Ghost was tired. His Ford truck was doing just fine, still had nearly half a tank of gas. Ghost was not doing fine at all, and he was plumb out of gas. Not even his favorite nuclear fueled combination of coffee and Dr. Pepper, water back, could keep him going much longer, and he knew it. Miles were starting to slip by unnoticed, dozens at a time. A most usual state when he’d worked as a long haul trucker, maybe even more so during his oil patch days, but he wasn’t out to beat his old record of sixty-two straight hours with only two and half hours of napping stuck somewhere in the middle. He was supposed to be retired, for cry-yi.
The rest stop was open but deserted. Perfect. Parking the half ton pickup in front of the restrooms, he stumbled into the unheated building, saw a man about a dog, stumbled back out, and moved the vehicle on down to the end slot, as far away as he could get from any other traffic that might come through. Hardwired to remember the time he’d fallen asleep with the keys still in the ignition at a similar rest stop in 1997, he clipped the key ring to his belt loop before grabbing the blanket and pillow out of the back seat, covering up, pulling the hood of his bullet-holed parka down over his face, and letting the seat recline back as far as it would go.
The last thing he noticed before falling down the black hole was the time: 1:32 p.m. He was hardwired to notice things like that, too; it paid for a fellow to know how long he’d crashed when he finally came back to the world.
Day napping in a pickup truck’s front bucket seat wasn’t exactly like snoozing the night away in the sleeper of an eighteen wheeler. From time to time, he surfaced just enough to log two key facts: The time, and the comforting truth that he wasn’t yet quite desperate enough to have to get up and go pee again.
It was getting late in the day when the dream hit. One of the good ones; he knew that right from the start. Saw it through to the finish, to the point where there was no more point in hanging around. Woke up. Blinked. Fished his dream journal out of the briefcase sitting on the shotgun seat and began to write. A code that was not a code, gibberish to most anybody who might come across it, crystal clear to a certain elite few.
Dream Note / Feb. 4 / 5:45 p.m. The connection with the Healer is made. He’s slightly heavy set, w/capable though not overlarge hands.
It’s a sort of distant run, the town a composite of Show Low and Drummond.
After I stand too long in the Flag Box at the Memorial (Unknown Soldier) where 2 Marines stand perpetual watch, & I end up more or less wrecking the box, it’s time to move on. (Young redhead girl sings patriotic song.)
My (male, Sim Bowles?) friend and I set up in/at the closest thing to a hidden table/booth the restaurant has. We wait…& the Healer comes to my side–w/the 2 men shielding, I lie back as the Healer grips my throat w/ his rt. hand–or left?, because I recall thumb gripping his rt w/ my left–we pause, & I tell him, “That’s the 1st time I’ve ever had a man grab my throat & I haven’t felt threatened.” (My thumb grip was pure reptile brain reflex.)
I relax then–he continues holding–waitress comes by but does not, I think, see me–the Healer reminds me of an actor, but don’t know which one–Time passes–
When he quits, I start to shift to sit up, but he doesn’t move.
“Sorry about pulling that much energy, but I needed it.”
“Yes. You surely did need it. It’ll take some time, but we ARE going to heal this.”
“Never doubted for a second.”
He thinks to further my education. “The mind can go up six but then–”
Aha. I know what he’s getting at…but he doesn’t yet know the full nature of his patient. I interrupt. “Soul takes over after that. Or rather, Soul better be in charge from the beginning.”
“Oh my.” He looks startled. This man also looks…Italian? “Oh no.”
I realize “Oh no” is not a negative for him, but a startlement of realization. I continue. “Sort of a Paul Twitchell sort of thing, going forward.”
His eyes widen a bit. “Oh no!”
“Aytch Eyes and all that.”
I wake up soon after that. Getting dusk out. The clock on the dash says 5:45 p.m.
That should do it. While he’d been writing, the dusk had deepened rapidly. The outside lighting for the rest area is dead as a doornail, though there’s still a light or two on inside the building. Ghost can barely see the two coyotes sitting no more than thirty feet away, watching him with canine curiosity as he puts his blanket and pillow away, then gets out of the truck. He’s wide awake, not even stiff. Both the sleep and the dream have done him worlds of good.
