“Hello the house!” Blink and Hare were already purring their greetings, winding around my legs, daring me to trip over them. The big orange tom, Blink, never blinked. The green-eyed monster could stare down a statue. Naturally, Hare was a petite tortoise shell female. The hare and the tortoise. Get it?
Hey, I didn’t name them.
“Took your sweet time, Tom.” Otis Wise stood in the ramshackle home’s doorway, his head turned to one side rather than looking straight at me. He had to do it that way. Legally blind from early onset macular degeneration, peripheral vision was all the vision he had. Looking straight ahead, all the man could see was a dark, foggy blur. He relied on the mixed-breed mutt, Blue, to keep him safe from rattlesnakes when he went outside. Blue was, of course, a red dog, the deep color of a purebred Irish setter with the basic sweetness of a golden retriever most of the time. Let the bitch perceive a threat to her master and she was all teeth.
“Ran into a sweet young thing up the road a ways. She was almost as pretty as you.”
Otis laughed, a joyous sound that rose up from his belly. Dark and lean, the man was easy to be around. Good thing, since our plan was to live together on this quarter section of Indian Reservation until one of us kicked the bucket. Right now, due to his vision impairment, I qualified as the more functional individual. Considering my age, though, who knew? He was a lot younger and, aside from his vision impairment, in excellent health.
He was also a mighty fine cook, legally blind or not, and I was more hungry than tired. “I’ll be in as soon as I get Belle settled.”
“I’ll start warming up the clam chowder.”
Otis’s clam chowder. It was going to be a great evening.
Belle was happy to be home, too. It was pretty obvious, the way her head picked up and her ears pricked forward, nostrils scenting home pasture and Otis’s palomino gelding. “Go to it, girl.” I slapped her rump as she went by, already picking up speed. Unloading the tack and stashing the gold could wait until after dark. I preferred to do that when Google Earth wasn’t eyeballing the place, anyway. Time for one long look around. Tom Slider had inherited these 160 acres from his halfbreed father whose white father had outlived his Lower Brule wife. Which made Tom Slider 1/4 Lower Brule Sioux, Kul Wicasa Oyate, Burnt Thigh, though young Tom had been spirited away from the Rez as an infant, not returning until by pure chance he learned of his inheritance.
The original Tom Slider had been destitute and homeless when I met him, a former trucker whose eyesight, job, and girlfriend all headed south at the same time. He’d been hitchhiking from El Paso to Houston when I’d stopped to give him a ride. That was six years ago and change. It had taken me three hours of knowing him to make the offer and three weeks for him to think it over. Now I was Tom Slider to the world and he was Otis, short for Original Tom Slider, O.T.S. with a small “i” thrown in for good measure. Last name Wise for having the wisdom to accepting my terms. Otis Wise had no official ID whatsoever; the man had effectively “gone black.” In return for giving up his identity, he was guaranteed plenty of income–in slow increments to avoid raising red flags with neighbors or governmental agencies–plus a bit of companionship, a way to put his pottery hobby to work, and quiet, anonymous financial support for his Down’s syndrome daughter who lived on a specialty ranch in Minnesota.
All in all, a good deal for both of us. I just had to keep a weather eye out for anyone who might recognize me as old John Cavanaugh.
Best of all, Otis was an avid gardener, an even better cook, and possessed a classic sense of humor. “I taped today’s news,” he said as I settled into my chair at the kitchen table with a deep sigh of relief. “You’re gonna to want to watch it. You’re all over it. But eat your soup first. And drink your coffee. You’re gonna need your strength.”
“Yes, mother,” I grinned. So Miss Piggy and the Toad were siccing the media on me? Guess I should have seen that one coming.
We’re off grid out here but never really isolated. Satellite TV and Internet services have pretty much blanketed the country these days. Once my soup bowl was emptied and washed, I poured a second cup of coffee for myself and one for Otis while he cued up the news clip.
“This was first aired by a Missoula station,” he said, “but the national networks all picked it up and ran with it.” He’d chosen the NBC News version. The talking head and an old photo Margaret had taken at our Christmas get-together eleven years ago shared the screen.
MULTIMILLIONAIRE GOES MISSING
Where is John Cavanaugh? The Montana man who made his millions from a series of machine tool inventions has not been seen since June tenth. There are concerns that he may have gone for a drive and become lost. His daughter and son drove to his remote country home last Thursday morning as law enforcement attempted to enforce a court order requiring his evaluation for mental stability. “We’re worried,” son Kermit Cavanaugh admitted. “Dad hasn’t been himself for nearly a year now. He gets tired easily and he forgets things. He also seemesto be getting paranoid, which isn’t like him.”
Is John Cavanaugh out there somewhere, alone? Confused? Lost? Could foul play be involved? Family members don’t know, but they have posted a $50,000 reward for information leading to his safe recovery. If you’ve seen this man, call 406-555-2830. His late model silver gray Cadillac Escalade is also missing, so keep an eye out for that, too. John Cavanaugh is ninety-eight years old.
The screen went black. I busted out laughing.
“Let me in on the joke?”
