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The Last Tree

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Chapter 1

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The right front tire of my pickup truck caught the edge of the highway and woke me up from a brief nap.

I'd already danced on the roadway's edge too many times and once again overcorrected by using most of the oncoming lane. Then I tossed an ample supply of sunflower seeds into my mouth, to keep me awake, and stuck my left arm out the window, where my shirt sleeve flopped in the wind like the skull and crossbones atop the mast of a streaking pirate ship.

A 20-foot drop hugged the highway's edge and beckoned me to dive in, front tire first, into the sagebrush abyss, which would have put an early end to the undefined, search-for-the-meaning-of-life journey that I'd began just days before.

My life had been nothing but an endless list of rodeos up to that point, and once that ended I'd found it hard to join the 8-to-5 club, boring as it was, and to recreate those daily adrenaline surges.

At 42 I was old enough to be considered ancient by your average high school student, and yet there was little that I'd accomplished in that time other than building up a monumental list of mistakes and regrets that continued to haunt me and probably would until the day I died unless something changed.

If I was to analyze my life, it was probably that list that I was running from, but instead I chose not to over-analyze anything, since running away seemed to be the appropriate elixir.

Nor did I think I was ancient at the age of 42 since those years seemed like little more than a blip on the radar screen, having zipped by at record speeds, leading me to conclude that it wasn't me who was old but life that was simply too short.

Meanwhile, Tonopah, a community referred to as "The Queen of the Silver Mining Camps," was where I'd minutes earlier ventured through, located 6,000 feet high up in the Nevada desert, a world away from both Las Vegas and Reno.

The roadway in and out of Tonopah, commonly referred to as the "Extraterrestrial Highway," featured signs warning of low-flying aircraft and free-wandering cattle.

I'd stopped there long enough to spend a life's savings on a full tank of diesel fuel and make googly-eyes at a bleached blonde who was at least a third my age. She was sporting jeans that'd been spray painted on and a red pullover top that accented breasts that looked like they'd been borrowed from a much larger woman.

"Nice truck," she said to me.

"Nice shirt," I wanted to say but didn't.

"Passing through?" she asked.

"Like the wind," I replied.

"Which way?"

"West."

"Maybe you should take me with you?" she suggested.

"Can't."

"Why not?"

"I hardly know you." I said, "And you might be an alien."

"That would mean there is a whole planet full of babes like me," she said.

"Good point," I replied.

"So, did that change your mind?"

"Almost."

"But I still can't go?"

"Right."

"Oh well," she said, "You don't have room for my three kids anyway."

"Another good point." I said and winked, tipped my hat and sped off, just like they do in the movies.

Getting to Tonopah had been a little like driving through a mine field since the cattle in those parts roamed freely and had turned highway loitering into an art form. And who could blame them, stranded like they were in the middle of nowhere with little to eat and no one to talk to?

Occasionally, I thought I could hear them visiting amongst themselves when I slowed down to slither through their ranks.

"Slow down!" one of them shouted.

"Speed kills!" added another.

"Bring me some sushi?" yelled yet another, "I'm dying for some sushi!"

I knew I was losing my mind.

Bright yellow sage hugged the highway's edge and glowed in the sunlight, apparently not wanting to mix with the aqua-colored sage further out in the desert. Either that or someone had brought yellow sage seeds from afar and spread them along the roadside like Johnny Appleseed. Or the highway department had simply sprayed the highway's edge with hordes of chemicals.

Occasionally, I'd see a horse or two standing alone in the middle of nowhere, far from any ranch or buildings, and wondered if someone, long ago in their family tree, had been crossbred with a camel, enabling them to go for weeks without liquid nourishment.

By myself and in the middle of nowhere, I'd sometimes worry about breaking down and being stranded there with those talking cows and a lonely horse or two surrounded by distant mountains in a place that looked otherworldly when a full moon lit up the evening sky.

Further back I'd seen headlights, bright enough to glare in the afternoon sun, in my rearview mirror, closing in rapidly. Once they caught up to me I could see that it was two retired couples in a white four-door sedan with Utah plates driving at NASCAR speeds.

Apparently they thought Las Vegas might be running out of chips and they had to get there fast. Or they drove that same highway twice a week and knew that very few others did, especially highway patrolmen.

Up ahead Highways 375 and 93 crossed each other to form what looked like a giant plus sign that'd been plopped down on a carpet of sand and sage.

It stood out only because it seemed odd to have two highways crossing at perfect right angles out there in the middle of nowhere, where it mattered little if they were at right angles or not.

My map indicated that the community of Warm Springs had once resided near that big plus sign, but as I got closer I could see that there was nothing but rocks piled high on top of each other where once houses, sheds and bars had once been.

It was a prime example of a western ghost town, a creepy place full of memories past and none current and I turned south onto Highway 93, another trail that disappeared into the distant mountains and waved as I turned just in case there were any ghosts lingering who might be longing for a friendly face.

It wasn't long before I noticed a dwelling up ahead in a low spot where rain water collected, enabling grass and a row of trees to grow, about a quarter-mile long.

Nearby there appeared to be a ranch, to whom the cattle must have belonged, I surmised. Where structures, including a couple of houses, some cattle in pens and barns sat, needing paint, but no people and yet it was clear that somebody lived there.

It felt good to finally see evidence of human life and an oasis that offered somewhere to go if a crisis arose.

Twenty miles further, I noticed a van parked by the side of the road on a hill and thought it might be a survey crew until a fat lady popped up from a squatting position and tried to pull dark green stretch pants over her large bare bottom before anyone could see her. But it was too late and I struggled to flush that image from the hard drive of my mind, afraid that it might never happen.

"Your cheating heart ...," a classic country tune by Hank Williams blared on the radio, above the wind whipping by my left ear and I rounded a curve that opened up on the other side of a cutout and thought I noticed something at the furthest reaches of my peripheral vision; a car or truck in the ditch and caught it again in my rearview mirror just before I rounded another curve.

Thinking it to be nothing, I continued to drive but not for long before I found a place to turn around, intrigued at the prospect of seeing something out there where nothing had been for the last few thousand white lines.

It was a vehicle all right, an early '80s pickup truck, turquoise and white and overturned. I figured it'd been there for months or years until I strode up next to it and found a body inside.

The body was moving and in pain and belonged to an older man who might have been in his 70s or 80s and in real bad shape lying on the ceiling of the overturned vehicle and coughing up blood. He reminded me of bull riders I'd seen gored or stomped on by 1,500-pound bulls in rodeos that I'd ridden in who eventually died and I knew this guy would die too.

"Take this," he said between coughs.

"What?" I asked, sticking my head as far into the crushed cab as I could to hear his anguished, hoarse voice.

"The key," he said and I looked at a hand that was on the end of a broken arm and wondered how he could have gotten a key into his hand with that arm unless it'd been there before he hit the ditch.

"It's for a box," he said and then he had to catch his breath for a long time and I noticed a cane in the cab and realized that this guy hadn't been running wind sprints for some time, even before the crash.

"By the last tree," he said and his eyes rolled back and I thought he'd died but then he closed them and opened them again and coughed and spit some blood on my white cowboy shirt.

"Where?" I asked.

"Back there," he said and his eyes rolled back again and this time he didn't close them and he quit coughing and even breathing. I knew he was dead and I had no clue what to do next until somebody suddenly drove up behind me.

It was a beat-up pickup truck, early '90s model, parked right in front of mine at an angle, like he was trying to block me in, with a rifle on a rack in the back window. Out of it climbed a man who was about 10 years older than me and looked like a gorilla, his belly hanging over his jeans and his jeans nearly falling off of his buttocks, his butt being half as big as that of the fat lady a few miles back; wearing a white cowboy hat that hadn't been white in a long time.

He was in no big hurry and sauntered down the ditch, bull-legged and he limped a little and came over towards me and didn't say anything until he got to within a few feet.

"He dead?" he asked.

"Yep," I said and he nodded and stared to circle the vehicle looking at or for something and at me occasionally as he did so.

"He alive when you got here?" he asked and I thought for a moment.

"Nope," I said for some reason, not sure why and not wanting to be held responsible for anything.

"Did he say anything?"

"Pretty hard when you're dead," I answered and he smirked a little and continued to scour the area.

"How did you get that blood on your shirt then?" he asked, which was a real good question since he could obviously see that it was speckled and not smeared and I wondered how to answer.

"Well, he coughed once," I said.

"So he wasn't dead?"

"Yes he was, except for the cough," I said.

He looked at me for too long and then the sun and adjusted his hat and wiped some sweat from his brow.

"We need to call the police," I suggested.

"There are no police," he declared and then shifted his weight to the other leg and put his thumbs into his front jean pockets on each side of a big belt buckle.

"But we have to notify his family," I said.

"No we don't."

"Why not?"

"I am his family," he announced and then turned and went back to his pickup truck and got some leather gloves and that's when I noticed what looked like a bullet hole in the old man's left front tire.

Chapter 2

I had little interest in sticking around to help the gorilla haul his dead uncle out of a crushed pickup truck because, for one thing, I didn't think it was legal without law enforcement supervision and for another, I hadn't signed up for coroner duty that day.

Meanwhile, the gorilla seemed pretty determined to not only quickly clean up the mess but to also keep me around for as long as possible.

"Where are you headed?" he asked.

"South," I said.

"Vegas?"

"Nope."

"Where then?"

"Not sure."

"You're not sure where you're going?"

"I'm not sure you need to know," I said, trying to fend off any further questioning.

"Got a phone number?"

"Why?"

"In case I need to get ahold of you."

"You won't need to get ahold of me," I declared and started to walk back to my pickup truck.

"Hey!" he shouted.

"What?"

"Be careful," he said, which I thought was really weird.

In fact, everything about it was weird, especially the gorilla, and I wanted to sprint back to my pickup truck, smoke my tires and quickly put distance between me and him.

Instead, as cool as possible, I walked slowly back, thinking that running might cause the wild beast to sense my fear and charge after me. Or maybe I just didn't want to act like I was guilty of something I wasn't.

At any rate, I backed my truck up to get around his and watched for oncoming traffic, which, if I thought about it, probably wouldn't have shown up until later in the week.

As I did so, I eyed the rifle in his back window, thankful that it wasn't in his hands and figured that it might be the one that had put a bullet hole in the old man's front tire.

When I pulled away I took one last look at the scene and saw that the gorilla's thick shoulders were slumped, his big hands were on his hips, his protruding brow was sticking out from under his soiled hat and he was looking back at me and seemed to be smiling. That creeped me out even more and I kept checking my rear-view mirror for many miles after to make sure he wasn't following me. I wished I had his gun instead of him.

I think it was his lack of remorse and abounding insensitivity that bothered me most, not to mention that I was ill at ease anyway and in shock because I'd just watched an old man die and figured that the gorilla had set the whole thing up, but wondered why?

Then I remembered the key in my jean pocket and wished I'd never let my curiosity get the better of me and accepted the stupid thing from the old man in the first place, because it was probably the key that was the "key."

Unless it was my imagination that was running amok because, after all, the gorilla could have been grimacing instead of smiling and maybe his stoic, hard-edged nature didn't allow for him to show any signs of emotion, just like the men I'd been raised to be like in North Dakota.

Plus, how many pickup trucks had rifles hanging on a rack in the back window in that neck of the woods, all of them? And what did I know about bullet holes in tattered tires? It could have been put there by a piece of metal or a rock or a laser beam from a spaceship hovering over the Extraterrestrial Highway for all I knew.

Not to mention that the gorilla probably thought it was me who'd run his uncle off the road and that's why he'd acted so strange. Especially since he'd caught me in the middle of a lie, telling him that the old man was dead at the scene when he really wasn't.

So I pulled the key out of my left front jean pocket and was about to throw it out the window when I looked up and saw a cow in the middle of the road and swerved to miss it and damn near hit the ditch myself, which might have explained how the old man had hit the ditch in the first place. The key flew out of my hand and onto the floorboard of my pickup truck somewhere and my heart nearly beat through my chest.

"Oh crap!" I said and took a deep breath to slow down my heart rate.

But what I really needed to do was start the day over, go back to bed and wake up again from the bad dream I was in the midst of. Then I remembered that I hadn't been to bed since I'd left that cheap motel room in Grants Pass, Oregon, too many hours earlier, where the people were friendly and the cherry pie in the restaurant next door was sweeter than a politician looking for votes.

I knew I was at least 75 miles past Warm Springs, the ghost town by the big plus sign, and 30 miles from Interstate 15, the mega-highway that stretches nearly from Mexico to Canada. So I decided, once I got to Interstate 15, that I'd continue north to Mesquite, Nevada, and look up a friend of mine that lived there and then, at that point, proceed to map out my future.

By the time I got there, it was nine o'clock on a Friday and the Virgin River Casino looked pretty inviting. So I bellied up to what might be the longest bar in America and ordered a beer from Carlos the bartender who either misunderstood me or knew me better than I knew myself and gave me two.

I drank them both way too fast and quickly ordered a third and that's when my paranoia about the gorilla began to subside until I noticed someone walking towards me, on the other side of the casino, who looked a little like him and then someone else tapped me on the left shoulder.

"Do you own that damaged red pickup truck out front?" an oversized policeman with a shaved head asked.

"I hope not," I answered meekly.

"Someone bumped into it," he said.

"Hard," he added.

"Hard?"

"Yep, hard," he said, "Like they rammed into it on purpose."

How could the police officer know it was mine, I wondered, as opposed to the few hundred other people throwing hard-earned cash down the throats of the jingling slot machines surrounding me?

"That young lady pointed you out," he said before I could ask, and he pointed towards a chunky girl at a blackjack table nearby who'd apparently seen me park it. She waved with one of those "I'm available for an adventure, dating and marriage" waves and I followed the policeman outside, walking backwards for a brief second while I tentatively waved back.

"You won't be driving this anytime soon," he said, as we looked at a right rear panel that was bashed in and resting against the right rear tire.

"Do you have Triple-A," he asked, and I nodded, "because we can have it towed to the body shop?"

"Which one?" I asked.

"There is only one," he said and handed me a slip of paper. "You can call them on Monday."

"Okay," I said, dumbfounded as I began to return to the casino with an even stronger thirst.

"I see you're from out of state," the officer said suddenly. "Been here long?"

"Maybe 30 minutes."

"And you've already picked up a new admirer and a new enemy," he said.

"Maybe."

"You work fast."

"Life is short."

"Don't make it shorter," he suggested and gave me one of those two finger salutes that only guys in uniform can do.

I thought for a moment.

"Well, it could have been some drunk or an absent-mined senior citizen," I shouted, as the officer started to pull away.

"Drunks and seniors are too sloppy," he shouted back. "They wouldn't have avoided being seen by a witness or gotten away so quickly."

"Comforting conclusion," I whispered as I watched him pull away and then I re-entered the casino, gear bag in hand, and plopped down on my new favorite barstool.

"What now?" I asked to no one in particular and the chubby girl smiled at me again from afar as she gambled. I tried to hide inside myself but couldn't.

Then I spotted a foxy bartender with luscious skin and a pretty face wearing a black vest with too many buttons unbuttoned, to enhance customer tipping, I assumed, and I wondered, briefly, how I could debonairly separate myself from the herds of other guys who'd no doubt tried to get her attention. Ultimately, I concluded that I wasn't on my "A" game anyway, not that my "A" game was any better than my "F" game, and gave up on the idea entirely.

Suddenly a frail-sounding older male on my left side asked where I was from and I spun around, shocked to see a skinny, wrinkled old lady with an extra-long cigarette dangling from her lower lip.

"That depends," I replied.

"North in the summer, south in the winter?" she asked.

"Ah, something like that," I answered, wondering how many of those things she'd had to smoke to get her voice that low.

"Us too!" she said. "You're a snowbird!"

"Guess so," I agreed, even though it drummed up images of blue hair, big bellies, sagging nylons, walkers and motorhomes.

"We're retired!"

"We?"

"My husband and I!" she announced as she put her arm around a grumpy old ambivalent dude sitting on the barstool next to her who looked a little like a crumpled up piece of paper towel.

It was obvious that they were mainly there to gamble, continually pressing keys on the machines built into the bar in front of them. As it turns out, she was a retired schoolteacher who'd occasionally get sidetracked from her gambling duties and he was a former bartender who would elbow and urge her to bet back to business between puffs on his cigarette, because drinks were free for gamblers, not that they needed any more liquor.

They'd just returned to Mesquite from eastern Washington, an annual event, it being late in October with a chill beginning to move in back home and she was getting a little looped. In fact, when she went to the restroom she used a lot more carpet than necessary, swaying from left to right and bumping into slot machines along the way, as though the room was a giant pinball machine and she was the pinball.

Then the chunky girl strolled over to inspect the goods (me) and see what might potentially transpire between the two of us, I think.

"Sorry about your truck," she said.

"No problem," I responded, "I'll get a new one tomorrow. You can have that one."

"Really?"

"No."

"Oh," she said as she looked into my eyes and tried to read my mind. "Well, want to dance?"

"Can't," I said, "I hurt myself in the accident."

"But you weren't in the truck,"

"You're right," I said, "I forgot."

There was a country-western band jamming in a little dance hall on the far end of the bar, a football field away, and we meandered onto the dance floor and began to two-step along with a lot of other folks and a few young chicks who were dancing with each other.

One of the young girls was particularly cute with long blonde hair, a real sexy figure and the face of an old girlfriend of mine. She looked at me a couple of times as if she thought she might be interested, but it was dark and my silhouette probably looked a whole lot better than the real thing. But Mr. Ego liked the attention anyway.

Meanwhile, chunky chick said she had to visit the restroom after a couple of dances and I was tempted to bail out even though she told me to "stay right there" and then I remembered that my gear bag was still by the barstool a football field away. I rushed out to find it but it was gone, so I panicked and then Carlos, my new favorite bartender, pulled it out from behind the bar and my sense of relief was immeasurable.

"You're my hero," I said to him.

"It wasn't me," he said. "That guy over there picked it up and told me to hold onto it until you got back."

"What guy?"

"The Bear," he said and pointed to someone behind me and I turned around and two tables away I spotted the gorilla playing blackjack.

"There you are!" chunky chick, suddenly said. "I wondered where you went."

She'd re-applied a hefty layer of makeup in preparation for more laps around the dance floor, I assumed, and then I looked at the gorilla again and this time he winked and I knew who it was that'd rammed into the side of my pickup truck.

"Do you know that guy?" I asked her.

"Who?"

"That big guy with the dirty cowboy hat over there."

"Sure," she said, "everybody does. That's Bear Watson. He has a lot of land, a lot of cattle and a lot of money."

"His uncle died today," I said.

"I don't think so," she replied.

"Why not?"

"He doesn't have an uncle."

"How do you know?"

"Because he's my uncle," she said and then waved to the gorilla or bear or whatever he was and he waved back, raising a beefy palm without extending the fingers, as if doing so was too much work, in a strange but cool kind of way.

"By the way, I'm Bernadette," she said and I wondered if they were co-conspirators or if I was just way off the mark when it came to the gorilla, like when I played darts once every 10 years.

"So you didn't see anyone hit my truck?" I asked out of the blue while still looking at the bear.

"Nope," she said, "I was busy playing blackjack and watching you."

"Well, how did you know that my truck had been hit?"

"I went out to get something that I'd forgotten in my car and the cops were already there."

"How did you know it was MY truck?"

"I got to the casino the same time as you and saw you get out of it," she said, "I checked out your butt as you walked in."

I let that last comment disappear into the night.

"Why do they call him Bear?" I asked.

"Why do you think?"

"Because he looks like a ballerina?"

"Exactly," she said and giggled. "His real name is Max but they've always called him Bear."

"That's odd because he looks more like a Charles, Mitchell or Pat to me."

"You're funny."

"Sometimes," I agreed.

My friend was gone when I finally got to his house but the front door was unlocked so I slipped in and plopped down, foggy-headed after too many beers, on a single bed in a spare bedroom and immediately fell asleep.

Blinding light woke me up at about 3 a.m. as my friend, who was rummaging around and slurring his words, stumbled into the bedroom.

"Oh," he said, "it's you."

"Yes it is."

"Okay then," he said, quickly putting an end to a very in-depth conversation, after which he shut off the light and stumbled to bed.

Laying in the dark I remembered again how I had necked with Bernadette in her front seat in front of my friend's house even though I didn't want to, figuring that I didn't have a choice since she was kind enough to give me a ride "home."

"Aren't you going to invite me in?" she'd asked.

"Can't."

"Why not?"

"Wouldn't want to wake up my friend."

"I understand," she said. "But call me."

"Sure thing," I said as I accepted the business card she thrust towards me.

The next day I arose early and rented a studio apartment within walking distance of my friend's house for a month because they had made me an offer I couldn't refuse and because I couldn't go anywhere for a couple of weeks without my truck anyway.

Plus, I had to admit that I was curious about the death of the old man, the gorilla's potential part in it and, ultimately, I wanted to know who'd hit my truck.

Then I cruised around Mesquite in an old maroon sedan that my friend had lent to me and, by chance, met Chris LaDuke, who was a tall, top-heavy girl with long blonde hair in her late 30s with two gelding horses in a pen at the edge of town in what was technically Arizona, since Mesquite was located on the border of Nevada, Arizona and Utah.

She wore jeans, a big buckle and boots that laced up high and I liked her immediately because she put on no airs and laughed easily at my jokes.

"You've lived here for how long?" I asked her.

"Three years," she said.

"Year around?"

"Yep."

"Get's kind of hot in the summer," I said because I'd been through Mesquite in July when it was well over 100 degrees.

"You learn to do certain things early," she said.

"What kind of things?"

"Everything," she said and I said goodbye and drove away, looking forward to seeing her again in the very near future.

Chapter 3

My new buddy Phil was a bartender at the 19th Hole, a lounge and supper club sitting on a hill overlooking the city of Mesquite. It was located nowhere near a golf course as its name implied, but since Mesquite was a big golf community I guess they thought it could be located anywhere and be successful, but it wasn't.

According to my friend who lived there, who also happened to be a part-time real estate agent, it'd been built by someone with too much money who needed a tax write off, so maybe its lack of success had been preplanned. Whatever the case, Phil was an All-pro bartender who could keep you captivated with his endless stories and listened patiently to his customer's bullshit, of which there was plenty.

"What can I get you?" he asked as I bellied up to the bar.

"Beer."

"Glass?"

"Nope."

Conveniently located within walking distance of my new pad, I was directed there by Chris, the top-heavy horsewoman, who I'd hoped might meet me there but she didn't, leaving me to fend for myself and glance wishfully at barmaids who failed to dress in Las Vegas style, breast-enhancing attire like those who worked at the Virgin River Casino.

Phil, at 60 years old, closely resembled a fire hydrant with a shaved head and had been a cop in Detroit in his younger days. Then a bullet lodged in his back during a shootout and turned him into a Las Vegas bartender and weekend biker. Eventually the rat race in Las Vegas chased him to Mesquite where he had been mixing drinks for six years.

"Happily married Phil?" I asked him after my third beer.

"Yes," he replied, "because I haven't lived with her for 15 years." That prompted a hearty laugh from me, a barmaid, and a busboy who might have been the barmaid's boyfriend.

Meanwhile, a young man seated next to me, named Jason, who'd been raised in Scobey, Mont., and had served in Iraq, where he'd also been shot, didn't laugh with the rest of us, he being in full possession of a serious, faraway look that comes with having been introduced to life's cruel, ugly side, where tainted experiences and corresponding nightmares eliminate all giddiness and frivolity.

"How about you?" Jason asked as he took a drag on his cigarette and looked straight ahead at nothing in particular.

"Not married," I said, "just shot at."

"Not married?" Phil the bartender asked, "Is that what you said?"

"I'd rather be shot at," I responded, which was a whole other topic I preferred not to discuss, not because I hated marriage but because I hated having to admit that I'd been married unsuccessfully.

"Bad marriage?" the barmaid asked, of course.

"Aren't they all?"

"Good point," Phil said and the busboy and his girlfriend, the barmaid, looked at each other naively, like two deer in headlights.

"Like another beer?" Phil asked.

"Sure," I said and bought a round for the rest of the group, and then listened awhile longer to the casual banter.

My mind also wandered and I wondered to myself who might have opened the first bar in the world and assumed that it was a psychiatrist who had trouble getting his patients to open up in his office and decided instead to go behind the bar and serve drinks to help facilitate the flow of information, working on more than one person at a time; very ingenious.

Then later, bars became a center of modern civilization for they are always the last business to close its doors in any dying prairie town. They are the last oasis, apart from a church, which isn't open for business every day like a bar is.

Little beer joints last forever because their profit margin is always good as long as the bartender owns the building and has two customers who drink a bottle of vodka a day at two bucks a drink.

Stumbling back to my new studio apartment two hours later, I happened upon a man in the parking lot scrubbing a van to a shiny sheen as though it was a Jaguar or Ferrari. So I struck up a conversation for no real reason except that I love to do that and I was glad I did because he was a fountain of information about everything from health and politics to keeping up with the Joneses and war.

A former Southern California surfer dude and Vietnam vet who'd turned northwest logger, writer and dropout, Ben had been in and out of V.A. hospitals recently and almost died from blood clots he'd developed after having a pacemaker put in.

He was eccentric, stocky, could have used a dentist, had a full head of still-blond hair and was forever dealing with haunting memories of being a machine gunner on a helicopter that flew missions of over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos for both the army and the CIA.

"I've killed," he said after we'd talked for nearly an hour.

"That's what soldiers do," I replied, trying to attach a heroic slant to his story and give him his due respect.

"Not Americans," he said.

"What?"

"Americans don't shoot Americans," he said. "For the CIA, I killed two Americans."

I didn't say anything because it seemed like it would have been appropriate.

"They made me," he declared and I looked into his eyes.

"I have to live with that," he added and I wondered if I'd heard him right or if he was filling me full of bull and I wanted to run away and ask him for more details all at the same time.

"It isn't right," he said and at that moment I could have been there or not because he was so into the memory that the world around him had disappeared, so I tried to change the subject.

"Nice day," I said.

"Sure is," he agreed as he suddenly snapped back to reality and realized that he'd taken us down a road that he'd traveled far too many times before and I guess I was glad he did but wasn't quite sure where to take it from there.

"We all have regrets," I finally said after a moment of silence, looking down and pushing a pebble around with the tip of my boot.

"Some more than others," he replied.

"Want to compare lists?" I asked and he smiled for a moment, realizing that he might not be the only person who'd spent half of his life doing what he

didn't want to do.

"No," he said, "there are far better things to focus on."

"I think you're right," I said and figured we'd arrived at a good point to end the conversation and I bid him adieu and looked forward to when I might have a chance to visit with him again and then went into my suite and suddenly realized how alone I was.

That's the benefit of being single, you can do whatever you want whenever you want to but you often have to do them alone. Therefore, shared experiences are probably much better and yet I'd concluded that I'd rather be alone than share them with the wrong person again because I'd already done that and it can be torture.

The sun was sinking into the distant mountains so I laid down for a little beer-induced nap with a growling stomach and an empty refrigerator. When I woke up it was dark and I realized that if I were to buy groceries I'd have to have something to cook them with and wandered over to Walmart, the great price under cutter, and invested in a few kitchen tools like one pot, one fry pan, a spatula, fork and a knife.

As I pulled out of the expansive parking lot I noticed a dirty white ranch-style pickup truck pull in. Out of it jumped the gorilla, Bear Watson, who didn't see me or shouldn't have since I was in my friend's car and because I was parked quite a distance away. So I watched him walk into the store and then pulled around and into the aisle where his truck was parked.

It suddenly occurred to me that if it had been Bear who'd not so subtly damaged my big red pickup truck, then there might be evidence on his vehicle which showed that he'd done so, if that was the vehicle he used and I thought it might be since the flatbed on the back would have been perfect for putting the type of dent in my truck that I'd seen. And sure enough, there was red paint on the flatbed further illuminated by the bright light under which he had parked.

"Hi," I said into my cellphone, having called Officer Black, the Mesquite policeman who'd responded to my "accident" in the Virgin River Casino parking lot.

"Oh yes, I remember," he said after I explained who I was.

"I've caught the man who smashed into my pickup truck," I declared.

"Didn't know you were a detective," he said.

"I'm not."

"Dumb luck?" he asked.

"Intuition."

"Nice work Sherlock, who is it?"

"Bear Watson."

"You're kidding."

"Nope."

"You have witnesses?"

"There's red paint on the back of his pickup truck," I said, "I'm looking at it right now in the parking lot of Walmart. He was at the casino that night."

"As he is most nights," he said.

"So you know him?"

"Everyone does."

"Maybe you should come out here and ask him some questions?"

"Don't think so."

"Why not?"

"Need witnesses," he said.

"Always a technicality."

"Takes the fun out of it doesn't it?"

"So, what should I do?"

"Quit trying to be a detective, get your pickup truck fixed and go on with your life."

"Can't do that," I said, "so I guess I'll have to ask him myself."

"Have at it," he said. "I'm sure he'll admit that it was him, say he's sorry, pay for the damages and offer to buy you a new one."

"You never know."

"Don't bet on it."

"You're so cynical."

"I prefer realistic."

"There's a fine line between the two."

"That's the way life is."

"So you're saying it's not black and white?"

"Mostly gray."

"With just a little red in this case," I said.

"Funny," he replied.

"I thought so."

Chapter 4

Bear Watson never came out of Walmart.

At least not that I saw.

I must have waited half an hour, drove away, dropped my newly purchased cooking and food items off at my apartment, went back to Wal-Mart and sat in the parking lot for another half hour and still his white pickup truck, with the red tinted flatbed, never moved. Not an inch, centimeter or millimeter.

Weird, I thought, because I just didn't picture him as a shopaholic. Perhaps I was wrong. Maybe he was in there strolling up and down the aisles, smiling, visiting with housewives and gently picking things off the shelves and throwing them into his cart. Or maybe he was carefully reading the food ingredients, concerned about consuming too many calories or not wanting to buy those things that could be harmful to his long term health, right? No way.

