Miss Cheryl Ann Mauler began the first week of her sophomore year in Valley Forks five weeks after she and her dad had moved to the little town. The school system was somewhat confusing to her after the organized chaos of Southern California. Valley Forks had a total of twenty-three students in grades kindergarten through twelve. The state provided six teachers, four of whom were two married couples, with a man and a woman left over for good measure.
There were no students in the sixth or eighth grades, with one, two, or three students in the others. Tutu found that she and Ruthie were the only sophomores, Fred Silverman was the only junior, and Jimmy (Junior) Swiegert the only senior. Since it wasn’t practical to have separate classrooms for each grade, the six-room building which served as a school had two rooms dedicated as offices for the teachers, while four served as classrooms for a variety of needs, students, and grades. The rooms were flexible and had often been used for multiple purposes before. Not too many decades back, when Valley Forks was a mining town in boom, the building had done a brisk business as a brothel.
Cheryl Ann enjoyed the arrangements that had been made for her education; she also enjoyed the teal blue Ford mini-van now parked in the Mauler driveway next to her dad’s pickup. Tutu was the only high schooler in town with her own vehicle, but since the town was so small, she didn’t drive it often. Shopping trips to Vegas or Tonopah were always made on the weekend and Tutu had driven twice in the company of older women as they picked up groceries for the co-op. Her dad preferred not to drive with her since she complained he intimidated her. Still, he was pleased with the back-channel information he received from the older women concerning Tutu’s driving.
He hadn’t learned any more concerning the Winscott murder. The man had not owned a car. He had learned that an acquaintance brought Winscott his drinking water in a three hundred gallon water tank on the back of his pickup about once a month, or as often as necessary. The friend hadn’t been around for more than two weeks when the body had been discovered. In fact, the water on hand only half filled the water tank. Officially, the case was listed as a suicide.
On the brighter side, if there was one, Lane hadn’t heard anything about Richard Dumont either. That was a mixed blessing. On the one hand it was a blessing because no other crimes or mysterious happenings had taken place in Lane’s jurisdiction. The flip side of that coin was that Dumont was still on the run, still hiding out somewhere. There were reportedly sixty FBI men assigned to the case and working out of Reno. Lane recalled the FBI had taken an awfully long time rounding up that guy back in North Carolina. He thought dourly about their chances to wrap this case up quickly.
On a Saturday in November, Lane had let Tutu drive him into Tonopah to pick up some incidentals for their home. Arriving two hours before lunch they had quickly completed their shopping and had pulled into the Station House Casino and Hotel for lunch. Tutu ordered a salmon patty and a small salad while Lane ordered the chili, as usual. Halfway through their meal he spotted Connie Conried coming into the restaurant alone. Lane half rose and motioned her over to join them.
He was standing when she arrived. “Dining alone, Dr. Conried? Why don’t you join Cheryl Ann and myself?”
“Well, thank you Lane.” She sat down at the table in a chair across from Cheryl Ann.
“Cheryl, allow me to introduce Doctor Connie Conried. You’ve seen her in Valley Forks a couple times, haven’t you?”
Cheryl offered her hand and gave the doctor a warm and sincere smile. “Hello again, doctor.”
Connie took her cue from Cheryl. “Among my other duties with the Regional Medical Health Services, I also act as the school nurse. We met at the beginning of the school year,” she said to Lane. “Nice to see you again, Cheryl.”
“Can we order something for you, Connie?” Lane asked.
A waitress, obviously an acquaintance of Connie’s, appeared and Connie spoke to her. “Hi, Hank,” Connie said. “How’s the chef’s salad today?”
“It’s fresh, and pretty good if you’re a rabbit,” Hank said.
“Please bring me one with gobs of blue cheese dressing on the side,” Connie said.
The young girl left and Lane looked at Connie. “Hank?” he remarked with a perplexed look.
“Short for Henrietta. I should have told you, I eat here most days. The prices are reasonable and it’s not too far from work. Besides, about the only other choices in town are fast food joints.”
Before she could say anything more, her beeper went off.
“Oh, damn!” Connie said as she grabbed at the waist of her skirt and glared at the annoying little instrument. “I’ll have to excuse myself for a minute while I answer this.” Lane rose and eased Connie’s chair out as she headed for a pay phone.
