DEPUTY PEARL BLAKE
“Pearl! A moment, please!” Sheriff Raymond T. Dunmore’s voice carried a wealth of information. Irritation. Frustration. Relief that he had a resource close at hand. All of the above, wrapped up in that Pearl!
A quarter Huron, a quarter Irish, and at least half attitude, I’m a stocky woman with a .357 Magnum riding on my generous hip. Big gun on a big butt or not, I didn’t waste any time. You don’t get to be Chief Deputy by slow-walking when the boss is upset. Never mind that I’m the only member of our tiny, five-deputy force that’s ever fired at a human target. Well…subhuman. Ricky Blake hadn’t exactly been the epitome of evolution.
“Have a seat, Pearl. Tell me what you think of this.” His black moustache quivered as he handed her the papers.
Now I took my time. If there’s one thing Sheriff Ray won’t tolerate, it’s people giving him half-answers with no thought behind them. I held in my hand the lab report on the Folger’s coffee offered up by John Cavanaugh. “Gabapentin,” I mused, feeling my brows pinch together in concern. “Common name Neurontin. John was right. Unless he’s lying to us. Was John on Neurontin?” Ray Dunmore would know. He’d been friends with the old man for literally his entire life. Cavanaugh liked to joke about Ray being Kermit Cavanaugh’s godfather, an impossibility considering Ray was only three years older than Cavanaugh the Younger.
“Neurontin?” The sheriff laced his fingers together, twiddling his thumbs. “What do you know about Neurontin, Pearl? ‘Cause I don’t know one blasted thing. Prescription drug, isn’t it? John wasn’t on any prescriptions that I know of. Unless you count bad coffee.”
“Yep. Prescribed a lot, too. For pain more than anything else, but it’s got some nasty side effects. Give me a minute.” I closed my eyes, casting back through the filing cabinets in my mind. There was a memory in there somewhere…. “Got it. My cousin Brenda mentioned it a while back.” Brenda Schwartz worked as a nurse in our town’s only clinic. She remained fully aware of the need to protect privacy when she was sober. When she had one drink too many, she ran her mouth like a hose taking down a structure fire, at least to me. “John may not have a prescription for Neurontin but–get this–Margaret definitely does.”
“Ah.” Ray leaned back in his chair. “Rabbit pellets.”
“And big ol’ moose droppings to boot. The only thing is, if she and Kermit doped John’s coffee, how come he didn’t notice? Gabapentin, according to Brenda, is bitter stuff.”
“If it’s coffee, John will drink it. I sometimes think that’s what keeps him going like he does.”
“We going to turn this over to the DA?”
“Not for now. We’d need John here to testify at the very least, and I’m thinking he just might not show up at all.”
“He could be that sneaky?”
Dunmore laughed aloud, the tension suddenly gone from him in a great rush. “Pearl, you have no idea. If those kids of his understood their old man like I do, they’d never have tried to mess with him. If that’s what they did, and it’s looking like that’s the way of it. Coyote Cavanaugh? He thinks he’s sly and deadly, and compared to a lot of folks he is, but his father is pure wolf.”
Back at my desk, I booted up my computer and did a few searches. John Cavanaugh had said, in the message printed on that whiteboard at his house, that he’d been experiencing two significant symptoms: Lack of energy and foggy mind. I was the department’s go-to person for drug cases of all sorts. One thing I knew was that prescription drugs often produced side effects the official literature didn’t even list. Still, gotta start somewhere.
I got the scariest hit with my third intuitive search string, “brain damage Neurontin.” A website calling itself Integrated Wellness Group stated,
Neurontin (gabapentin)…a death sentence for your brain…degenerate the grey matter (where the synapses live)…The grey matter includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, and sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control.
Translation: Damaged grey matter and synapses is a driving force of brain fog, loss of memory, depression, anxiety, other mood disorders, lack of coordination, tremors….
