Sunday afternoon, February 16.
The Sheriff’s deputies came in with suspicion flags flying, as expected. Trace Ranch escaped notice, though. We’d crafted our stories and polished them before calling 911 to report Jellison’s death, telling the authorities that Gary had stumbled down out of the mountains to Jack’s place, not the welding shop some three miles distant. As far as Deputy Dawgs 1, 2, and 3 were concerned, nobody at the ranch even knew the man existed, nor did the badge packers possess enough creative imagination between them to consider the possibility.
Nor did they get to interrogate Wayne Bruce or Sissy Harms; those two simply meandered over to help Horace Tamblyn with some of the restoration work he was doing on an old Farmall A in the museum machine shop. There were undoubtedly active warrants still out on those two, not in Montana but in other states, and none of us were of a mind to take chances.
We were pretty sure they’d try to give us hell for letting Jellison die like that instead of getting him to a hospital where he could die like you do in a hospital, and we were right.
The lawdogs did get a crack at Carolyn West, Jack Hill, Judi, me, and even young Bobby Hancock, the latter a target they’d selected simply because his mobile home sat right there at the Y in the road and, in their feeble minds, he might have seen something. We were politely led off one at a time to sit in a patrol SUV, where we gave our statements–several times, with the deputies applying their wondrous interrogative skills throughout–and then we were shuffled to another deputy’s custody until every one of us was done answering questions.
Not that the deputies would have admitted we were “in custody”, but the SUV door locks were controlled by the drivers. We weren’t going anywhere until they said so.
None of us were armed, either. According to the Christian Bible, there is a time for everything under the sun. This was a time to act innocent. If the Sheriff’s Department caught the slightest whiff of anything hinky regarding Gary Jellison’s death, they might go from generalized suspicion to deciding we’d killed the poor bugger. Our story was kept simple, in accordance with the minimal tale Gary had told his office manager when he’d called New Hampshire on Saturday:
1. He’d come stumbling out of the treeline around 6:00 p.m. last Friday evening, not quite three full days ago, half frozen, frostbitten here and there, and about 90 percent starved to death.
2. The man had told us he’d flown out from New Hampshire to Great Falls, caught a ride with some friends who were happy to drop him off, and had gone hiking in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, just a solo winter camping trip.
3. In the wilderness, he’d set up a base camp and gone hiking just to see what he could see–but had gotten lost. Eleven days later, he’d made it out of the forest and found us.
4. We’d offered to take him to the hospital in Deer Lodge, but he’d declined. That was it. Our crafted version made no mention of the Snow Snuffers or the fact that he’d arrived clad in raw wolf hide except for his feet, which were bound in similarly untreated rabbit skins.
The sun was setting by the time the law enforcement vehicles pulled out, but our day was far from done. We waited till Bobby called from the Y, saying he’d seen the last of their taillights, then we all pitched in, getting supper ready in the Hill kitchen. Twenty minutes later, Sissy’s Subaru Brat and Jennifer’s Blazer arrived, loaded with the rest of our Inner Circle, and we were ready to start War Council.
Carolyn West spoke up first. “Now that Wayne’s here, he and I can take care of getting the meal on the table. The rest of you are mostly underfoot, anyway. ‘Kay?”
“Sounds good to me,” Jack agreed, and we all found seats around the long table. Nine of us now; by standing up to his first police interrogation, Bobby Hancock had earned his promotion to Inner Circle status without even knowing it. Yet.
We’d start with him, just in case. “So, Bobby, youth before beauty. What did the erstwhile Powell County Gestapo have to say to you?”
He shook his head ruefully. “I can’t…Tree, I had trouble believing those guys were for real. The kind of chunky one asked most of the questions. He seemed to assume I was lying about not having seen anybody come up the road, headed to your place. To tell you the truth, he made my Dad’s attitude toward government officials look downright sensible. I do believe I may have judged my old man a bit too harshly.”
“Hmmm.” Jennifer put in, curious, “You’re saying he didn’t seem to find it believable that Gary Jellison had simply come wandering down out of the trees like he actually did?”