“Sure, Otis. Let’s see, where to start. They’ve got the ghouls focused on a feeble old brain-dead fart in a gray Cadillac SUV. I donated that Escalade to a group home in Wyoming last Christmas. That old photo shows me in my glasses, two or three months before I had cataract surgery. While the doc was lasering around, he fixed the rest of my vision as well, so 20-20 all the way now. Sorry, man, that they can’t do the same for you.”
“What is, is. Ain’t no skin.”
“Excellent attitude. Okay, see, I’d been plotting and planning for years before that picture was taken. Made sure nobody ever got another one. Kept wearing glasses right up till the day I scooted out of the old place, but they were just plain glass, no boost. Held off on an eyelift until six months ago and then wore sunglasses any time I was going to be seeing anybody, so they’re looking for an old four-eyes man with wrinkles and I’m not that. I get this moustache grown out and dye it to match yours, that’ll disguise some of the lower face wear and tear, too. Bottom line, they just pointed the whole USA in the wrong direction. No way they’re going to be looking for a healthy guy in his fifties.”
Otis got it. I felt myself relaxing, looking around, eyeballing the home’s interior. Outside, the place looked like any other badly weathered Reservation house, the walls patched with everything from tarpaper to cardboard but made up of unpainted wood more than anything else. A rusted shell, what remained of a once proud 1948 Plymouth, crumbled slowly back to earth in its designated spot between house and barn. The barn had missing boards and looked like at first glance like it would fall over any time now. Inside, the kitchen wasn’t much fancier. Chipped Formica counter. Extremely stained stainless steel sink. Pile of mismatched dishes. Sturdy wooden table, the varnish long gone and dog damage decorating all four legs. Painfully unpadded chairs with ratty old pillows for butt-comfort. The appliances were deceptive. Top of the line but never polished to a Martha Stewart shine.
Deeper in the house, where visitor didn’t go, things changed dramatically. Otis and I had refurbished everything. Here, the comfortable couch and two countem two recliners yelled, is the home of affluent men! Same with the bedrooms. We even had three–three!–bathrooms, one each for Otis and me (spiffy! clean!) and a raggedy half-bath just off the kitchen for visitors, or for us when we came in wearing filthy work clothes.
Because on the Rez, one had to keep up appearances. Satellite dishes on the exterior walls were commonplace. Ostentatious wealth was not, except a top tribal official here and there. To outsiders–meaning anyone on earth but the two of us–showing money was an invitation to trouble. There were lots of houses that looked a lot better than ours did. We were low income slum types, albeit distant from others, mobile home parks and such. It helped that Tom Slider’s property was remote even by Rez standards, tucked in rough Missouri River breaks, about a mile back from and two hundred feet of elevation above the water itself, at least three miles of extremely rough country from our nearest neighbor.
In a word, perfect.
Young men doused in alcohol or other substances didn’t bother us. Blue could be intimidating when he wanted to be, the crazy blind man was always home and might shoot even if he couldn’t hit anything, and most of all, there was only one way in, one way out. Robbers looking for stashes of cash or a hunting rifle to pawn passed us right on by. Not even the satellite installer knew about the interior renovations. I’d had the dishes installed first, before we began resuscitating the zombie dwelling. Some of the nicer houses were better targets, sometimes empty and always providing more getaway routes. The raggedy home at the end of the rough trail just wasn’t worth it.
Where better to stash half a ton of gold bullion?
SHERIFF RAY T. DUNMORE’S OFFICE
The sheriff didn’t look up from the paper he was reading. Scowling at the slight, Coyote Cavanaugh ushered his sister to the comfortable leather armchair, an antique, before seating himself on the hard, unpadded wooden seat. Margaret looked like she was going to explode. Her brother didn’t blame her, being summoned to this office like miscreants destined for a jail cell, but he shook his head in negation nonetheless. Ray Dunmore didn’t respond well to raised voices.
Finally, the lawman lifted his gaze to glare at each of them in turn. He had his cop eyes going. “What on Earth,” he asked in a conversational tone, “did you two hope to accomplish by going to the media?” He turned the paper toward them. MULTIMILLIONAIRE MISSING, the headline roared. Front page of the Missoulian, above the fold.
What the–? “Seems pretty obvious,” Coyote replied.
“Not to me. Enlighten me.”
Really? “Obviously, we hope someone will spot our father. Help him get back home before he comes to harm.”
“Uh-huh. Did you, either one of you, think it through?”
“What do you mean?” Margaret was merely curious now, wondering where this was going.
Dunmore leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind his head. “Never mind that you two might be facing charges if John does turn up. What does that press release feature prominently? Besides hinting strongly that frail, senile old man Cavanaugh has lost his mind? No, no, those were rhetorical questions. I’ll tell you what you’ve done. You made sure every Missoulian reader and every local TV viewer knows there’s $50,000 cash to be made for John’s safe return. You painted him as being pretty much helpless, too. Then you got lucky, or unlucky, depending how how you look at it, when the national media picked this up and ran with it. So now every hustler from border to border, coast to coast, is on the hunt, right?”
“Yeah?” Kermit “Coyote” turned both palms up in a so what gesture.