According to Officer Black, Bear Watson spent most nights sucking down Pendleton whiskey and throwing cash away at a Virgin River Casino black jack table. If he bought anything at Walmart it was a set of tools, some toilet paper, white jockey shorts, three frozen pizzas, a case of Coke, some bacon, eggs, pancake batter, a loaf of bread and a package of jerky that he ate at the checkout stand.

Let's face it, Bear Watson was the type of guy that thought going out to dinner meant stopping at a convenience store. There's no way he could still be shopping for over an hour anywhere, much less at Walmart.

The curiosity was killing me, so I went inside.

In fact, I went up and down every aisle and unless he was busy trying on women's underwear in the lingerie department, he was not on the premises. But where could he be? Had he left with someone else when I briefly went back to my apartment? That was a possibility. But why would he leave his pickup truck behind?

Then a thought suddenly occurred to me. What happened to the key the dying old man had given to me in the overturned vehicle? I'd dropped it when I almost hit the cow on the highway and then mostly forgot all about it. So it had to be on the floorboard of my pickup truck, that is, unless I accidently kicked it out at some point.

I suddenly felt the need to retrieve it, as if it was the Holy Grail or the "my precious" ring in the movie, "Lord of the Rings." So I decided to drive by the body shop on my way home to see if they'd accidentally left the doors unlocked allowing me to get inside, and because I had nothing else to do.

Apparently Bear Watson had the same idea because he was there when I got there with his nose up against the glass, standing on his tiptoes, trying to look inside, and pulling on the door handle with little success. So I drove past, in my friend's car, which he wouldn't recognize, and parked a block away.

Was he looking for the key? He had to be. What else would he be looking for? That seemed to me to confirm that the key was definitely "the key" to something big.

I watched him from behind a bush for at least five minutes as he walked around the vehicle, opened the gas cap and looked in inside, peeked in all the windows, felt under the bumper and in the wheel wells and then he gave up and walked away with his hands in his front jean pockets, looking around to make sure that no one was watching him.

After he'd been gone for about 10 minutes, I approached the vehicle myself and began to snoop around. It was indeed locked and I didn't have an extra set of keys so I briefly contemplated breaking a window but that would have been messy and I didn't want to have to lie to the body shop about not having done it. Plus they could have had security cameras pointed right at it even though it was parked, not in a fenced in lot, but on the street in front of their building.

That's the last thing I remember until I woke up lying next to it on the sidewalk who knows how many minutes or hours later, having obviously been plopped on the head by something bigger than a stuffed pillow, a woman's purse or a plastic bat.

Covered in small pieces of glass from a broken window on the driver's side, I struggled momentarily to get my bearings, something I was not unfamiliar with, having been knocked unconscious at rodeos plenty of times.

Eventually I staggered to my feet and even gathered my wits enough to still duck into the already opened driver's door and look around for the key but I couldn't find it anywhere on the floorboard, obviously because whoever had broken the window had also found the key. Still, rather than give up I looked inside the side pockets in the door, just for kicks and, amazingly, I found it there under some wrappers and assorted junk!

"Whatcha doin?" someone suddenly said and I spun around and there, parked in the street, leaning out of his pickup truck window, was Bear Watson. How I had not heard him pull up I don't know.

"Breaking into your own vehicle?" he asked.

"Sure," I said.

"I wonder if that's illegal."

"Hard to say."

"I might have to call the cops."

"Good, because one of them in particular might be interested in visiting with you."

"Really," he said as he got out of his pickup truck, "who's that?"

"Officer Black," I said.

"Nice guy," he said. "Why should he want to talk to me?"

"Something to do with that red paint on the back of your flatbed," I said.

"Where I backed into the barn?" he asked.

"Or something else," I said.

"Like what?"

"A red pickup truck," I said.

"Barns are more fun."

"And if there are no barns nearby?"

"Find a good game of blackjack," he said.

"At the Virgin River Casino?"

"Usually," he said and smirked.

"You're an ass," I said, certain that it was he who'd not only slammed into my pickup truck but hit me on the head and then broke out the driver's side window. Now, I assumed he was back to wrestle the key away from me in case I found it.

"No," he said, "but I am thinking seriously about kicking your smartass."

"Unlikely," I said as he swung at me with a fist the size of an anvil. I ducked the punch and he flew by so I smashed him in the back of the skull with my two hands clasped together and he went headfirst into the side of my truck, adding another dent and immediately he slumped to the ground, unconscious. Counting my blessings, I left very quickly, before he woke up.

When I got home, blood and adrenaline were still flowing through my veins like firewater in a firehose and I tried to sit down, relax and think things through but ended up wearing a path in the carpet instead, sipping on one beer, then two and then enough to make me tired and crash hard on the bed, still wearing my clothes.

I assumed Bear Watson, once he woke up, would try to track me down and send me to where he'd sent his uncle, through the Pearly Gates, down Deadman's Highway and on a vacation from which I'd never return. That thought made me hyper but sleep finally came and sunshine burst through my open hotel suite window early the next morning like floodlights on a Broadway stage.

I shuffled to the bathroom, peed for about two hours and then opened the medicine cabinet and poured four aspirin into my left hand, hoping that they'd at least minimize the thunder roaring in my dome.

Then I opened the refrigerator door, thinking that I might have a bowl of newly purchased Cheerios floating in milk, but thought better of it after I consulted my stomach which said, "I'm not quite ready to tackle any food yet."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Too many beers too few hours ago."

"Not that many."

"Enough to launch a small bachelor party," it replied.

"But I took aspirin."

"That's for the dome department," it said, "not mine."

"Fine," I said. After a diligent search I found the television remote sleeping peacefully well under my bed and crawled on the floor like a crocodile to retrieve it. Then I dove into the bed again intent on catching a few more well-earned winks except that all of a sudden someone started banging on my door and I assumed it was the gorilla Watson "loaded for bear," as it were, even though he couldn't know where I lived.

"Open up, its officer Black," the knocker said and it might have been the first time that I pictured an officer of the law being more like Santa Claus than Harry Callahan.

"Are you lost?" I said while opening the door and squinting in the harsh sunlight.

"No, but I see you're ready to go somewhere," he said and that's when I realized that I was not only fully outfitted in the prior day's attire but also still wearing my favorite cowboy boots."

"Jammies," I said sheepishly.

"Really?" he asked.

"Just last night."

"Must have been a tough one," he replied and that's when I noticed that he was accompanied by two additional bulky dudes who made Bear Watson look like Danny DeVito's little brother.

"Eight on the 10 scale," I said.

"Where were you?"

"Mesquite."

"Can you be more specific?" he asked.

"No," I said.

"Try."

"Walmart," I said.

"All night?"

"They never close."

"Seriously."

"Seriously, they never close."

"I know that," he said impatiently and I tried to find eyes behind the sunglasses that the two beasts were wearing. "Did you happen to see Bear Watson?"

"Might have." I said.

"Where?"

"Breaking into my pickup truck," I said.

"He broke into your pickup truck?"

"I think so."

"But you're not sure," he asked.

"No."

"But you saw him?"

"Yes," I said, "he came at me."

"What'd you do?"

"Hit him of course."

"Then what?" he asked.

"He was napping so I left."

"Knocked out?"

"Or faking it," I said.

"Anything more?" he asked.

"No," I said, "why?"

"Because..."

"Because why?" I asked.

"Because he's dead," he said, and that's when I first noticed that there was blood on my jeans and on the sidewalk outside.

Chapter 5

I'm not a big fan of bureaucracy, meetings, lawyers, courtrooms or cop shops. Despite that, I accepted the friendly invitation offered by Office Black and his two pet apes to visit the Mesquite Police Station to answer a few questions. Unaccompanied by a lawyer, I replied to their inquiries as best I could, naively assuming that the truth would ultimately set me free.

"So, Bear Watson came at you, is that true?" Officer Black asked.

"Like a charging rhino," I replied.

"And you punched him?"

"It was more like a double-fisted chop."

"After which he went down?" he asked.

"Like a potato sack," I said, "or a feed bag, I can't decide."

"He also hit his head on the side of your pickup truck?" Black asked.

"There's a dent that fits his hat size."

"Then you left?" he asked.

"Lickety split," I confirmed.

"And that was the last time you saw him?" he asked.

"Except in my dreams."

An uncomfortable moment of silence then ensued as the officer and his two apes looked at each other, a little dumbfounded, stumped or hungover like me and I wondered what they were up to. Then one of the apes, named Stormo, suddenly chimed in, his voice a little too high for such a big man, like Truman Capote's or Mike Tyson.

"I don't like your flippant attitude," he said.

"I love your clip-on tie," I replied and the angry ape took a step toward me, fists clenched, while the other, more docile ape yawned and Officer Black interceded.

I felt like I was in no-man's land because no one was telling me what was going on. Bear Watson was dead, which initially seemed like a good thing but maybe not, and I assumed they thought I had something to do with it. The two apes were like robots but with less personality. The police station was stark and cold looking, the fluorescent lights gave everything a pasty appearance and I would have paid anything for another cold beer and plane ticket to Tahiti.

"You also think Bear Watson broke into your pickup truck?" Officer Black asked.

"Roger."

"Because he was there earlier?" he asked.

"Affirmative."

"Although you didn't actually see him do it?" he asked.

"Nope."

"So you don't really have a clue who did it," he said.

"Maybe."

"But you still assume it was Bear Watson?" he asked.

"Had to be." I said.

"And you saw no one else?"

"Correct."

"So he was alive when you left the scene?" he asked.

"Hard to kill a charging rhino?"

"But you still don't know why he tried to break into your pickup truck?" he asked.

"Had something to do with his dead uncle I assume," I said, having already filled him in on the over-turned vehicle episode in the desert.

"Except that he doesn't have an uncle."

"So THEY say."

"Nor is there any evidence of any accident or anyone dying in the desert," he said.

"So YOU say."

"How do you know Bear Watson's neck didn't break when his head hit the pickup truck?"

"Did it?" I asked.

"Let me ask the questions," he said, "why did you think he was still alive?"

"Because his belly was going up and down," I said.

"So you assumed he was still breathing?"

"Like a beached whale," I replied.

"But he might have died later from a broken neck?"

"If so, you've caught your murderer," I said.

"You?" he asked.

"Nope," I replied, "my pickup truck."

Eventually they let me go, after about two hours of being poked, prodded, quizzed and questioned, with a slap on the back and a friendly wave from the lovely short-haired receptionist who was munching on a lemon poppy-seed muffin and sucking down a high-octane Starbucks concoction.

Once outside, Officer Black offered to give me a ride home on what was an unusually warm October day and naturally we stopped at a corner donut shop and, you guessed it, I ordered a poppy-seed muffin to go with a high-octane coffee concoction. I assumed that he wanted to ask me a few more questions, off the record.

"So tell me, how did Bear Watson die?" I asked him.

"Quickly," Black replied.

"Could you be less specific?"

"Sure," he said.

"But, apparently you're quite certain that my pickup truck didn't murder him or I'd still be on ice."

"True," he said.

"So how did he die?" I asked.

"Can't say," he said.

"Or won't say."

"Either way," he replied.

"Do I need to worry?"

"About what?" he asked.

"Anything?"

"Probably something," he said.

"Like what?" I asked.

"Not sure."

"But I should watch my backside?"

"I'd watch all sides," he said.

Of course, the key the old man had given me was the key, it had to be. But I still didn't tell that to Officer Black and I wasn't sure why I didn't. It was like the old man and I had a pact or something and I felt like I'd be betraying him if I told anyone about it.

Meanwhile, Officer Black tried to pick my brain, coaxing me to enter into some kind of subconscious zone to determine whether or not a figure might have been lurking in the background while I was bullfighting the Bear, perhaps a passerby or a car or a detail that might lead to his breaking open the case.

"Let me ask you something else," Officer Black said as he sipped on his second cup of coffee, "Why are you here?"

"Why not?"

"Do you have a job?" he asked.

"No."

"Are you looking for a job?"

"No," I said.

"Independently wealthy?" he asked.

"Just independent."

"So trouble just seems to follow you like sheep follow a shepherd?" he asked.

"It's a knack."

It was almost mid-afternoon by the time he dropped me off at my apartment and as I walked up the sidewalk to the door, I dug keys out of my back pocket, fumbled with them briefly and then dropped them onto my boot and they ricocheted into the grass.

Of course they weren't my pickup truck keys but instead my friend's car keys with the new apartment keys hanging on the same ring. When I bent over to pick them up, my lower back locked up --a leftover gift from rodeo -- and I nearly went down but instead went to one knee.

I picked the keys out of the grass on the sidewalk's edge and got up slowly, still looking down the entire time because I couldn't quite straighten my back all the way and again noticed the blood on the sidewalk, on the right side with some of it also splattered on the adobe wall by the door.

Next to it was someone's ring, also on the sidewalk's edge, a man's ring, which looked to me to be a wedding ring. I wondered if someone had thrown a snowball and it had flown off during the toss and then I remembered that throwing snowballs in Mesquite happened once every two or three lifetimes so I picked it up.

It was then that I also remembered the blood on my jeans, on the left leg near my boots, and I wondered how it was possible that three policemen could have missed seeing it both there and on the ground, or ignored it or at least never brought it up?

Sure, a community the size of Mesquite didn't exactly have the most sophisticated law enforcement organization but they at least had to be blessed with the kind of vision that could spot a blood stain on a sidewalk that looked like someone had tripped while carrying a sizeable pot of spaghetti sauce and flung it onto the sidewalk and wall. The only other explanation was that they were keeping something from me.

I unlocked the door, slammed it behind me, shed my clothes, turned on the television, hopped in the shower and planned on staying in there until it felt like all of the events of the last few hours had been completely washed away.

Stepping under the stream of water, I rubbed my face and then my head, felt a lump in the back and what might have been a cut and then opened my eyes to see my feet covered in blood-soaked water. Apparently the blow to my head the prior evening had opened a little wound that briefly bled profusely and then dried up, in my hair, before my head had ever hit the pillow in my slightly intoxicated stupor.

After drying myself off I opened the medicine cabinet, pulled out a razor, started to shave, thought I heard something in the living room, assumed it was the television, continued to shave and then heard another sound, like someone was opening and closing a dresser drawer. Wrapped in a towel I peeked around the corner just in time to see the front door close; ran into the living room and pushed aside the front drapes and watched as a white cargo van pull away.

"I just had a guest," I said into the cellphone to Officer Black.

"That's nice," he replied.

"Uninvited," I said.

"Oh," he said, "it's hard to plan things when guests show up that way, isn't it?"

"Rummaging through my drawers."

"Which can't be too full," he said, "or did you mean your boxers?"

"And then they escaped in a white cargo van."

"Such a bland mode of travel," he said.

"So I thought you might want to come over here and get some fingerprints," I said.

"You're certainly keeping us busy," he replied.

"It's not me," I said.

"Who is it then?" he asked.

"That's your job to find out," I said.

At that point we both paused briefly, perhaps, deep in thought or in the process of deciding what to do next.

"But really," I said, "how did Bear Watson die? I think I deserve to know."

"Don't tell anyone, but he was shot," Officer Black said.

"Where?" I asked.

"In the back of the head while he was lying unconscious by your pickup truck," he said and then the doorknob on my front door began to rattle."

Chapter 6

The greatest difficulty in life is not deciding what you're going to wear or how you're going to spend your money. It's figuring out who you are and what you're supposed to be doing.

That debate had been raging in my mind for 40 years and the closer I got to figuring it out, the further it seemed to sprint away, especially since trouble and his cousins torment, tribulation, tumult and their nephew manure were piling up like beer cups under bleachers in my life.

I'd cleaned up plenty of horse stalls in my day, especially in my youth, but no amount of shoveling and pitching was going to keep me ahead of this gang. I needed help and the first person I thought of was my buddy Phil the bartender at the 19th Hole bar, because a couple of beers always seemed to slow things down and momentarily toss troubles aside, for better or worse.

At least that's what I was thinking when my doorknob began rattling, which was just after I'd caught someone sniffing around my apartment, followed by the white service van speeding away.

Couldn't they at least let me get my clothes on?

Holding a towel around my waist, I flung open the front door, frustrated enough not to care what might be on the other side, and standing there next to what looked like a black toolbox was the mammoth policeman I'd encountered earlier, Officer Stormo, with what looked like a kooky professor. It turns out he was actually a lab technician scraping blood off the sidewalk and putting it into a test tube.

"I'm here to save you," Stormo said.

"From what?" I asked.

"Intruders and speeding service vans of course," he said, smirking. "Are you OK?"

"No," I said, "I've got a pain in my ass."

"How can I help?" he asked.

"Leave."

"Sorry," he said, "we're here for blood samples and fingerprints. Can we come inside?"

"How long do you think it will it take?"

"Why?" he asked, "have you got a pressing engagement?"

"Aren't they all?"

"It won't take long," he replied, "but I'll need the jeans you were wearing."

"They won't fit," I said.

"We're going to cut out the blood stain."

"Will you patch it up again?" I asked.

"Sure," he said, "with duct tape."

'I'd prefer an embroidered peace sign."

"Fresh out," he replied.

Before I gave him the blood-stained jeans, I made sure I had removed the key that the old man had given me and the ring I'd found by the sidewalk and placed them on the dresser next to the big screen television. Then I waited for them to finish their tasks, after which I answered a couple of Stormo's questions.

"Did you happen to write down the license plate number for the van?" Officer Stormo asked.

"No."

"Why not?"

"Didn't have a pen," I said.

"You don't carry one?"

"Not in my towel," I said.

I'm sure there was a list of other things a mile long that I could have done, but I felt the need to go to a counselor and tell him my troubles, and Phil the bartender at the 19th Hole Bar was exactly the type of counselor that my budget allowed for. Plus, he was one of the most optimistic people I'd met in my life and he was a professional, which meant that my beer was sitting on the bar as soon as I walked through the door.

"How's life?" he asked.

"Confusing," I said.

"That's normal."

"For everyone?" I asked.

"Everyone I know," he said.

So maybe I didn't need a counselor or maybe I was just too sensitive or maybe everyone's life was as goofy as mine? But I don't think so.

After all, how many people had happened upon a dying old man, were given a mysterious key, had their pickup truck wrecked in a parking lot, got into a fight with a rhino, found out the rhino was dead, got hauled to a cop shop, and spent the better part of a day being grilled by Mesquite's finest. Then got home, showered, had their apartment broken into, watched a mysterious van speed away and had blood splattered on their sidewalk and jeans, all in less than 72 hours?

Not many I assumed. But I didn't tell Phil that.

"Your right," I said to Phil, "I'm oversensitive."

"Want something to eat?" he asked.

"How could you tell?"

"You're about 10 pounds lighter than the last time I saw you," he said and I wondered if I needed a vacation from the vacation I wasn't really on.

Money wasn't an immediate problem for me, not because I was rich but because I really didn't spend that much of it, since I didn't have a wife or kids or payments or a life.

Yes, I'd been married and racked up an endless list of female acquaintances on the rodeo trail, but none during the time that I was married and I wished my wife could say the same thing but she couldn't and I hadn't talked to her in about 10 years, so I guess it didn't really matter anymore.

She'd finally shipped out with some long-legged guy she already knew, at a rodeo in Poway, Calif., while I sulked and rode around the arena on a borrowed horse, sipping from a bottle of elixir for hours until I finally passed out, fell off and missed the whole shebang.

"Another beer?" Phil asked, as I began to lose track of time.

"Keep them coming." I said.

Somehow I needed to find out more about the old man with the key who everyone thought didn't exist. Because he was the author of my most recent set of problems, or so it seemed.

Had he been an illusion? Did he really happen? I began to question myself and suddenly I was thankful that I accepted the key from him because it was the only evidence I had that he was once made of flesh and bone and not just a fairy tale.

"Hi," some female suddenly said as she put her hand on my shoulder and I knew the voice but couldn't quite place it until I looked up from the bar and into the mirror and saw my favorite new "chunky chick," Bernadette Watson, standing behind me and I wondered if I should duck.

Her expression was morose and she wanted to talk for, some pretty obvious reasons, about her late uncle Bear Watson and she invited me to join her in a dark corner, away from everyone else, which wasn't what I wanted to do but I did it anyway.

"Do you know what happened?" she asked.

"To a point," I said.

"I hear that you were interrogated by the police," she said.

"Interrogated is a little strong," I said. "Just a few bamboo strips under my fingernails, nothing too bad."

"I'm being serious," she said. "Did you kill him?"

"No," I said, "did you?"

She stared into my eyes for too long and then Phil the bartender interrupted us by bringing me a plate of chicken strips and another beer and asked Bernadette if she wanted another cranberry vodka, which she confirmed with a quick nod.

My stomach felt ultra-empty and wrinkled up like a raisin so I quickly picked up a chicken strip and was about to bite into it when I noticed Chris LaDuke, the top-heavy cowgirl I'd met earlier at her horse stable, quite by chance, walk in the front door. She was with some stalky-looking cowboy who I knew had to be a steer wrestler and, from behind, looked a lot like Butch Casper out of Oklahoma, who I'd had a few run-ins with in the past, mainly because his IQ was well below 100, even though he had a lot of daddy's money, which might have explained why he was with her.

I hadn't seen him since the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo in Wyoming, at least five years earlier, when he punched me at the Outlaw Saloon for dancing with his former girlfriend on my shoulders. Of course, a massive brawl ensued, because I had plenty of friends there and so did he, and we were both probably headed to jail until his former girlfriend, Cheryl, a really cute barrel racer, also from Oklahoma, hit him over the head with the padded seat of a barstool and drug me out of there bleeding from my nose and chin.

Fortunately, he couldn't see me in the dark in the corner -- at leadt I assumed -- and they quickly plopped themselves down at a blackjack table at the far end, ordered a beer and a whiskey and probably commenced losing another chunk of daddy's hard-earned dollars.

Meanwhile, Bernadette was beginning to tear up and I felt guilty for calling her "chunky chick," if only in my mind, and tried to promise God or some angels or anyone who might be listening to the small voice inside me, that I wouldn't do it again, knowing that I'd never be able to keep that promise anyway.

"Who do you think killed Bear?" she asked.

"How did you find out he was killed?" I asked.

"Neal tracked me down," she said. "He had me identify the body."

"Who's Neal?" I asked.

"Neal Black, the police officer," she said. "Someone shot Bear in the back of the head! Who would do that?"

"I'm new here," I said. "I don't have a clue."

"But you had a fight with him."

"More like a bullfight," I said.

"And you knocked him out!"

"I mostly moved aside," I said, "and he knocked himself out."

She paused for a moment and stared off into the distance.

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," she finally said.

"Surprised about what?"

"That someone finally killed him."

"Why?" I asked, "Because he was so disliked?"

"No," she said. "He was a football hero here. People loved him."

"Why then?"

"Because of what happened before, when he drove into in the ditch."

"He drove into the ditch?"

"Yes," she said, "about a month ago, out by the ranch."

"Was he drunk?" I asked.

"No," she said, "His front tire blew out, I think because of the hole."

"What hole?" I asked. "Was there a pot hole in the highway?"

"No silly," she said as she began to frown, "it was a little hole, like a bullet hole."

Chapter 7

I liked Chris LaDuke for some reason, even though I barely knew her and had only talked to her for a few minutes at her nearby stable. In that time she'd given me no indication she found me the least bit appealing and her appearance at the 19th Hole bar with that loser, Oklahoma steer wrestler Butch Casper, might have given me at least some indication as to why.

What do women look for in a man, I had to ask myself? Is it money, lack of brains and the shape of his hat? Or do they simply date someone until a better version comes along, to keep them from having to sit home alone on a Saturday night? The only way Chris LaDuke would ever have to sit home on a Saturday night was if no one knew she existed. So what was she doing with that idiot, I wondered?

I'd given up trying to figure women out decades earlier anyway. But still, I couldn't take my eyes off of her. Not because I was mesmerized, but because I was interested and somewhat puzzled. That's why, when Bernadette Watson told me Bear Watson's front tire had been shot out, I had to ask her to repeat it again, just to make sure I'd heard her right.

"Someone shot out Bear's tire?" I asked.

"That's what he thought," she said, "and he went in the ditch and almost rolled his pickup truck."

"Just like his uncle," I said.

"He doesn't have an uncle," she said.

"Right," I said, "the old man."

She looked at me a little puzzled and I excused myself and went outside and called Officer Black and told him what Bernadette had told me.

"That's interesting," he said.

"Same thing that happened to his uncle," I said.

"He doesn't have an uncle," he said.

"He was probably someone's uncle."

"If he ever existed," he said.

"Trust me."

"I'm not in the trust business," he said.

When I went back into the bar, I ran into Butch Casper on his way to the restroom and he did a double take and I think I saw the hair on his neck stand up, because he was that kind of beast. To my amazement, however, he didn't say anything and just walked on by, which meant that he either didn't recognize me or he was too drunk to care. I assumed the latter.

Meanwhile, Bernadette was still at the table in the dark corner, waiting for me to return. So I got another beer and cranberry vodka from Phil at the bar and rambled back there, in case she had some more revelations, making quick eye contact with Chris LaDuke on the way.

Chris looked mighty fine in her hiphugging jeans, heels -- not too high, long blonde hair, and black tank top filled to the brim, if you know what I mean. I waved, she waved, I smiled, she smiled and I almost went over to talk to her but suddenly remembered that Butch Casper would soon be approaching from behind and decided to leave well enough alone.

"Where were you?" Bernadette asked.

"Had to make a quick phone call," I said.

"Girlfriend?" she asked.

"New friend," I said.

I quickly concluded that it might be in my best interest to leave the 19th Hole sooner rather than later, lest trouble ensue, so I quickly agreed when Bernadette suggested we go to the Virgin River Casino.

Once there, she tried to get me onto the dance floor but I bellied up to the bar instead and she quickly camped out at a blackjack table for what I hoped would be all night.

The cute Latina bartender, with the buttoned-down vest was not working, but Carlos was and once again he gave me two beers when I ordered one and I didn't argue.

"A little quiet here tonight," I said to Carlos.

"It's Sunday," he said and I suddenly realized that, not only did I not know what day it was, but I couldn't recall the last time I'd gone to church. It'd been far too long, I knew that and, given the way my life was going, I wondered if getting back to one might not be a bad idea.

"What do you have going on tonight?" Carlos asked me.

"Nothing exciting," I said.

"Did you just move here?" he asked.

"Passing through," I said.

"But not real quickly," he replied.

"You could say that," I said.

"Happens to a lot of people," he said, though I wasn't quite sure what he meant by that. More than likely it was nothing and since he was busy, I didn't try to find out.

I sat there for a total of four beers, decided I'd had enough, got up from my barstool and then Bernadette, seeing that I was getting restless, hustled over, grabbed me by the arm and almost wrestled me onto the dance floor.

After two dances I told her I wasn't feeling well and wanted to go home, especially since it was getting late and I'd had my fill of beverages, jingling gambling machines and casino chaos. Nevertheless, she tried in vain to invite herself to my place for a continuation of the fun and I wondered how I could comfortably avoid having that happen.

"You want to go home with the guy that, hours ago, you thought might have killed your uncle?" I asked.

"I never really thought you could," she said.

"Could or did?" I asked.

"Both," she said and smiled.

After one more beer together at the bar and 30 more excuses, I got her to finally give in by promising her that we could do it, "another time." She smiled and quickly made her way back to the blackjack table.

Once outside, I heard a commotion to my right and was going to ignore it, since my pickup truck was parked to the left, but didn't because I didn't have that much to do anyway and because it sounded like an argument between a man and a women and those, at least physically, can often times be pretty one-sided.

With numerous cars between the commotion and I, it was not until I was almost on top of the action that I realized it was Chris LaDuke and that loser Butch Casper going at it. From what I could quickly ascertain, Chris was ready to go home and wanted Butch to give her a ride and Butch, sloppy drunk, mean and as dumb as ever, wanted to party all night and was literally trying to drag her towards the casino entrance.

He'd grabbed her arm, she'd broken free a couple of times and then, I suppose out of frustration, he slapped her across the face and nearly knocked her down.

I was one vehicle away by that time and galloped toward them and rammed into Butch's side, sending him flying. The flight ended with him being sprawled out on the asphalt next to a new blue Ford F-150 pickup truck.

"You son of a bitch, I'll kill you," he said as he quickly got up and pulled a knife out from the inside of his jacket somewhere.

"No!" Chris screamed.

Now if you were a passerby quickly analyzing this situation, you'd have seen that Butch had a weight advantage of at least 30 pounds and a weapon. Therefore, you might suggest that I quickly bow out, which happened to be precisely my thoughts. Except chivalry is something that is still strong in the cowboy and rodeo community and there was no way I was going to back off, especially knowing that Chris might ultimately be in danger if I did.

It didn't take long for Butch to charge at me and it was then that I realized he might actually be intent on sticking that thing in me rather than just intimidating me with it.

For just a moment, I thought about calling for a temporary truce and then calling for Officer Black and his boys to intervene because this nut really was nuts.

But I didn't think the nut would go for that. So I simply ducked to the side when he charged at me and ducked again when he came again. "Go into the casino," I shouted to Chris.

"No!" she shouted back.

"Now!" I said with a great deal more emphasis and she finally did.

Butch never did stop charging and at one point grazed me on the left arm with his blade. But it wasn't too deep, I didn't think, and either way, I didn't have time to look.

Sirens could suddenly be heard in the distance, I assumed because Chris or someone in the casino had called 911 and Butch, who for the first time showed some mild intelligence, took off running through the parking lot and disappeared into the night.

I was walking towards the front door of the casino and had nearly reached it when Officer Black, my new friend, showed up.

"Not you again," he said. I smirked a little and didn't say anything. "What happened this time?" he asked. "Damsel in distress," I said. "And you had to be her knight in shining armor?" he asked. "It's a dirty job but ..."

"Spare me the details," he said, "unless someone is planning to press charges."

"Don't think so," I said and that's when Chris exited the casino accompanied by Carlos and a casino security guard.

"Are you the damsel," Officer Black asked Chris.

"What?" she said. "Yes," I said.

"Do you want to press any charges miss?" he asked her.