There’s plenty of trash to clean out of the cab, including leftover chips, Cheetos, popcorn, remnants of two stale hotdogs and one complete chicken salad sandwich from a truck stop convenience store, still in the plastic. Unwrapping everything and dumping it into a small plastic shopping bag, he eases past the coyotes’ watching posts, murmuring endearments while he distributes the snacks in two piles some eight feet apart, as even as he can get them. Softly crooning, “Babies! Babies! Snack time!”, he barely scares them at all. They fade back into the shrubbery while he’s on the move, but by the time he’s finished his walk to the restroom building doors, they’re back out in the open, chowing down. He smiles to himself, figuring he’s earned his trip to the urinal.
On the way back out, Ghost gets a surprise, nearly stepping on a cottontail rabbit. It’s hunkered down, ears laid back in hide mode, but it doesn’t twitch a muscle. A couple steps farther on, Ghost looks back to find the rabbit following him, staying just out of reach, maybe four feet back.
Not good. There are coyotes down thataway. New plan required. Loop back. Going slow, the bunny will follow along. Once he steps out smartly, though, the big eared, bright eyed little fellow calls it a night and lets him go. Excellent. Just a little old loop around the parking lot, sans wabbit, and it’s back to the truck, coming in from the far side, away from the coyotes. They’re still eating, finishing up the last scraps. They look up when the truck starts, but hold position. It’s nearly full dark now; they feel a whole lot safer at this close range than they would in broad daylight. Ghost backs out, rolls the window down, and calls out softly, “You two have a good night!”
They raise their heads once more, curious, alert, watching his taillights recede into the distance as the F-150 accelerates up the ramp and onto the highway.
Back at road speed, rested and comfortable, Ghost motors on through the night. There’s a truck stop down the road a ways, maybe a hundred miles or so. Allowing for chowing down and gassing up, he still should be in Oregon by the time the sun comes up, one full day ahead of schedule. The Realtor won’t be expecting him yet, but hopefully they can work around that. He really has had about all of southern Arizona he can stand.
Deputy Sheriff Jess Harnling was tired. More than half of the menu at the Texas Load Café gave him gas, but not the sort of gas his holier than thou, Bible thumping wife appreciated. If Marsha Harnling could get hold of her man before nine a.m. on a Sunday morning, she would either shrew at him until he gave up and went to church with her and the kids or, if he stood his ground and went to bed instead, she’d slam the door on the way out of the house. Then after building up a good head of steam in the pews, she’d storm back home and clatter loudly around the kitchen, prim and grim and preaching to the walls. Their offspring would scatter like startled quail, but he’d be left exhausted, cranky for his next shift, about half a nervous wreck and wishing he was lowlife enough to just cap the bitch and be done with it. He loved his son and daughters some of the time and his job most of the time, but he was out of gas.
He’d have already divorced the braying ass if he weren’t intending to take a run at his boss’s job this year. He had his papers ready to file, a late but well organized campaign ready to go, and a plan for ousting the incumbent. It would be all or nothing; Sheriff Jules Meeker would make his life hell if he had the chance. Root hog or die. Once November had come and gone, he’d either be the new Sheriff in Navajo County or he’d be looking for a new job. Either way, he had to survive ol’ HA, short for Horse’s Ass, a little while longer. He wasn’t sure which HA, Marsha or Jules, was the biggest burr under his saddle, but either way the cinch was way too damn tight.
Which was why he found himself tucked in at the back corner table in Cornelius Ruben’s eatery the moment his graveyard shift was over. Nobody seemed to know why, but early Sunday mornings at the Texas Load were usually slow. This morning, he was the only customer in the joint, and that suited him just fine. More than fine.
The hidden around-the-corner table suited him fine, too. The last thing Navajo County’s lead night shift Deputy needed was company. There were way too many things running around in his head to let him shut down, fatigue or no fatigue. He needed time to sort through them. If he could. April, the early shift waitress, hadn’t even seen him come in, so he’d gotten his own coffee. If the redhead–this week she was a redhead, anyway–if she noticed him, fine. If not, he’d pop out of the corner and flag her down when he was ready to eat. If he could eat. Not much appetite these days, what with eight killings in as many days and far more questions than answers.
