundred dollar suit, or a skid row junky dressed in rags. You end up lying in pools of your own urine and feces, and, if the wounds are particularly traumatic, blood too. Only a short time later the disgusting stench permeates everything nearby. The nauseating stench never failed to call up unpleasant memories of dying and wounded friends he’d heard about in muddy battle-fields half a world away.
Winscott, he decided, hadn’t been much of a housekeeper. Even before the drunken frenzy, or altercation if someone else had been here, the house hadn’t been very neat. At the farthest end of the lean-to, a sofa was pushed up against the wall with an end table and reading lamp at one side. There was a nearly empty tray from a half eaten TV dinner, three or four empty beer cans and an open bottle of whiskey lay spilled on the floor. A pillow and blanket lay casually tossed on the sofa. Evidently Winscott had slept there on occasion.
A TV remote lay on the floor. A kitchen table with Formica top was pushed against the side of the little trailer. The TV had sat on top of the table where it was within easy view from the sofa. Now it lay on the floor between the sofa and table. Shards of the picture tube glistened under the harsh light, tiny pieces of glass twinkling like multi-faceted gems.
To Lane’s right, the room had been stacked with odds and ends, stuff that Winscott hadn’t wanted to leave out in the weather. A coffee table was piled high with books and magazines heaped upon it in no particular order. More books and magazines lay on the floor where they had been tossed, or perhaps fallen from the pile on the table. A bicycle with the front tire flat leaned against the wall behind the door. Two or three greasy and rusting electric motors, an oscillating fan covered with dust, cobwebs, and caked on grime were scattered in disarray.
Above the coffee table a rifle rack held a pump shotgun with a fishing pole in the rack below it. Lane wondered where a man might go fishing around here? Perhaps the pole was kept purely for sentimental reasons?
The place seemed unusually quiet to Lane. Something made the hackles on the back of his neck stand up. There was an eerie, disquieting feeling in the room that he couldn’t account for. It was spooky and terrifyingly unnerving.
He thought he could feel, rather than hear, vibrations of something pulsing through the rough laid wooden floor. Drums? Boom-boom-boom-boompity-boom-boom-boom-boompity! That was ridiculous! He pushed the thought away from him.
Avoiding blood spatters and broken glass, Lane decided to have a look inside the trailer. He stepped into the lean-two and was across the room in two strides. Several concrete blocks had been stacked side by side and covered with a woven rope doormat to make a step up to the door of the little trailer. Lane poked his head in. Something was irritating his subconscious. Some danger-signal that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. A danger-signal he had felt many times before as he entered darkened alleys or warehouses. A danger-signal he’d been trained to recognize but not to fear.
He looked left and right as he stuck his head in the trailer. He wouldn’t have been surprised to discover another body, or worse, some strange demon with claws and fangs, perhaps dripping with gore. There was something in the air that filled him with a sense of foreboding. It was some primal feeling of danger that filled him with dread. He was tempted to pull the 9mm from his holster, but he resisted the impulse. He was a grown man and he wasn’t frightened of any bogeyman.
From the doorway he saw a workbench built of rough two-by-fours at the front of the trailer. There were several blocks of wood on it and several finished or half finished animal figures. A brace of wooden ducks hung suspended from wires attached to the ceiling. A deer paused in mid-stride on the workbench. A raccoon stood on hind-quarters. A coyote sat beside a carved cactus and raised his open mouth to the sky. Winscott must have passed much of his time carving the wooden figures. Simple as they were, there was an element of beauty in the polished grain of raw wood.
Across from the door the counter top and sink were piled with dirty dishes. An empty box for a frozen pizza was sticking out of the wastebasket. Lane couldn’t tell if the dishes and trash were days old or recently used. Perhaps the crime scene unit would lift some prints from them.
An unwashed frying pan sat on the stovetop with grease and something that might have been scrambled eggs dried on the surface. A single dirty sock lay on the floor in the middle of a hall leading to what must have been a bathroom with a bedroom beyond. He went down the short hall, checking to make sure the rest of the trailer was empty.