She looked into my eyes, for what seemed like forever, in search of an answer I suppose and then asked me if I was OK.

"Might need a few stitches," I said, suddenly realizing that my sleeve was soaked and there was a big pool of blood rapidly forming on the asphalt below my left arm.

"Oh my God!" Chris said and Officer Black's eyes got real big and they loaded me into the back seat of the cop car, along with Chris, and sped towards the hospital with lights flashing and the siren blaring.

Chapter 8

Turns out that if Chris or Carlos or someone from the casino hadn't called 911 when they did I might have bled to death, at least that's what the doctor said. All I know is, whatever it was, it sure came on quickly.

He also said that, because there was probably a lot of adrenaline pumping through my veins, it wouldn't have been unusual for me to overlook my injuries. What he didn't know was that I'd ridden in rodeo for a lot of years and it was a common procedure for rodeo cowboys to "overlook their injuries."

Just before they threw me into the cop car, I was getting dizzy and woozy. By the time they rolled me into the hospital my pulse was getting weak and, had they not began to fix things, my heart would have gone into an electrical disturbance or cardiac arrhythmia, so they said. That's because, Butch Casper, the moron, hit an artery and opened a blood flood gate. I didn't notice it because it didn't seem that painful. Plus I was too preoccupied to realize that there was a big leak in the creek.

Chris was sleeping in a chair next to my hospital bed wearing the old rodeo jacket I'd had on earlier when I woke up. I'm not quite sure why I had gone to sleep, except, I guess nearly bleeding to death really takes it out of you. Or they gave me something to make it happen when they stitched me up.

My arm was bandaged, I was hooked up to monitors and there were a couple of tubes or lines going into my arm. I think they were giving me a blood "refill." What I probably needed was a lobotomy.

Just then, a nurse suddenly walked in with little concern for who might or might not be sleeping. As a result, Chris woke up and caught me staring at her, immediately smiled and it felt like I'd known her my entire life and hoped to know her more. She then went into the bathroom to freshen up and the nurse looked at some of the monitors and asked me if I needed anything.

"Just a free pass out of here," I said.

"I can get you a pass but it won't be free," she said, smiling.

"And less free the longer I stay," I said.

"Good point," she said. "But then it's hard to put a pricetag on what you bought."

"And what's that?" I asked.

"Your life," she said.

"Good point," I said.

The nurse left, Chris came out of the bathroom and Officer Black came strolling in.

"So, Prince Valiant," he said, "how's it going?"

"Super," I said.

"Any new adventures planned for today?" he asked.

"I'll keep you posted."

"Always nice to have some advanced warning," he said. "Meanwhile, Butch Casper is still on the run so whatever you do, be sure to watch your backside."

"And all sides," I said. "I know the drill."

Officer Black left after dishing out some more B.S. and there I was, in a hospital bed with a gorgeous horsewoman next to me who I didn't know from Eve, but felt like I did.

"Want to order a pizza?" I asked her.

"Is this a party?" she asked.

"Could be," I said.

"Nice setting," she said.

"I spare no expense." I said.

We had a lot to discuss, at least I thought so, but didn't really know how to proceed, so I suggested that we "check me out of this resort and find a new setting" if she was up to it and she agreed, probably because she had no interest in being home alone with a nutcase on the loose anyway.

Unfortunately the nurses didn't agree and held me there for a couple more hours and then finally put me in a wheelchair around 2:30 p.m. and opened the front gates of the prison to where Chris was waiting with her shiny new Chevy pickup truck.

"Nice wheels," I said.

"Nice job, saving my life," she said.

"Give me the truck and we'll call it even," I suggested.

"Sure," she said, "just let me put 200,000 miles on it first?"

"How long will that take?"

"At least a couple weeks," she said.

"I hope I live that long," I said.

We went to my place primarily because Butch didn't know where that was, which seemed to be a continuing theme for me in Mesquite. It was then that she apparently thought it time to explain why she was at the bar with the intellectually challenged steer wrestler in the first place.

"Did you already know Butch?" she asked.

"We'd had some disagreements."

"So, you're probably wondering what I was doing with him?" she said.

"Aren't you?" I asked.

"He was boarding horses at my stable," she said, "plus he was just passing through and I thought it would be harmless to have a drink with him."

"So his horses are still there?"

"I assume so," she said, "along with his pickup truck and trailer. And then things changed, after he'd slurped down way too many whiskies. Do you think he even remembers anything?"

"Seldom," I said, "with or without alcohol."

"I am so sorry," she said.

"That's OK," I said, "really."

We did order pizza and then, since it was still light out, we went to her place to check on her horses and guess what? Someone was there, but it wasn't Butch. It was Officer Stormo, the mini-blimp, looking for Butch and he seemed none too happy to be there, nor did he seem comfortable around horses.

"Howdy cowboy," I said to him. "Find any horse thieves out here?"

"This place smells," he said.

"Don't smell a thing," I said.

"That's because it's already on your boots," he said.

"No, I picked that up at the cop shop."

"We'll be stopping by periodically," he said, ignoring me.

"For the smell?" I asked.

"To find Butch?" he said. "You should stay away."

"Love to," I said and he drove away.

Chris went about feeding her horses hay and sweet feed and I could only watch, having had some pretty delicate surgery.

After all, to get out of the hospital I had needed to throw a small fit, threaten to leave and promise that, if there was any sign of bleeding, I'd come right back to them.

"You should stay a day or two," Dr. Monroe suggested.

"I can lie in bed at home," I said.

"But you won't have a nurse," he said.

"Yes he will," Chris said and that settled the case.

I also had to promise to go back to have my wounds reexamined, re-cleaned and re-bandaged. That would initially happen in a day and a half and I was beginning to wonder if it'd all been worth it but only for a second.

Chris seemed unconcerned about spending the night with me and even packed an overnight bag to bring along.

"After all," she said, "it won't be the first night I've spent with you."

"You're counting the hospital?"

"Sure," she said.

"I can be a little more exciting."

"That's a bold promise," she said.

"Not that bold," I said.

As it turned out, romance was the last thing on my mind once the hospital's painkillers began to wear off and I could finally feel the jagged edge of Butch's blade for real. So I mostly paced around the room and watched Chris sleep, while waiting for a new dose of meds and then another, to kick in, which they finally did in a big way just before sunup.

"You need to do some shopping," she said when I finally opened my eyes around 11:00 a.m.

"I hate shopping," I said.

"I can see that," she said. "You need to hire someone."

"You mean, people do that?" I asked.

It took me a while to shower and shave and if she hadn't been there, I'd have really struggled to tie a garbage bag over my left arm. We ate breakfast at a nearby hole-in-the-wall and it was there that I found out a lot more about her past.

Her mom was dead and her dad was alive. She had a stable near Mesquite because her father had moved there five years earlier from south of Salt Lake City after her mother died and built the place along with a house and some barns. Three years later, he met a rich snowbird widow from Minnesota and gave the place to Chris two years later when he and his new widow bride moved to Arizona.

Meanwhile, Chris had been living in Broadus, Montana, for five years with her husband, who was a former rodeo bull rider turned drunken rancher that she'd met at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas and married on the spot.

"Big mistake number one," she said.

She then made the gallant effort to ride out the storm with him, while he made promise after promise to quit drinking but never did. So when the stable opportunity came up in Mesquite, thanks to her father, she grabbed hold of it with glee.

"That was mistake number two," she said.

"Moving here?" I asked.

"No," she said, "staying in Broadus ... too long."

Now, despite the fact that Officer Stormo had suggested we stay away from her stable, that was not going to be possible since she derived an income from boarding horses there for people. Plus she had stable hands who fed the horses twice a day that needed some supervision.

Thus that topped our list of post breakfast duties and when we got there, Officer Black was slapping cuffs onto the wrists of some young cowboy who'd shown up to load horses into Butch Casper's trailer.

As we drove up, there was another black and white unit behind us with flashing lights, driven by Officer Stormo and the other uniformed gorilla, from which both jumped out to assist Officer Black with guns drawn.

"Get behind the trailer!" Office Black ordered as soon as we exited Chris's pickup truck.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because this place is not secure?" he shouted.

"Looks pretty secure to me," I said as we approached him and the young man.

"Except for one thing," he said.

"What's that?" Chris asked.

"That body in the third pen down," he said, pointing to his right.

Chapter 9

Dead bodies tend to look like discarded, discolored, empty, lifeless manikins; at least that's what Butch Caspter looked like as he lay crumpled up in a horse pen at Chris LaDuke's stable on the edge of Mesquite, with an empty bottle of Pendleton whiskey at his side.

When it came to drinking, Butch was apparently in deep, to the point that he could not have quit without professional help because a body, quicker than you think, gets to a point where you cannot quit cold turkey and survive. Therefore, you must have medical personnel on standby to see you through the withdrawal symptoms, some of which can be life threatening.

The severity of these withdrawal symptoms is usually dependent upon how "chemically dependent" you have become. Those who drink heavily on a daily basis have developed a high level of dependency. Even those who drink daily, but not heavily, and those who drink heavily and not daily, can also be chemically dependent.

Within six to 48 hours after not drinking, hallucinations may develop. These usually are visual hallucinations but they can also involve sounds and smells and can last for a few hours up to weeks at a time.

Also within this time frame after quitting, convulsions or seizures can occur, which is the point at which alcohol withdrawal can become dangerous, if it isn't medically treated. The symptoms may progress to delirium tremens, also known as DT's, after three to five days without alcohol and the symptoms of DT's can include profound confusion, disorientation, hallucinations, hyperactivity and extreme cardiovascular disturbances.

Once DT's begin, there is no known medical treatment to stop them. Grand mal seizures, heart attacks and stroke can occur during the DT's, all of which can be fatal.

That's where Butch Casper was at. He'd put himself in a situation where he couldn't live without a drink and he couldn't live with one.

At the age of 40, his liver was shot, and despite the fact he'd been advised by doctors that one more drink might do him in, he binged anyway. So, as it turns out, if the police had caught him after he slashed my arm, he might still be alive but probably not for long.

I learned all of this from his nephew, Luke Casper, the young cowboy that Officer Black had strapped handcuffs on when Chris LaDuke and I arrived at her stable.

As it turns out, Luke and his brother Stephen had planned to meet Butch at the stable in Mesquite after looking at some roping horses in California. When they couldn't find him, they naturally assumed that he had gone on another binge, as he had so many times before. So they started loading the horses Butch had bought in Oregon into the trailer to take them back to Oklahoma, knowing Butch would eventually show up there later, like he always had. That happened to be at the same time Officer Black was making his rounds at the stable, where he discovered the body and put Luke in cuffs.

"Butch was a time bomb," Luke said to me after they'd removed the cuffs, while we were standing around.

"Did he ever stop drinking?" I asked.

"He jumped out of the fast lane a couple of times but not really," he said.

"That's crazy," I said.

"No," he said. "That's stupid."

Of course, Officer Black had never actually seen Butch in person, so when he spotted a body in a pen at Chris's stable, he assumed the worst and called in the troops with guns drawn. That was despite the fact that Officer Black and his gorillas didn't technically have jurisdiction there, since Chris's stable was located in Arizona, which is why a few county sheriffs were on the way to work in conjunction with the Mesquite policemen as they often did.

For me, it was hard to not look at the situation as good news because I thought Butch was an idiot anyway and now I didn't have to look over my shoulder and worry about him showing up with knives drawn and neither did Chris.

"This is creepy," Chris said.

"Which part?" I asked.

"Having a dead body on my property," she said.

"I think I like him better this way," I said and figured she agreed but knew she wouldn't say so.

"It's unfortunate," she said instead.

At any rate, the situation looked pretty cut and dry to me. I was ready to go before Officer Black asked Chris to stick around in case he had some questions and she asked me to hang out with her so I did.

They examined and loaded the body pretty quickly, scanned the grounds briefly and mentioned to Luke that they would try to find out a little more about what he'd done in his last few hours; like what bars he might have hung out at, even though I assumed that they had already done that since he was technically a fugitive, but maybe not. Again I had to remind myself that they didn't have the resources of Scotland Yard.

Meanwhile, Luke and his brother Stephen wanted to leave too, as soon as possible, hoping to put miles between themselves and what had happened, and being sick of putting up with their uncle's antics for far too long anyway. But the policemen held them up until they could scour Butch's pickup truck and trailer for anything that might be evidence. Plus they wanted to figure out what to do with the body and let the family decide whether or not they wanted an autopsy done and where.

After finding nothing in the truck and trailer, they sent the boys on their merry way and let the body be taken away by a local mortician who'd would wait for further instruction from Butch's brother Bill, the boy's father.

Not long after that, the policemen and sheriff deputies left too and Chris agreed to give me a ride home but wanted to go into her house and use the restroom first. So I strolled towards her pickup truck, which was parked fairly close to where Butch's body had been found and took one last glance into the pen. Then I executed what could be called an introspective walk toward her pickup truck. Along the way, I noticed a key on the ground between the pen and where the hearse had been parked.

Not knowing what to do with it, I simply picked it up, looked at it briefly and put it into my pocket, thinking that I might give it to Officer Black later or even to Chris, since it could be hers.

"Find something?" Chris suddenly asked, having nearly strolled up to my side without me noticing.

"No," I quickly said, for some unknown reason, "I thought I saw a nail half-buried in the dirt for a second but I guess I didn't."

"Are you ready to go?" she asked.

"Absolutely," I said.

Since I didn't know if Chris was hanging out with me because Butch was on the loose or because she had an authentic interest in me, or both, I was at a bit of a loss with regards to what to do next. Plus my arm was hurting, I was in the mood for some "down time" and I felt weird for having lied to her about finding the key, not really knowing why I had lied to her in the first place.

She indicated that she had to go back to the stable after she dropped me off anyway to make sure everything transitioned back to normal; that the stable hands showed up on time and did their duties and that the people who rented pens from her felt OK with the situation. So the atmosphere was a little uncomfortable when I got out of the car at my place, but we had already exchanged phone numbers and promised each other that "we'd call later" and that was that.

Sauntering up the sidewalk to my suite, I once again noticed the blood on the sidewalk and on the exterior wall and suddenly remembered that there were still other mysteries in my life that were left unsolved and that prompted me to take a quick glance about for anything that might appear unusual, like a white service van parked nearby or a stranger lurking in the bushes.

Seeing nothing, I opened the door, went inside and plopped down on the bed, hoping to relax a little bit. Unfortunately, my mind was working overtime and I wondered if Chris had seen me pick up the key and if that had created the somewhat uncomfortable and disjointed atmosphere on the ride home. Or if she was simply affected by the day's events and preoccupied with getting things back to normal.

I began to wonder if I should just call her and tell her about the key, but ultimately I decided that I'd bring it up to her the next time I saw her.

Meanwhile, thinking about the key prompted me to pull it out of my jean pocket. I was struck by how familiar it looked, so I got up from the bed, walked over to the big screen television, grabbed the key from on top of the dresser that I'd gotten from the old man in the rolled-over pickup truck, placed the stable key on top of the old man's key and felt a flood of adrenaline surge through my body when I realized that each key was a perfect match for the other.

Naturally, that kicked my brain cells into overdrive and I began to mentally explore what that "match" could possibly mean, with the possibilities being far too endless and numerous for me to get my head around.

After all, what was the key really for? A box by the last tree, as the old man had said? What did that mean anyway and where was the last tree? Had the key fallen out of Butch's pocket and, if so, how was he tied to the situation? Or did someone else drop the key, including anyone who boarded horses at Chris's stable, Officer Black or Chris herself?

Yes, the possibilities were endless and I suddenly felt very alone and wondered if there was anyone in the world that I could really trust?

Then, to add to the confusion, my doorknob began to rattle again.

Chapter 10

I was coming to the conclusion that Nevada led the nation in doorknob rattling, simply because I'd never been to a place where more people tried the doorknob first, and then, as an afterthought, knocked on the door.

Suddenly my doorknob was rattling again, followed by the sound of someone trying to pick the lock or perhaps insert a key, so I quickly skipped over to the door, opened it and some guy dressed in what looked like a service uniform with a bushy mustache, three-day beard and a key in his hand, nearly fell into my suite.

"Can I help you?" I asked.

"Oh," he said sheepishly, "I'm here to service your air conditioning."

I paused for an uncomfortable minute and then said, "Seems like that would be more of a summer job."

"We do it every three months," he declared.

"Whether it needs it or not?" I asked.

"I just do what I'm told," he said.

"Which is somewhat unique," I said.

Of course I was wary of everyone in the world at that point and still preoccupied with being in possession of two keys that looked exactly alike but came from totally different sources; one being a gift from a dying old man that nobody seemed to know, who had vanished from the planet, and the other being a happenstance "find" of mine, spotted while traipsing through Chris's stable grounds.

I decided that I needed to drive out to the site of the old man's accident and examine the area to see if that might initiate an epiphany of some kind. But first I had to stop by the body shop and find out how long it was going to take them to repair my damaged pickup truck in case I suddenly felt like escaping from Mesquite and the bad dream that I'd driven into.

So I put the two keys and the ring that I'd found in the grass by the sidewalk, into my pocket, left the serviceman to do his thing and noticed, as I pulled away, that he'd parked a white service van, with one of those removable magnetic signs on the door out front. That gave me some pause but only briefly because my mind was way too distracted, mostly by death, murder and mayhem.

The body shop owner, as it turned out, looked like he was 12 years old and wouldn't need to shave for another 10 years, which was slightly unsettling, especially since it was the only body shop in town.

"This one's going to take a while," he said, "because we have to order parts in and we're backed up as it is."

"Which means?"

"At least two weeks," he said. "Or it could be up to a month."

"So much for just passing through town," I muttered to myself.

"You're not from here, are you?" he asked, even though he could see that my license plate was from a faraway state.

"Not a snowbird," I said.

"Well, you are now," he said smiling and I wanted to slap him.

"Good point," I acknowledged and then cringed, like I normally did, when I thought about the blue hair and walkers always associated with the snowbird term.

"I'm going for a drive," I said to Chris when I called her on my cellphone.

"Where to?" she asked.

"Into the country," I said.

"For an hour, a day or forever?" she asked.

"One of the above," I said, "want to go with?"

"Can't," she said, "one of my stable hands didn't show up."

"Do you need help?" I asked.

"I don't think so," she said.

"Am I not qualified?"

"You need to heal," she said.

"I'm not an invalid," I complained.

"Just a partial one," she declared, which gave me no comfort and fed the insecurity that I was already feeling about her and I developing the relationship of the century.

Meanwhile, it was getting a little too late in the day and I had some miles to cover and should have waited until the next day to go exploring but couldn't pull hard enough on my own reigns. So after quickly fueling my borrowed automobile, I drove south on Interstate 15 to the extraterrestrial highway exit that led to the site of the old man's accident.

No one was on the extraterrestrial highway with me, not a soul, and after a short while I began to get lonely enough to almost wish that the squatting fat lady with the screaming stretch pants would reappear. But I slapped myself and overcame that hysterical mini-moment.

Upon arriving at the scene of the accident, which I initially drove past and had to come back to again, I was struck by the fact that there was a complete lack of evidence. In fact, it looked like the site had not been visited by man in the last century or two, if ever, causing me to question my mental well-being and wonder if I had indeed experienced a mirage, except for the key.

Yes, the key in my pocket was real and not only that, it had multiplied into two. Therefore it was no mirage. Plus I was still in possession of a blood-speckled white shirt lying on the floor of my hotel suite closet and no one could wave their wand and make that go away.

So I continued on, towards the ranch that was nearby, but further than I remembered, and when I got to it I saw no sign of life and assumed that I wouldn't since the owner, Bear Watson, had been done away with by some yet unknown murderer or murderers.

It was not a well-groomed place, nor had it ever been I assumed. But ranches often weren't and seldom did that determine the extent of their profit or loss margins.

I parked the car, got out and began to explore the place with caution like a World War II infantryman sneaking through the streets of a bombed Berlin, wondering if Little Joe, Adam, Hoss or Ben might suddenly exit the house, a barn or another building armed and ready to shoot first and ask questions later.

Of course, I wasn't sure what I was even doing there because, after all, I wasn't a police investigator and knew nothing of what to look for. Yet I did possess the curiosity of 12 healthy cats and a real desire to see justice prevail, which was just enough to propel me at a brisk pace.

I tried both the back and front doors of the house, after knocking. They were both locked but a window was partially open on the south side, with drapes flopping in and out in the breeze and I debated crawling through it but would need something to stand on to do so and elected to explore other buildings first and possibly come back to that.

Then I went to what looked like the biggest barn, which was full of things like old tools, harnesses, cobwebs, manure and little else, and from there to what looked like it might be a garage or tool shed and peeked inside. It too featured tools and junk, mostly in disarray to the untrained eye but probably in perfect order for someone who owned the place and had everything "exactly where they wanted it."

Ultimately, the trek was proving to be futile and fruitless and the sun was rapidly streaking towards the nearby mountain tops, and then I spotted a small stepladder in the garage and decided to take it back to the house and use it to slip through the opened bedroom window and see what I could find.

"This is really stupid," I said to myself.

"I know," I replied.

"But kind of exciting," I added.

"Not that exciting," I said.

"But it could get exciting," I added.

"Shut up," I said, "you're messing with my concentration."

It took some doing to get through what proved to be a stuck-in-place bedroom window, since I got little help from my tender, knife-slashed left arm. Once inside, I could see that Bear Watson had spent little time cleaning or decorating any of the rooms, with most of his last meal still sitting on the stove next to a sink piled high with dishes.

He was a bachelor after all and a messy one at that. But at the same time, he was plenty rich, or at least so everyone said, and possessed acres upon acres of land and hordes of cattle, not that it mattered much anymore.

Still I felt like I was snooping where I shouldn't be and decided to take the easier exit out, through the back door instead of the window, and was about to pull on the door handle when I noticed two tattered tires propped against the wall under a coat rack that held a lot of dirty coats and jackets.

Each tire, despite extensive damage, featured what looked like a bullet hole in the side and I immediately assumed that Bear Watson had collected them from his own ditch-hitting incident and the old man's, as evidence of wrongdoing.

"Stop it," I said to myself.

"Stop what?" I replied.

"You're not going to put these tires in your trunk are you?" I said.

"You bet I am," I replied.

"Are you nuts?" I asked.

"Probably," I replied, "but you don't have to tell anyone."

So into my trunk they went, lickety-split, for what reason I don't know except that it seemed like the right thing to do at the time and a horrendous idea two seconds later when, after I got behind the wheel, I spotted a black sedan slowing down on the highway in preparation for a possible turn into the ranch.

Rather than risk being seen or being part of a confrontation, I backed my car out of sight and through the big open entryway of the mostly empty garage and then got out, peeked out the doorway again and watched as the black sedan entered the yard and two good-sized guys dressed in dark suits got out.

One of them busted open the back door of the house that I'd made sure was locked and the other, as if he had spotted my tracks, began walking towards the garage.

That was when I leaned back against the wall, wiped the sweat from my brow and ordered myself not to panic. It was also when I looked out the doorway in the opposite direction and once again spotted a row of trees that'd grown in a low spot on the south side of the ranch, with one of the trees being a different kind than the others and oddly enough, it was the last tree.

Chapter 11

I actually thought that if I wished hard enough, like I'd never wished before, that I might be able to make myself disappear. That's how desperate I was standing there propped up against the wall in the garage at Bear Watson's ranch as one of the men, who'd just shown up dressed in a dark suit, approached rapidly.

"Who do you think they are?" I asked myself.

"How should I know?" I answered.

"Maybe they're vacuum cleaner salesmen or Mormons on a mission," I said.

"With a really strong sales approach," I said, "considering one of them just busted in the back door."

"Good point," I said.

I could hear his footsteps and looked for something to club him with and found plenty of things like a hammer, crowbar, fencepost and even a block of wood and figured that if I surprised him, knocked him out and he had a gun, I could shoot the other guy with it. Unless they were cops or FBI agents and then I'd be in real trouble. Even if they weren't, I might be in real trouble. Then again, I didn't really want to kill someone and have to live with that for the rest of my life either.

"Your life might end before you have time to think about it anyway," I said.

"Another good point," I replied. "Why are you so smart all of a sudden?"

"Shut up," I said. "You need to stop thinking and concentrate."

"What?"

"Never mind!"

Once again I looked at the last tree, the one that was different than all of the others, in the distance and wished I'd had an opportunity to walk out there and dig around in the dirt before I died and find the box that the old man had talked about, because I was dying to find out, literally.

"Curiosity killed the cat," I said.

"Now I know what that really means," I replied.

How big a box could it be, I wondered? Was it a shoe box or a box that once held a washing machine or maybe it was actually a trunk? Or maybe it was a cereal box or a box that held something the size of an engagement ring or a real expensive diamond.

"It couldn't be made out of cardboard or it would rot," I said.

"Unless it was buried in a plastic bag," I replied and looked around for a spade that I could could use to dig with and suddenly realized that a spade might just be the perfect weapon to use in a hand-to-hand battle with the rapidly approaching man in the dark suit, who had to be close enough to hear my heavy breathing.

So I looked around for a spade and saw one just to the left of the big door and yet I didn't think I should move at all, lest he hear me and then he would be able to calculate his bodily distance from mine, giving him the offensive advantage.

But he had the advantage anyway, didn't he, in numbers and probably weaponry, and thus I shuffled over to the door, about 10 feet, as quietly as possible and grabbed the spade without making a discernible sound. Or so I thought.

That's when he came inside, entering just after his shadow, a shadow that was barely visible since the sun had almost dipped below the distant mountains, two feet and then maybe five feet inside with his back to me, dressed in a nicely tailored dark suit, not something off the rack, but something more expensive that clung to his well-muscled back, a back so thick that it had to have been constructed in a weight room.

He looked both left and right but never actually looked back, like he should have, which led me to believe that he couldn't have known, nor did he think I was there or he would have entered tentatively, perhaps in a crouching position, with weapons drawn ready for warfare.

No, he looked like he was simply on a fact-finding mission, investigating another one of the ranch buildings while his partner broke into the house for who knows what reason, and then he walked over to my car and looked inside and, of course, found nothing because there was nothing to find except maybe a registration form that didn't belong to me anyway and, ultimately, might inadvertently involve my friend in my mischief, which was not good.

Still, he never checked for the registration or much of anything and then I heard someone shout and he ran outside and while he was doing so, he should have seen me but didn't, either because he was too preoccupied or because the contrast between the light coming in the door and the shadow within which I was hiding was too much for his eyes to adjust to at the speed he was traveling.

Outside I could hear muffled voices, one of them strained and the other asking questions, though not loud enough for me to make out any details, and yet I didn't want to move from my spot, my island of security, and put myself in jeopardy.

So I listened a while and then a while more. When the voices started to sound like they were getting further away, I peeked around the corner and saw the two of them entering the house through the back door again. Then I ducked back inside the garage to think about the situation and put together some kind of plan, knowing a plan probably didn't exist that could save me, short of me making myself disappear, and I'd already discovered that I didn't possess the magic to make that happen.

As minutes that seemed more like hours passed by, I wondered if these guys were planning on staying in the house forever, or at least for the night, leaving me stuck in the garage to sleep the night away, hoping I wouldn't fall asleep and snore loud enough for them to hear me and murder me.

Then the back door of the house suddenly burst open again and out they came carrying something long and big under a white sheet, with one of them on each end.

"Is that a body or a big rug?" I asked.

"It has got to be a body," I said.

"Why?"

"Because you don't wrap a sheet around a big rug," I said.

"Unless..."

"Unless what?" I asked.

"Unless there's a body inside a big rug," I said.

Whatever it was, the body or rug or both went into the back seat of the black sedan and they slammed the back door and each got into the front seat.

"Why not put it in the trunk?" I asked.

"Because," I said.

"Because why?" I asked.

"Because that rug probably isn't dead," I said and they drove off and I sat down on the top of an air compressor to rest my shaking legs and to wonder how my life could have gotten to the point where I would have felt much safer on the back of a bucking horse.

"No," I said, "you are not going to do that are you?"

"Do what?" I asked.

"Go out and dig around by that last tree," I said.

"Why not?"

"Because this is insane and you need to get out of here," I said.

"And waste a trip out here? No way," I replied and began walking toward the last tree with the spade in my hand.

Except that on the way reality started to set in harder with each step as though someone was piling a 50-pound bag of flour on my shoulders each time a foot of mine went forward and I began to seriously look at the situation and wonder if I had completely lost my mind?

After all, I was not a cop or a private investigator or even a person mildly intelligent enough to take on the forces that might be behind all of the things I had witnessed in the last few days, and it was almost dark anyway and I didn't have a flashlight.

More importantly, I was at a place I had no business being and I had just traipsed through a house that might have had a body inside and, while doing do so, probably left an army full of fingerprints that could possibly link me to a murder I didn't commit if, whoever it was, had been murdered, assuming those two guys were law enforcement officials, which they didn't really seem to be, but still could be.

So I stopped in my tracks and debated my next move and decided to go back to my car and speed off.

"Don't you think you should check inside the house first?" I said.

"For what?" I asked.

"Who knows?" I said, "They just carried a body out."

"You don't know if it was a body," I replied, "it might have been a rug."

"Do you really think two guys who looked like Olympic weightlifters dressed in nicely tailored suits driving an expensive sedan really came way out here to steal a rug?" I asked.

"Perhaps," I said.

"Perhaps not," I replied.

Back into the house I went, through a still-open back door to investigate and found it a little too dark to see and yet I didn't want to turn on a light because who knew who might still be around or driving by or watching me from a space satellite or drone.

So I stood there debating what to do next and decided that I'd just turn on the light for a split second in each room and hope that no one would notice.

I half-stumbled back to the doorway, felt for the light switch and flicked it on for just a second, trying to memorize everything on the walls and around the room in the meantime. I looked down at the floor last and thought I saw what might have been blood with tracks in it and realized that the tracks were made by my boots and figured that I'd just dug myself a deeper grave.

So I stood there, frozen in the back entryway facing into the house and wondering what to do next, with a million thoughts soaring through my mind. Suddenly, I saw my silhouette on the wall as bright lights lit my backside.