Tutu watched the exchange between the two adults. “Cool, dad,” she smirked. “Why don’t you have her over to the house for dinner before the weather makes it impossible for us to barbecue outside? You might not come up with another excuse before spring. I didn’t know you knew any lady doctors? And, a mighty good looking one at that. You do know that she’s single, don’t you?”
“Cheryl Ann, I’m old enough to handle my social life without advice from you. The doctor and I met in an official capacity more than six weeks ago. I’ve only spoken to her occasionally since then, and only on business.”
“Well, dad, time’s a wasting. Mom wouldn’t want you to spend the rest of your life alone, and I kind of like the lady doctor.”
“Drop it, Tutu. Quiet now, here she comes.”
Lane was only half out of his chair when Connie swept in and seated herself. “I’ll be darned if I’m going to pay for another meal I don’t have time to eat. Besides, the dead aren’t going anywhere.”
The waitress arrived almost as though she had been waiting for Connie to return from making her phone call. Hank set down a large plate of salad, topped with sliced tomatoes, ham, turkey, avocado, and topped with crumbled bacon. Next to that she set a cup-sized bowl of dressing. “Will you want anything to drink, Doc?”
“Just a pot of tea, Hank. Thanks for hurrying. My beeper went off and I’ll just have time to make a large dent in this salad before I have to fly.”
“Coming right up,” the waitress said, spinning on her heel and running to fetch the tea.
“Dead?” Lane inquired.
“Yeah,” Connie said as she spooned the creamy white dressing over her salad. “Down in your bailiwick. A sheepherder and his family. Three dead and one missing. I’ll have to run down there to tag ‘em and bag ‘em.” She stuck a forkful of lettuce and tomato into her mouth.
“Guess I better run, too. Deputy Snow is handling things on my day off, but I’ll end up doing the follow up so I better find out the details before the trail gets cold. There’s only one sheep rancher that I know of in the valley, name of Esposito.”
Connie swallowed the mouthful she had been chewing. “That’s the one; a man, his wife, and a five-year-old daughter. Lots of blood. Like the Winscott case. I understand there’s a teenage boy missing, but they’re looking for him.”
“Arturo,” Tutu said. “I know him from school. Small for his age, and quiet. I don’t think he would have been involved in anything serious.”
“He’s not a suspect yet, Tutu,” her dad said. “Let me get there and look the scene over. Finish your salmon and let’s get a move on.” Lane had already wolfed down the remaining portion of his chili.
“You don’t have to rush her, Lane. I’m going to take my time, and Cheryl can ride back with me,” Connie said.
“You sure she won’t be a bother?” Lane asked.
“Are you planning on being a bother?” Connie asked her.
Wide-eyed, Tutu feigned incredulity. “Who, me? Why, gosh, no! No trouble at all.”
“See,” Connie said to Lane. “No trouble at all. You rush off. I’ll drop her at your house. I know how to get to the Esposito place.”
“Okay, doc. If she gives you any trouble, just give her the back of your hand. That’s what I always do.” He took out his wallet and dropped some bills on the table, then leaned over and pecked his daughter on the forehead. “Behave yourself, squirt.”
“Don’t worry, dad. I know how to behave with a good looking lady doctor, even if you don’t,” she gave her dad a wink.
“Now you do have me worried,” Lane said as he nodded to Connie and headed for the door. As he got into Tutu’s mini-van he decided not to call the sheriff’s office and request a crime scene unit. Technically, Lane was supposed to be off today. If he appeared to be checking up on Josiah, the man might take offense, and rightly so. But if he just casually showed up at the crime scene, and let Josiah handle the details, he’d only be exhibiting normal curiosity about goings on in his home area. Josiah couldn’t get upset over that.
Lane put the car in gear and began the more than ninety-mile trip back to Valley Forks. He held down the accelerator until the speedometer read seventy then engaged the cruise control. Since he was driving Tutu’s car there was no siren or light, and that was okay with him. Connie had said the victims were dead so there wasn’t much point in hurrying. Seventy miles an hour was more than adequate as far as Lane was concerned.