Lane still could not shake the feeling of dread which set his teeth on edge. The impulse to pull out the Browning and blow away anything he laid his eyes upon entered his mind once more. Again he stifled the impulse. It was irrational for a grown man to be so afraid, but he was genuinely frightened nonetheless.
There might have been someone here with Winscott earlier. Winscott could have been tortured and murdered, but he could also have been alone. He could have been high on booze and pot and just sawed his own legs off and fallen on the jagged leg of the stool. Delirium tremens can do strange things to a man or woman. Lane had no knowledge of the man’s history or background, and it was too dark to conduct much of an investigation tonight. Lane mentally berated himself for pulling the dumb rookie trick of neglecting to bring a flashlight to aid in his inspection. He would have to secure the crime scene, notify headquarters and arrange for a crime scene unit to investigate in the morning. That meant spending the night with the dead body and leaving Tutu alone in the new house tonight. Neither thought cheered him.
Picking his way across the debris littering the floor, he closed the door as he went outside and spoke to Ed Bromley. “How’d you get over here tonight, Mr. Bromley?”
“Well, I walked, naturally. I just live across the road and up about half a mile. Can’t afford no car and insurance on social security, you know. Many an evening I walk down here and shoot the shit with Larry. Talk about the good ol’ days, afore the ‘publicans screwed the country again.”
Lane was by nature a conservative and usually voted Republican unless the Democrats had a really promising candidate. He always tried to vote for the best man for the job, no matter which party the candidate was affiliated with, but he agreed more often than not with the views of the Republican candidate. Still, this was no time for political arguments.
“How’d you get to town when you left here?”
“Walked again. Junior Swiegert gave me a ride the last mile o’the way. He’s kind a sweet on the Tyson girl, you know. Drops in for a milk shake whenever he has a buck in his pocket and Big Tom’ll let him drive the pickup.”
“Well, it looks as though I’m going to have to stay the night here and secure the crime scene until the sheriff’s office can get some people down here in the morning.” Lane looked around and decided that he would sleep in the truck when he got back. No way was he going back into that blood stained crime scene tonight, and it didn't look as though the small shed out back would offer much of a place to spend the night. “But I’ll have to head back to my place for a few minutes and get my sleeping bag and a thermos of coffee. You want I should drop you off at your place?”
Bromley smiled. “Why, that’d be right neighborly of you sheriff. I’d really appreciate it, you know?” Lane drove Bromley away with the pounding of Indian drums still echoing in the furthest recesses of his mind. Try as he might, he couldn’t put the sounds out of his thoughts.
After dropping Bromley off, Lane stopped at the coffee shop to tell Ruthie she could close up and go on home. He’d handle the situation now.
“Was it really messy Mr. Mauler? Ed said that there was blood all over the walls and ceiling.”
“It wasn’t pretty, Ruthie. But it’s not something you need to go spreading all over town either. The sheriff’s department will handle the investigation and you and everyone else can read about it in the paper.” He wasn’t trying to be curt with the young girl, but he neither wanted nor needed a few dozen curiosity seekers or souvenir hunters descending on the Winscott place.
Pulling up in front of his place, Lane killed the engine and thought over what he’d say to his daughter. He knew she wouldn’t think well of being left alone before they had even begun moving into the new house, but he couldn’t see any way to avoid it. It was his duty to secure the crime scene until it could be thoroughly investigated. That was his job and well she knew it. Maybe he could make it up to her during the coming weeks. He got out of the car and went up the walk.
He could see Cheryl Ann peering from behind the curtain on the front door before he started up the steps. The porch light went on and she opened the door for him.
“Daddy, you’ve got that ‘I don’t want to do this’ look on your face again. Are you going back out?” She remembered the long nights he’d been away from home too well.