I turned to look and realized that another vehicle had just turned into the ranch yard.

Chapter 12

It's amazing how many thoughts can travel through the human mind in less than a second. Of course, I'd already had a sense of that, having ridden bucking horses in rodeo and knowing that eight seconds can seem like eight hours on a particularly vindictive horse.

So I quickly discerned that I was not going to become the next victim of the big boys in the dark suits and black sedan, whoever they were.

No one was going to wrap me in a rug, cover me in a sheet and throw me in the back seat, I silently declared. So when another vehicle showed up, I sprinted for that open bedroom window in the back of Bear Watson's house and dove through it like Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, landing on the ground on my previously knife-slashed left arm and tearing away more than a few stitches.

Then I sprinted away from the house, in pain, around other small buildings and stacks of hay bales, to the barn and hid inside.

"You've gone from a garage to a barn," I said to myself, "nice work. That's real progress."

"Shut up," I said.

"You should have gotten out when the getting was good!" I said.

"And miss all the fun?" I asked.

"You call this fun?"

"Beats digging ditches," I said, "or sucking on a wine bottle on some street corner in south central Los Angeles."

"That's heavy," I said.

"Very deep," I replied.

Was it possible that whoever had pulled into the ranch yard had not seen me in the house, with me standing there framed in what felt like stage lights? Because it didn't appear that anyone was searching for me unless they were extremely stealthy searchers.

I was at the back entrance of the barn, squatting like a Taliban and needed to move toward the front entrance if I was going to have any hope of seeing the vehicle that had suddenly appeared or reappeared by the back door of the house. Still, I felt like I needed to remain motionless and silent for a while until I could confirm that they weren't sending out the hounds to track me down.

"I could be at the 19th Hole in Mesquite sipping on a cold beer right now," I muttered to myself.

"And looking into Chris LaDuke's baby blue eyes," I added.

"Instead of sitting here waiting for someone to kill me," I said.

"Or worse," I replied.

No one seemed to be in pursuit and I couldn't believe my luck, if you can call it that. So I crawled towards the front of the barn and when I got to the open door I waited again, trying to pick up any sounds that might reveal what was going on.

"If those are cops, they are probably finding your fingerprints all over the house and your footprints in the blood right now," I said.

"Probably so," I replied.

"Not to mention the tires in your trunk," I said. "When they discover those, they'll have enough evidence to put you away for life."

"Except for one thing," I replied.

"What?"

"A missing body," I answered.

"You hope," I replied.

There was no light coming from the direction of the house so I assumed that the vehicle's lights had been turned off, which left everything cloaked in darkness, except for the light coming from what had to be a nearly full moon.

Then, when I looked around the corner I saw light in the house, in one room and then another, moving about as though it was coming from a flashlight that was being pointed toward the floor or the lower parts of each room.

My heart skipped a beat when I looked toward the back door again and noticed there was a white service van parked there glowing in the moonlight, like a black light poster under a black light, with the side door slid open.

Seconds later, whoever was in the house, whose face I couldn't see, came out carrying what might have been a bucket in one hand and a sponge or rag in the other. He put them in the van and pulled out what looked like a vacuum cleaner and carried it into the house and sure enough, I soon heard what sounded like a vacuum cleaner roaring away, probably cleaning up evidence.

"The good news is he might be erasing anything that links me to the house," I said, slightly comforted.

"The bad news is he's also erasing any evidence of a murder," I replied.

"Still, the good news is he didn't see me and isn't going to kill me," I said.

"Except the bad news is he is probably the same guy you let into your hotel suite," I replied.

"Which means he's a cleanup guy for someone or some a group of someones," I said.

"A not so nice group," I added.

"A bad group," I said, "And one that happens to know who I am and has known for a few days."

So overall it wasn't good news and I began to wonder if those two big guys in dark suits had killed Bear Watson? Had they also rammed the side of my pickup truck to keep me around, and furthermore, had Mr. Service Van been the one that cleaned up all of the evidence at the old man's accident site? Which meant that the accident site was really a murder site and I had arrived on the scene at exactly the wrong time and so had Bear Watson.

Suddenly my cellphone rang and I grabbed it as quickly as I could, shut off the ringer and squatted with my back against the barn waiting for Mr. Service Van to fly out of the house with guns drawn, ready to fill me full of holes.

But he didn't.

The vacuum cleaner was still running, so he must not have heard the phone and I wiped some sweat from my brow and looked at the caller ID and saw that it Chris LaDuke who had called.

"Nice timing," I said to myself.

"Impeccable," I replied.

"Think you should shut off your cellphone now?" I asked.

"Good idea," I replied.

Meanwhile, Mr. Service Van finished up soon thereafter and drove away leaving me to wonder what to do next.

"I think it's time to get out of here before the next near-death experience comes along," I said.

"But I need to dig around the last tree," I replied.

"I'd save that for a later date," I said. "Maybe you can pack a lunch and disguise it as an afternoon picnic."

"But shouldn't a picnic have more than one person in attendance and no freshly dug holes?" I asked.

"Yes but perhaps you can bring a dog along," I said, "And blame him for the holes."

"That's funny," I said.

"I thought so," I replied.

It was a long drive back to Mesquite, primarily because I was wondering if every car coming toward me was out to get me while looking in the mirror to see if any murderers were following.

In addition, my arm was now bleeding badly where I'd popped open the stitches. I had debated going into Bear Watson's house and finding a towel or something to wrap around it but thought it best not to put down a new set of prints.

Still, it hurt like hell and I wondered if I'd put my life in jeopardy again by reopening that artery because my sleeve was real bloody, which was certainly a conundrum since I was out there in the middle of nowhere by myself.

Still, if I had reopened the artery, I'd already be dead I concluded and then I remembered that Chris LaDuke had called me and I thought it might be a good time to call her back, just so I could have one last conversation with her before I bled to death. After exchanging niceties, we quickly got to the bare bones of the conversation.

"I tore open the stitches in my arm," I said.

"Doing what?" she asked.

"A tuck and roll," I said,

"Where are you now?" she asked.

"Mars," I said, "or I could just as well be."

Eventually I made it back to the little town by Interstate 15 and pulled into a convenience store with blood dripping from my arm onto the floor and the young female cashier looked at me like I was a terrorist leper and was about to call the police before I somehow convinced her not to.

"I just need some gauze and tape," I said. "I recently had surgery and just broke open my stitches."

Naturally there were others milling about, as there are in every convenience store in America, and luckily one of them was a retired nurse who quickly came to my aid along with her husband.

"You need a hospital," she said immediately.

"Do they sell them here?" I asked.

"No, but we'll wrap this up in gauze for now and quickly get you to Mesquite," she said.

"They know me there," I announced.

"Good," she said, "in the meantime, we'll seal this up as best we can and my husband can follow us in your car."

"I think I love you," I said.

"Say what?" her pudgy husband asked.

"Just a figure of speech," I said and he smiled.

The trip to Mesquite was very pleasant, the retired nurse, Mrs. Emberly, was very nice and my re-bandaged arm was doing quite well, thanks to the painkiller I took at the convenience store that was just starting to kick in once we dropped into the basin and spotted the lights of Mesquite in the distance.

I was sprawled out in the back seat and might have fallen asleep under normal circumstances but I hadn't experienced any of those for some time.

"How long have you lived in Mesquite?" Mrs. Emberly asked.

"Just days," I replied.

"Is that where you got in the knife fight?" she asked while glancing at me in the rearview mirror.

"How did you know?" I asked.

"I used to be a trauma nurse, so this ain't my first rodeo," she said.

"Nor mine," I said, just as a big black sedan suddenly cut in front of us.

Chapter 13

I'd been lost in thought in the back seat of Mrs. Emberly's car, with my left arm newly bandaged, and me feeling secure, relaxed and completely at peace, a far cry from where I'd just come from, aided perhaps by painkillers, thinking about Chris LaDuke, who said she was going to meet me at the hospital and that's when Mrs. Emberly had kicked up the conversation and the black sedan cut in front of us.

For some reason I'd been thinking about Chris's eyes, to get my mind off of the problems at hand, which happened to be bluer than a cloudless sky, the Pacific Ocean and 12 lakes combined. They sucked you in like magnets and wouldn't let you go because they were so shockingly pretty, mesmerizing and hypnotic.

The world simply faded away when those eyes locked onto mine, causing any concerns to disappear like a fog or vapor and I could see how she might be addicting because I wanted to stay there forever, locked in and spellbound.

Was that the way it was for everyone? Did even females recognize the beauty of those eyes, I wondered, like priceless gems looking back at them? I think so. I think it was impossible not to be affected somehow even if you were the milkman, postman or the neighbor's dog.

There was also that long blonde hair, so clean and fresh, surrounding her face like an expensive picture frame and blanketing her shoulders like a waterfall, except when it was in a ponytail and that too was nice, but in a different way.

"The driver of that black car is nuts," Mrs. Emberly said as the sedan swerved and the right rear tire caught a bit of the rocky edge of Interstate 15 and threw a couple of rocks back at our windshield, doing little or no damage.

It had come out of nowhere, or maybe it just seemed that way because I was paying little attention to the lights behind us, assuming that it was just Mr. Emberly back there anyway, following us in my borrowed car. But now there were no lights back there at all and I began to fear for Mr. Emberly and didn't want him to be harmed just because he happened to be driving my car.

Had he been confronted by the two goons in the dark suits and the black sedan, pulled over and done away with and then wrapped in a rug? My mind began to rev like the motor on back of one of those big drag racers, propelling too many thoughts into too many parts of my brain and I looked to see if Mrs. Emberly was thinking that he was lost too but I don't think she was because she was still too focused on the black sedan.

"It must be going twice as fast we are!" she exclaimed, which was fast but not that fast since Mr. Emberly wasn't exactly driving like Rusty Wallace or Danica Patrick, with her two hands on the wheel, her back perfectly straight and her chin nearly touching the top of the steering wheel.

"We're not stopping to help if he goes in the ditch," she declared and I was definitely cool with that because I didn't want to be responsible for two injured dudes who had a body or two stored in a rug in the back seat anyway.

Mrs. Emberly had to be seventy years old, I thought, with her Donna Reed hair, polyester pants and super comfortable shoes. Plus she was a little on the pudgy side, just like Mr. Emberly, who was probably that way simply because he ate what Mrs. Emberly cooked.

"We're not far from the hospital now," she said and I knew that but didn't say anything because I wanted her to feel like she was in charge and to know how much I appreciated what she was doing for me, and then another car zoomed past us, it too being a sedan only this one was white and I couldn't tell if it was chasing the black one or just following too closely behind.

"Are you married?"Mrs. Emberly suddenly asked.

"What?" I said, having not heard her because I was concentrating too much on both sedans up ahead who I thought might slow down and block our route, stop us and then roll us up in a rug or kill each other, if indeed the white one was chasing after the black one.

"Are you married?"she asked again and I said no and she asked why and I said because I had tried that and it didn't work out that well.

"Well, you don't quit eating steak just because you get one bad one," she said and again glanced at me in the rearview mirror and smiled.

"Nor do you order another steak if the first one was burned," I said, which I realized was a stupid thing to say as soon as I said it, because I knew she was just being nice. But I guess I was trying to justify something, not really knowing what it was I was trying to justify, except my failures I suppose.

Meanwhile the two sedans disappeared up ahead and it wasn't long before we were approaching our exit off of the Interstate and into Mesquite and I wasn't looking forward to another visit to the hospital, not because there weren't any nice people there but because I knew I was going to get another painkilling injection and new stitches, which would have to be sewn on both the inside and on the outside of the wound, just like before, and that's never fun.

Except Chris was going to be there and I could again lose myself in her eyes and then I thought about Mr. Emberly again and still didn't see any lights behind us.

"I wonder where you husband is?" I said to her.

"Oh, don't worry about him," she said, "He'll be along. He doesn't like to drive as fast as me because I have kind of a lead foot you know."

So I assumed that, if the speed she drove was like a jog then the speed he drove must be like a crawl and I temporarily put it out of my mind and thought about what lay ahead, especially Chris.

"You again," Doctor Monroe said as he examined me in the emergency room.

"Back for an encore," I replied.

"And what happened this time?" he asked.

"I think your stitches are flawed," I said.

"Or your lifestyle,"he said.

"Or both," I replied.

"Or we're going to be seeing you a lot," he said.

"Which is always good," I said, "because it's nice to have a consistent customer base."

"If you're McDonalds," he replied and I decided to shut up.

Two hours later I entered the waiting room outside the emergency room where Mrs. Emberly and Chris were gabbing like long lost relatives and Mr. Emberly was snoring away, thank God, with a magazine resting on his not so little belly.

"You two have got to come over for dinner," I overheard Mrs. Emberly say.

"Only if you've got a horse," I said.

"Why?" she asked.

"Because right now I could eat one," I said and she giggled.

"You're silly," she said.

"And then some," I replied and looked into Chris's eyes and my knees got weak.

So I thanked the lovely couple for saving my life and we parted ways, after exchanging phone numbers and reminding Mr. Emberly to dig my keys out of his pocket.

Then we proceeded to the 19th Hole where Phil the bartender had my favorite beer and Chris's favorite drink in hand ready to serve before we sat down at the same table I'd sat at with Bernadette Watson.

"Care to tell me about your drive in the countryside?" Chris asked.

"Have you got a week?" I asked, looking into her eyes as she looked into mine.

"Or more," she said and smiled.

"Or a lifetime?"

"Or eternity," she replied and I paused for too long and then kissed her and would have married her on the spot had that earlier steak not been burned and we were suddenly very close and I forgot where I was and any problems that I'd ever had.

That night we stayed at her house, in her bedroom, in her giant bed. And I hoped I'd never spend another night in any bed in any house again without her and she seemed to feel the same way as I did and even started calling me "Honey" in the morning when we woke up much too late because someone was banging on her back door. She threw on a robe and went to answer it and I rolled over to semi-snooze until she got back.

I woke up an hour later, according to the bedside clock, again because someone was knocking on the door and quickly realized that there was no one on the other side of the bed. So I jumped into my jeans and went to the back door to see who it was and a woman clad in UPS brown was standing there holding a big box.

"Can you sign for this?" she asked.

"Ah, sure," I said and did and watched her pull away in one of those big brown vans and then glanced at the label, out of habit, and noticed that it was from Janette Colby from Dallas, whoever that was.

So I skipped throughout the house, looking for Chris and didn't find her anywhere, nor did I smell any coffee or see any evidence of breakfast, so I assumed that she'd showered and dressed and gone about her business. Except that, if she had, she'd have left her robe somewhere and it was nowhere to be found.

I went back to the bedroom, put my boots and shirt on, slipped outside and spotted one of the stable hands throwing flakes of hay into the horse pens.

"Have you seen Chris," I asked.

"Haven't seen her all morning," he said and then I looked to my right and saw a white sedan driving away.

Chapter 14

Like so many cars in Nevada, the white sedan that was pulling out of the stable grounds had tinted windows so I couldn't see who was inside.

"I think they grabbed her!" I said to myself.

"Right in front of your eyes," I added.

People tend to think that way when things, like Chris LaDuke, are precious, at least I do, especially when you're just waking up and you think of the worst first and work back from there.

Of course, I hadn't yet looked for her red car, a new Camaro with fat black stripes, or her hulking black pickup truck, a Chevy with lifts and semi-fat tires. After all, she could have gone to the gym, the grocery store for the ingredients to my best breakfast ever, or to Cape Canaveral for a rocket ride to the Moon for all I knew.

As it turns out, both of her vehicles were there and I felt a little like I was walking into the midst of a just developing bad dream, with sleep in my eyes and my shirt still deposited on the bedroom floor.

I didn't know what to do. After all, I'd only known Chris LaDuke for hours, if you count those that we were together, so I couldn't predict or imagine the patterns of her day.

For all I knew, she picked up wounded cowboys at hospitals all the time, took them home, called them honey and then disappeared into the desert, letting them find their own way back to the real world.

Or maybe she'd truly been kidnapped by some goons in expensive white suits in a white sedan and had already been rolled up in a dirty carpet and thrown casually into the back seat.

"Good morning," she said and I opened my eyes to see hers, glisteningly blue and beautiful, just inches from mine."

"Hi," I said and quickly realized that I had been dreaming one of those "go back to sleep in the morning" super realistic dreams that persuades you that you're awake, because you already were once, but aren't.

"Hungry?" she asked.

"Do you have a horse?" I asked.

"A few," she replied, smiling.

"Good," I said, "Because I think I can eat a few."

It might have been the best breakfast I'd ever eaten with orange juice, muffins, hash browns, scrambled eggs, and a steak -- medium rare.

"Is this horse steak?" I asked.

"Yes," she replied.

"Really?"

"No," she said and smiled.

She was showered, primped and beautiful, wearing a white sleeveless blouse, a black cap with her ponytail slipped through the open hole in the back, just above the size adjustment strap, and tight low-riding jeans tucked into square-toed cowboy boots, black with red tops. My eyes lingered for a little too long, drinking her in.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Want to get married?"

"Someday," she said.

"But not today?"

"No," she said.

"Good," I said and smiled and then she kicked my shin.

The white sedan pulling out of the stable had not been real but it had been real on the interstate the night before, chasing or following the black sedan that looked strikingly similar to the one I'd seen at Bear Watson's ranch, driven by two goons who apparently had some kind of rug fetish.

I wondered what the relationship was between the white and black sedans. Were they teammates, enemies or just pawns on the same chessboard? Then again, never mind the white sedan. Who was the cleanup man in the white service van and who were the guys in the black sedan and how could I find out? And what was the deal with the rug?

I debated going to Officer Black and telling him everything I'd encountered since entering his domain, including the whole story about my adventures at the Watson Ranch the night before. But I wondered what good that would do if I couldn't even convince him that I'd seen an old man die in an overturned vehicle, never mind that telling him the whole story might result in me being charged for, or connected to, with something in which I didn't want to be involved.

I'd had better luck not telling anyone anything, including anything about the keys for the box buried by the last tree, the ring I'd found outside of my place, each of which was in my jeans pocket, or the blood on the sidewalk and wall. Those were my little secrets and I guarded them like a treasure map, even though I wasn't quite sure why.

Almost everything that I'd encountered in Mesquite had been dark and black except one thing: Chris LaDuke. She was like a single sunray glistening through the leaves, branches and vines of an ever darkening forest. She was minute merriment in a maze of murkiness, hope in a hopeless hellhole, and beauty in a bastion of bunk.

Then again, maybe it was just me bringing it all upon myself. After all, I didn't have to stop and crawl into the cab of an old man's overturned pickup truck and accept his mysterious key to chaos, clutter and confusion. Nor did I have to confront Chris LaDuke's worst date to date, the one and only Butch Casper, and get slashed with a knife or snoop around Bear Watson's ranch without approval and witness things that I might not have wanted to witness.

There was no one to blame for my misfortune but me. I was the source of my own trials and tribulations.

Or was I?

Because if I didn't investigate the murder of an old man that nobody seemed to know, except the late Bear Watson, who would? To me, having knowledge of a murder and being guilty of inaction was equivalent to being an accessory to murder; because inaction in itself is an action, nearly equal to, or more gutless than the original action.

With all of this balancing going on in my brain, it was surprising that I could be remotely cheerful and appealing to Chris LaDuke, who was literally my oasis in the midst of the desert.

"Want to go for a ride?" she asked, after I'd taken my last bite.

"In the countryside?" I asked.

"Yes," she said.

"Like yesterday?"

"No," she said, "on horseback."

"Minus a hospital visit?"

"Let's hope so," she said.

Chris had not asked me for details on what had happened the day before, leaving me to wonder if she was simply incredibly patient, didn't care or assumed that I'd fill her in at some point. After all, the hospital visit and my dirty clothes seemed to hint at some sort of craziness going on in my life, which up to this point she'd been mostly sheltered from.

After all, she had to wonder what I was up to, why I was there and what my future might be, and then it

suddenly came, the questions, about 30 minutes into the ride.

"Are you going to tell me?" she asked

"Tell you what?" I said.

"Gee, I don't know," she said sarcastically, "perhaps we can start with why your arm had to be stitched a second time?"

"A faulty tuck and roll," I said.

"Yes," she said, "I've read that headline. Now give me the rest of the story."

So I did. But only up to a point. Not because I didn't want to tell her, because I really wanted to tell her everything about everything, but didn't feel like I should.

"Don't tell her about the old man's key," I said to myself.

"Why not?" I asked.

"I don't know," I said. "I just think it'd be better not to."

"For her?" I asked, "Or for you?"

"For her," I said.

"OK, then don't tell her," I said.

"OK, I won't," I said and then I did. Everything about everything, including the keys, the ring, the blood and even what size underwear I wore, because I couldn't help myself.

Once I got rolling, it was so therapeutic that I couldn't stop. Like when you get a full body massage and then the masseuse stops and you wonder why it couldn't last forever because it feels so good, so you flip the girl another fifty and tell her to keep going.

"Race you to the fence," she suddenly shouted and took off with me following closely behind.

She was riding a white quarter horse gelding outfitted in very attractive tack, including a burgundy saddle, breast collar and bridle.

It was her barrel racing horse and one that needed to be exercised regularly to stay in tune and she added to its overall appearance, by being mounted elegantly and riding in textbook style.

I, on the other hand, was mounted on an older bay horse, a quarter horse mare that was owned by someone renting a stall at Chris's stable who rode it maybe once a month and it showed, as she bucked twice and flung her head back numerous times on the way to the fence.

"I win!" Chris declared once she got there and turned back.

"It was a rigged race," I replied.

"Yet still a victory," she said. "You owe me a beer."

"I didn't know there was a wager," I said.

"There's always a wager," she said.

"I'll remember that," I replied.

Meanwhile I still needed to clean up from the previous adventurous day and night and, after putting the horses away, climbed into my borrowed car and drifted over to my lonely hotel suite, which had probably been occupied more by the man in the white service van up to that point than me.

Naturally, I wondered what he'd been up to while he was there and went immediately to the closet to find the blood-speckled shirt that I'd worn the day I'd crawled into the old man's overturned pickup truck and, sure enough, it had miraculously disappeared.

I also looked about for anything else that might be amiss and didn't notice anything. Except when I went back to close the door that I'd left open, I noticed that the blood stains on the sidewalk and wall outside had also magically disappeared.

This situation had suddenly taken on all of the elements of a full-fledged, well-organized conspiracy and I wondered who the ultimate puppet master was that was pulling all of the strings. So I slid over to the bed, grabbed the television remote control and dove in like Michael Phelps, intent on relaxing and meditating on it all when the phone rang.

"You've got to come back!" Chris shouted.

"Why?" I asked.

"Someone's here," she said and then the phone went dead.

Chapter 15

After receiving Chris LaDuke's frantic phone call, my immediate concern was that, in telling her everything, I'd put her life in jeopardy and turned my early morning dream into reality.

Of course, I didn't actually know if there even had been two goons inside a white sedan, or if that sedan was in any way related to the black sedan or any of the activities that'd taken place in the last few days ... ever since I'd called Mesquite home. Because, after all, the white sedan on the interstate was a reality but the white sedan at the ranch had been a dream.

Nevertheless, I sprinted to my borrowed car and sped to her stable, not knowing what I'd find there, with images of Butch Casper lying dead in one of her pens, plus a whole lot of other recent images, reminding me that things can get ugly.

Then an idea suddenly popped into my head at what was nothing short of an odd time: If I could somehow locate the man in the white service van and have a not-so-friendly conversation with him, I might learn a whole lot more about what was going on and follow this whole decadent scenario from peon to pilot and bottom to the top. So I filed that thought and then made a quick phone call.

"Is this good news?" Officer Black asked.

"Sure," I said, "If no news is good news."

"So what's up?"

"I might need your services," I said.

"Where?"

"Back at the stable," I said.

"When?" he asked.

"In milliseconds," I said.

"Let me know," he said.

"You'll be the first," I said and then hung up, feeling slightly better, having the cavalry on standby.

Once I got to Chris's stable I entered the grounds tentatively, if that's possible in an automobile, and noticed nothing amiss or different except for a big white pickup truck parked in front of Chris's house.

I knocked on the door and Chris answered, hugged me quickly, took my hand and led me into the living room. There, sitting on a couch, distressed, rocking forward and backwards as if she was in a rocking chair was Bernadette Watson, Bear Watson's niece, wiping tears from her eyes with a box of tissues sitting nearby.

When she saw me, she quickly half-smiled and then just as quickly looked back down at the tissue she was holding in her two clasped hands and frowned.

"What's going on?" I asked, looking at Chris.

"She wanted to see you," Chris said.

"What's up?" I asked, looking at Bernadette, wondering what I'd gotten myself into and thinking about how my life might be so much easier if I was a bullfighter, test pilot or even a terrorist.

"You were at the ranch last night," she said and my stomach flipped.

"And?" I said, not quite ready to openly confirm her declaration even though I knew Chris already knew.

"Someone saw you," she said.

"Who?" I asked.

"My brother," she said. "He was there."

"In a big black sedan?" I asked.

"No," she said. "He was hiding in the house and called me on his cellphone."

"He doesn't even know me," I said.

"He described you," she said.

"He described someone who was lethargic, ugly and moronic?" I asked. "That could be a few other people."

"This isn't funny!" she shouted. "He also described your car."

"I don't own a car," I said.

"You know what I mean," Bernadette said. "Were you there or not?"

"Yes," I said.

"Do you know what happened?" She asked.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"I can't find him," she said.

"You went out there?" I asked.

"No," she said, "but he doesn't answer his phone."

"And that's unusual?" I asked.

"We talk all the time," she said and I realized that it might be her brother who was rolled up in the carpet and covered with a sheet, and it was probably his blood on the floor. That set off a flood of thoughts that cascaded down from a million different directions.

"Why was he there?" I asked.

"He lives there," she said.

"With Bear?" I asked.

"No," she said, "Bear lived in town."

"What town?" I asked.

"Dry Lake," she said, "the little town by Interstate 15." It was the one where I'd stopped at the convenience store, I realized.

So her brother was in his house, hiding, while I traipsed through it. That thought sent shivers down my spine.

"So who owns the ranch?" I asked.

"Bear did," Bernadette said, "and Michael was his foreman."

"Why didn't Bear live there?" I asked.

"He moved when he married that dancer from Las Vegas," she said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because she wanted to live closer to the interstate," she said. "The ranch was just too remote for her."

"When was that?" I asked.

"About five years ago," she said.

"What happened to her?" I asked.

"She ran off," she said, and I knew the Bear and dancer story had to be a good one that I definitely wanted to hear more about. But I also knew this was definitely not the time to get into it, so I let it go for the time being.

"Please try calling your brother again," I said.

"Right now?" she asked.

"Yes," I said and she did and there was still no answer.

"Have you talked to Officer Black?" I asked.

"No," she said, "I can't. I need to hear what happened first. Or if anything happened."

"When did you last talk to your brother?" I asked.

"Just after you were in his house," she said and that, I knew, was bad news. So even though I hated doing so I told her what'd I'd seen, including every intimate detail and every action of mine and she became very distraught and scared, and began to fret even more. Then she called Officer Black, who never seemed to believe me, especially when it came to old men in overturned vehicles, but must have believed her.

"Neal is coming over," she said and that seemed to comfort her some. But it didn't comfort me because I knew I was about to get buried up to my neck in a prize-winning quagmire and I looked at Chris and she looked at me and we both knew that we were in for a long ride.

"Who owns the white pickup truck out front?" I asked. "Is that yours Bernadette?"

"No," she said, "it belongs to Harvey."

"Who's Harvey?" I asked.

"He boards his horses here," Chris said. "He's outside."

"He's my boyfriend," Bernadette said, "sort of."

"And how do you two know each other?" I asked them both.

"We don't," they both said.

"Well, not really," Chris said. "I've seen her here some and around town but she came with Harvey and she was crying so I asked her what was wrong. She told me and eventually she mentioned that she needed to find you. I said I knew you and that's when I called you."

Life was not getting less complicated. It was getting more so and I felt like the situation I'd run into in Mesquite was like a cancer that was spreading rapidly.

Then Officer Black showed up and immediately sat on the couch next to Bernadette and she told him about her concern for her brother.

"He's been scared ever since Bear was killed," she said. "Not only because he had to be responsible for everything on the ranch but because of the things that had gone on before and after."

"Like what?" Officer Black asked.

"Like how Bear had gotten so sullen and quiet," she said, "and how he'd thought that his tire had been shot out and that's why he'd gone in the ditch that time."

"So Bear thought someone was out to get him?" Officer Black asked.

"That's what it seemed like to my brother Ben," she said. "Because he and Bear had discovered the bullet hole in the tire together when they were pulling Bear's wrecked pickup truck out of the ditch with a tractor."

"Did Bear ever mention the old man who'd been killed in a rollover just down the road from here?" I asked.

"No," she said. "I only heard that from you but I hadn't forgotten it, and I mentioned it to Ben and he added it to his list of weird things going on I'm sure."

"What list?" Officer Black asked. "What other weird things had gone on."

"Ben was out checking on the cattle one time in his pickup truck and as he was driving towards the ranch. When he was still about a half-mile away, he noticed a black sedan pulling out of the ranch yard," she said.

"And what did he do?" Officer Black asked.

"Nothing," she said, "he just thought it was someone who might be lost or looking for directions until it happened again."

"It happened again?" Officer Black asked.

"Yes," she said, "about a week later, only this time they were still there when he pulled into the yard."

"Who were they?" Black asked.

"Two big guys in black suits," she said.

"Did he talk to them?" Black asked.

"Yes," she said, "they said they were looking for Bear."

"What did Ben tell them," Black asked.

"That he was in Mesquite," Bernadette said.

"And when was that," Black asked.

"The day that Bear was killed," Bernadette answered, and then suddenly the man who I'd seen driving the white service van, the one who'd been at my hotel suite to check the air conditioning and at Bear Watson's house to clean up, knocked on the back door and came inside.

That's when my heart dropped a second time and I went into one of those moments of mini-shock, where you don't quite believe what you are seeing.