Going around the table, we confirmed that had been the #1 disbelief factor among our interrogators. Why they had a problem with that, who knew? In Montana, lost hunters did make it back out of the woods on their own every now and then.
There was more, of course. Unsurprisingly, we’d all been hammered with the same basic set of questions, every one delivered with an obvious assumption that we were lying. Which we were, but not in the way they thought. The deputies had a problem with the idea of a New Hampshire accountant deciding to go lollygagging through the mountains all by his lonesome in the middle of a Montana winter, which admittedly wasn’t a common occurrence.
“At a guess,” I finally concluded for the bunch of us, “somebody in our dearly beloved Sheriff’s Department just plain doesn’t like us. I don’t believe it’s the Sheriff himself, but somebody. But it looks like Phase One came out all right. Nobody cracked our story, and there are too many of us saying the same thing–that Gary convinced us he was going to be fine, which is the truth. The only thing that could give us a problem now is if something nasty showed up on the autopsy. Horace, what can you tell us about that?”
The old tracker shifted a bit in his seat, massaging the leg with the titanium pins in it while he answered. “They’re taking the body to Deer Lodge, but it’ll be shifted from there to Missoula for the autopsy. That’s the closest state approved guy with forensic credentials. But as a friend of mine found out a few years ago, Mr. Forensic is a fulminating idiot. Big mouth, midget brain, one of those overeducated, arrogant a-holes, excuse my French, ladies, who thinks he’s a couple hundred steps higher than God. The case I’m remembering involved what that fool called an external autopsy, which basically meant he eyeballed the body and wrote his report. The dead girl he was eyeballing had been killed in a horrendous car crash. For some reason or other, it was important to determine whether or not she’d been wearing her seat belt. Which she had; I went in to identify the body with my friend, and it was obvious to both of us. Abrasions across both hips where the belt had rubbed, and a broken collarbone–not through the skin, but you could see the break–from the shoulder belt.
“But what does our Missoula Fool of Forensics write in his report? Why, he declares that there was no evidence that a seatbelt had been worn.”
That didn’t sound good. I was still thinking it over when Jack asked, “So, Horace, is there anything we can do to encourage a competent autopsy? Or do we just have to hope this so-called doctor’s incompetence works in our favor? As in, he won’t be able to find anything one way or the other?”
Horace paused in his leg-rubbing and gave us all a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin. “Oh, I think we can consider encouragement a likely possibility. I gave Larry Menning a call, brought him up to date. Turns out the good Dr. Menning has a few favors he can call in here and there. He assured me that while getting Dr. Yarbrough off the case would be impossible, there’s every likelihood that he–Larry–can get himself accepted as Yarbrough’s assistant on the autopsy.”
It was my turn to grin. Dr. Lawrence Menning, M.D., was the former combat surgeon who’d patched me back together after Shawn Hicks had lobbed a grenade my way. The good doctor was as much a rebel at heart as any of us here in Jack’s kitchen. In fact, he was the only human being outside of our Inner Circle who knew Hicks had tried to kill me. I’d say I trusted the man with my life, but I’d already been there, done that.
If he said he could get himself involved as assistant–aka watchdog–on the autopsy, Gary Jellison’s corpse was going to be in good hands. Far better hands than those of Allstate Insurance.
“Well,” Bruce Wayne announced at that point, “it sounds like that’s that. Until we know the autopsy results, there’s not much else to do…except eat. Get your elbows off the table so we can set out the plates, folks; supper’s ready.”
Sounded good–wait, I’d forgotten all about–“Uh…did anybody think to call New Hampshire? The office manager?”
“I did,” Judi raised her hand like a schoolgirl. “One office manager to another, I guess. Wasn’t easy, telling Karina her boss had bought the farm. I kept thinking, what if it was her, calling to tell me you’d died, Tree. Maybe it helped; she was in shock, but she thanked me for letting her know. She also said Gary kept a copy of his will and funeral instructions, whatever, in his office safe. She’s got the combination. Says she’d call me in the morning. Sounded like she thought there might be a Power of Attorney or something in there, something that would authorize her to make decisions about burial or cremation, getting the remains or cremains back to New Hampshire, whatever.”