Somebody sure as hell had it in for the owner of Rodeo Iron Show Low. Jess didn’t like that much. Frank Harding was a good man. Young Will had the makings. Good people, bad stuff going down.
The situation consuming his thoughts, his coffee nearly untouched and getting cold, he almost didn’t pick up on the confrontation heating up out front. Almost. He’d worn a badge too long for a tone like that to pass unnoticed, whether he’d been paying attention consciously or not.
Corny’s voice, pitched a little high for a man his size. Not as bizarre as Mike Tyson, just a little bit weird. “…we ain’t open.”
Another voice, one he’d heard somewhere but couldn’t quite place. Male. Calm, controlled. “Bullshit.”
“Don’t need your kind in here, nigger lover!”
Oh shit. Harnling was on his feet then, quick and quiet, easing around the wall corner without making a sound. Not sneaky, just silent. The stone racist restaurant owner’s neck was starting to swell up; he’d be starting something stupid before long. Corny didn’t see the Deputy; his back was to him as he confronted the tall old cowboy who’d just called his bluff.
Sim Bowles. That was the name. Ran with that good looking black woman. Louella. Louella Jackson. The old man was alone this morning, though, which was likely a good thing. Since the TITS (Terror Investigation Team Specialists, worst acronym of any strike force ever put together by the feds) had shoved the locals aside, he’d not seen Ms. Jackson, but he knew she’d once been a metro cop. If she was here now, she’d likely already have torn ol’ dumbass Ruben a new one.
The café owner was starting to turn purple. Jess spoke without thought, totally in the moment. “Sim!” He strode forward, right hand extended, left shoulder lightly brushing Cornelius Ruben on the way by. “Glad you could make it!” Bowles was quick; he took it in stride. Didn’t bat an eye, just shook the Deputy’s hand. “I’m hiding at that table around the corner. Come on back! Corny, let April know we’re back there, wouldja?”
Ruben kind of just stood there, blinking in confusion, torn between conflicting emotions. The former convict didn’t like the big deputy much, but he did fear him.
As Jess Harnling resumed his seat with his back to the wall, he noticed a couple of things about Bowles. For one, the old man didn’t grab the chair across the table from the Deputy; instead, he settled in on the side, a position from which he could easily enough chat with his table mate while also keeping an eye on anybody approaching their private little in-house cul de sac. For another, his eyes twinkled; he was amused, not fired up or worried or pissed of or anything like that.
This was one dangerous senior citizen. Cornelius Ruben had gotten off lucky, not the other way around.
“If you think you’re buying,” Sim said, the corner of his mouth twitching as he struggled to suppress a smile, “forget about it. It’s on me.”
Sim cut him off. “The entertainment value alone was more’n worth it, Deputy. You shoulda seen the look on his face when you made your presence known. Just about filled his pants.”
Harnling grinned. “Nah. He always smells like that. It’s why this place is so popular with the locals.”
Bowles almost lost it then. “Except for you. Now, why is that?”
“Perfect place to hide from my wife. She might look around town, see if she could find me in time to haul me back home and get ready for church, but she won’t set one foot in any place she knows is run by graduates of the graybar hotel. That, and I kinda get off on irritating Ruben. Keeps him nervous. Cuts down on the complaints from pillars of the community, if you know what I mean.”
“I do.” Sim looked thoughtful, the humor in his eyes settling down a mite. “You’re being mighty open with me, Deputy. Mighty open to a fellow you haven’t even spoken to, except at the crime scene, before them TITS up boys come to town.”
Harnling, not thinking, had picked up his cup of cold coffee and taken a sip. He almost snorted it out through his nose. “TITS up. I can’t believe none of us had come up with that one before now. Be a lot of palms smacking foreheads when I spread that around the troops. Frankly, Mr. Bowles, I’m not exactly sure why I’m spilling the beans to you. Caught me off guard, maybe.”
“Ain’t buying that.”
“Don’t miss much, do you?”
“More’n I’d like. That’s for sure.”