Could John Cavanaugh be suffering from gabapentin-induced brain damage that would never heal? Lord, I hoped that wasn’t the case. One thing I did know. If John ever surfaced, his Miss Piggy and the Coyote would be right there, trying to follow through on getting him committed. There would be a court hearing. Under the table, I would make sure John’s attorney had enough information to suffocate the opposition. Even if Ray weren’t involved, I would do that. Half of our equipment had been funded by Cavanaugh’s regular annual donations. He’d even picked up the tab for my daughter’s cleft palate surgery. He’d done it anonymously but secrets in this town tended to become public knowledge.
Enough for now. I bundled my Cavanaugh notes together and tucked them into the middle right desk drawer. Things to do. Jimmy Twofoot’s trial was coming up shortly. I had to be ready to slam dunk the serial home invasion rapist into prison at Deer Lodge for a good, long stretch.
I was stopped at a little café in a littler town some miles out of Pierre, South Dakota, when a woman saved my life. Or at least my sanity. Certainly my emotional balance.
Not many hours left to reach my destination but I was whipped. The headaches were far fewer and less frequent than a few days ago. In this neck of the woods–open country, really, not much “woods” to be seen–it was unlikely anyone was likely to recognize me. That much was good. My depression was not so good. I’m not subject to major mood swings, haven’t been since I left puberty, but the grind had worn me down. The day’s long miles had left me with nothing to do but think about family, engaging in mental activity that kept me alive but turned me…pensive is the word. Pensive.
For all intents and purposes, my real life began the moment Mariah and I locked eyes. Her rich farmer daddy’s effort to keep us apart…he didn’t have a chance. She was not only my first love; she was also the love of my life. Her inability to bear children didn’t matter. We were locked at hip and lip, right up until that snowy Christmas Eve in 1935 when she took our 1934 Hudson Terraplane coupe to do a bit of last minute Christmas shopping. A drunken engineer slammed his locomotive through an unmarked crossing at seventy-three miles per hour, so bombed he didn’t even realize the train was barreling through the storm without lights. There was hardly enough left of my wife to scoop up with a spoon.
We had a total of sixteen months together, twelve of them legally married. We’d gotten hitched in Mississippi where Mariah was old enough to say “I do” without parental consent. State laws had changed since then, to no one’s benefit in my opinion. We’d celebrated her seventeenth birthday just three weeks before her death by train.
At age ninety-eight, I still wasn’t over it.
Looking back with the 20-20 vision of hindsight, I realized I’d married Gwen on the rebound. I’d never loved her the way I loved Mariah and she knew it. Women always know. But I didn’t see it then. Margaret was five when I joined the Navy. Kermit was three. When The War was over, working nights and going back to school on the G.I. Bill demanded too much of my time and attention. I could read the signs now. My little girl had been used and abused in my absence. Her younger brother had watched it happen, too small and helpless to do anything about it except store up hatred toward the parents who let it happen. He might have been abused, too, for all I knew. The kids must have clung to each other in those years, forming a lifetime bond of steel and epoxy glue, hating me for not being there when it counted–Hitler and Tojo be damned ’cause those were meaningless words to them–and hating their mother for being an opportunistic slut.
I’d figured out the mommy-slut part first. 4F losers and draft-dodging deferment experts walked wide of me when I got back from the South Pacific. They wouldn’t meet my eyes. They’d cross the street to avoid meeting me on the sidewalk. Most telling of all, mommy slut didn’t suddenly reform. She had sick aunts to visit, charity drives to help, anything to get her out of the house for a few hours or, if she could swing it, overnight. The name on her birth certificate was Guinevere but even had I qualified as the cuckolded King Arthur, none of her lovers qualified as anything close to Sir Launcelot.
Yet I’d stuck with her. In those days, that’s what you did, for the sake of the kids if nothing else. When she was diagnosed with cancer decades later, I’d spared no expense; she got the best treatment American medicine had to offer. None of which added up to enough. I hadn’t understood just how deep the rage ran in our babies until Margaret and Kerm lagged behind at their mother’s funeral. Not to grieve, but to spit on Gwen’s casket after it had been lowered into the grave.
They didn’t think I saw.
Even so, I’d backed both of them financially when they needed it, to the tune of $1,303,429 all total. Neither of them had a clue just how much I’d given them over the years. All they cared about was how much I hadn’t given them. They wanted it all. Put another way, they wanted to see me destitute before I died.