“Kerm, I’ve been getting calls all morning. There have already been cases of people snatching old men off the streets, marching them down to the nearest police station, swearing their captives were all John Cavanaugh, and demanding their rewards. Sometimes even when the not-Johns were carrying plenty of ID with them. Two separate African American men were subject to that indignity. Three men to date have suffered bruises or muscle strains while resisting their captors. And your thoughtless media blast has only been out there for a week.”
Miss Piggy was visibly shaken. “Who could have seen that coming?”
“Not you two. But that’d not all. What do you think is going to happen if somebody does spot the real John Cavanaugh? I’ll tell you what. First of all, if they try to grab him by force, he’ll shoot them dead.”
“You didn’t know that about your daddy, Margaret? No, I suppose you didn’t. You never did listen when he talked about the early days, did you? No, didn’t think so. I’m telling you, that man’s from a different era. His own daddy ran away when he was eleven. He became the man of the house there and then, oldest of a whole passel of siblings, though he’s outlived them all. He was doing a man’s work at that age, survived the Depression, lost his first wife when she was seventeen, met your mother, joined the Navy and fought the Japanese in World War II, then came home and made a living for his family and a fortune on top of that. He’s from a different era. Believes in taking care of his own business, not airing his dirty laundry in front of others. Leaving the question of doped coffee aside, he could never forgive you for going to the authorities to get that court order.”
“You think he might come after us?”
“No, Coyote. He’s not built that way. But he’ll never let you control him, either. That was a huge mistake on your part.”
“Maybe,” Margaret offered tentatively, “we should tell the media he’s armed and dangerous.”
“Oh for–” The sheriff unlaced his fingers, slamming his palms down on the arms of his chair and snorting in disgust. “Listen to yourself. You do that and what have you done? You’ll have branded him an outlaw. And if he’s an outlaw, who’s going to believe he really earned the assets you say he hid? A thousand supposed creditors will come out of the woodwork. Tie up his estate in the courts for years, maybe decades. And I really doubt you want that.”
“No,” Kermit muttered. “Reckon we don’t.” The he realized what he’d said–in front of the sheriff who might for all he knew be secretly recording this conversation. “He’s no outlaw.”
“I’m glad we agree on that.” Dunmore’s tone was drier than the Mojave desert. “But I’m still not done yet. Suppose somebody does spot the real John Cavanaugh. Now, if that spotter is a decent citizen, no problem. But this country has its share of low I.Q. crooks with grandiose ideas. Let’s say they do get hold of him, disarm him somehow before he can defend himself. I don’t think that’s likely, but it is at least remotely possible. So now what do these criminal types do, now that they’ve snagged the golden goose? Turn him in for the reward? I don’t think so. Because, the way people like that think, if he’s worth a $50,000 reward he’s got to be worth a million dollar ransom. You prepared to pay out a million to get him back, Margie? Kerm? Didn’t think so.”
Kavanaugh the younger’s tone turned sullen. “Is that all, Ray?”
“Nope. One more. See, you got to think these things through, look at it from their viewpoint. We’re talking about if and when bad people get hold of you father, right? Right. So if he’s worth a million dollar ransom, wow, he must really be loaded. Scrooge McDuck himself. So what’s better than a million dollar ransom? Why, a whole bunch of millions, that’s what, and all they need to do is torture the old man until he gives up and tells them where he’s got the diamonds hidden, right?”
Margie shook her head, chins jiggling. “That’s pretty far out there.”
“You think so?” Dunmore looked thoughtful for a moment, wondering how best to explain it to these fools. “Margie, there are a whole lot of America’s Dumbest Criminals out there. Take Jimmy Twofoot, for instance. You know he’s coming up for trial. Jimmy’s forty-two years old. Should know better. And yet he went on a crime spree in a town of three thousand people, cutting through screens and climbing through windows at night, then raping the women inside. Did you know we’re trying him on seventeen counts of rape? There are probably twice that many victims who haven’t come forward and never will. Round it off to fifty women he attacked in a small town over a period of seven months before he was finally caught. He actually believed he would never get caught. Lawbreakers don’t think straight. And you’ve just given them a multimillion dollar reason to pursue your own flesh and blood father with bad intentions.”
When the Cavanaugh siblings had gone, Dunmore punched a button on his intercom, requesting Chief Deputy Waterman’s presence. She popped into his office moments later. “Did you get it through their thick skulls?”
“Doubtful,” he admitted. “How many John Cavanaugh sightings in the past hour?”
Pearl consulted her notebook. “One capture in Georgia,” she reported. “Man was seventy-three, suffering from Alzheimer’s. Family lawsuit expected. Nine other sightings, ranging from the Montana highline to south Texas to New York City.”
“Wouldn’t irritate me quite so much,” Dunmore grumbled, “if those space cases would call the number Kermit set up like they’re supposed to.”
“I think they’re trying,” Pearl said, “but the voice mail is probably filling up fast. So guess who persistent people who can’t leave them a message try calling next? The Sheriff’s office.”
“Can’t wait till my retirement party.”
Chief Deputy Waterman laughed at that. “You’ve still got three years left in this term, boss.”
“Don’t remind me.”