“Yeah. Well. Here’s the thing. I don’t much like what’s happening to your friend Frank. He’s my friend, too. Not that we ever hung out together or anything like that, but it’d be a good thing for the area, especially for a lot of men from the Rez who’re looking for work and can’t find anything worth spit in a hurricane, and Frank Harding surely doesn’t deserve to have a bunch of armed assassins killing his people and trying to kill him and his boy. I intend to put a stop to it. To do that, I need help. Can’t do it alone. Need contacts. Got one, maybe, inside the TITS up bunch. Unless he’s feeding me a bunch of malarkey. Don’t think he is, but you never know.”
April arrived at that point, coffee pot in hand. She loaded them up, lett them know it was a fresh pot and she hadn’t let the boss spit in it or nothing like that, took their orders, and swished off.
“Ah,” the old rancher sighed, “if only she was twenty years younger.” The bottle redhead was maybe fifty to Sim’s eighty. No way she could keep up with him even if Lou Jackson didn’t stand in the way.
“April’s good people,” Harnling agreed. “Mr. Bowles–”
“Call me Sim. You’re Jess, I believe?”
“Yep. Okay, Sim. So, going to first name basis, that mean we’re a team? Hollywood superheroes, out to save the day?”
“Can’t remember if that’s Mighty Mouse or Underdog. Either way, we gotta get some capes.”
“Never did understand the point of those capes.”
“Me neither. All right, Jess. We’re skipping past a lot of the usual preliminaries here, but what the hell. Why not. Word in the community is that you’re one of the good ones, and I reckon you’ve been doing some studying on us, too, at least to the point of a background check or two. Sure. I can be your stool pigeon if you’ll consent to be mine. We can say our vows on Valentine’s Day. Maybe get a cheap flight out to Vegas, do it up right in one of them Elvis themed chapels.”
“No so fast, buster. Just know I ain’t signing no prenup, and I don’t do bottom.”
“Didn’t figure you did. You’re the one with the cuffs.”
“Few things at that shooting. Five dead. None of you Montana yahoos packing a single piece. Not even the lovely Louella Jackson, who’s carried a badge before. None of you.”
“We flew down, Jess. With the way things have been since nine eleven, air travel for firearms is just plain more trouble than it’s worth. Usually. Woulda been nice to’ve had a Gatling gun or two on hand that night.” Hopefully, that story would hold up. Philip Phreeb had worked fast after Tree’s call, getting airline computers to show the inclusion of tickets for Treemin Jackson and Sissy Harms. No way they could afford for the TITS bunch to get a look at the rolling arsenal disguised as a 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix.
They couldn’t get the car away from Frank’s place yet, either. The feds were done combing the area where the firefight had taken place, but who knew what they might have left behind for surveillance? Tree said he could sense drones, but could he sense sneaky cameras and stuff like that? Might be time for Sissy bear to do some night roaming, snuffling around and all, but none of the Rodeo Iron personnel were overly eager to move too quickly. Or at least, that had been the official line last night. Treemin Jackson was showing the signs; he wouldn’t wait much longer.
“Gatling would have been good,” Harnling agreed. “Now, my granddaddy loved that old Columbo TV show.”
“Good one. Liked that one myself.”
“So…as Columbo would say, just one more thing. Except it’s more than one. Bad guys come up out of that draw, dead of night. They fire off enough rounds to start another war in the Mideast but don’t hit anybody. A few bullets hit the house, all high, way over head height. One stray round through Frank Harding’s truck, and that’s it. Remarkable.”
Harnling paused, waiting to see if his new BFF was going to comment. He wasn’t. “Then there’s Frank and Will, father and son, two fine Native American men who know how to hunt deer and elk, maybe bear, but so far as anybody knows, neither of ’em has ever been in a firefight in their entire lives. And yet, with two old hunting rifles, they take out all five attackers. The .30-06 has a four shot box. The .30-30 is tube fed, can handle eight cartridges plus one up the spout, but it’s no assault rifle. Thirteen holes in the bodies. Thirteen rounds in the two rifles, max, when they’re fully loaded. Either the Hardings hit center mass every time they pulled a trigger or somebody had to reload a slow loading weapon without being able to see what he was doing while other people were shooting in his general direction. Quite remarkable.”
“Superhero quality,” Sim agreed, sipping his coffee. “Very cool under fire. Good warrior blood in them Hardings.”