Sorry, children. Been there, done that, not going back if I can help it.
Then there was Darla, wife #3, my living ex. Darla was just plain crazy. She figured I owed her, too. Not only her, but her adult children as well.
All this mental meandering had me down deep in the well when I watered Belle in the trailer and went into the café for coffee and a piece of pie. But I’d practiced a pleasant public face my entire life. No reason for Sandy–the name tag on her uniform–to get depressed, too. She was a chunky gal, wide face, dark hair, sparkling eyes, big smile. I twinkled back at her. It’s a gift.
After getting the pie down and enjoying the coffee because I knew it wasn’t doped, I got up from the booth and went to the cash register to pay.
“I’m coming! I’m coming!” Deb’s cheerful voice, behind me.
When she rounded the counter, I told her, “Kind of a risqué way to put it.”
She got it, twinkled back, so I added the jaded old punch line. “Back in my girl chasing days, somebody say that, we’d say you don’t look like you’re even breathing hard.”
Deb didn’t take offense. Always a gamble with juvenile humor.
Moments later, a girl came out of the restroom. As she hit the curve, moving to join her man in some back booth, we locked eyes for one full second. My twinkle was nothing. She beamed good humor at me, God’s own love connection, Soul to Soul. Her lips curved upward, a beautiful smile. Midnight blue eyes. Tousled black hair. Cheeks glowing with ruddy good health. Five-six or so, 130 lbs., wearing a mild-colored vest open to reveal a brightly checked shirt. Late twenties, maybe early thirties. Lots of energy. In a word…
It was the first time I’d been hit like that in eighty years.
“Have a good day,” Sandy the waitress said as I gathered my change from the counter.
“I’m having a good day,” I assured her. I was, too. That one-second electrical woman-jolt carried me the rest of the way, no depression whatsoever. I was flying. I still had it.
IN THE BOONIES OUTSIDE OF OMAK, WASHINGTON
Something in the air triggered Margaret’s allergies. “Let me,” her brother said, taking the monster purse and fishing through it with flying fingers. “Here it is.” He handed her the rescue inhaler. Two puffs later, she began to relax, knowing relief was on the way.
“Doesn’t look like much.” Forty acres according the courthouse records. Scraggly patches of bunchgrass, dry dusty ground, thriving bull thistles, occasional piles of cow flop from ranging livestock that had no respect for computerized boundaries. The track they’d followed was rutted and pocked with prairie dog holes big enough to swallow their rental SUV whole. “But we’ve come this far. Might as well take a look inside.”
The tumbledown homesteader’s cabin, a rotting relic from the 19th century, leered at them one-eyed, its lone window tilted along with the entire north wall. Yet the door, strangely enough, was closed and looked pretty secure. The original latch string was long gone, replaced by a heavily rusted wrap of baling wire. Kermit “Coyote” Cavanaugh listened carefully. Bees, buzzing among the flowers aka allergen-producing weeds. A meadowlark, insufferably cheerful. Two magpies in a tree behind the cabin, chattering over whatever magpies chatter over. The sharp warning whistle of a prairie dog who didn’t trust human intruders, varmint rifles or no varmint rifles. Surprisingly, Margaret treading softly despite her bulk, her breathing finally under control.
Kermit pulled on the wire. Lifted the latch. Pushed the door inward. And–
“Holy–!” Words failed him. He stumbled back, slamming into his big-in-every-way sister, knocked her off balance. Four hundred and fifty pounds of fat lady landed hard on her butt. All after the fact; the big rattlesnake had already struck, not at the warm blooded humans but at the splinter-wood door that had bumped into it as the monster reptile relaxed in a resting coil, minding its own business.
It wasn’t relaxing now. Its wicked, spade-shaped head was reared up and back, bathed in sunshine, while its tail buzzing loudly in dark interior shadows.
“How big is that thing?” Margaret’s scramble-back on her bruised rear couldn’t overcome her native curiosity. She was also a practical woman; if the viper struck again, her brother would serve as a functional human shield.