When I gathered myself, I thought this is both weird and perfect because I can rat him out to Officer Black and we can grill him, drill him, find out who he's working and what they're up to. Then suddenly Bernadette spoke up.

"Hey everyone," she said, "this is my friend. His name is Harvey."

Chapter 16

Life was getting more complicated by the minute. Harvey, Bernadette’s boyfriend or whatever he was, recognized me immediately. I could tell.

So for just a millisecond it was almost as if we were playing a game of chicken, wondering who would speak up first and reveal that he knew the other.

It was in Harvey’s best interest if neither of us spoke up, obviously, because he was the one involved in illicit activities although he didn’t know I knew that since, in spite of the fact that he’d seen me at my hotel suite, he had no clue that I’d seen him cleaning things up at Bear Watson’s ranch.

So I decided to let him speak up first and see if he’d start digging his own grave.

He didn’t. Not a word. Just the usual “hellos” when Bernadette introduced him to everyone and that was it.

So naturally I decided to prime the pump and see what I could get him to say, for, if no other reason than to torture him for a while.

“What do you do Harvey?” I asked.

“Between jobs,” he said.

“Harvey’s a handyman,” Bernadette said as Harvey looked at me sheepishly.

“What are you handy at Harvey?” I asked.

“He can do it all,” Bernadette said, “carpentry, masonry, any kind of construction, electrical things … you name it.”

“Do you fix air conditioners Harvey?” I asked.

“You bet he can!” Bernadette said.

I thought she’d never shut up and I wanted to hit her over the head with a rolling pin but I didn’t know where I could find one and was about to settle for a lamp instead.

“Yes sir, I do,” Harvey finally said. “I think you’re the guy whose air conditioner I serviced the other day.”

“I think so,” I said. “What’d you find wrong with it?”

“Nothing,” he said, “it was working fine.”

“So you guys know each other?” Bernadette asked.

“I’ve seen him around,” I said.

“Oh really,” Bernadette said.

“Probably more than he knows,” I said and he looked straight into my eyes.

“He gets a lot of odd jobs,” Bernadette said.

“He had a pretty odd one last night,” I said and I kept my eyes locked on his.

“Oh he didn’t work last night,” Bernadette said.

“Really,” I said, “I could have sworn it was him.”

“No, he called me from his apartment,” she said, “didn’t you Honey?”

“That’s right,” he said, looking at Officer Black first and then at me as Chris soaked it all in, smart enough to know something was up.

“Pretty sure it was him,” I said.

“Where was that?” Officer Black asked.

“Oh,” I said, “down the road a ways.”

“Wasn’t me,” he said and I left it at that, not because I wanted to but because I just didn’t think Bernadette could handle finding out that her boyfriend, or whatever he was, was in on her brother’s murder — if that’s what had happened to her brother.

“I need to go,” Harvey suddenly said.

I wanted to punch him and knock him out and tie him to the couch, dining room table or refrigerator until Bernadette left so we could waterboard him and make him tell us the truth about who was running this circus in Mesquite.

“Can you give me a ride home later?” Bernadette asked, looking at me.

“I’ll give you a ride,” Officer Black said and I sighed.

Harvey left and there was nothing I could do about it because in the end, if I accused him of anything, it would be his word against mine unless there was evidence in his van, and his van wasn’t even there, as far as I could tell. He drove away in that beat-up white pickup truck parked out front which, as a handyman, he’d probably rescued from some scrap heap and somehow nursed back to life.

So there we were with Bernadette on the couch, Officer Black in a chair that he’d pulled up close from next to the dining room table, me standing nearby because I was too restless to sit, and Chris, sitting on the couch next to Bernadette.

That’s when Officer Black and Bernadette started to talk about her brother, Ben, and how she’d not heard from him and how unusual that was and somehow she talked Officer Black into driving out to Bear Watson’s ranch to check on him, even though it wasn’t his jurisdiction way out there. Still, it involved a pending investigation of a murder that had taken place in Mesquite, the murder that involved the one and only Bear Watson.

“Want someone to ride along?” I asked Officer Black.

“You don’t need to,” Bernadette chimed in, “I’ll go.”

“No, I prefer to go alone,” Black said.

But I insisted and Officer Black finally agreed, just to shut me up perhaps, but more than likely because I said I had something to talk to him about and he knew anyone who’d had as much happen to him in as short a time a time as I did had to have enough to talk about to keep the ride interesting.

“What was that all about?” he asked me as soon as we got into his patrol car.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You were jousting,” he said.

“Jousting?”

“With Harvey,” he said, “minus a pole, horse and knight’s armor.”

“Just getting to know him,” I said.

“Like the back of your hand?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I said.

“Where’d you see him last night?” Black asked.

“Here and there,” I said.

“Which was it?” he asked.

“Here,” I said, “and there.”

The ride to the ranch seemed shorter in the squad car, I think because Officer Black had no qualms about exceeding the speed limit, by a lot, and I didn’t mind because I’d been down that road a little too much lately and tagged along hoping to point him in the right direction, toward something that might tell us something, despite Harvey’s thorough cleaning.

That’s when I suddenly had a very scary thought. What if Harvey circled back and once again visited the girls, Bernadette and Chris, at the stable? Would he harm them for any reason? And how long was Bernadette planning to stay there? We’d never actually covered those details because Officer Black and I had left so quickly.

“Do you think those girls will be OK back there alone?” I asked Black.

He looked at me for a second like he was slightly puzzled.

“Is there something you want to tell me?” he asked.

“Well no,” I said, “perhaps I’m just a little jumpy.”

“Strange,” he said.

“What that?” I asked.

“You’re acting strange,” he said.

“You barely know me,” I said.

“That’s true,” he said, “but I do know strange.”

Which was when I should have told Officer Black everything about everything. The goons, the black sedan, the white sedan, the rug and more, but I didn’t because of intuition or lack of trust or fear or stupidity, I’m not sure which.

After all, even Bernadette knew I’d been at the ranch the night before and I couldn’t believe she hadn’t said anything to Black, unless she forget, didn’t have time or didn’t think I really knew anything about her brother anyway, which was probably closer to the truth.

My mind was swimming.

“What else could happen?” I asked myself.

“It has only been a few days,” I said.

“I’ve been here less than a week,” I replied.

“You could be in that rug,” I answered.

“Or worse,” I said.

“Well no,” I said. “That’s about as bad as it gets.”

It was starting to get dark and there was some squawking on Black’s radio. It was nonsensical stuff that meant nothing to me and apparently nothing to Black because he didn’t seem to be paying attention to it anyway, as far as I could tell.

But it was kind of weird riding in a cop car after all, since I’d only been in one once before when I was picked up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, with my jaw against a fist.

Of course, that was years earlier at a bar in some small town on the way to the Calgary Stampede where we stopped for a few friendly beers in a not-so-friendly place full of hockey players who apparently didn’t really like guys wearing cowboys hats.

Maybe it was because it was the offseason for them and, since they couldn’t fight on the ice, they had to fight everywhere else. It didn’t help that we’d already had a couple of beers and were talking with our own version of a Canadian accent that they, for some reason, felt was just a little bit offensive.

And then one of their cute little girlfriends, a short-haired brunette with a cigarette, asked my buddy for a light and he, by reflex, started to flirt with her. That proved to be the gasoline that sparked the sizzling coals, and the next thing you knew, it was fight night at the OK Corral.

Fortunately, my friend beat the crap out of the guy who sucker-punched me and I, once I got up off the floor, punched a few others who may or may not have deserved it and just when they began to realize we might be insane enough to take on the whole bar, they started to leave us alone.

That’s when Dudley Do Right and his Canadian Mounties strolled in and bused us away, aye.

“Are you OK?” Officer Black asked.

“Sure why?” I asked.

“You were lost in a profound thought,” he said.

“Or not,” I replied.

“Not what?” He asked.

“Profound,” I said and that’s when his eyes got big and we crashed into one cow and then another and whirled into a big spin, like we’d been taken hold of by a tornado, and I saw the ditch fast approaching, like an abyss.

I could have sworn it had its arms out as if to welcome us.

Chapter 17

I remembered seeing a big culvert in the ditch on my side of the car just before we spun again. So I assumed we would hit it sideways and it would come through my door and impale me.

But for some reason it didn’t, I guess because we kept spinning and ended up just past the approach and in the ditch on the other side without rolling over, although I don’t know how; which pleased me immeasurably because I’d already consigned myself to death and had even prepared a speech for Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates.

“Nice to meet you,” I would say to Peter, “I’ve read so much about you.”

“Where?” Peter asks.

“In the Bible of course,” I say.

“When?” he asks.

“Well … in Sunday school of course,” I say.

“So it’s been awhile,” he says.

“I don’t read that much,” I say.

“Yes you do,” he says.

“Well … does that mean I can’t go inside?” I ask.

“Yes you can,” he says, “but not on your own merits.”

“Oh?”

“And fortunately your mother prayed for you a lot,” he says.

“Thank God for moms,” I say.

“This place would be half-full without them,” he says.

Of course, I didn’t get to meet Peter and instead, thanks to fate, blind luck and some good maneuvering by Officer Black we survived, but his car didn’t after hitting two cows.

When the sliding, spinning and screeching stopped, we just sat there for a moment in the ditch, still tightly held by our seat belts and collected readings from our vital organs. Everything seemed to be working properly, especially my heart which was beating at about 20,000 RPMs.

I did have a puffy eye however from having been struck by flying debris and Officer Black seemed to be taking a little more time to collect himself than I did, mostly because he had a cut on his head that was bleeding but not real bad.

“Black cows on a black night,” he said.

“Not a good combination,” I replied as I looked at the dust that was reflecting in the one headlight that was still working.

Meanwhile, Officer Black couldn’t get out on his side, thanks to the damage, and it took a while for him to get out on mine because of things in his way, like a computer and shotgun.

However, he did say, “We need to get out of here right away in case gas is leaking anywhere.”

“Good idea,” I confirmed.

The whole event lasted about three seconds in the real world but more like three hours in my mind and in that way it was a little like an eight-second ride in rodeo.

It’s hard to believe how many things can transpire in those few seconds and the human mind, fueled by adrenaline, is capable of recording and remembering every single visual and audio detail forever.

Yet, during that time, you stay as calm as if you are resting in a lawn chair and sipping on a cool drink at a Tahitian beach. I guess because the worry and fear mechanisms inside your body take more time to kick in than everything else.

“Wow!” Officer Black said once we got outside and stepped away from the car, “I think we just witnessed a miracle.”

“From inside the miracle,” I said.

“I’d prefer a bleacher seat next time,” he said.

“I’d prefer missing the event entirely,” I said.

“Excellent point,” he said.

“Excellent driving,” I replied and we high-fived.

It reminded me of when I hit a deer many years earlier with a friend’s car. The impact was right by the right headlight and it split the battery in two, effectively rendering it useless.

This time we hit both cows on Black’s side of the car in a bang, bang episode and thus the battery was still in one piece and working fabulously. The big question was whether or not his radio was still working, because if it wasn’t, we’d be in for a long and dull evening, especially if our cellphones also didn’t have a signal, given the lack of human contact and traffic on the road.

“You don’t happen to have a cooler stocked with beer in the trunk do you?” I asked. “I think this deserves some sort of celebration.”

“Sure,” he said.

“Really?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

So, after a short waiting period, he climbed back into the car and tried the police radio. But it didn’t work and neither did his phone, which was without a signal, I guess because we were in some sort of dip.

I dug in my pockets for my phone and suddenly discovered that I didn’t have it on me and panicked momentarily until I remembered that I’d probably left it on the counsel in my borrowed car, having used it to call Officer Black during my slightly panicked drive to Chris’s stable.

So there we were, without communication in the middle of nowhere on a dark night that was getting chillier by the moment with no one in sight.

“We need to walk,” Officer Black said.

“Where to?” I asked.

“To a higher spot where I can get a signal on my cellphone,” he said.

“Another excellent idea,” I said.

“It’s the only idea,” he replied.

So that’s what we decided to do, and we began walking back towards the direction from which we’d come, so that we could also clean any debris off the road that might cause harm to an unsuspecting traveler.

“How far do you think we are from Bear Watson’s ranch?” I asked Black.

“Too far for a friendly stroll,” he said.

“And how far are we from that little town near Interstate 15?” I asked.

“Further yet,” he replied, which once again put us in the midst of a mini-conundrum.

Meanwhile, as we walked along using his flashlight, which was probably what had hit me in the eye while we were spinning, we discovered plenty of fender and bumper debris and even more cow carcass and kicked it to the side of the road, except the large parts which we had to move together, and that was gross.

In the midst of doing so, Officer Black suddenly stopped and began shining his flashlight further and further into the ditch and walking out into the desert.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Following tire tracks,” he said. “And footprints.”

“To where?” I asked.

“I’ll let you know when I get there,” he said.

That led him out into the desert to where he concluded that a vehicle had been parked where its occupants had disembarked, near a group of cattle. The tracks then led towards the highway and no doubt up onto the road.

The car tracks then continued out into the desert where, for all we knew, people who might have helped set up our accident, had sat and watched our accident unfold.

“They might still be there,” I said to Officer Black.

“Go back to the car and get my shotgun,” he said. “I’m going to follow these tracks a little further out into the desert.”

“I hope we don’t get lost,” I said. “It is a little dark out here.”

“You’ll be able to find the car easily enough, especially since its lights are still on,” he said. “And you can simply walk towards my flashlight on the way back.”

“It’ll be just like following a lighthouse,” I said.

“Precisely,” he said.

“Nice plan,” I said.

“Stellar,” he replied and I set off.

Occasionally, I’d step on small pieces of debris on the highway on the way back to the car and that would throw off my rhythm, making it a little harder to glance back to make sure that Officer Black’s light had not disappeared altogether.

Once there, I quickly grabbed the shotgun and some additional ammo from a compartment in his counsel and began the trek back towards the flashlight.

By then he was far out into the desert, far enough so that his light was just a flicker. And because he was walking in nearly the same direction as I, his body would block the light and I’d have to continuously search to find it again. Then suddenly it disappeared altogether.

“I never did like that plan,” I said.

“And now I really don’t like it,” I replied.

After all, he’d taken off on his own toward someone who just might have set up our accident and left me alone to fend for myself when the two of us together would have been a much more formidable force.

On the other hand, with the light in his hand, he was setting himself up as the perfect target for anyone who might want to take him out. So I wouldn’t necessarily have wanted to be standing next to him anyway.

Except that, if they’d done so, I’d certainly have heard the gunshot and I had not. Then again, there was such a thing as silencers that attach to gun barrels that can muffle the sound. But I wasn’t sure if silencers also eliminated the flame that would be thrust from the barrel of the gun, unless it did so quickly enough so that I didn’t notice it.

Nevertheless, there I was, alone but armed with no particular plan.

“Should I follow him?” I asked myself.

“How,” I said, “you don’t have a flashlight. You won’t be able to find the tracks.”

“What then?” I asked.

“Shut up and listen,” I said.

So I listened and then listened some more and heard nothing.

“Brilliant plan,” I said.

Got a better one?” I asked.

“No,” I said.

“Then shut up until you do,” I said.

In the meantime, I figured that I had walked maybe 50 to 100 yards away from the car again and then I suddenly heard someone walking in the ditch to my left.

I turned, pointed the gun that way and was about to fire when I heard another sound in the ditch to my right and realized that it was probably just the cows still lingering about. After all, where would they go?

“At least you’re not alone,” I said.

“And I especially love conversing with them,” I replied, “because their interests are so diverse!”

“Smart ass,” I said.

“Takes one to know one,” I said.

If nothing else, I could use them as a shield if necessary since there was nothing else out there to hide behind except some cacti and most of those weren’t wide enough to hide all of me. Nor could they stop a sizzling bullet.

So I stood there motionless once again until I could verify that the stalkers were cows and I walked towards the sounds they made. But of course, whenever I did, they would run away in the other direction.

I decided to continue walking on to where I thought the tracks headed off into the desert, which also happened to be where Officer Black had entered the abyss and that’s when headlights suddenly popped on far out in the desert.

“What now?” I asked.

“You’re in trouble,” I said.

Chapter 18

The headlights in the desert didn’t move for the longest time and I stood there motionless, not knowing what to do and not wanting to do much.

“If I were you, I’d figure out a plan,” I said.

“You ARE me,” I replied.

The car was far enough out in the desert so that its beams couldn’t reach me, but if and when they did, I’d be a sitting duck and thus I had to create some options.

“They must know I’m here,” I said.

“How do you know it’s THEY,” I replied, “as in multiple?”

“Educated guess,” I said. “They tend to hang out in packs.”

“Except for assassins,” I replied.

“Thanks for the comforting thought,” I said.

Suddenly, the car began to move and turned slightly to the left so that it was coming straight at me but it was still some distance away.

If the cacti had been large enough, I’d have cut one open and slipped inside. But they weren’t. I also thought about wrapping myself in cow carcass, but what good would that do? They’d eventually see me anyway.

So, except for the shotgun, there were few options. If they had a high-powered rifle and a spotlight, they could pick me off from long distance. I decided to lie down in the shallow ditch on the other side of the highway and hide as much of myself as possible and then, when they got too close, I’d either blast away from down there or jump up and blast away.

The car continued to approach but at a very slow pace. When it was still some distance away, it stopped, the door opened and Officer Black shouted, “Are you out there?”

“Yes,” I shouted back.

“Okay,” he said and got out of the car with his flashlight turned on and walked in the direction of my voice.

Apparently he’d discovered the car had been abandoned with the doors unlocked behind some rocks far out in the desert and decided to hotwire it and drive it back to the highway and see if its tire tracks matched those that we’d discovered earlier.

“It appears they do,” he said as he shined his flashlight on the earlier discovered set of tracks.

“Great,” I said. “So let’s drive it back to Mesquite.”

“No can do,” he replied.

“Why not?” I asked, “You don’t like the make and model? It’s not like there are plenty of others out there to choose from!”

“It’s evidence,” he said.

“It can be evidence there,” I exclaimed.

“But we don’t want to mess it up,” he said.

“You probably already did when you drove it over here,” I exclaimed.

“Nope,” he said, “I didn’t touch the wheel of the steering wheel or the door handle.”

“Oh, so it was like, ‘Look mom, no hands?’” I asked.

“Something like that,” he said.

“So what do we do now?” I asked.

“We wait,” he said.

“For what?” I asked, “Sunrise, buzzards, coyotes or something else to come along and chew on our flesh?”

“For the Sheriff’s Department,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, “and they’re just going to happen by in a year or two?”

“Perhaps,” he said, “but more than likely, they’ll heed my call.”

“From the highest hilltop?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “From over there, where I got some cell reception.”

“Oh,” I said and paused, “nice work.”

“Thanks for your undying faith and confidence,” he replied.

“No problem,” I said.

The Sheriff’s Department did indeed show up, just as Officer Black had predicted; a bunch of them and they scoured the area until the sun was just beginning to pop up in the east and the cacti were casting long shadows.

“I could use a nap,” I said to Black.

“That’s not on the schedule,” he replied.

Just then a flatbed tow truck also showed up to haul Officer Black’s damaged cruiser and any scattered parts away, along with another unmarked service truck of some kind that hauled away the cattle carcasses.

We’d have notified the herd’s owner that he’d lost two good cows but, in this case, that would have been Bernadette’s brother Ben, who we were trying to find anyway. So Officer Black filled in Dave, one of the Sheriff’s deputies who was going in the direction of Ben Watson’s ranch, on the story and asked him to stop by there and see if he could find Ben.

“What’s next Ke-mo sah-bee?” I asked.

“We get a ride back to Mesquite,” he said.

“And discontinue our original mission?” I asked.

“For the time being,” he said, “or at least until we can hear back from Dave.”

It was an un-climactic ending to a not-so exciting, exciting adventure and going back to Mesquite, even though it was daylight, certainly made me feel uneasy, like there was much that we had left to accomplish.

Then I realized that, in reality, I had nothing to accomplish.

After all, just a few days earlier I hadn’t known these people from Adam, as they say. In fact, I’d been a mostly carefree traveler minding his own business until my curiosity got the better of me and made me stop and become part of a big mystery that’d begun with the discovery of an old man lying and dying in an overturned pickup truck.

“Wow, it seems like months since that happened,” I said to myself as we cruised along in the Sheriff’s patrol car.

“Or at least weeks,” I replied.

“What?” Officer Black asked.

“Oh nothing,” I said sheepishly.

I was tempted to tell Officer Black about the keys; the one to the box by the last tree that the old man had given me and the exact match that I found at Chris LaDuke’s stable, which was the one that bothered me a little more each time I thought about it.

Why would a key that was the exact match to the old man’s key be on the ground at her stable, much less by the horse stall that Butch Casper, the over-sized, low-intelligence, drunken steer wrestler, died in? And what were the odds of me finding it there?

Thinking about it also reminded me that we’d left two ladies back at Chris’s house probably wondering what we’d discovered at the ranch or by now, what had happened to us.

So I asked Officer Black if I could use his cellphone and he handed it to me.

“Did I wake you up?” I asked Chris.

“Yes,” she said, “but that’s okay.”

“Where’s Bernadette?” I asked.

“Sleeping on the couch,” she said. “What’d you find out?”

“Nothing,” I said, “we had a little accident and couldn’t quite get there.”

“What kind of accident?” she asked.

“Ran into some beef,” I said.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“We are,” I said, “but the beef is hamburger. I’ll tell you more about it when we get back, which should be within the hour.”

“Okay,” she said and hung up.

The ride back to Mesquite proved to be mostly uneventful. Officer Black and I were being chauffeured by Sheriff’s Deputy Fin Connolly in his cruiser and I could barely keep my eyes open, having not slept all night. But I didn’t want to go to sleep because I’d developed a new phobia for groups of cattle on the highway.

Meanwhile, Fin and I were in the front seat and Officer Black was riding in the back behind the Plexiglas with the little sliding window.

“Fin,” I said, “that’s an interesting name. I’m guessing you’re Irish and Fin is short for Finnegan?”

“Good guess,” he said.

“I’m also guessing you’re not originally from here,” I said.

“True too,” he said.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Butte, Montana,” he said, which made sense because a lot of Irish had settled there to work in the copper mines in the 1800s.”

“Been a sheriff long?” I asked.

“A couple of years,” he said and scratched his head with his left hand, which caused his hulking bicep to put serious pressure on his shirt sleeve.

Fin was a big guy who apparently spent all of his off time in the weight room. He was also someone I thought I had seen somewhere before but couldn’t quite figure out where it was and that’s probably why I was asking him so many questions.

Plus I was bored.

“Do you like being a sheriff?” I asked.

“It has its moments,” he said somewhat curtly as if he wasn’t really that interested in continuing our conversation. So I backed off and stared out into the desert.

“What next?” I wondered to myself. Would Officer Dave find anything at Bear Watson’s ranch? What would the fingerprints reveal in the abandoned car in the desert and what would Bernadette think when we came back after having accomplished absolutely nothing?

I was really hoping Chris would still be sleeping when we got there and I could just sneak into her house, slip by Bernadette unnoticed, hop into Chris’s bed and sleep the day away in her arms. But that would require that the door be unlocked and the chances of that being the case might be slim.

It bugged me that I couldn’t remember where I’d seen Fin before. Was it at the 19th Hole, Walmart or at a convenience store?

I was horrible at remembering names but I rarely forgot a face. Then again, anything was possible with what had transpired in the last few days, so all bets were off.

Officer Black was apparently deep in thought, probably formulating his plan for how he was going to explain the loss of his cruiser to a herd of cows, to the mayor or whoever it was he had to answer to as Fin took the off ramp from Interstate 15 into Mesquite.

That’s when two things happened that were a little odd.

First, I saw a black sedan with heavily tinted windows pull up behind us at the stoplight just down the hill from Chris’s place. Then I remembered where I’d seen Fin before.

He was one of the two goons who had been wearing black suits the night at Bear Watson’s ranch. He was also the one who had walked toward the garage that I was hiding in.

Chapter 19

When the street light changed to green, the black limo followed us through the left turn signal and all the way until we got to the driveway for Chris LaDuke’s horse stable and then, instead of turning left into the stable, it went straight. Was it the same black sedan that I’d seen at Bear Watson’s ranch that night? Was it a coincidence? I don’t know.

Meanwhile, Finnegan Connolly, the sheriff who was driving the cruiser we were riding in, who I’d seen dressed in the black suit at Bear Watson’s ranch a couple nights earlier, did nothing to acknowledge that the black limo was behind us; not a flinch, look in the mirror, twitch or even a squint. Perhaps I was being paranoid. Perhaps it wasn’t the same black sedan that’d been at the ranch.

All I know is, when I realized that Fin was one of the “men in black” at Bear Watson’s ranch, I could feel adrenaline cascade through my body like too hot chocolate soaring over the lips and through the gums, burning on its way down the esophagus and into the stomach.

Was he a two-timer, a double agent working for both the good guys and the bad guys, without either of the parties knowing, or was he simply a spy for the bad guy’s who’d infiltrated the Sheriff’s Department? Or was he simply someone working with the Sheriff’s Department and he did a few undercover things sometimes? And who were the bad guys? I wanted to know.

“So Fin,” I said, just as he was pulling up to Chris’s house, “what all do you do for the Sheriff’s Department?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“What do you do?” I said. “I mean, are you always assigned to cruising around in a cop car, do you do office work or are you also sometimes a detective or something?”

“I do whatever they ask?” he said.

“Are you always in uniform?” I asked.

“Not when I shower,” He said sarcastically, thinking that he’d really thrown out an epic witticism.

“But always when you work?” I asked.

“Usually,” he said and looked at me weirdly.

“But not always,” I said.

“No, not always,” he said and looked at Officer Black as though he was wondering if I was an idiot or digging too deep for too much.

“OK,” I said as I was getting out. “Thanks for the ride.”

Earlier, Officer Black had asked if I would give him a ride to the police station after he’d had a chance to talk to Bernadette, who was still at Chris’s house waiting for some news on the whereabouts of her brother Ben. As soon as Officer Black got out of the cruiser too, Sheriff Fin sped off with little in the way of fanfare or goodbyes.

“Do you know him well?” I asked Officer Black.

“Not at all,” Officer Black said.

“I’ve seen him before,” I said.

“Where?” He asked.

“Tell you later,” I said.

Chris met us at the door and on the way inside the house I was wondering how I could get Bernadette to tell me where her boyfriend Harvey, the air conditioning repairman and murder scene cleaner-upper lived. Because, I figured, if I could just corner him at his house or somewhere, he might spill the beans on the entire murder mystery that I’d driven into only days before.

He might know who had run into my pickup truck, I hoped, plus who had killed Bear Watson, and, more than likely, he’d also know where Ben Watson was or if it was Ben who’d been rolled up in the rug and tossed into the back of the black sedan.

Naturally, I could put the whole thing into warp speed and tell Bernadette the story about what I had witnessed and suspected right then and there with Officer Black present, but I didn’t want to be the one to tell Bernadette that her boyfriend was the one who cleaned up after the two goons in black suits might have killed her brother. After all, what would that do to her? But, then again, she had to know.

So I listened as Officer Black filled both she and Chris in on what had happened during our drive to the ranch and Chris kept glancing at me as Black talked, flashing those beautiful blue eyes, with looks that both tortured and soothed me and seemed to see inside my soul and read everything I was thinking.

Naturally, Bernadette was frustrated. Especially since she had been hoping we’d find her brother at the ranch unharmed, but that was not the case, nor was there anything much in the way of any case.

She was essentially caught in limbo, having already lost an uncle mysteriously and now, without her knowing where her brother was, might have actually felt better if she had some bad news rather than no news at all.

After hearing nothing of consequence, she wanted to leave Chris’s place and I hoped that she might ask for a ride to her boyfriend Harvey’s house so I could find out where it was, but that’s not what she suggested.

“Let’s go have lunch at 19th Hole,” she suggested instead, which I knew really meant, “Let’s go have drinks at the 19th Hole,” with “lunch” as a cover, but I went along with it anyway, as did Chris.

We dropped Officer Black off at the station on the way, with him promising to notify Chris immediately after he’d heard back from Sheriff’s Officer Dave, who he’d asked to stop by Bear Watson’s ranch on the way back to wherever it was Officer Dave was going.

With it being 1 p.m. and I having had no sleep that night, I knew that a couple of beers would make me beg for a bed and a nap in no time, but at the same time I still hoped to get information about Harvey’s whereabouts because, in the end, that might be the quickest route to a solution to the great mystery that was not only occupying my life but quickly becoming an obsession.

As soon as we walked in the door at the 19th Hole, our favorite bartender, Phil, had our preferred drinks on the bar waiting for us: Bernadette’s cranberry vodka and my favorite beer. Apparently Chris didn’t hang out there enough to have a favorite drink or she had too many favorites and she ordered an orange juice and off we were to a table in the corner.

“Do you think my brother is dead too,” Bernadette asked as soon as we sat down and I wondered how I could answer that without spilling the beans about everything I thought I knew.

“Don’t know,” I said. “I can only tell you what I saw.”

“And you saw two goons carry out a rug?” she asked.

“That’s right,” I said.

“So you never saw any feet sticking out of the end of the rug or anything?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“So there’s still hope for my brother,” she said.

“Yes there is,” I replied.

“But what were you doing at Bear’s ranch in the first place?” she asked and that was the million-dollar question that completely painted me into a corner, leaving me with one of two options: come up with a real good lie or tell her the truth.

“It’s a long story,” I said.

“We’ve got time,” Bernadette said, and then shouted at Phil to bring us another round.

“I was looking for something,” I said.

“What?” she asked.

“A box,” I said.

“And did you find the box?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“A box of what?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Then why were you looking for it?” she asked.

“Because Bear’s uncle gave me a key to it,” I said.

“But Bear doesn’t have an uncle,” she said.

“I know,” I said. “You told me that before.”

“Then why do you think that Bear had an uncle?” she asked.

“Because Bear told me he did,” I said.

“But why would Bear say he had an uncle when he didn’t?” she asked.

“If you don’t know,” I said, “I sure don’t.”