The miles sped by and Lane put his mind on cruise control also. There are only four kinds of scenery in Nevada: rolling, brown desert with sagebrush and creosote bushes; flat, dry lakes with hard packed surfaces; barren, scrub hills with little vegetation, a few jackrabbits and the odd coyote or two; and the crowded, neon sprawl of cities like Reno and Las Vegas. You don’t even see Burma Shave signs anymore. Putting his mind on cruise control was a technique he’d perfected. It made the long featureless drives go faster. Rather than listen to the radio, which worked only half the time across the vast desert distances, he’d think about what he was going to plant in the garden come spring. Or what he’d get for Tutu’s fast approaching sixteenth birthday. Or what a lady doctor would be like in bed.
Damn! From where had that thought sneaked in? Must have been a reaction to something Tutu had mentioned. Forget it boy, he told himself. She was a lady doctor with umpteen years of college behind her and a busy practice in front of her. She certainly wouldn’t be interested in a thirty-eight year old deputy sheriff with a junior college degree in Police Science. But, she did have the cutest mouth and eyes attractive enough to rent out to Maybelline for commercials.
He banished those thoughts as he began wondering what he would find when he reached Esposito’s. He remembered the man; young thirties, bull necked and broad shouldered. Esposito and his wife had moved from Colorado six years ago and leased some grazing land from BLM. Isabella made the best burritos, rice, and chili con carne in the whole state of Nevada in Lane’s judgment. He had met them while giving a drug resistance presentation at a PTA meeting just after school began. Nice folks who kept their children neat and clean and harped on them to keep their grades up. The kind of people Lane thought of as salt of the earth, like the pioneers who had shaped this land.
Now they were dead. Lane knew drugs couldn’t be involved here. What could have led to such a gruesome end for the young family? Where was Arturo? If the escaped prisoner, Richard Dumont, had any connection with this case, his hopes for Arturo might certainly come to naught.
It was shortly after two in the afternoon when Lane breezed through Valley Forks. He should have driven straight home to unload three weeks worth of groceries but he decided to drive six miles north of town where Esposito had his trailer and small herd of sheep. He spotted the gravel turnoff and drove the last two miles across the valley floor up to the fringe of the Toiyabe National Forest where the trailer was parked. Already there were two blue and white county cars there.
Because the land was leased from BLM, Manuel Esposito hadn’t spent too much money on improvements. He’d rented a small drilling rig and drilled a four-inch well to a depth of ninety feet. A three-bladed windmill turned an air-compressor, which pumped air down a quarter inch line to the bottom of the well. There it mixed with water in a one-inch riser pipe. The mixture of air and water, lighter than the water surrounding the riser, floated up the pipe while drawing more water in behind it. It was called an air-injection lift and had the advantage that all the moving parts were above the surface, which meant Manuel didn’t have to pull the riser pipe whenever maintenance was required. It was also cheap and fool proof.
Water from the riser pipe filled a fifteen hundred gallon tank standing on a reinforced twelve-foot platform. From there it would flow downhill to one of three watering troughs for his sheep, or to a twelve-volt demand pump for the trailer.
On top of the trailer, facing south, four solar panels provided one hundred watts each to a charge controller and a battery pack of ten, six-volt golf cart batteries. Each pair of batteries was wired in series to provide twelve volts, and the pairs wired in parallel to provide increased storage. All together, Manuel had a total of ten thousand watts storage capacity to power the trailer at night or through several cloudy days in a row. A fifteen-hundred watt inverter converted twelve volt DC power to one hundred and twenty volts AC needed for household appliances. The refrigerator was gas-operated and ran on propane since electric refrigeration was wasteful of the limited AC power available. Manuel had tied up about three thousand dollars between the well and the solar power system, but he could take everything with him if he chose to move his flock. Except for the hole in the ground where he drew his water, of course.
Lane pulled in and killed the engine. Harvey Buckhorn was coming around from behind the trailer. He had his thirty-five millimeter camera in one hand and had evidently been taking photos of the crime scene. A black man in a deputy’s uniform came out of the trailer as Lane got out of the car. The deputy wasn’t quite as tall as a telephone pole, and only slightly thicker around the middle. He had a complexion that glistened like oiled ebony.