The deputy agreed. “Crazy Horse, Cochise, eat your hearts out. That night, I was first on the scene. Didn’t want the area disturbed when the rest of the dog and pony show arrived, so I had to get that yellow tape up in a hurry, right? Bad guys all look deader’n doornails, good guys without a scratch, so it’s not long before I realize I can devote my full attention to preserving the evidence for the forensic investigators. One thing every deputy in the department has is a good flashlight. Shines off brass just fine. Other units coming in fast, sirens wailing, chopper on the way. Figure I really gotta move to secure the scene before some fool tramples evidence into the dirt.”
“You were scrambling.”
“I was scrambling. Did one helluva job, and I’m humble, too. Came across a few pieces of brass lying on the ground. Left ’em right there, of course, as accepted police procedure requires. Can’t understand why the investigators never found ’em. Sometimes those guys need new glasses, I’m thinking.”
“Couldn’t say for sure, me moving so fast that night and all, but not all those pieces of brass looked like they’d fit a .30-30 or a .30-06. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have sworn one looked like it was necked down, a .270 or .25-06, another perhaps a .308 short like an AK-47 would use, and so on and so forth. Nobody’s reported finding anything like that except from the bad guys’ side, though, so I musta been mistaken. Prob’ly need new glasses.”
“Happens to the best of us.”
April headed their way with the omelettes then. They tucked in, chewing and thinking in companionable silence. Cornelius Ruben, sulking and fearful, stayed back in the kitchen, out of sight. That improved the ambience considerably.
I was tired. More accurately, I was sick and tired. Sick and tired of the TITS up bunch, who’d interrogated every one of us about thirty-seven million times, looking to pick holes in our stories. There were an awful lot of us involved; they must have figured somebody would turn out to be a weak link. Assume the victims are the bad guys; it’s easier to close the case that way.
But they’d failed. The last of ’em had pulled out yesterday, disgruntled and trying not to show it. They’d been over the grounds with everything from whisk brooms to tweezers, reminiscent of archaeologists on a dig, but our story was too simple. Easy for us to keep straight, impossible for them to crack. Harding and his son, hearing a noise outside, had gone out to investigate. Because of the triple murder being fresh in their minds, they’d taken their rifles with them. They’d heard the attackers creeping toward the house but happened to be looking down, checking their loads, when there was some kind of bright light flash and bullets by the dozens flying through he air. The were scared outa their minds, but the muzzle flashes lit up their targets, so they let ’em have it. As for us Montana types, we’d hit the floor in the kitchen when the bullets started flying and hadn’t stirred until it was over, too petrified to even think of calling 911 while the action was still going on.
The local deputies had been polite, the Sheriff a little less so, and the feds had given new meaning to the word rude, but we had our stories and we’d stuck to ’em. It had really frustrated the specialists with the purple TITS logos on their black ball caps. Naturally, national media was covering the story, some talking heads were pushing the theory that both attacks on Rodeo Iron Show Low people were terrorist events while others favored the hate crimes angle. Frank and Will Harding had to date received several hundred death threats, unsolicited offers of support from militia groups as well as angry Native American activists, and a number of absolutely ridiculous book and movie deals. If it bleeds, it leads, one surprisingly honest literary agent had explained, and this story has all the elements. Extreme violence, mystery, and heap big Injun heroes. No reason you two Injun bucks shouldn’t earn a few million bucks from the vicarious thrill seekers among us, jaded as they are.
Frank Harding admitted to liking that guy a little bit, but he wasn’t even close to being tempted to sign on the dotted line. Will, on the other hand, figured a book and movie deal might help him score with a really hot chick or two. I was pretty sure the eighteen year old wasn’t serious about that one. No guarantee, though.
The sun was setting when Sim pulled in, the last of us to call it a day. Will was cooking, steaks and home fried potatoes along with corn and peas, but he’d gotten a late start. It’d be a while till we ate. Nobody had anything encouraging to report; except for Will, we were all sitting around the table, pretty much sulking.
“Cheerfulest bunch I ever did see,” Sim said the second he stepped through the door. “You look like Santa already told you he’s putting coal in your stockings next Christmas.”