Coyote scrambled to his feet and helped his sister up. “Gotta be five feet at least. Maybe six. Eastern diamondback.”
“Eastern? There aren’t any of those out west.”
“Tell it to the snake.” They stood fifteen feet from the cabin, staring at the heavy-bodied reptile in horrified fascination.
“We should shoot it.”
“What with, sis? We didn’t bring no gun.” He knew why she said that. The rattler had made her pee her pants. Coyote wasn’t sure about his own boxers either. “There ain’t even a rock in sight to throw at it.” Under stress, the polished attorney’s grammar had reverted to the lower class patois of his youth. “An’ doncha be tellin’ me ta rassle it, neither.”
She patted her brother on the shoulder. Reassurance. “Chill, bro. Let’s think this through.”
They retreated to the vehicle and sat, staring morosely through the windshield at the ancient cabin. Kermit gradually got his mojo back, started feeling more of his naturally sly coyote nature reassert itself. “Never thought we’d find an old homestead with a giant diamondback squatter.”
“Yeah. I mean no, I didn’t either. Suppose Toff arranged that little reception committee?” Toff was their siblings-only code name for John Cavanaugh: The Old Fart Father. They’d been calling him that–behind his back, of course–since 1946, when Margaret had been a sexually experienced ten year old girl, Coyote had been eight, and the long-absent Navy dad had come back into their lives with a vengeance, insisting they get decent grades in school, treat adults with respect, finish their chores, clean their plates…oh, the list was endless. To a pair of youngsters who’d experienced the dark and perverted side of mankind during his five-year absence, this was intolerable. Thirty year old John Cavanaugh hadn’t spared the razor strap, ensuring their obedience. The old man could also use the dreaded Daddy Voice even then. Outwardly, they complied. Excelled, even. Margaret graduated from high school with honors and began a dual career, stripping husbands of their money in hard-fought divorces while adding pounds to her originally svelte figure.
Rapid fire because she had to. By age thirty, tipping the scale at 300 plus, her ability to attract wealthy flies into her spidery parlor was pretty much kaput.
Coyote Cavanaugh, on the other hand, gained ever greater power as he aged. Wiry and quick in both body and mind, he became a feared Golden Gloves boxer in high school and the first leaf on his family tree to attend college, eventually attending law school, obtaining his Juris Doctor degree and passing the Montana bar on his first try. On paper, he could have gone anywhere. Inwardly, he knew his home county was his only choice. With a sharp eye and a cold heart, he set out to become a hired gun, making sure his customers got the best of every real estate deal. Following the letter of the law–no one had ever succeeded against him in court–he didn’t believe the spirit of the law existed. Venal, calculating, ruthless, he should have been a multimillionaire in his own right by the time he was fifty. And he would have been, had Suzie Wilkins kept her mouth shut instead of going to the cops, showing off her bruises and lacerations, explaining in detail the procedure he’d used when burning her repeatedly with glowing cigarette tips.
His legal tricks in real estate hadn’t done him one bit of good when faced with years of prison time. The settlement had taken most of what he had. Bribing the District Attorney had taken the rest.
And of course it was all John Cavanaugh’s fault. Somehow.
“No,” he said, squeezing his sister’s hand. “Much as I wouldn’t put it past him, I don’t see it. Toff is a year behind on the property taxes. Eventually, he’ll lose it and it’ll go to auction. I think…this may be a side effect of his mental fog, sis. He may have literally forgotten it.”
“Either that or he left it deliberately. You know, just another thumb in our eyes, a false trail. Jake the Snake being thrown in by wicked Mama Nature as a bonus.”
“I don’t want to go in there. Do you?”
“Nah. Not now that I think about it. It’s not like we’d find a note saying here’s where John Cavanaugh is hiding.”
“Okay.” The relief in her voice was evident. Margaret Cavanaugh Jones hated snakes. “Um, I need to find a store and a restroom. I peed my pants.”
“Yeah.” Coyote fired up the SUV, executed a three-point turn, and headed out. “I think I fudged my shorts. Let’s try Omak. I’m pretty sure they have a Walmart.”