“To test you, tease you or get a reaction,” Chris said. “Either way, it was to find out something or get something out of you.”

“For what reason?” Bernadette asked.

“Because Bear also saw the hole in the front tire on the old man’s overturned pickup truck,” Chris said. ”Just like the hole that’d been shot into his own tire the day he also went into the ditch.”

“He was wondering if I had anything to do with it,” I said.

“Yes,” Chris said. “He was trying to determine if you had actually just passed by and stopped or if you were involved.”

“But why would he say he was the old man’s uncle,” Bernadette asked.

“Too keep me from calling the police,” I said.

“Because he didn’t want the police or sheriff’s department there,” Chris said.

“He knew they were involved in the murder,” I said.

“Or at least someone within the police or sheriff’s department was involved,” Chris said.

“And now I might know who that was,” I said.

“Someone in the Sheriff’s Department killed Bear?” Bernadette asked.

“Officer Finnegan Connolly,” I said.

“You know that for a fact?” Bernadette asked.

“Let’s just say he appears to be part of the math formula,” I said. “He just gave us a ride back from the accident site in his cruiser. Plus I saw him that night before at Bear’s ranch, dressed in a black suit and riding in a black sedan. He helped carry the rug out.”

“Oh my God, he might know what happened to my brother,” Bernadette said and that’s when Fin Connolly, oddly enough, walked in the front door of the bar with the other goon that I’d seen him with that night at the ranch, each dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. They sat belly up to the bar without noticing us in the corner.

“Oh no,” Chris said.

“That’s the other goon,” I said.

“That’s bad,” Chris said.

“It sure is,” I said.

“No,” Chris said, “I know the other goon.”

“Who is he?” I asked.

“Joe Reichert,” Chris said. ”He’s also with the Sheriff’s Department and was at the stable the night Butch Casper died.”

“Really,” I said.

“Plus ...,” Chris added.

“Plus what?” I asked.

“Plus I used to date him,” she said.

Chapter 20

I wondered how thick the plot could possibly get. After all, if you were to write a mystery novel and use these past few days as its content, no one would ever believe it. But unfortunately it was my life.

I was living it and even I didn’t believe it. Yet there it was, happening right before my eyes.

Until then my life had been comparatively serene — if you excluded the rodeo part, which of course had added plenty of adventure but not to this degree.

Oh sure, I’d had a few mishaps and some challenging moments, but nothing compared to what I was currently encountering, simply because this present situation was even more of a life-and-death adventure and it never seemed to end. It just got more complicated and involved more people as it went along. At this rate, we’d soon have the local Boy Scouts, the Seventh Cavalry, half of the city of Las Vegas and most of Utah involved.

Normally it’d take a lifetime of living in a community to get tangled up in a mess with this many layers and I’d done it in a matter of days. Where would I be in a month? I’d probably be six feet under.

Joe Reichert. … Now that was a new name that I didn’t really need to hear, not that it was a bad name. Then again, it was a bad name because the girl I was currently enamored with and the one that I was thinking about almost every minute of my life had dated him. Not only was that awkward but so was the fact that he might also be a murderer, not to mention he was the size of a bulldozer, three apartment buildings and a small mountain combined.

He was not the kind of guy I was going to threaten to “kick his butt” if he didn’t tell me everything he knew, especially with Officer Finnegan Connolly sitting next to him, who happened to be about his same size, minus one of the apartment buildings.

Then there was that other minor detail.

They also carried badges, might have a lot of influence with judges and politicians and it was possible they also happened to completely rule the region, plus be able to do to me whatever they wanted. After all, laws were nothing if the powers-that-be are not enforcing them or if they are using them to their advantage, and this was looking more like that every ticking second.

“OK,” I said, “See you later.”

“Where are you going?” Chris asked.

“I’m going to roll over, slap myself and see if I can wake up from this bad dream,” I said.

“Don’t bother,” Bernadette said. “I’ve already tried that. It doesn’t work.”

“Damn,” I said, “I’ll have to think of another option.”

“You need to stay here with me, ah, us,” Chris said as she looked into my eyes.

“Here? As in right here?” I asked.

“Here. As in Mesquite,” she said.

“I might not measure up,” I said.

“I think you do,” she said.

“OK,” I said.

“Besides,” Bernadette said, “you can’t leave anyway. Your pickup needs to be fixed.”

“Good point,” I said.

“I hope that’s not the only reason you’re staying,” Chris said.

“Well, it’s a big one,” I said and Chris kicked me in the leg under the table.

That’s about the same time that Joe Reichert, the baby apartment building, noticed us sitting in the corner, after which he turned back toward the bar and must have said something to Finnegan because then he turned to look at us too, and then turned back and they seemed to be talking about us. They also seemed to snicker a bit.

Of course, they might not have been talking about us. After all, it could have been a coincidence that they snickered because they might have been talking about the weather, stocks or geography, and all of those topics are often incredibly hilarious.

Whatever the case, Chris saw me looking at them and apparently thought there were better things that I could feast my eyes upon.

“Are you jealous?” she asked.

“Of what?” I asked.

She looked at me for a long time.

“You ARE jealous,” she said and smiled.

“No I’m not,” I said.

“Yes you are,” she said.

“No,” I said, “I am not.”

“Too bad,” she said, “because I like a little jealousy.”

I looked into her baby blue eyes.

“OK,” I said, “I’m jealous.”

“I knew it!” she said.

“Am I missing something here?” Bernadette asked.

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” Chris said.

Up until then, Bernadette had been sitting with her back to the bar and hadn’t noticed that the two baby buildings had entered the place. It was then that she turned around and saw them.

“My God,” she said, “look who’s here!”

“Mt. Everest and Mt. Shasta,” I said.

“What?” Bernadette asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

“I’m going over there to go talk to them!” she said, suddenly getting up from the table.

“Hold on,” I said and tugged on her wrist. “Let’s think about this for a second.”

But despite my tug, she was still on her way to assault them and that’s when Chris popped up and put her hands on Bernadette’s shoulders and suggested that she sit back down and she did.

“I’m going to find out if they know where my brother is!” she said. “I’m going to find out if they killed him and if they killed Bear!”

“I’m sure they’ll tell you,” I said. “Because there’s nothing like a crazy woman to make you want to confess.”

“I need to know!” Bernadette said.

“They’re not going to tell you,” I said.

“But …” she said.

“Plus, if they did harm to your brother and uncle, it might be wise not to put yourself in a situation where you can end up like they did,” I said.

“Damn!” she said. “What do I do?”

“Play it smart,” I said.

“How do I do that?” she asked.

“I’m not sure yet,” I said. “Let’s talk about it.”

Bernadette was like a caged lion that wanted to spring on her prey. She’d had the required amount of alcohol to be courageous enough to do anything and what she wanted to do was confront two off-duty, apartment-sized Sheriff’s officers who appeared to be one of the keys to every part of the spiderweb that she and I had been entangled in.

Tell you the truth, I WANTED her to go over there and confront them.

In fact, I wanted her to go over there and humiliate them and force them to do things they wouldn’t normally do and reveal things they might not normally reveal thanks to the pressure some crazy woman was applying.

“I’m going over there anyway,” Bernadette said.

“No,” Chris said, “you can’t.”

“Sure she can,” I said. “You go girl!”

And go she did. Why not? What were they going to do to her with all the witnesses around?

Chris looked at me like I was nuts, and maybe I was because I was tired and getting slightly inebriated. Under normal conditions, I night not have let her charge over there like a bison in heat. But really, what could it hurt? She was safe amongst us all, as long as we kept an eye on her.

Of course, the problem with that plan was once she was done ranting and raving at them, we’d have to watch her forever and never let her be alone, lest they roll her up in a rug. But at the moment, who really cared about that? This was instant drama unfolding and, naturally, I wanted to know what she wanted to know anyway. Yet, at the same time, deep down, I knew that they’d never say anything because they were simply soldiers in someone’s army, so what could they say?

Chris and I watched from the corner as Bernadette read them the riot act, blaming them for everything from killing Bear and Ben, her uncle and brother, to raising the price of fuel.

Occasionally they’d look back at us, especially Joe Reichert, who looked at Chris LaDuke, his one-time girlfriend as if he was expecting her to save him. But of course Chris wasn’t going to do anything.

“It wasn’t a long-term relationship,” she said to me in the midst of it all.

“You don’t have to confess anything to me,” I said, “After all, I’ve only known you for days.”

“But …,” she said.

“Because I could be gone tomorrow anyway,” I said, which I knew was hurtful but I stupidly said it anyway.

She looked at me for a long time, trying to read my mind, with a very hurt expression on her face.

“You didn’t need to say that,” she said, and I realized I’d gone too far.

But then what else do you do when you’re trying to tell your mind not to put too much hope in any one investment, especially when that investment has a 280-pound former boyfriend sitting on a barstool just across from you. Yes, it was stupid and I was immediately sad that I did it.

Meanwhile, in the midst of it all, I somehow sensed Bernadette was going much too far with the two peace officers, asking questions and getting no answers.

“You killed my brother and my uncle,” I heard her say again, and even though I didn’t want to, I went over there to save her if I could, although the percentages were not on my side when it came out to coming out alive, whether those percentages applied to that night or further down the road.

But I’d ridden in rodeo on animals that were many times my size, so what did percentages have to do with anything in my life? Thus, I did what I was bred to do and went to the aid of a damsel in distress without knowing what the outcome would be. In other words, I shook the dice and in this case lost, again.

Because once I saw Joe Reichert slap Bernadette across the face, I put myself between him and her, and for good measure, landed a left hook on Reichert’s chin that sent the big skyscraper tumbling.

That’s also when I heard Chris scream behind me and when Finnegan Connelly, the other skyscraper, grabbed me from behind and pinned my arms to my body.

Reichert then got up from the floor slowly, collected himself, looked me in the eyes and shot a right fist towards my chin that I knew was going to hurt when it landed. Surprisingly it didn’t because that’s also when my lights went out.

Chapter 21

I heard Chris calling my name and Bernadette screaming in the background and it took me a few seconds to ascertain where I was.

After all, I’d just been held up by one apartment building and punched by the other squarely on the chin and it’d have taken a better man than me or a bronze statue not to see stars and bite the carpet.

By rights, Chris should have walked out on me for what’d I’d said to her a few minutes earlier, but she didn’t and as it turned out, Bernadette was yelling but not at anyone nearby. Instead she was yelling into her cellphone at Officer Black, trying to get him to arrest the two apartment buildings who’d just assaulted me, without mentioning that she’d assaulted them and I’d hit one of them.

Of course, just after Finnegan Connolly held me up and Joe Reichert punched me, they’d apparently left the 19th Hole and I was glad they did because even as my fist was landing on Joe Reichert’s chin,7 I envisioned him arresting me for something, even if he was off duty, and then throwing me behind bars. So I thought I got off easy.

“Does your head hurt?” Chris asked me.

“No,” I said.

“Good,” she said.

“But my arm does,” I said and looked down.

“Oh no, it’s bleeding again,” she shouted and off to the Mesquite hospital we went, for the third time, to repair what had already been repaired twice before.

“They might not let me in,” I said to Chris on the way.

“They won’t have a choice,” she said, “it looks bad, again.”

Fortunately they did, and this time the repair took a lot longer because apparently repairing a repair is harder than repairing the initial wound.

“One more time and we might not be able to stop the bleeding,” Dr. Monroe said after he’d stitched me up. “We’re going to hold you overnight just to make sure everything stays connected for a few hours.”

“That’s a little extreme don’t you think?” I asked.

“In most cases yes,” he said, “but in your case, no.”

So there I was, camped out in a hospital room in the early evening and suddenly I was beginning to wonder why I’d rented the hotel suite in the first place since I seldom used it anyway.

“Do you remember where I live?” I asked Chris.

“Why?” she asked. “Did that blow to the chin give you a concussion?”

“No,” I said, “I’ve just been there so few times I can hardly remember.”

“It’s not the Hilton anyway,” she said.

“Good point,” I said.

Not that I hadn’t had a few concussions in my life. In fact, I’d actually counted them up and arrived at a total of nine, beginning with the time I was completely knocked out after being thrown from a horse when I was eight years old.

On that particular occasion, after I woke up I got up, spun around and passed out again. That’s how bad it was. Then I saw double for the rest of that day and was sick to my stomach for the entire next day.

Did my parents take me to the hospital? Of course not. Because I’d just had my bell rung so what was the big deal.

The last concussion had been at a rodeo in California where I got bucked off at the other end of the arena at five o’clock and woke up in the corner of an emergency room about 10 o’clock. I definitely felt groggy for a few days after that one.

“Gee, that’s a dangerous sport,” some businessman had once said to me on a flight.

“Not really,” I said, “because you might ride in 100 rodeos a year and only get hurt in two or three, so you see, the averages are really quite good.”

But for some reason he didn’t quite agree.

Meanwhile, Chris stayed all night with me in my hospital room and even crawled into my bed later after the nurses had quit bugging me on a regular basis.

“We’ve got to quit coming here,” she said, “because there are other places that are a lot more fun.”

“What could be better than this?” I said as I put my good arm around her.

“Some privacy, a bearskin rug and a crackling fire,” she said.

“We could always prop a chair up against the door,” I said.

“Sure thing Casanova,” she said, “but you might not want to tear your stitches open again.”

“Some things are worth the risk,” I said.

“But not the embarrassment,” she replied.

It wasn’t long before we’d both fallen asleep and then a nurse walked in to check on me and woke me up but not Chris.

“I’m sorry but you only paid for one occupant in this room,” she whispered and smiled.

“Please don’t report me to the front desk,” I said.

“Your secret is good with me,” she said, “unless you break open those stitches again and then I’m calling the warden.”

“Fair enough,” I said and she left.

I couldn’t quite get back to sleep anyway because there was some pain, and also because I suddenly remembered that I’d stupidly helped Bernadette put herself in a position to end up just like her uncle Bear and brother Ben.

Why had I let her assault the two apartment buildings when I knew she might embarrass them into having to do something to her? What was I thinking? Apparently I wasn’t thanks to an assist from “no sleep” and his two friends, beer one and beer two.

I concluded that I had to get a hold of Officer Black and alert him to Bernadette’s precarious situation and then I realized that she’d probably done that on her own and having made peace with the situation, I quickly fell asleep.

Nevertheless, when it comes to sleeping, hospitals are notoriously bad at letting you do so. In fact, they seem to be set up on the basis of having to consume an ample supply of drugs to be able to doze through the high level of noise they manufacture nonstop. So both Chris and I were roused out of REM sleep by five o’clock that morning and she immediately skipped to the bathroom to freshen up while I sat up in bed and looked about for boots, jeans and something that didn’t have an open back that I could slip into and get out of there.

“Not so fast cowboy,” someone said and I looked up and spotted a nurse coming into my room that might have once been a guard at a maximum security prison.

“I don’t know what you mean?” I quickly said.

“I’ve seen it a thousand times,” she said. “You’ve got leaving on your mind.”

“Isn’t that a song title?” I asked.

“It should be,” she said.

“We could co-write it,” I said.

“You can start right now,” she said, “because I’ve got you until at least noon.”

“Oh crap,” I said.

“And I thank you not to use any profanity,” she said.

“Crap is not a profanity?” I said.

“No but it quickly leads to some,” she said.

“Like pot leads to cocaine?” I asked.

“No, like crap leads to profanity,” she said and urged me to lie back down and I did, putting an end to my temporary addiction to freedom and that’s when the nurse left and Chris came out of the bathroom.

“Can’t leave for a while,” I said.

“So I heard,” she said.

“But I get to write a song,” I said.

“Heard that too,” she said.

“So pretty soon you’ll get to sleep with a country music star,” I said.

“That’ll be fun,” she said, “again.”

“Again?”

“Just kidding,” she said.

“I hoped so,” I replied.

Chris had to check on things at the stable and took off, with a promise to pick me up at noon, and I wondered what to do with myself and debated taking off anyway but didn’t know what I would do if I did and decided to play by the rules.

Digging around in the blankets, I fished out the remote control for the television mounted on the wall, flicked it on, began to channel surf and ended up watching some local news coming from a station in Las Vegas.

Most of it was pretty boring and I was listening half-heartedly and gazing out the windows until they got to a story about the sheriff’s department finding a body somewhere out in the desert that was yet to be identified. I turned it up but by the time I’d focused my mind on it the story was over.

I immediately thought of Bernadette and wondered if the two big apartment buildings from the sheriff’s department had done her in and dumped her body somewhere out in the middle of the desert. So I called her and of course, there was no answer.

Then I thought of her brother Ben and wondered if they’d finally found his body somewhere and also remembered that Officer Black had asked Officer Dave of the sheriff’s department to stop by Bear’s ranch to check on things.

So I called Officer Black to see what he knew.

“Have you heard anything from Officer Dave?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“Not a thing?”

“Nope,” he said.

“Because I just caught the tail end of a story on the news about the sheriff’s department finding a body in the desert,” I said.

“Yes they did,” he said.

“Was it Ben Watson?” I asked.

“No it’s not,” he said.

“Well please tell me it isn’t Bernadette’s body,” I said.

“No,” he said, “it’s not Bernadette.”

“Do we know who it is?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, “we do.”

“And do we know where they found it?” I asked.

“Yes we do,” he said.

“Well then,” I said, “who is it?

“I can tell you, but at this point you can’t tell anyone, OK?” he said.

“OK,” I agreed.

“Officer Dave,” he said.

“The sheriff?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Where?” I asked.

“Bear Watson’s ranch,” he said.

“How was he killed?” I asked.

“His front tire was shot out and his vehicle rolled over,” he said.

“So he died in the crash?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “They found his body at a different location.”

“Where?” I asked.

“Near a row of trees,” he said.

“Do you mean the trees right by Bear Watson’s ranch?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Was he killed there?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “He was killed somewhere else and his body was drug there.”

“By which tree?” I asked.

“What?” he asked.

“Which tree did they find him by,” I asked.

“The last tree,” he said.

Chapter 22

Someone murdered Sheriff’s Officer Dave Mullencheck, first by shooting out his front tire, which failed to kill him in the ensuing wreck, and then by tracking him down and shooting him directly. After that they deposited his body by the “last tree” in the row of trees at Bear’s Watson’s ranch.

Why would they do that?

It seemed like a statement to me, something along the lines of: “This is what happens to people who get a little too close to the truth.”

It was obvious that the last tree had real significance because it was not only included in the last words of the dying old man to me, but because it now also became the final resting place, so to speak, of Officer Dave, who more than likely had no clue what he was walking into.

The old man had told me there was a box buried there and gave me a key to that box. At least I assumed the box was buried underground because it certainly wouldn’t be sitting above ground would it? Later I found a matching key at Chris LaDuke’s stable, on the ground by the stall where Butch Casper died and after that I learned one of the gorillas in the black suits, who carried out Ben Watson rolled up in a rug (maybe), had been amongst the sheriffs who came to investigate Butch’s death.

On top of that this same gorilla, Joe Reichert, had also dated Chris. Which led me to wonder if all of this was somehow tied together? I also wondered if Chris could be involved? Perish the thought.

In fact, there were so many thoughts swimming around in my mind that I suddenly wished my pickup truck was fully repaired so I could head down the highway, away from the entire nightmare. But, of course, it had only been days and the body shop had done little or no work, especially since they were still waiting for parts.

“Let’s take a look,” Dr. Monroe suddenly said as he skipped into my hospital room.

He’d brought the big nurse with and she not so gently removed my bandages. He then checked his stitching and seemed pleased with what he saw.

“So I can leave now?” I asked.

“Given your lifestyle I’d prefer it we lock you in a room, toss the key away and then find it again once everything is healed,” he said, “but unfortunately we don’t have the power to do that.”

“I’ll be more careful,” I promised.

“You’ll have to be,” Monroe said.

“Or what?” I asked.

“Or one of these days you’ll bleed out before we can help you,” he said.

“Lovely thought,” I said.

“If you’re a mortician and business is slow,” he said and left.

It seemed like business in Mesquite for your average mortician was anything but slow, with new bodies being discovered almost every day.

Let’s see, there was the old man, Bear Watson, Butch Casper, Sheriff Dave Mullencheck, maybe Ben Watson and who knew who else.

Perhaps it was the morticians who were killing everyone just to create that business boom. Whoever it was, I didn’t intend to let them add me to the list, even though the chances of that happening seemed to be getting better all the time.

Since it was only 10:30 a.m. and Chris hadn’t planned to be back until noon, I decided to call a cab and get it to deliver me to her stable where my borrowed car was resting peacefully, it having been the vehicle we’d driven to the 18th Hole with Bernadette and the same car that Chris had used to drive me to the hospital.

But unlike in a big city, where cabs zip around as though they’re being driven by frustrated NASCAR wannabes, Mesquite’s cabbies were slow-moving, retirement-age plodders who preferred not to move at any speed that might get their blood pressure up. After all, most of their clientele consisted of snowbirds that rode to a casino every day at the same time and were home in bed by 9 p.m.

By the time the cab got to the hospital, it was late enough that it wouldn’t be long before Chris got there. But I’d had enough of the place and didn’t want to wait.

Nevertheless, while I had waited, I thought about how I could tell Bernadette that her boyfriend, Harvey the repairman, might be an accessory to at least one crime and probably more. What made that especially difficult was that the one crime I knew about might have been the murder of her brother, and since I had no proof that Ben was actually murdered, it was a little hard to tell her he had been.

I wanted to find Harvey and grill him on everything he knew and then I could drag him to the jail, leave him there with Officer Black and, after that, fill Bernadette in once I knew the complete story. I also hoped Harvey might be able to put an end to the bad dream that I was encased in.

Yet how would I go about finding him without asking her where he lived? It might be impossible, I thought, and wished I had already done so, at the bar, when the conversation was flowing seamlessly along with the drinks, and I could have casually slipped it in.

“Where are you going?” the cabbie asked me.

“Crazy,” I said.

“What?” he asked.

“10th and Marsh,” I said, which was the address for Chris’s stable.

He looked to be about 70 years old and had what sounded like an East Coast accent.

“Where are you from?” I asked him.

“New Jersey,” he said.

“Near New York or Philadelphia?” I asked.

“Cherry Hill,” he said, “near Philly.”

“What brought you here?” I asked.

“Las Vegas,” he said, “twenty years ago.”

“But you live in Mesquite now?” I asked.

“I have for five years,” he said, “had to get away from the rat race.”

Get away from the rat race? For me, Mesquite had been the rat race and I wished I could get away, and knew that I probably could if I locked myself up in my hotel suite until my pickup truck was fixed. But my curiosity wouldn’t allow for that. Thus, in a way, I was my own worst enemy.

“You probably know a lot of people around here,” I said, “since you drive a cab and all.”

“I have a lot of consistent customers,” he said, “plus I see a lot of people regularly and seldom forget a face.”

“Do you happen to know a guy that drives around in a white service van?” I asked. “He’s kind of a handyman who seems to work on everything, especially air conditioners.”

“Has he got a thick black mustache and does he look a little like he might be of Middle Eastern decent?” the cabbie asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“A little on the short side?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Don’t know him,” he said.

“What?”

“I don’t know him,” he said again, “but….”

“But what?” I asked.

“But I think I know where he lives,” he said.

“Really?”

“At least I know where he parks the van a lot,” he said.

“Where?” I asked.

“An apartment building near the recreation center,” he said. “I’ll take you there if you want.”

“Let’s go!” I said.

Sure enough, there it was … the white van that I’d seen too many times. But the apartment building was very big and it had way too many units to go knocking on doors one by one. So I told him to take me to Chris’s stable. I could get my car and then come back and stake out the place.

“Is he in trouble?” the cabbie asked.

“Maybe,” I said.

“Are you a private detective or something?” he asked.

“CIA,” I said.

“Really?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“What then?” he asked.

“Good question,” I said.

“Still don’t know what you want to be when you grow up?” he asked.

“That’s not the problem,” I said.

“Because you already know what you want to be?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “Because I just can’t seem to grow up.”

“Well,” he said, “it might happen someday.”

“Did it happen for you?” I asked.

“No,” he said and drove through the gate to Chris’s stable property.

“Drop me by the house please,” I told him.

“Sure thing,” he said and did and I gave him a nice tip and then got out.

I looked around for my borrowed car and seeing it nowhere, I feared that I might have missed Chris and that she was already at the hospital picking me up even though it was still 15 minutes early.

Then again, she might have driven her pickup truck, so I walked around to the other side of the house to see what was parked there and spotted her pickup truck, which seemed to imply that she’d probably driven my borrowed car.

I pulled my cellphone out of my front jeans pocket, dialed her number and got nothing but a message and was about to go knock on her back door when my cellphone rang.

“I’m running a little bit late because I am doing a bunch of errands,” Chris said.

“That’s OK,” I said, “because…”

“I’ll be there in a couple of minutes,” she then said before I could finish my sentence.

“But…”

“See you soon,” she said and hung up.

Of course she’d soon discover that I was not at the hospital and then wonder where I was, so I knew I had to call her back immediately and did so but she didn’t answer.

“She probably already ran inside the hospital and left her cellphone in the car,” I said to myself.

“Or stole the car and is on her way to Mexico,” I replied.

“Yes, anything is possible,” I said.

“Especially when it comes to you and women,” I replied.

“Good point,” I said, thinking back to my interesting list of female acquaintances.

You see, somewhere along the line I’d developed a taste for troubled damsels who needed a knight in shining armor to save them from their less-than-pleasant past and that seldom ended positively. Though it certainly proved to be adventurous.

“You seem to like abuse,” I said to myself.

“I think it’s the adrenaline rush,” I replied.

“Looks like the adrenaline rush is about to continue,” I said as I watched Joe Reichert, the gorilla, suddenly exit through Chris’s back door.

Chapter 23

My heart ached. Not a little ache but a big ache. I could feel a sting deep down in my stomach and that’s when I realized that I might be a little too hung up on Chris LaDuke.

Love was a curse, I’d always felt, a roller coaster ride and something that left you too exposed. So I tended to shy away from it. Plus, since I’d only known Chris for a few days, for me to define any feelings I had toward her as being love was simply moronic, simplistic, immature and juvenile, at least that’s what I told myself.

But then, who can really control any of their feelings?

Meanwhile, in the midst of my self-chastisement, I was wishing that I had been hiding behind something when Joe Reichert, the gorilla, exited Chris’s house so he would not have seen me. But he did and that opened the door to a myriad of possibilities.

After all, I had punched him at the 19th Hole and he, in return, cold-cocked me and that probably set things up for what would be the beginning of World War III, or worse. At least, at that moment, he didn’t have his gorilla partner with him to hold me like a punching bag while he flailed away.

Yet to further complicate things, he was a sheriff and could probably conjure up some sort of tale about how I had threatened him bodily harm, and he had been forced to shoot me in self-defense and then my life would end just a short distance from where Butch Casper’s miserable life had ended. I hated to think of that possibility.

Because everyone wants to exit this world in heroic fashion, in the process of saving someone’s life, or like James Dean, crashing head-on into another vehicle on a semi-deserted California highway. Here today, gone tomorrow and forever young.

A million thoughts were pouring through my mind and none of them were good because I assumed Joe Reichert’s exit from Chris’s house at that moment was revealing a much deeper relationship with the gorilla than she had previously implied. And quite frankly, I had instantaneously made the decision to eject her from my life and just as quickly developed an attitude of, “I could care less what happens from here on out,” which probably made my too frequently wounded arm cringe when it thought about what I might do next.

“What are you doing?” I shouted at Reichert and he ignored me as he walked toward the front gate.

“Hey!” I shouted again and he looked at me like he thought I might be slightly deranged, and it suddenly occurred to me that a man of his size wasn’t accustomed to having someone challenge him or not be intimidated by him — especially someone with one arm who he probably also knew had just gotten out of the hospital and had already clubbed him a good one in a bar just hours before.

I had to be insane.

In fact, I thought I actually saw fear in his eyes and, like a cheetah in hot pursuit, I readied myself to go in for the kill and started walking his way and he started walking faster.

He even started running at one point and then he reached into a vehicle that I’d not previously seen, a red four-door of some kind and quickly opened the passenger door and pulled out a pistol and aimed it at me. That quickly slowed my brisk pace but didn’t bring me to a stop entirely, which proved, even to me, that he might be right. I was beyond insane and had officially reached the deranged category.

“Are you going to kill me too?” I asked him.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

“You and Finnegan,” I said. “You’re doing some interesting work on the side.”

“We’re not doing anything on the side,” he said while still pointing the gun at me.

“Except rug cleaning,” I said.

“What?” he asked.

“I saw the two of you carry a rug out of a ranch house,” I said, which I knew was really stupid of me to say as soon as I said it. But I said it anyway because I wanted to get a reaction out of him and then try to read that reaction, if nothing else.

Unfortunately he was a master of the art of stoicism, which was probably a sheriff’s training thing, and therefore hard to read, except for his rapid blinking. Yep, he was blinking his eyes a lot and I knew that meant something.

“Where is Ben Watson?” I asked him.

“How do I know,” he said. “I don’t even know Ben Watson.”

“I know you know where he lives,” I said.

“How do you know that?” he asked.

“Because I saw you at his place,” I said.

“That doesn’t mean a thing,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the course of this intelligent and in-depth conversation, I had never actually stopped walking toward him and I could see that I’d gotten within an area that made him quite uncomfortable. I knew my actions were about to illicit a more drastic reaction but I kept moving toward him anyway.

“Stay back,” he said.

“Why?” I asked. “And why do you need a gun?”

“Because you’re nuts,” he said, and that’s when Chris suddenly pulled into the yard in my borrowed car, saw Reichert pointing the gun at me, slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the car and ran toward us.

“What are you doing?” she screamed, though I wasn’t exactly sure who it was she was directing the question toward, nor did I care.

I stared into Reichert’s eyes for a few seconds and then turned to my left, brushed past Chris without looking at her, jumped into my car, backed through the gate and onto the street and sped off, sick of Mesquite, the gorillas, the killings, the adventure, Chris’s obvious lies and anything else I could think of.

“What do I care if all of you kill yourselves?” I shouted to myself and headed toward my hotel suite, intent on getting out of town as quickly as possible.