Jack Hill gave him a look that could have curdled milk. “What’re you so chipper about, Bowles?”
“Well now,” he said, taking a seat and letting Lou hop up to bring him his coffee. I’d never seen Mom act the submissive female with any other human being, but that’s the way she handled the old rancher. Seemed to work, too. “Boys and girls, I got me some information this morning, followed up on it during the day, and I do believe we been a bunch of one eyed coon dogs barking up the wrong tree.”
He paused, waiting to see who would take the bait. Frank Harding broke first. “Whatcha mean, Sim?”
“Had breakfast this morning at the Texas Load. Started off right interesting, too. Cornelius Ruben met me in the middle of the dining room and told me to get out. Said he didn’t need no nigger lovers in there.”
I thought about getting indignant over that, but Mom wasn’t reacting, so what the heck. It wasn’t like either of us were surprised. “He really used the n-word?”
“Sure did. Musta thought he could get away with it. As far as either of us knew at that moment, there weren’t anybody else in the building but us chickens and his employees. Place looked plumb empty, I look so old and feeble and frail, doncha know–”
There were a few snickers and snorts around the table. Interrupted his story briefly. One corner of his mouth twitched upward, but he went on without missing a beat. “–But I never got a chance to rearrange his anatomy. Turned out there was somebody in there, after all, seated at that table around the corner, and you’ll never guess who, so I’ll just tell you. Deputy Sheriff Jess Harnling.”
That got our attention.
“Ol’ Jess, he hears us fixing to escalate the situation, so he slides from behind that corner and heads our way. I see him coming, but Corny don’t. Jess brushes by him, shakes my hand, thanks me for showing up to join him for breakfast, like we’d had it scheduled all along. Ol’ Ruben, he didn’t know what to do with himself. But that was only the start of it.”
This time, when he picked up his coffee cup, he wasn’t going to say another word until somebody begged him to do it. To my way of thinking, Sim Bowles was having way too much fun. His attitude was infectious, though; I felt myself starting to smile, deep inside.
Mom finally told him to get on with it, and he did. Her submissive act only goes so far. “Lot to tell, people. For one thing, Jess Harnling is a remarkable fellow. He intends to crack this case, and I believe he’ll do it if anybody can. He also intends to run for Sheriff, gotta file his papers pretty soon, and he’d like to have some high profile publicity under his belt when he does. I don’t believe he’s in it just for the politicking, but he’s not blind to that angle of it, either. And we need to help him achieve his goals. We really do.”
“We do?” I asked. Couldn’t help myself.
“Yep. We do. We’re already in the man’s debt. He and I talked pretty openly for a while, then when we got to the deep stuff, we talked in guy code, just in case the other man was wired, you know? But summarizing the entire conversation, and it took better’n an hour, it goes like this. First off, he knows full well we Montanans had a whole lot to do with shutting down that attack. He policed up some of the brass we missed before the rest of the first responders got here. He sort of steered the investigation away from the building where the Pontiac is stashed, even though any country boy with the sense God give a sody cracker would have taken a looksee in there, just to be looking. He’s got himself a contact inside the TITS up investigation, and if that informant ain’t lying, they’re looking at terror as the motive, or at the very least a hate crime. In other words, the feds don’t have a clue at this point.
“But most of all, he pointed me in the right direction. Before I share with y’all how truly brilliant I am, Frank, you didn’t own any property in Navajo County when you first started talking franchise with Tree, did you?”
Surprised at being addressed when so much of our personal conversation these past days had swirled right past him, the owner of Rodeo Iron Show Low blinked a couple of times before responding. “No. Not a square foot. I knew what was for sale, though. Got both pieces for cheap. Had to finance the brand new steel welding shop, but this old house and the shack where the murder took place, they’d been standing for a bunch of years.”
“Right.” Sim was nodding in approval. “That’s what it looked like on the county rolls. That’s part of what I did today, looked through the property records at the Courthouse. Now, Frank, tell me, what was going on with the property when you got back here from Seattle and took ownership? Had anybody been living in the buildings?”
Frank’s brow furrowed. “Not sure about that. They were empty when we got here, but…could have been somebody there earlier, I suppose.”