“Snowman!” Lane called to his weekend relief. “I leave you alone for less than half a day and you’re stirring up trouble in my back yard.” The two men clasped hands in a warm and comradely grasp. Josiah Snow had also been in the military police before joining NCSO, although Lane teased him that Air Policemen stationed at Nellis AFB, just outside of Vegas, could hardly call their duty assignment a hardship tour.
“Howdy, Lane. Sorry you had to come home to this. It sure ain’t pretty.” The man bowed his head and shook it sadly back and forth.
“Any idea what went down?” Lane asked.
“Not for sure. I doubt if we’ll learn anything until we find the boy, unless the lady doc comes up with something when she does the autopsies. The little girl has been viciously beaten, Manuel has been shot with a rifle, you can see the exit wound in his back, and Mrs. Esposito appears to have been beaten, but I couldn’t tell before moving the body of her dead husband off her. The place is a real mess. I’ve been looking for the boy, Arturo is his name, but haven’t given the inside a thorough search. Didn’t want to disturb anything before the Doc got here.”
“She should be here shortly,” Lane said. “My daughter and I were having lunch with her when she got the call.”
“Oh?” Snow asked with a questioning look.
“Well, actually, Cheryl Ann and I were having lunch at the Station House when Connie joined us. It wasn’t like a date or anything. Why in the hell am I telling you this?”
“I dunno,” Deputy Snow, said with a wide smile and what appeared to be a roomful of gleaming white teeth. “Guilty conscience or wishful thinking?”
“Go push a rope!” Lane gave him a playful punch in the shoulder. Together he and Josiah walked to the front door and went in, stepping cautiously so as not to disturb the disorder. Somebody with more forensic training than himself might be able to discern a vital clue from the clutter and chaos.
Lane knew that Isabella kept her home as spotless as she kept her kids. The disarray surrounding the carnage was mute testimony to the violence of the crime, but what had happened?
Five-year-old Maria was an unrecognizable mass of pulp and blood where she lay on the floor between the sofa and a coffee table. Isabella lay in one corner of the living room where she must have been thrown after she had taken Manuel’s deer rifle from the closet and shot him, or had the boy shot the father after catching him beating his wife and child? Manuel’s wound had been fatal but it didn’t appear he had died quickly.
“You checked the other rooms?” Lane asked the Snowman.
“Briefly. Didn’t see the boy anywhere. Look, if Manuel just blew his top and went crazy, he could have killed the boy anywhere within a few thousand acres surrounding here. Or maybe we’re reading this wrong and the boy killed the girl, then shot the old man and killed the mother too. Manuel died as he was trying to get to his wife. But there’s no way we’ll have any idea what really happened until we can find the boy.”
“Any hint that someone else might be involved? Any tire tracks, foot prints, or any sign that would indicate a stranger?”
“You’re thinking about that Dumont character, right?" The Snowman shook his head. "I haven’t seen anything that would point the finger at a stranger. But, neither have I seen anything that says it couldn’t have been. We’ve just got to hope we find Arturo alive, Lane.”
Lane felt a sickening tightness in his guts. What a waste this whole scene was; an attractive wife and mother, a hard working father, a good-looking child, and another kid missing. He and Josiah were just stepping outdoors as Connie pulled up in her beige county car. Cheryl was not with her. Connie had dropped her off at home to spare her the gory scene inside the trailer.
“’Lo, Doc,” Josiah said. “Sorry to have to bother you on a weekend, but there’s an awful mess requiring your professional services inside. If you don’t mind, I’d like to wait out here.”
“You should cut down on those rich dinners, Deputy Snow. You’ll have an ulcer before you’re thirty.” Connie quipped back at him.
“Aww, Doc, you know how my Shandra cooks. She’ll give me the dickens if I don’t like her cookin’, and ulcers if I do. What’s a fellow supposed to do about that?”
“Keep loving her and keep your Blue Cross paid up,” Connie said. “Lane? You doing the paperwork on this one?”
“Not me, it’s my day off. The Snowman will take care of all the details. Fact is, I better get on home and give Tutu a hand putting the groceries away.”
“That’s a nice girl you have there. We had a long talk during the drive down here. When do you expect me to move in?”
“What!” Lane spluttered while his face turned crimson.
“Just kidding. You know she’s got us paired up, of course. I didn’t want to rain on her parade so I just said we’d see what happens. Was I wrong?”