In fact, I’d rent a car — that’s what I’d do — and get out of town right away and drive north until I couldn’t drive anymore and then check into a hotel room and sleep for a week and decide what to do after that.

Who cared about a stupid red pickup truck anyway? I’d ask my friend to pick it up once it was done, sell it and send me the money. There were plenty of other pickup trucks in the world. Why did I need to let that one anchor me to Mesquite? After all, a few more days there and I’d be strapped in a straitjacket or dead, I concluded, so why not get the hell out of town while the getting was good?

“You’re only staying here because of Chris,” I said to myself.

“I think you’re right,” I replied.

“Because you think you love her,” I said.

“Stupid, isn’t it?” I replied.

“Because you don’t even know her,” I said.

“Isn’t that a fact,” I replied.

“And she lies,” I said.

“Worst possible attribute in a human being,” I replied.

“Which means she can’t be trusted,” I said.

“That’s right,” I replied.

“But for some reason you still love her,” I said.

“What an idiot I am,” I replied.

“So what are you going to do?” I asked.

“Quit asking me questions,” I shouted.

“You’re in trouble aren’t you?” I asked.

“Yes,” I said, “Now shut up!”

My hotel suite door was unlocked when I got there but I didn’t care. Someone could have set up a bomb to explode as soon as the door opened and I might not have noticed. I laid down on the bed, intent on thinking for a minute before getting out of town when my phone rang.

The caller ID said it was Chris. I wanted to answer it so bad but my pride stopped me.

Pride is a funny thing, I thought. Sometimes it’s your friend and at other times it’s you’re worst enemy. At that point, I wasn’t sure which.

Then I suddenly remembered Bernadette’s boyfriend Harvey, the man in the white service van, and I thought about going over to his apartment building, watching for him and getting the truth out of him before I left town.

After all, if I left town without knowing how everything fit together, I’d regret it for the rest of my life because maybe, just maybe, I was the only one that seemed to be really concerned about finding out the truth of it all, except for Bernadette, who was mostly concerned about the welfare of her brother.

So I got out of bed and started to pack my things in my bag, after which I figured I’d look through the yellow pages or Google a car rental place, take my friends car back to his place, have him give me a ride to the car rental place, confront Harvey, learn the truth and then leave.

It didn’t take me long to pack because I didn’t have that much anyway.

That was when Then I remembered something else about Harvey. He supposedly boarded a horse at Chris’s stable, although I’d not seen the horse. Still, I should have remembered that he had one there and that led me to wonder if Chris was even better friends with Joe Reichert than I thought and as a result, maybe better friends with Harvey than I thought, and was she also part of the whole mess?

I slung my bag over my shoulder, left the hotel suite without closing the door, threw the bag into the back seat of my borrowed car, got in behind the wheel, adjusted the rear-view mirror — since Chris had adjusted it to her size — and noticed the silhouette of someone behind the wheel of the car parked behind me.

That’s when, whoever it was, got out of their car and began to walk toward me.

Chapter 24

There was always the chance that whoever was walking toward my car from behind wasn’t walking toward me at all but was simply walking toward another hotel suite or maybe they were on their way to somewhere else, like the grocery store or even the office of some accountant to have their taxes done. That’s what I was hoping anyway.

After all, my mind was filled to the brim with too much stuff to think about and I didn’t really have room to add another adventure, situation or episode.

Still, in some ways, I was beginning to get a little insensitive to all that had gone on. In other ways, I was becoming more sensitive.

For example, anything having to do with my own welfare seemed to be becoming less of a concern. Almost as if I had a death wish and craved the adrenaline rush that came with every crazy situation, like rodeo cowboys who become addicted to the adrenaline fix they derive from each bronc or bull ride.

Meanwhile, when it came to anything that had to do with the welfare of anyone else, whether it was Chris or Bernadette or even Ben Watsonple, I seemed to be becoming more sensitive and concerned.

I didn’t really know what was happening to me.

“You need to quit worrying about Chris,” I said. “She’s officially out of the picture.”

“You’re right,” I replied. “I just have to train my mind a little and toss her out of my cranium.”

“You can do it,” I said.

“Yes,” I replied, “I will.”

Maybe the person behind me was the postman, or a gardener or the neighbor down the street. Except that a postman wouldn’t be driving the type of car that was parked behind me, nor would a gardener, so that left the neighbor down the street.

Of course, all of these thoughts flashed through my brain in a fraction of a second, and I eventually decided that I needed to simply look back to determine if, whoever it was, had a gun in their hand and wished me ill will.

But when I glanced into the driver’s side mirro, all I could see was a portion of the person and he was wearing some ugly, dark blue maintenance pants. So I guessed that it wasn’t a woman or anyone with good taste.

I was going to have to turn around after all and thought about popping open the driver’s door robustly to intimidate whoever it was but realized that doing so would give them a perfect shot at me if they did have a weapon. So I dropped that idea and by that time, with most of my options already eliminated, I simply waited for the person to reach my door and hope for the best.

As it turned out, it was a man, a middle-aged one with red hair but not anyone I’d ever seen before and it was also someone I apparently needed to pay little attention to since he just kept walking anyway.

That’s also when I happened to look down at my arm and the bandage and noticed that there was a small bloodstain on it, which seemed to mean that a stitch or stiches had once again been torn away, although I didn’t know how. There was no way that’d I’d consider going back to that hospital again anyway, unless the blood was flowing like an opened fire hydrant and it clearly wasn’t.

So I began to turn the key in the ignition to start my borrowed car and head over to Harvey’s apartment building to track him down and interrogate him. Except someone suddenly tapped on the driver’s door window, and they did so with the barrel of a pistol.

It was also when the guy who’d just walked by my car came back and stood in front of it with one hand in a pocket as if he had a gun hidden there.

Tap, tap.

I paused for a second because, why not? It didn’t hurt to give myself just a fraction of a second more to evaluate the situation.

Who could they be? I’d never seen them before and the guy by the driver’s door window had a suit on, but not a tie, and a full black beard.

He made a signal for me to roll down the window and I did.

“Please step out of the car,” he said, which almost sounded “cop like,” but I didn’t really care whether he was a cop or not since differentiating between good guys and bad guys in Mesquite had become a crap shoot.

Instead I quickly thrust the car door open, caught the leaning gun pointer in the forehead with the top of the car door and simultaneously started the car. The result was that gunman number one was left lying on the pavement holding his forehead with both hands.

Gunman number two was so surprised that he struggled to get his gun out of his pocket and by that time, I’d put the car into gear and stepped on the gas. That’s when number two ended up on the hood and then tumbled off onto the pavement as I sped away.

I hoped they weren’t cops because if they were, I had put myself in a very precarious position. If they were good cops, I had assaulted two officers. If they were bad cops, I’d given them an excuse to do whatever they wanted to me.

But if they were cops, I didn’t think they could be associated with the Mesquite Police Department because I’d never seen them around the station and Mesquite didn’t have that many cops anyway, especially when it came to plain-clothes detectives.

At any rate, my first impulse was to drive north on Interstate 15 until I reached Canada — but that was probably unrealistic because these weren’t the days of John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde, where you could cross a state line and be free of your problems as long as you didn’t re-enter the state.

Instead they’d track me down within hours and throw me into the nearest clink.

I was at a loss for what to do. But in the end I was glad that I’d made a break for freedom because who knew what might have happened if I hadn’t?

“Who do you think they were?” I asked myself.

“Don’t have a clue,” I said.

“Vacuum cleaner salesmen?” I asked.

“Probably,” I said.

By then I’d reached the intersection that led to the interstate and I had to make some sort of decision, I knew that. That’s also when my cellphone rang and I could see by the caller ID that it was Chris.

I ignored it once again.

“Why is she calling me?” I wondered to myself.

“Who knows and who cares,” I replied.

Since the best defense is most often a good offense, I knew that I had to go to the police station, walk in and search for Officer Black, explain the situation and find out if he knew who the gun-toting Blackbeard and Red were.

But thankfully things seemed quiet when I got there and not like anyone was hyper about pursuing a runaway who’d just bopped one officer on the forehead with a car door and run over another.

“What can I do for you?” Officer Black asked when I tracked him down.

“Tell me if you’re in hot pursuit of an escaped criminal who assaulted two officers,” I said.

“Not that I know of,” he said.

“Good,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because if you were, it’d be me,” I said.

“Thanks for the warning,” he said.

“Not a problem,” I said, feeling both relieved and still a little concerned.

As it turned out, Officer Black didn’t have a clue as to whom Blackbeard and Red were, if they were FBI or CIA or what, which opened a whole new chapter to my Mesquite experience.

“You’re really making a lot of new friends,” Black said.

“Most of whom seem to own a gun,” I said.

“Which would be great if you were the president and they were the Secret Service,” he said.

“But I’m not,” I said, “at least not yet — and they certainly aren’t Secret Service.”

“Which could mean trouble,” Black said.

“You’d have to assume so,” I said.

“In which case you might want to leave town for a while,” he said.

“Because then it’ll be just my problem and not yours,” I said.

“That’s harsh,” he said, “but oddly enough, yes.”

“Thanks for the support,” I said.

“We aim to serve,” he replied.

I felt like the new owner of a “mafia hit” and wanted to dig a hole in the desert, crawl in, cover myself up and breath through a straw for a couple of weeks until everyone assumed that I’d left town.

Instead, I drove over to Harvey’s apartment and staked out the place, waiting for him to come or go — and go he did just a few minutes later in his white service van, first to a gas station and then to some home on the north side of town where he parked the van and strolled up the sidewalk carrying a toolbox.

If I just had a gun, it’d be so much easier to get him to do what I wanted, I thought, but then I’d be just like everyone else in Mesquite, a gun-toting troublemaker.

He worked there for about an hour, strolled down the sidewalk with his toolbox, got inside his van and drove away with me following.

When it looked like he was heading back to his apartment building, I turned down another street, hoping to arrive there before he did so that I could utilize the element of surprise, abduct him, interrogate him, find out all there was to know about him and the bad dream I couldn’t wake up from, and then leave town shortly thereafter.

My plan worked. And because he parked two cars in front of me, I was able to position myself by his door when he got out, put him in an arm lock, lead him to my car, tie his hands behind him with an old western neck scarf and throw him in the back seat.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Getting to the bottom of things,” I said.

“What things?” he asked.

“Murder and mayhem,” I said. “You know, just some of the things that happen almost every day here in Mesquite.”

“I don’t think so,” he said.

“You don’t think so?” I asked.

“I don’t think you really want to know,” he said.

“Why?” I asked, “Because if you tell me, it might mean the end for you?”

“Not just me,” he said.

“Who else?” I asked.

“You,” he said.

Chapter 25

It felt a little odd to have someone tied up in my back seat. Well, not my back seat but the back seat of the car I was borrowing.

You might say it was one of those landmark moments when you do a quick self-examination of your life just to see how far you’ve come and suddenly realize that it has been mostly downhill from the day you were born.

“I could jump around and scream and cause a lot of commotion,” Harvey the handyman said, “and that could be pretty embarrassing for you.”

“Yes you could,” I said, “except for one thing.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“It’d be more embarrassing for you,” I said.

“Why’s that?” he asked.

“Because I don’t know anyone here,” I said. “So what does it matter?

“Oh,” he said.

“Nice try though,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said.

“No problem,” I replied.

We were at an impasse with me wanting to get a lot of information out of him and him wanting to hold a lot of information back.

“How long have you been in Mesquite?” he asked me.

“Four days,” I said.

“And you want to put your life in peril after only three days?” he asked.

“Love the thrill,” I said.

“Here’s five bucks,” he said. “Go find a roller coaster instead.”

He was right of course. Minus my overactive curiosity, there was no reason to pursue this carnival anymore since I didn’t really have a vested interest in it. Except that curiosity had guided me through my life to this point and it had become the only way I knew how to travel down life’s highway, so what choice did I have?

“But it might be time to go,” I said to myself.

“Don’t listen to Harvey,” I replied.

“Who are you talking to?” Harvey asked.

“Nevermind,” I said.

We sat there for a minute as the sun dipped below the distant mountains. A couple of cars with very bright headlights went by as silence continued for a minute, two minutes and then three.

“What were you doing at Bear Watson’s ranch?” I finally asked him.

“Where?” he asked.

“Bear Watson’s ranch,” I said. “The one that’s located in the middle of nowhere.”

“All of the ranches around here are located in the middle nowhere,” he said.

“Good point,” I said. “The ranch you were at two nights ago, which also happens to also be the ranch owned by the late uncle of your girlfriend.”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” he said. “She’s a friend.”

“Whatever,” I said, “What were you doing there?”

“Cleaning up,” he said.

“Cleaning up evidence?” I asked.

“Cleaning up whatever was there,” he said.

“For who?” I asked.

“For whoever pays me,” he said.

“So who was paying you?” I asked.

“Same guy that always does,” he said.

“And who’s that?” I asked.

“Sid, the big dude in the green car,” he said.

“Could you be less specific?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, “but that’s probably less specific enough.”

We were obviously getting nowhere fast.

“Maybe we should go back there to refresh your memory,” I said.

“My memory is fresh enough,” he said. “Plus I don’t think you really want to be guilty of kidnapping.”

“You’re right,” I said and I once again sat there for a second, trying to collect my thoughts.

“OK, get out,” I said after a bit. “This is stupid.”

“What?” he asked.

“Get out,” I said as I untied his hands. “I give up.”

“But ...,” he said.

“Get out!” I shouted and he did.

Then just as I was about to pull away, there was a tap on the driver’s window. For a second I thought it might be Blackbeard with the gun again but it wasn’t. It was Harvey.

“What do you want?” I asked him.

“Let’s talk,” he said as I looked at him confused and then motioned for him to get back in, only in the front seat this time.

“You need to get out of Mesquite while you still can,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I think this place is a mess and you don’t want to get tangled up in it,” he said.

“But I already am,” I said. “So tell me what was going on at Bear Watson’s ranch?”

“I was just cleaning up,” he said. “That’s what I always do.”

“Did you see Ben Watson?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“Who pays you to do it,” I asked.

“Like I said, some big guy in a green car named Sidney Leonard,” he said. “Which I doubt is his real name.”

“How long have you been doing this?” I asked.

“About two years,” he said. “He pays me real well and tells me to keep my mouth shut.”

“So if you’re just cleaning up, how do you know that they are hiding anything?” I asked.

“Because I know some of the people involved are cops,” he said. “And sometimes I run across remnants of blood and drugs and things.”

“Was there blood at Bear Watson’s place?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.

“Yes,” he said.

“Where”? I asked.

“On a rug,” he said.

“But you don’t know where the blood came from?” I asked.

“Don’t have a clue,” He said. “I never do.”

“Do you think it was Ben’s blood?” I asked.

“Could be,” he said.

That’s when I squeezed in another question, which for me had a much more personal side.

“You board a horse over at Chris LaDuke’s,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I do it for my niece.”

“Is Chris tangled up in this mess in any way?” I asked.

“Not that I know of,” he said.

“Does she date anyone that you know of?” I asked. “In other words, is she seeing anyone regularly, like a sheriff’s deputy who might be tangled up in this mess?”

“Joe Reichert?” he asked. “He’s a jerk. She dumped him months ago.”

“But he was at her house today,” I said.

“Doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “He’s always trying to get her to get back together with him.”

“Do you think it will happen?” I asked.

“Not a chance,” Harvey said. “She’s too smart for him.”

We then chatted just a bit more. Harvey got out and I drove over to my friend’s house to drop off the car and, if possible, get a rental car and get out of town. Fortunately, he was home when I got to his condo.

His name was Craig, he was big-boned, at least six-foot, four-inches tall and packed enough pounds to tip the scale at just short of 300 pounds in a 200-pound kind of way.

“I thought maybe you’d left town already,” Craig said.

“With your car?” I asked.

“It’s not exactly a Mercedes,” he said. “If you had it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. In fact, you can have it if you want.”

“Free?” I asked.

“Free plus one-hundred bucks,” he said.

“Sold,” I said and handed him the cash.

“I’ll give you the title,” he said and started digging through a desk that was just off of his living room.

That’s also when I debated on whether to fill him in on the events of the past few days and in the end decided to give him the abbreviated version, the one that involved meeting Chris and letting him assume that she’d occupied my attention during the time that I’d been there.

We had a beer and then another one on his patio, talked about old times and then had another beer.

His father, a tractor implement dealer and mine, a rancher, were friends and they had been involved in some business dealings over the years and our families had grown close as a result. We’d had plenty of good times together in our youth.

“Let’s go to the Virgin River Casino,” Craig said and off we went in his car, a big, black, four-door suburban that looked like it’d just been driven off the lot.

Craig sold real estate during the winter months in Mesquite and had done pretty well, having sold quite a few condos, townhouses and single-family homes in addition to investing in a few properties for himself and renting them out. In the summer months he went back to our home state, North Dakota, where he owned farm and ranch land that he mostly leased out and also collected mineral-rights checks from oil companies who were drilling there.

In the meantime, based upon what Harvey had told me about Chris and the status of her relationship with Joe Reichert I suddenly felt less compelled to leave town quite as quickly, which was both a good and a bad thing.

“There’s good money in it,” he said, referring to the real estate market in Mesquite, “along with plenty of headaches.”

Money seemed to grow on trees for Craig. He was either real smart or real lucky and, at the same time, wasn’t above cutting a few corners here and there, when it came to things like the IRS, always stretching the envelope just a bit.

Once at the Virgin River, we bellied up to the bar, which happened to be the longest bar in America, and Carlos, my second-favorite bartender in town gave Craig a rum and Coke and me a beer and Craig put a $20 bill into the little gambling machine built into the bar in front of him and I sipped on my beer and watched the crowd behind us through the mirror in front of us.

It was also then that I began to once again think about the last tree, the key the old man had given me and about the box that was supposedly buried there and I knew that I’d soon be out there, to Bear Watson’s ranch, to once again to try find out what it is that might be buried there. The curiosity was just too much to take.

I also thought about what Harvey had revealed about Chris’s relationship with Officer Reichert and realized that I might have been a little too harsh in my judgment of her. So I pulled my cellphone out of my pocket, dialed her number and just as it began to ring, I happened to glance toward the front door of the casino. That’s when a familiar face came barging through the door.

It was Bernadette Watson and she had someone who looked a little bit like her with her.

Chapter 26

I’d never met her brother Ben but when I saw Bernadette Watson barge through the front doors of the Virgin River Casino accompanied by a young male, I assumed that it might be him because he looked a little like he had some of her genes. In fact, he looked like a slightly smaller version of his uncle Bear Watson, including the gorilla-like slouch, but without the dirty white hat.

She didn’t seem to see me at first and almost walked by but then noticed me at the last second, stopped, introduced me to who was indeed her brother and then I introduced both of them to my friend Craig, who was sitting beside me belly up to the bar gambling on the machine built into it.

Beyond that, I didn’t really know what to say because I didn’t think they’d really want to talk about everything in front of Craig. Not to mention I immediately sensed Bernadette and Ben were acting as though life was just peachy anyway and that none of the questionable events of the recent past had even transpired; like Bernadette having been distraught over Ben’s disappearance and then having him suddenly resurface.

“How’s life?” I asked.

“Cool,” Bernadette said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Really,” she said and I felt a little like they were talking in a different language; one that I didn’t quite understand.

“How are things at the ranch?” I asked Ben.

“Interesting,” he said.

“Interesting as in good?” I asked, “Or interesting as in something short of that.”

“Just interesting,” he said, answering my question like a press secretary trained to talk out of the side of his mouth. That or both he and Bernadette had just stopped at the store and bought themselves a couple of lobotomies.

Which made me feel a bit frustrated, slightly shocked, mystified and not sure how far to push it so I didn’t push it at all and instead thought I’d throw out a couple of zingers to see what kind of reaction I could get.

“I hear you took a little vacation,” I said to Ben.

“No,” he said, “Not really.”

“Oh,” I said, “You weren’t gone for a couple of days?”

“Just busy,” he said.

“Like a beaver?” I said.

“Or two,” he said and I smiled but he didn’t so I looked into his eyes in hopes of reading his soul and he quickly looked away, so then I decided to quiz Bernadette instead.

“Just saw your boyfriend,” I said to her.

“MY boyfriend?” Bernadette asked.

“No, Ben’s,” I said.

“That’s funny,” she said.

“Kind of funny,” I said and looked at Ben to see if he thought it was funny but he didn’t or else he hadn’t heard me. Then again, it wasn’t the first time someone had misfiled my attempt at humor in the smart ass folder.

“Yes, I saw Harvey,” I said.

“He’s just a friend,” Bernadette said.

“But he IS a boy?” I asked.

“Yes he is,” she confirmed.

“So then he’s a boyfriend,” I said.

“I suppose so,” she said, “Just like Craig is a boy who happens to be your friend.”

“Good point,” I said. “I get so confused with these modern terms.”

“Yes,” she said. “They can be complicated.”

“Much like life itself,” I said.

“Amen,” she replied and I ordered us all a beer but they didn’t stand there long enough to finish them and instead said “see you later,” took the beers with them and disappeared around the corner with me glancing in their direction long after they’d disappeared from sight.

“Strange conversation,” Craig said.

“Puzzling,” I replied.

“Is there something you want to tell me?” he asked.

“It’d take a week,” I said.

“Then give me the abbreviated version,” he said.

“OK,” I said, “someone’s killing people here for some reason.”

“Is that new news?” he asked.

“Probably not,” I said.

“And you’re involved?” he asked.

“Not really,” I said. “But I’m on the fringe.”

“Never liked fringe,” he said. “It’s better to be all the way in or out. Fringe is for Dale Evans and her cowgirl friends. You need to make a decision.”

“You’re right,” I said.

“Sometimes I am,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Where do you want to go?” I asked.

“The 19th Hole,” he said.

“Lead the way,” I replied.

No, for some reason, the 19th Hole was packed and I tried to figure out why but the crowd was too diverse to credit it to one dominant event like a golf tournament or convention so I concluded that it was just one of those nights when the stars were properly aligned.

We bellied up to the bar and Craig ordered us a couple of beers.

“Do you know each other?” asked Phil, my favorite bartender.

“Since forever,” Craig said.

“Same hometown,” I added. “Why?”

“One of you is all about rodeo and the other is pretty citified,” he said.

“He denies his roots,” I said.

“And he landed on his head too many times,” Craig said.

“Nice summary,” Phil said and we tapped our beer bottles together in some sort of salute and, in the midst of doing so, a young lady stumbled over and looked into my eyes, taking time to focus before saying anything.

She had black hair, cut in some sort of cute bob, beautiful blue eyes and really tight jeans tucked into big, brown, high-heeled boots.

“You’re that guy aren’t you?” she asked.

“Probably not,” I said.

“You punched that big guy last night,” she said.

“Not my most brilliant move,” I said.

“But really hot,” she said.

“He’s a cop,” I said.

“He was huge,” she said.

“He still is,” I replied.

“You popped him a good one,” she said, “and I loved it.”

After having had a number of beers and gone through what I’d gone through in Mesquite over the last few days I was more than ready for some positive feedback from anyone, much less a highly attractive, saucy, inebriated, athletic-looking babe.

“I may not be smart,” I said, “but I am entertaining.”

“You can say that again,” Craig said.

“Do you live here?” she asked me.

“I’m here and I’m alive,” I said, “so yes.”

“Love your buckle,” she said.

“It comes with injuries,” I said.

“Did you rodeo?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “And do you have a name?”

“Shayna,” she said.

“And you are from ... ?”

“Wisconsin,” she said.

“What brings you here?” I asked.

“I moved here with a boyfriend,” she said, “who is no longer my boyfriend.”

“Since when?” Phil the bartender asked. “I saw you with a guy here last night.”

“Since last night,” she said. “He’s a jerk.”

“Isn’t love grand,” Craig said.

“Here, here,” Phil said and we all tapped our bottles and glasses together again.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Shayna.

“Don’t be,” she said. “It’s better this way.”

“What do you do?” I asked.

“Nothing yet, but I hope to get a job at a local dentist’s office. I’m a dental assistant,” she said and then immediately looked at my mouth and I immediately closed it for no reason.

“Would you like another drink?” I asked.

“Or two,” she said and smiled and I smiled too.

“You have nice teeth,” she said.

“They’re false,” I said.

“Really?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

She hung with us for a couple of beverages and then I asked her if she liked to dance and she and I ended up taking a cab back to the Virgin River Casino where they have a dance floor and usually a country western band that keeps things lively. Craig said he’d probably meet us over there later.

“Will your friend be OK?” I asked her in the cab on the way there, referring to the girl she’d claimed to be with at the 19th Hole, who was seated with a group of people at the other side of the bar.

“Won’t even miss me,” she said.

The first song was a slow one so we two-stepped through it, nice and close and then switched to a country style swing dance when the band went into a catchy, fast-moving tune.

She could dance and she was pretty, smelled exceptionally good and didn’t seem to be in mourning over the breakup of her relationship with whomever he was.

We danced for quite a few songs and then decided to take a break and went out into the casino where there were a lot of people gambling.

“Should we have another drink?” I asked her.

“Maybe one more,” she said and we went up to the longest bar in the world to order and suddenly heard a commotion on the other side of the casino, near the restaurant.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Probably a fight,” I said, “Maybe we should just get out of here.”

“Good idea,” she said and we made our way toward the front door, which was not too far from where the scuffle had taken place.

Just as we were going out, a police car pulled up and Officer Black got out.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“A stabbing,” he said and rushed inside.

An ambulance then arrived and paramedics quickly popped out and also ran inside. We hailed a cab and had him take us back to Craig’s place where my car was. The lights were on in Craig’s house but I didn’t bother to knock.

“Where can I take you?” I asked her as we stood next to my car.

“Where would you like to?” she asked and I immediately thought of Chris and wondered if I was venturing into dangerous territory.

“It’s late,” I said, “we could go somewhere and have a snack or we could go to my place or your place and talk.”

“I don’t have a place,” she said. “I’m staying with my friend.”

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“I guess that leaves my place,” I said and we got in the car and left.

When we got to my place, I opened a bottle of white wine and was about to hand her a glass but she said “wait a minute” and kissed me.

Not a quick peck on the cheek or lips but a real kiss that proved she might possibly be a world champion and I was beginning to feel guilty for some reason.

That’s when someone knocked on the door and I opened it.

“Hi,” Chris said.

Chapter 27

I didn’t know what to do. Naturally, I felt as though I’d put myself in a compromising position even though I wasn’t exactly sure where I was in terms of having any kind of relationship with Chris.

We had not talked since I left the hospital, ran into Joe Reichert, the giant sheriff who I saw leaving her house and then stormed off.

Of course I assumed the worst at that moment; the worst being that she had been lying to me about the status of her relationship with the giant and I reacted stupidly. After that, in my mostly pointless discussion with Harvey, he seemed to shed new light on things when he revealed that Reichert was in relentless pursuit of Chris and she was the victim of that pursuit, not his lover.

Mostly I took off in a rage to put distance between myself and the situation so that I could think, although I wouldn’t say that my thinking was anything close to being clear at the time.

At any rate, I ignored her calls and assumed that, by then, I had been put in the “jerk” category by her and would probably never see her again. After all, I had only been in town for days, literally, so there was really nothing that could be considered long term or especially meaningful because meaningful things took time didn’t they?

“I thought maybe your cellphone was broken because you haven’t answered any of my calls,” she said.

I had quickly opened the door and slipped through it, leaving it partially closed behind me so neither Shayna nor Chris would see each other. But Shayna could certainly hear the conversation so anything I said to Chris that might reveal we were an interested couple would be hurtful to Shayna I assumed, even though we’d only known each other a few hours. I half expected her to stick her head out at any moment.

Either way I was in a less-than-appealing situation that was destined to end badly and was clearly trying to delay the inevitable but knew I’d soon be absorbing a beating of some kind from both parties.

Then again, how do you convey to someone, in this case Chris, that there was nothing in life you’d rather do at that moment than spend time with her — especially when you have another girl in your hotel suite who is very attractive and sipping on a glass of wine? I was in a no-win position and the best I could hope to accomplish was to somehow limit the damage.

I wanted to hug Chris and tell her that she looked beautiful but the situation didn’t seem to allow for that. Nor had I ever been an expert when it came to saying the right things at the right time, so I resorted to spouting out meaningless diatribe that I knew was destined for failure.

“Sorry,” I said. “I might have incorrectly interpreted the situation.”

Now I read somewhere that saying you were sorry to a woman, despite the fact the it might be heartfelt, was a really dumb idea and I couldn’t remember exactly why, but as soon as I said the word “sorry,” I wanted to reel it back in like a bad fly fishing cast and immediately start over.

But it was too late.

In addition, the fact that I had admitted I’d misread a situation combined with my immediate emotional reaction, leaving her place in a mini-rage, had probably revealed too much about how I felt about her too soon and she was either going to be slightly impressed or highly put off or repulsed by it. I assumed the latter.

“So you purposefully didn’t answer your phone?” she asked and I wondered how I could possibly answer that question correctly and intelligently without putting a noose around my neck. I quickly concluded that I couldn’t.

“That’s not the point,” I said, which was conveniently vague and yet at the same time honest, if that’s possible.

“What is the point?” she asked, which was probably the only question she could have asked at that moment and it was also a question that was on par with her having dug a grave and put me at the side of the hole simply waiting to be pushed in. My answer to that question, no matter what it was, would be the last shove.

So I figured that I had two choices: I could somehow go on the offensive or simply tell the truth. But going on the offensive seemed less than honest, so I decided to tell the truth which would probably kill any hopes of a relationship right there. At the same time, I felt I needed to close the door behind me to shelter Shayna from the truth even though that felt like the wrong thing to do too.

“I was hurt,” I said. “I thought you had lied to me about your relationship with Reichert.”

As I said it, I studied her eyes to try read in advance what her reaction might be before she responded verbally and I detected a hint of anger.

“Thanks for your confidence,” she said.

That response, I knew, put me at a fork in the road. I could react with a hint of anger and frustration, which would amount to me going totally on the offensive, or I could retreat and beg for her forgiveness for having shamefully not trusted her. Again, neither was a winning formula.