“Dad,” Will said, pulling his attention from the steaks he was flipping, “I maybe know something about this. Word on the street is that homeless people flopped in both places from time to time. Remote enough that law enforcement seldom hassled them. They would have realized their free shelters were a thing of the past when the properties sold, though. Realtor put up those SOLD signs, remember? And she’s a talker, too. Kept her mouth shut until after closing, as far as I know, but blabbered all over town after that, talking up the new welding operation even before we pulled in with the U-Haul truck.”
“There you go.” Sim grinned then, spreading his arms wide. “One thing Deputy Harnling told me was, follow the money. The only thing we’ve been able to come up with so far is a theory that maybe somebody hates Natives enough to go to all that trouble, shooting a bunch of people. But what if it never was about the color of anybody’s skin? What if was all about the color green?”
“What if,” Mom suddenly interjected, “there’s something here that’s worth killing to get? Your move when you bought the properties was pretty sudden, wasn’t it, Frank?”
“As sudden as I could make it. The seller lives in Idaho, and the Realtor suggested a title company in Phoenix, so nobody knew the sales were being processed until after closing. Don’t believe the Realtor put up any Under Contract signs or anything. So yeah, one day it’s basically worthless acreage with two abandoned buildings, the next we’re here with our truck and General Steel is slapping up the shop building, boom, just like that. Mighty sudden, come to think of it.”
Mom got up from her chair. She couldn’t pace in the cramped kitchen, not with all of us crammed in there, but she couldn’t stay sitting, either. Her body fairly crackled with energy. “Two old buildings, well out of the way but still fairly secure from the elements.” She turned to the junk drawer under the kitchen counter, pulled it out, and retrieved a small ball peen hammer. Picking up her Maglite, she headed for Frank’s bedroom without another word.
We sort of naturally got up and followed, curious to see what she was up to. She had those cop eyes going.
She moved the rug, lifted the hidden trap door, and climbed down into the bolt hole that had sheltered Frank and Will during the firefight. There was a concrete floor down there, but the four walls, enclosing a space some six feet on a side, were made of horizontal white pine boards with vertical, decorative 1″ x 2″ boards spaced two feet apart, holding everything in place. Lou Jackson began tapping the boards, trying to be gentle enough to avoid denting the soft wood but probably failing in that.
It took her three, maybe four minutes to find it. We could all hear the difference, the hollow sound when the hammer hit that section. She studied on it for a few seconds, then gripped one of the vertical 1″ x 2″ pieces between thumb and fingers, pulled…and the hidden doorway, two feet square, swung open as slick as you please.
Kneeling around the hatch as we all were, looking like a bunch of confused Muslims staring at Mecca–never mind the lack of prayer mats–we couldn’t see what she was seeing. We could hear her sharp intake of breath as she pointed her Maglite through the little doorway, though, and then she was counting. It took her a while. Not wanting to get a crick in her neck from staring up at us, she closed the secret door, climbed back up he ladder, and told us. “Looks like a sort of half-basement runs clear under the rest of the house. Bales of merchandise in there; at best guess the stacks run about five feet deep and all the way forward under the kitchen. At the very minimum, it would fill at least one fifty-three foot dry van semi trailer, maybe more. Folks, we are literally sitting on top of the biggest pile of illegal drugs I’ve ever heard of, let alone seen.”
To the Montana contingent, it made perfect sense. The mystery was solved; of course the Mexican drug cartel behind exporting this poison to the good ol’ affluent USA wanted the new owners of the property removed from the area at any price.
The United States of Addiction: Priceless.
The Hardings, however, were hit hard. This was not something they could easily process. Will just stood there, frozen, his jaw hanging open. His father didn’t notice; the older man’s eyes flared in alarm as the implications began to sink in. “How–”
“Ugh,” Mom said, deadpan. “Big cartel wampum. Make many folks dead, drug lord rich. Street value over moon, many million greenbacks. Cop who find this have reputation made, biggest bust ever in entire state of Arizona. Uppity Injuns who get in way walk-um Trail of Tears.”
“Ugh is right.” Frank Harding staggered back out into the kitchen and slumped into his chair. He put his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. The steaks were burning, but nobody noticed. “Me should have stayed in Seattle.”