“Can’t be helped, Tutu. I’m the only law in town, you know. I can’t just call up the squad room and see if someone else can pull the duty.”
The girl stood aside and let him enter. “I’ll put the coffee pot on. You’ll need a thermos again.” Then she smiled at him and encircled his waist with her arm while she dragged him into the house. “I’ll make out all right, and I’ll be safe ‘cause I know you’ll be out there keeping the neighborhood safe and free from perverts.”
“Honey, you know there aren’t any perverts in Valley Forks.” He knuckled her scalp as they went through the living room and back into the kitchen.
“I was just kidding,” she said. “How can there be perverts when there’s hardly any people?”
In the kitchen Tutu filled a pan with tap water and put it on the stove to heat. “Sorry, but it’ll have to be instant. The coffee maker is packed who knows where in the U-Haul, and I’m not even sure if there’s any drip coffee or where the filter papers are. I did find a jar of instant with some of the groceries we salvaged from the cupboards of our apartment. Do you know where your thermos is?”
Lane kissed her forehead. “Where it always is, behind the seat in the pickup. Run get it for me, will you? I’ve got to call the sheriff’s office in Tonopah and arrange to get a crime scene unit out here first thing in the morning.” As Tutu ran out the front door Lane went to the office and picked up the phone. He was just hanging up when she came back in.
“You know, dad, I’m going to want you to take me out for a really fantastic dinner in Vegas to make up for leaving me alone our first night in a strange town. Maybe even a show too!”
“It’s a deal,” he said, glad that she had made things so easy for him. “Say, in those boxes we put up stairs, did you see my sleeping bag?”
“Uh-huh. It’s on the shelf in your closet.” She turned the heat down under the pan of water so it wouldn’t boil too quickly. After rinsing out his thermos, she found the jar of instant in a cupboard above the counter and put four full teaspoons of crystals into the stainless jug.
While Tutu was waiting for the water to heat, Lane went up to his room and donned a sweater. He pulled his parka from the closet and tossed it on the bed. He rummaged through the several boxes Tutu had deposited on the floor while he was at Winscott’s until he found his thirty-five millimeter camera. The indicator showed fifteen exposures left on the roll so Lane checked the LED on the flash attachment to make sure the flash would work. Satisfied, he put the camera in the pocket of his parka.
By the time Lane returned to the kitchen Tutu was putting the top on his thermos. “This won’t keep you awake, you know. It’s decaf.”
“Fine by me. I’m going to crawl in the back seat of the cab, pull my sleeping bag up around my ears and sleep until the sun comes up. NCSO said they’d have someone out here first thing, but even if they leave Tonopah at first light, it’ll still be a two hour drive.”
He tucked the thermos under his arm and picked up the sleeping bag and parka. Tutu followed him as far as the front door.
“Now you remember to keep all the doors and windows locked. You’ve got my cell phone number, right?”
The girl nodded. “Sure thing, dad. You can call me if you get lonely.”
“Yeah, right, kid. Where’s your gun?” Since firearms were required in his work, Lane had decided when Tutu was still a young girl that the best policy was to teach every member of his family to handle a handgun with respect. His wife hadn’t carried one in the car with her when she died, and might not have been able to use it in time even if she had. Still, Lane had bought a .38 caliber revolver for his daughter and taken her out to the target range to make sure she was proficient with it. His reasoning was that a lawyers bill would be cheaper than a doctors bill if his daughter ever found herself in a situation where using her gun was necessary. The pistol was always kept in her room and always kept loaded. Lane had reminded her that people are usually hurt or killed with empty guns rather than loaded ones, so always keep it loaded and always handle it with care.
“Upstairs in my room where I expect to be all night. Listening to the radio since you haven’t set up the satellite dish yet.”
“Sorry, Tutu. I’ll get on it tomorrow. If I get home at a decent hour.”
“Call me in the morning, okay?”
“Of course. I don’t want you shooting me if I get home unexpectedly.” He planted a kiss on her forehead and left.