We all nodded, saying nothing. That this office manager, this Karina, had been something more to Gary Jellison than “just” an employee seemed obvious; it didn’t require commentary.
Monday morning, February 17.
I was in the office when Judi took the call from Karina. Yes, there had been all sorts of useful paperwork in the safe. She, Karina, had carte blanche authority to handle everything up to and including administration of the will. Her assistant, Phoebe, was busy calling Gary’s clients to give them the word. When she, Karina, got off the phone, she’d start working on Gary’s obituary. She would also contact the Powell County Sheriff’s Department, identifying herself as Gary’s sister and only surviving relative (never mind that he had no blood siblings) and arranging for the body to be cremated once the autopsy was finished. Certified copies of any necessary paperwork to be faxed or FedExed to Deer lodge as required. A memorial service was scheduled for February 26 at 2:00 p.m. in the Community Center; any of us who’d known him these past three days were invited to attend and to speak as well, should we be interested in doing so.
When my girl hung up, her eyes were a bit glazed. “Whirlwind, is she?” I asked rhetorically.
“Could be a coping mechanism.”
“Could be. You suppose somebody should go for the memorial service?”
“Probably. Especially if the autopsy and cremation are all accomplished in time. Whoever flew back there could take the ashes, I suppose. Only thing is, I’m not sure who should go, if anybody does. We’ve got a lot of folks who don’t need the scrutiny….”
“You and me, Tree,” Judi said quietly. “The two of us should go.”
I looked at her in surprise. “Why us?”
“Well…I’m one of the first people Gary saw when he came out of the timber, me and Sissy. So I got to interact with him as much as anybody. I don’t have any legal problems to worry about, and I’m the one who’s been talking to Karina. Then you, because you’re also legally safe, and you’re a hotshot business owner, and frankly, you’re big, handsome, and black.”
“The race card, honey. We can sort of…give Gary a big, multiracial sendoff.”
“Does that even make sense? Why–?”
She shrugged her pretty shoulders. “I don’t know, Tree. It just feels right.”
And then I thought of the kicker. Yes. While we were in–what was the town? Bulwer Falls? While we were in Bulwer Falls, we could sniff around a bit, see if we could pick up any Snow Snuffer clues without tipping off the locals.
I’d never flown, though. It was going to take some quick self-brainwashing to get myself properly conditioned. Running through a full body x-ray scan wasn’t my idea of fun.
Reminded me of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie, Total Recall.
Thursday, February 21.
Horace walked into the office at 9:39 a.m. “The autopsy is done,” he reported. “I gave Larry Menning the number; he’ll be faxing it over about–now.”
The fax machine sounded off on cue.
Three pages. I grabbed the sheets as they came through, scanning them hurriedly.
“Ah. Here’s what did it. Blood clot, hit the heart. Shut everything down, just like that.”
Judi looked concerned. “Will that give anyone the idea he could have been saved if he’d been in the hospital?”
“No,” Horace said. “It’s not in Yarbrough’s official report, but Larry told me, the way this thing hit, he’d most likely have been just as dead if he’d been in the ICU at the Deaconess Hospital in Missoula when the clot made itself known. Somebody could theoretically argue the point, but he’s pretty certain they won’t. Word on the street in Deer Lodge now is that everybody in authority has accepted Gary’s death as nothing more than a tragic accident. We’re in the clear.”
The old tracker studied my face. “Tree, your words say that’s good, but your eyes say you’re not exactly a happy camper right this moment. What gives?”
My hands flew to my head of their own accord, massaging the temples that were suddenly hosting a spike-through-the-skull headache. “Oh, nothing much,” I admitted. “Judi just talked me into flying on a fricking airplane, clean across the country, that’s all.”
“Ah.” He nodded in understanding. “Better you than me.”