“I’ll have a long and serious talk with her when I get home, Connie.”
“You do that, but stay out of the kitchen. She’s invited me to have dinner with the two of you tonight and I couldn’t think of a graceful way to refuse. I gather she’s going to fix something special. Hope that it won’t be an imposition on you.”
“Oh, no, of course not. But do you suppose you’re going to feel much like dinner when you finish up here?”
“Run along with you, I am a doctor, remember? I’ve spent my time in the ER trauma center. See you about five.”
“Yeah, sure, okay,” he said. He was surprised but not disappointed. He got into Tutu’s van and backed out of the yard.
Twenty minutes later he pulled the van into the drive of his house and got out. He grabbed two arms full of groceries from the back of the van and left the sliding door open as he took the groceries inside.
“Oh, good, you’re home. I’ll bring in the rest of the groceries and put them away,” Tutu said. “Why don’t you go up stairs and take a shower? And do something about that five o’clock shadow, dad.”
“What, no kiss?” he asked, blankly.
Tutu grabbed his shoulders and stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. “That should hold you. Now let me run and bring the rest of the things in.” She headed for the front door.
“Okay, but we’re going to have to have a long talk after while.”
She stopped, turned, and put her hands on her hips. “Why, dad? Because I invited company for dinner? I am the lady of the house you know, and I do have a right to invite a guest home, don’t I?”
“Of course you do, Sweetheart. But I think you’re kind of pushing this thing with Connie and I a little too much. Don’t you?”
“Of course not. I’ll admit, she would be quite a catch for most any guy, but I’m not shopping around for a mother. You know I’ll finish school in less than two years and then I’ll be off to college and who knows what. It’s you I’m thinking of, dad. I won’t be around here to wash your dirty underwear and cook your meals for much longer.”
“So? Seems to me I did all right on my own for a number of years before I met your mother. I expect I’ll manage.”
“Don’t be silly. Your idea of breakfast, lunch or dinner, is to open a can of chili. If mom hadn’t bought your clothes you’d never wear anything other than your uniform. Granted, you don’t smoke and only drink occasionally, but other than that, you’re not much of a catch, dad. Someone has to give you some help. On the other hand, the lady doctor is quite some catch. I’m surprised that she’s still on the market with the little competition she has around here.” Having said her piece she flounced out. Lane decided not to argue and went upstairs to shave.
By the time he got out of the shower the sun was waning. He found Tutu had laid out charcoal slacks, a powder blue sweater and dark gray socks on his bed. A white short-sleeved shirt hung from a hanger on his closet door and beige loafers sat next to the bed. She didn’t have to hit him over the head with a baseball bat. He could take a hint.
After dressing, he wandered downstairs and into the kitchen. Tutu was peeling and slicing vegetables. The peelings went into a five gallon plastic bucket he had set under the sink. Mondays and Fridays he hauled it out back to his compost heap and would later work it into his garden soil.
“What’s for dinner, Squirt?”
“Broiled chicken breasts, whipped potatoes, and stir fry vegetables. I’ve got snow peas, sliced carrots, celery, mushrooms, a red onion, and half of a green pepper. I would have liked to add some fried noodles, but I didn’t plan ahead. It was the best I could do on the spur of the moment. And don’t jiggle the ‘fridge. I’ve got some whipped Jell-O and mixed fruit setting up.”
“My, my. We should have Connie for dinner more often. Any cashews in the veggies?”
“Oh, great! Thanks for reminding me,” she said happily. “There’s a can in one of the cupboards over there,” she pointed, “no, I think it’s in the pantry. Would you be a dear and fetch it for me?”
“You’re not starting already, are you?”
“Of course not, I’m just getting organized. The whole dinner won’t take twenty minutes to put together, but I want to have everything collected and ready to go.”
“You wish is my command, fair princess.” He salaamed in her direction then went to fetch the cashews.
“I hope you trip over your big feet,” she threw at him.
As he came back with the cashews he retorted. “Nasty, and after I brought home that shiny, almost new car for you. Shall I take it back?”
“Oh, daddy, no! I was only teasing.”
“Me too, Sugarplum. And my feet are not large. They are just the right size to give me balance.”