“Look,” I said, “a man, in this case the size of a gorilla, who you admitted to having a relationship with, exits your house in a manner that makes it appear as though he does it every day. And, oh by the way, he was putting a shirt on as he is exiting.”

“But,” she said.

“Tell me that isn’t a perfect formula for setting me up to assume the worst?” I added. “Not that I deserve to assume the worst because, after all, I’ve only known you for a few days.”

For some reason I was proud of my statement, not so much because of the statement itself but because it seemed to put her back on her heels, in retreat mode and take most of the anger out of her eyes.

Unfortunately the anger in her eyes was quickly replaced by sadness and I knew the last part of my statement, the part about having only known her a few days had devalued our relationship and had been unnecessary and improper. I suddenly hated myself for having said it.

After all, this girl had stayed by my side at the hospital all night the night before and deserved for me to show some faith in her, no matter what. I wanted to hug her and make any pain that I caused to go away.

“I wasn’t there,” she said and her eyes began to tear up.

“What?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter what he did,” she said, “because I wasn’t there with him.”

Sometimes the truth can be so sharp that it’s like a dagger that is run straight through the heart. I wanted to die or be whipped and drug through miles of desert cactus because Chris was the last person in the world that I wanted to hurt and I realized then that she probably deserved someone better than me.

We clearly had feelings for each other. But in situations like this, people become so stupid and incapable of the type of clear communications that can solve any dilemma and instead let pride, anger, insecurity and who knows what else build up a wall that, with time, becomes harder and harder to tear down.

By that time I had almost forgotten that Shayna, someone who had just ended a relationship with a boyfriend and was probably also carrying around over-sensitive nerves, was still inside. That too was very disrespectful and showed that I was oblivious to the fact that a volcano was about to erupt at any moment.

I wanted to hug Chris and I began a subtle move to do so but she backed off a little and I quickly realized that doing so was mostly inappropriate.

I suppose I could have mentioned that I’d had a conversation with Harvey and that he told me Reichert, the gorilla sheriff, had for some time been a thorn in her side. But then I’d have had to explain why I was talking to Harvey and I didn’t feel I had the energy or that it was the appropriate time to get into it.

“You’re right,” I said to her instead and left it at that because I figured anything else I said would not be beneficial, pertinent or advantageous.

That elicited a softer look in her eyes and I suddenly felt like we’d finally reached the bottom rung of the ladder and were beginning our climb back toward the top.

For just a second, I had the urge to say that I was sorry again but thought better of it and instead said something that was certainly not in any way romantic but was very safe.

“You know I think the world of you,” I said.

“I think the world of you too,” she said.

“Even though you hardly know me?” I asked.

“Even though,” she said.

That’s when she approached me and gave me a hug. I gave her a big hug back and it felt really good, like it was the place I was meant to be. Then the front door of my hotel suite suddenly opened and there was Shayna standing with one hand on her hip and the other holding a wine glass.

“What’s going on?” she asked and Chris immediately pulled away from me. I knew there was nothing I could ever say that would fix the situation, so I just looked into Chris’s eyes. I will never forget the pain I saw there.

From then on, it would have been better if she had said something mean or yelled at me and did something that she’d later regret. But she didn’t.

She simply continued backing down the sidewalk with a look of shock on her face and then turned, walked toward her car, got in and sped away. I’d lost her forever. I knew.

“Did I say something wrong?” Shayna asked as my cellphone suddenly rang.

“No,” I said and looked at the caller ID, hoping it was Chris. Instead it was Bernadette and I answered immediately.

“My brother Ben has been stabbed,” she told me.

Chapter 28

I’d left the Mesquite hospital hours earlier only to return there intending to lend support to Bernadette and find out what kind of condition her brother Ben was in.

Once inside, I feared that the doctors and nurses would recognize me and throw me out for having been there too many times in too few days.

As it turns out, they might have wanted to but didn’t. Perhaps because I was talking to Officer Black, an authority figure and the first person I ran into once I got inside.

It was also then that I heard the distinctive roar of helicopter blades and suddenly felt a little like I was at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Vietnam or Afghanistan.

“Where’s Ben?” I asked Officer Black.

He pointed to the sky.

“Where are they taking him?” I asked.

“Las Vegas,” he said.

“Where’s Bernadette?” I asked.

“Driving there,” he said.

“By herself?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“That’s not good a good idea,” I said.

“No,” Black said. “But she couldn’t be convinced otherwise.”

I then grilled Officer Black on the details that led to the stabbing and it appeared there were few.

Ben and Bernadette were simply strolling through the casino and someone walked by and stabbed Ben in the abdomen and immediately ran out the door.

Bernadette thought that it was a male, having seen him out of the corner of her eye, but she couldn’t be certain because she had never really seen the guy at all or established eye contact. Nor had she seen what he might have been wearing and Ben was in no shape to lend assistance to the investigation.

For me, based upon what I’d seen going on in Mesquite, it could have been anyone for any reason because nothing had made any sense anyway.

Mostly I had to assume that it was somebody who was paid to get rid of Ben because he knew too much about all that had transpired regarding the murder of Bear Watson, things that’d gone on at the ranch, and ultimately the last tree, the box and the key.

I wished that I had asked Ben about all of that when I’d had a chance. But I didn’t know that our chance encounter at the casino earlier might have been the one and only time that I’d see him alive.

At that moment I couldn’t help but think about how Ben had been hiding at the ranch somewhere when I had been there; watching me walk around, even inside the house. It made me feel a little creepy.

Despite that, I knew I had to go out to the ranch again and dig around and find the box by the last tree because my curiosity was pulling me there like a water pond in a desert attracts thirsty cows.

But when should I go, I wondered? When would it ever be safe? And should I go to Las Vegas first to lend support to Bernadette?

Maybe I could go to Las Vegas, lend support to Bernadette, be there to help Ben pull through nicely and then I could ask him everything he knew about the old man that had died in the over-turned pickup truck, his uncle Bear’s death, what led to it, the last tree, the key and the box. Then I could go out to the ranch, having a better idea of what I was doing.

Heck, Ben might even tell me everything I needed to know and save me a trip. Yep, that sounded like a great plan, but not so great if Ben didn’t pull through.

“Did you see Ben and Bernadette at the casino earlier,” Officer Black suddenly asked me, he having seen Shayna and me exiting the front door when he entered the casino, responding to the “stabbing call.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Did you see anyone with them or hanging out nearby who you think might be a stabbing suspect?” he asked.

“No, quite the contrary,” I said, “there was no one near them and they were acting as if life couldn’t possibly be better.”

His comments prompted me to think about how much simpler life would have been if Shayna and I had gone over to the site of the stabbing after we’d seen Officer Black, discovered that it was Ben who had been stabbed, and went with Bernadette to the hospital instead of going to my place.

Then we wouldn’t have been at my place when Chris arrived, she wouldn’t have seen Shayna posing in the doorway with a glass of wine and I wouldn’t be in the position of probably having seen Chris for the last time. But that’s not the way it went.

Instead my new but intriguing relationship with Chris was in total disarray, which was not unlike how many of my relationships had gone in the past.

It was painful and it also made me wonder if it was time that I dramatically altered my lifestyle. Maybe I simply needed to become a much better person. I was starting to beat myself up again.

“Is this the way life usually is in Mesquite?” I asked Officer Black.

“How’s that?” He asked.

“With people dying all the time,” I asked, “Or getting stabbed?”

“No,” he said, “most of the trouble started recently. In fact I can tell you the exact day.”

“When was that?” I asked.

“The day that you arrived,” he said and that sent me into a mental spin.

I really wanted to escape from Mesquite. On the other hand, I really wanted to solve the great mystery that I’d driven into.

If I could only learn more about the old man that’d died in the overturned pickup truck, I could learn a whole lot more about the situation, I figured. But no one knew anything about the old man or his death. He was a figment of my imagination and everything at his accident site had been cleaned up.

Suddenly, I longed to see Bear Watson again so that he could confirm the old man’s death because he and I were bound together by that lone mishap. We were the only ones that had been there, except for one other thing: the key. The key had also been there.

That is, unless Ben knew something about it! Maybe Ben could also confirm it! That was the good news. The bad news was that Ben might have been stabbed because he knew something about it. Did that also say something about MY future destiny? I shuddered to think about it.

It was late. I was getting tired, hungry and really lonely. It’d been a long day.

I’d dropped Shayna off on the way to the hospital. She was staying at her friend’s house, the one that’d been with her at the 19th Hole bar.

“Did I say something wrong?” she asked me after she’d come to the door at my place with her glass of wine and made herself known to Chris.

“No,” I said, “I usually orchestrate my own demise.”

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said and that’s when I asked her where I could drop her off because I needed to visit a friend at the hospital.

“Will you call me soon?” she’d asked when she got out of my car.

“Sure will,” I’d said, mostly lost in thought and thinking that I’d probably never do so.

But that was then. Now suddenly, in my state of loneliness, I contemplated giving her a call again even though I’d only dropped her off minutes before. Either that or I would go to the hospital in Las Vegas.

I was really too tired to think straight and knew that I should probably just go to bed. In fact, the more I thought about it the more my bed seemed like an oasis.

“Where are you going now?” Officer Black asked me.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I want to know in advance where the next episode might take place,” he said.

“That’s a low blow,” I said.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Besides,” I said, “these problems started with the death of the old man out by Bear Watson’s ranch. I was simply the one that happened upon the accident.”

“What old man?” Officer Black said, “The one that is a figment of your imagination?”

“That’s the one,” I said.

“I can’t do much with figments,” he said.

“Have you tried?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “because the police manual states specifically that we concentrate on evidence and not deal with figments.”

“It does?” I asked.

“In so many words,” he said.

“Sounds like a misinterpretation to me,” I said.

“Impossible,” he said.

“Nothing’s impossible,” I said.

“That’s possible,” he said and I said goodbye and went to my car in the hospital parking lot.

As I started my car I examined my choices: go to bed, call Shayna or go to Las Vegas. Then again, maybe there was a fourth option. Call Chris.

That’s what I really wanted to do. But I couldn’t.

Or could I?

Relationships are so weird, I thought to myself. There are all of those games that you have to play. For example, I had to contemplate what Chris would think if I did call her and I also had to contemplate what she’d think if I didn’t. Because who knew what she really wanted me to do?

Mind reading would be such an advantage in a relationship, if only I could do it, I concluded. Then again, I didn’t even know what I wanted in life, so what would it benefit me to try to figure out what was going on in her mind if I couldn’t even figure out what was going on in mine?

Part of her probably wanted me to call and part of her probably wanted me not to because she couldn’t trust me anyway. That’s what she had no doubt concluded.

As for me, when it came down to it, I knew 100 percent what I wanted to do. I wanted to call her. So I did and it rang for a long time and then, like every cellphone, it asked me if I wanted to leave a message.

“No thanks,” I said and hung up.

Naturally after I’d done so, I wished I hadn’t called at all and even felt a little embarrassed at having done so. I don’t know why. Except that I’m sure it had to do with thinking that she saw that it was me calling and decided not to answer. That’s a pride thing, isn’t it?

At any rate, I couldn’t sit in my running car all night, so I turned on the lights and was about to put it in reverse when I noticed something sitting on the hood and got out to get a closer look.

It was a bloody knife.

Chapter 29

I’ll say this about my time in Mesquite. I hadn’t spent much of it alone.

Maybe that was a good thing and, then again, maybe that was a bad thing. Because sometimes you need solitude to think things through and I hadn’t thought much of anything through.

As it turned out, that was a good thing — at least that night when I found a bloody knife on the hood of my car parked outside of the Mesquite hospital. Otherwise, if I hadn’t spent all of my time with Shayna or someone that night, I might have been a suspect in a murder case. A murder case, that is, if Ben Watson didn’t pull through.

When I got out of the car and walked to the front of it, I wasn’t sure what it was sitting there reflecting light at first. I soon discerned it was a knife and not only a knife, but a bloody one that looked like it came from a kitchen drawer in my hotel suite.

Of course, other people lived and stayed at that hotel so it could have come from their kitchen, since the hotel itself supplied the silverware. But if I was to bet, I’d bet there was one missing from my silverware drawer and not only that, I’d bet it had my fingerprints on it somewhere. Why else would it be on the hood of my car unless it was meant to intimidate or implicate me?

Then again, maybe it wasn’t the knife that had been used to stab Ben Watson. And maybe gold apples grew on silver trees.

Suddenly, another thought occurred to me. If it wasn’t there when I first pulled up to the hospital, then the “stabber” had put it there only minutes ago and was still in the area.

“Look behind you stupid,” I said to myself. “He might stab you.”

“No he won’t,” I replied.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because his knife is sitting right here,” I said.

“Except …” I replied.

“Except what?” I asked.

“Except he might have stolen two knives,” I said.

“Good point,” I replied.

“Thought you’d see it my way,” I said.

“Usually do,” I replied.

Besides being creeped out about the fact that the stabber might be in my immediate vicinity, I was a little creeped out about the fact he might have been in my suite stealing the knife in the first place. So I got back in the car and called Officer Black.

“What’s up now?” he asked as soon as he answered the phone.

“Just reporting the next episode,” I said.

“Does it never end?” he asked.

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” I said.

“I don’t think so,” he replied. “So where are you?”

“Still in the hospital parking lot,” I said.

“Doesn’t take you long to create another episode,” he said. “Can’t you at least get a block or two away?”

“Why waste time?” I said.

“Well,” he said, “I’ll admit, it sure cuts down on gas.”

“I knew you’d see it my way,” I said.

“What have you got?” he asked.

“A bloody knife,” I said.

“Hopefully it’s not stuck in you,” he said.

“Not this time,” I replied.

“Be right there,” he said.

Naturally, I hadn’t touched the knife because — like everyone else in America — I’d seen enough detective and police shows to be able to solve just about any crime. Except this one.

Officer Black popped out the front door of the hospital almost immediately and it wasn’t but about two minutes later that a couple of squad cars showed up with officer’s ready to canvas the area.

“I see you called in the cavalry,” I said to Black.

“Figured I better be prepared for whatever you came up with next,” he said as he bagged the evidence. “Not to mention that there is a suspect in the vicinity.”

“Good thinking,” I said.

“Good night,” he said. “Why don’t you go home and stay out of trouble?”

“Love to go home,” I said. “But trouble seems to follow me wherever I go here.”

“It’s not following you,” he said. “It is you.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“No problem,” he said.

Of course, Officer Black could have been a prick and insisted on hauling me in and questioning me since I was in possession of a knife possibly used to commit a crime and perhaps even a murder, literally minutes or an hour before. But he already knew I would have an alibi in Shayna, and it was also then that I was beginning to realize that he might be a whole lot smarter than me and smarter than the rest of the world realized.

“That knife is going to have my prints on it you know,” I said to him.

“I’m sure it is,” he said.

“But…,”

“Shut up,” he said, “I’m way ahead of you.”

When it came down to it, I wasn’t sure what to do next. I was going to go home to bed but the knife and any history that surrounded it kind of interrupted my plans simply because it sent some adrenaline soaring through my veins that otherwise wouldn’t be there, which didn’t help much when it came to inducing immediate, deep sleep.

I debated calling Chris again, but only for a millisecond before I quickly nixed that plan. Then again, there was always Shayna to call. She’d been in the mood to party anyway. Should I call her, I wondered?

“Na,” I said to myself, “just go home and sleep with a knife by your side.”

“I’m taking off,” I said to Officer Black.

“Don’t call me again,” he said.

“Even if I win the lottery and want to share it with you?” I asked.

“Then call me,” he said.

“But only then?” I asked.

“Exactly,” he said.

So I went home, parked out front, strolled inside and, sure enough, the door was closed but not locked. In some ways, I felt like I lived at Grand Central Station. A few steps further and I was in the kitchen and, sure enough, I could see there were only four knives in the left open silverware drawer where there once had been six.

“You’re going to have to limit the number of diners that you bring over from this point forward,” I said to myself.

“To four?” I asked.

“Yep,” I said.

“That’d be a major increase,” I replied.

“That’s sad,” I said.

“You can say that again,” I replied.

All things considered, I fell asleep really fast, despite the fact that I was feeling mostly insecure. But perhaps the chair that I’d propped against the doorknob to provide extra security had helped.

“You should live until morning now, at least,” I said to myself.

“Unless they somehow toss a grenade in here,” I replied.

“This isn’t World War II,” I said.

“Just seems like it,” I replied, and fell asleep. I was probably snoring shortly thereafter.

I woke up when it was still dark out, wearing my jeans, of course, but no shirt and rolled over to look at my cellphone for no particular reason. I saw that Chris had called me and that made me happy, but it was way too late to call her back.

In fact, the clock on the microwave said that it was 4:30 a.m., so I got up, went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth, because I’d literally passed out in the bed and hadn’t had enough energy to do so earlier.

Then I kicked off my jeans, crawled back into bed and looked forward to many more hours of slumber because, after all, it wasn’t like I had to get up and go to work or anything. In fact, I thought I might just sleep all the way through the entire next day and get up the day after.

That’s nearly what I did, waking up at 11:30 a.m. with my stomach growling and longing for the day to just be normal, knowing it probably wouldn’t be because, for example, I might learn that Ben had died during the night or Officer Black and his cavalry had captured the stabber.

That would be nice.

I immediately dialed Officer Black.

“Did you win the lottery?” he asked me.

“No,” I said.

“Then why are you calling me?” he asked.

“I have a couple of questions,” I said.

“Shoot,” he said.

“Do you know how Ben Watson is doing?” I asked.

“He’s in intensive care in critical condition in Las Vegas, but he is alive,” he said.

“Good,” I said, “Did you happen to catch the stabber?”

“No,” he said.

“OK,” I said. “Just so you know, I checked and I am missing two knives from the silverware drawer in my hotel suite.”

“Doesn’t surprise me,” he said.

“Anything I can do to help?” I asked.

“Stay out of trouble,” he said.

“That’s a tall order,” I said, “in this town.”

“Nearly impossible it appears, for you,” he said.

“Nothing’s impossible,” I said.

“Great, then stay out of trouble,” he said, and hung up.

I debated briefly whether to call Chris again but just decided to do it and let the chips fall where they may. Because sometimes you can overthink a situation to death and never get anywhere. So I decided to throw caution to the wind, as they say.

Naturally, she didn’t answer.

I took a long hot shower and then looked in the refrigerator for something to eat, which was a futile endeavor and set about to quickly think of what I could do to stop the incessant growling in my stomach.

All in all, I was feeling pretty good and well rested but lingering in the back of my mind was the thought that someone was trying to set me up or play with my mind by placing a bloody knife on the hood of my car. What would be next, I wondered?

That’s when my phone rang and I could see on the caller ID that it was Chris.

“Knock, knock,” she said immediately.

“Who’s there?” I asked.

“Me,” she said. “Open your door.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I’m right outside,” she said.

Chapter 30

“You should slow down,” Chris said to me.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because the highway is slick,” she said.

“I can handle it,” I said.

“You’re being cocky,” she said.

“Not cocky,” I said. “Confident.”

“Whichever it is,” she said, “you’re going too fast.”

“Relax,” I said, “I’ve got it under control.”

That’s about the time we began to slide sideways. Then the left front tire caught the edge of the ditch and the vehicle began to feel like it was going to roll, and all of a sudden it flipped over and then flipped again and that’s when my lights went out.

I woke up dazed, wondered where I was and realized I hadn’t been knocked out for very long because there were still weeds and sand particles that’d been kicked up by the rolling vehicle settling to the ground.

I could smell gas and that wasn’t good because it could easily ignite and blow us from there to Las Vegas. So I began to search for the best possible escape route. The roof of the vehicle was smashed down and left little room to crawl out the windows, and even then there were glass shards to deal with. Plus my arm that’d been stabbed was bleeding profusely and I could barely move my right leg because it was broken with a bone sticking through the skin.

Yet that was all minor compared to what I saw when I looked over at Chris because I knew immediately that she was dead. She had to be with all of that blood covering her and her skin being a weird color.

I could tell that she wasn’t in that body, the real her I mean. It just wasn’t the same and I cried floods of tears knowing that I’d not only lost her again but this time I’d lost her forever for sure.

Then I woke up.

“Bad dream,” I said to myself.

“What honey?” Chris asked.

“I just had a really bad dream,” I said.

“About what?” she asked.

“We were in a car accident,” I said, and she could apparently hear the trembling in my voice because she went into a carrying mode and began to rub my back.

“It’s OK,” she said, “because we weren’t in any accident. You can go back to sleep.”

“I need some water,” I said.

I got out of bed and went to the sink and let it run until it was cold.

We’d been spooning, as they say, with her sleeping behind me with her arms around me in my bed at the hotel suite and it felt very right. Except for the bad dream, because I knew what the bad dream meant.

It meant that I wanted something too bad. Her. I wanted her so bad that I knew I’d lose her and realized I’d have to pull back from the relationship a bit, uninvest as it were. But how do you make yourself love someone less. That was stupid wasn’t it?

Or maybe it was stupid for me to be so emotionally invested in her in the first place.

After all, I hadn’t known her for very long and once my pickup truck was fixed, I’d be leaving. Wouldn’t I? It was either that or I might end up taking a knife like Ben or having a tire shot out like the old man or who knows what else?

Whatever the case, we were together for the moment — except that it still felt to me like it could unravel at any time. Then again, maybe that was just some sort of insecurity on my part.

She’d shown up at my door at about noon and we’d talked and talked some more, clearing the air about Joe Reichert, the behemoth sheriff, and his presence in her life, and Shayna, the dark-haired cutie and her very short confused presence in mine.

Communication is such a magical thing, and yet it is so underutilized and abused by mankind because we are so afraid of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. We are communications cowards as it were.

So after four hours of “talking it out,” we ended up falling in love again or for the first time or whatever it was. But it was good, with the last part of our discussion taking place while lying on the bed, snuggling. Thank God for snuggling.

The dream ruined some of that, if only for a moment, by reintroducing the unknown and the dark side into what, until then, had been a blissful nirvana that she and I had sculpted. Suddenly there were, for me, cracks appearing in the sculpture — thanks to a silly dream. Then again, even if there is a dark side, it’d be a whole lot better to face things together as a team than apart. I took comfort in that.

“Quit being so damn serious,” I said to myself after gulping down the last bits of water in the glass. Being too serious had always gotten me in trouble, I knew. One should never take life too serious.

“What did you say?” Chris asked.

“I was talking to myself,” I said and laid back down next to her on the bed.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

It was 4:46 in the afternoon.

“Starving,” I said.

“Good,” she said, “let’s go eat.”

And eat we did, at a Mexican restaurant with an outdoor patio on one of Mesquite’s main drags in the late afternoon sun on what was an unseasonably warm day.

“What would you like to drink?” the waitress asked me.

“Water,” I said.

“Just water?” Chris asked.

“Time for a liver break,” I said.

“Good idea,” she confirmed and ordered a glass of water too.

We enjoyed a fine meal with almost no one else there, it being just before bustle time.

“Let’s go to Las Vegas,” she suddenly said.

“To do what?” I asked.

“Stroll around,” she said. “You can check in on Ben while we’re there.”

“Excellent idea,” I said.

“Let’s go,” she said.

“Right now?”

“Sure,” she said.

“You don’t need to stop at home?” I asked.

“Nope,” she said.

“You’re my kind of woman,” I said.

“I know,” she said.

“When did you know?” I asked.

“As soon as I met you,” she said.

“You must have a very high IQ,” I said.

“I do,” she said, “but I like you anyway.”

“Funny,” I said.

“I thought so,” she said as she hugged and kissed me. “Let’s roll!”

And roll we did, with me driving at her request, down to Las Vegas. It was a 75-mile jaunt in her big pickup truck, the one we’d taken to the restaurant and I wondered for a second if I’d locked the front door of my hotel suite and then remembered that everyone else in town had a key anyway — or so it seemed — so why bother.

It was going to be good to get out of Mesquite for a while, even if it was just a short while.

“Where should we go after the hospital?” Chris asked me.

“Are you a gambler?” I asked her.

“Not really,” she said. “Are you?”

“I must be,” I said. “I’m with you aren’t I?”

“Funny,” she said.

“I owed you,” I replied and she smiled.

Chris called Bernadette on the way to let her know we were coming to the hospital, and the report she got on his condition was that he was still in intensive care and very serious. But at least he’d gotten medical attention quick enough so that he’d not bled out. Yet, he’d been in surgery for quite some time while they attempted to patch up the wounds.

“If someone wanted to kill him, why would they do it that way?” I asked Chris.

“What do you mean?” Chris asked me.

“Why did they do it in such a public way?” I asked.

“Maybe it wasn’t they,” she said. “Maybe it was just some idiot.”

“Except that the idiot put the knife on the hood of my car afterwards,” I said.

“Good point,” she said. “Or did he just happen to pick your car?”

“Yes,” I said, “and a drug addict just happened to rob a convenience store because he was out of toilet paper.”

“Interesting analogy,” she said.

“A little weird,” I said, “but you get my point.”

“I might be the only one in the world,” she said, “but yes.”

“That’s why I love you,” I said.

“You love me?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“I think you do,” she said.

“I think you’re right,” I said.

“Good,” she said.

“What’s good”? I asked.

“Shut up,” she said.

Chris had GPS in her pickup truck and it directed us right to the hospital, a big one with a heliport on the roof.

Having already gotten his location in the hospital from Bernadette, we were in the intensive care unit in no time, too. But they didn’t let us get real close to him. Not that we needed to anyway.

“What are you guys up to?” said a voice that I recognized as Officer Black’s.

“Joining the party,” I said as I turned around and spotted both he and Bernadette walking up the hall.

The girls hugged when they got close to us. We said how sorry we were and then asked about Ben’s condition again, which they said wasn’t a whole lot different from what we’d heard before because bodies take time to heal, no matter what, and his was going to take its time.

Meanwhile, I figured that Officer Black was there for a couple of reasons, one of which was because he was friends with Bernadette. The other was to see what information he could glean from being there. My guess was that he couldn’t glean a whole lot, given the condition of his main witness.

But as the girls gabbed away, I shuffled Officer Black off to a short distance away to see what I could find out.

“Have you uncovered any new information?” I asked him.

“Not really,” he said, “just that the knife has your prints on it.”

“And no one else’s” I asked.

“Right,” he said.

“So whoever it was has some level of sophistication,” I said.

“Or follows orders well,” he said.

“Will you let me know if you discover anything else?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, “but there is one other thing, just between you and me.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s about Harvey,” he said, “Bernadette’s friend.”

“The cleanup guy?” I asked.

“Yep,” he said.

“What about him?” I asked.

“They found him this morning parked outside of town,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, “I don’t guess that’s a crime. What was he doing?”

“Nothing,” he said, “he was dead.”

Chapter 31

I wanted to leave the hospital right away. Because I knew that life was about to get very confusing and complicated for Bernadette Watson, once her friend, Officer Black told her what he’d told me; that they’d found Harvey, her friend and possibly boyfriend, at least at one time, dead in a car parked just north of Mesquite.

“He was stabbed,” Officer Black had told me.

“Just like Ben?” I had asked.

“And with the same type of knife,” he said.

“Which was probably the other missing knife from my silverware drawer,” I said.

“Probably,” he said.

“With my prints on it no doubt,” I said.

“We’re testing it now,” he replied.

I stared at the floor in disbelief and then glanced towards Chris and Bernadette, who were still gabbing about something and not paying attention to us, fortunately.

“When are you going to tell her?” I asked.

“No use waiting,” Officer Black said.

This meant Bernadette was about to have a double burden heaped upon her, with her having one uncle barely dead, one “friend” now dead and with a brother who had at least one foot in the grave.

“Don’t you think you should wait?” I asked him.

“My experience is that it’s always best to get all of the bad news out of the way at one time,” he said, “so that those who are most affected by it can work their way up from the bottom rather than work their way partially up and then be dropped back down again.”

It made sense I had to admit. I just didn’t really want to be around Bernadette when he told her, except that another part of me wanted to be there to help in any way I could.

She and Chris still had a nice conversation going and Bernadette even smiled a couple of times, so I hated to see that short respite from disaster be abruptly interrupted.

Officer Black walked over to her, put his arm on her shoulder and asked her if he could have a word with her. Chris looked at me and smiled, and was probably assuming Officer Black wanted to ask Bernadette a couple of questions and nothing more. Which left me to fill Chris in and fill her in I did. She immediately looked down the hall at Officer Black, who was by then holding onto a crying Bernadette Watson.

“Poor girl,” Chris said and then looked into my eyes.

Our fun night in Las Vegas was officially over and, then again, maybe it was never going to happen anyway.

For just a moment I wondered if Chris had thought of that in advance and was simply way ahead of me, knowing that we’d end up at the hospital and then, if things were bad, we’d be in a position to help Bernadette should she need help.

You can call it women’s intuition, insight or compassion. Whatever it was, Chris had made sure Bernadette would not be alone when the situation as it currently existed evolved. And it wasn’t but a second later that she and Bernadette were embracing, with Chris comforting her and revealing to me that I had been introduced to a very special woman.

So we stayed at the hospital the rest of that night in a room provided for “family.”

It was a simple room with couches, a table, a restroom and a kitchen sink. Chris and I slept on the floor with Bernadette on the couch. It looked more like a party suite in a hotel than a room for family members, but it was just down the hall from Ben’s location in intensive care and that was all that really mattered.

I had wondered to myself why there was only Chris and I there when there had to be other family members. Where were Ben and Bernadette’s other brothers and sisters? And where were their parents? After all, their parents couldn’t be that old, could they?

Officer Black filled me in when I asked him, and it turned out Ben and Bernadette were the only children of Arnold and Edith Watson, who were killed in a car accident when the kids were only 12 and 14. It was their uncle, Bear Watson, who then stepped up and raised the two, along with his wife, Kay, who died six years later of breast cancer. That’s when he, having temporary lost his mind, apparently, married the Las Vegas showgirl.

By that time, the kids were old enough to understand and adjust to Bear’s temporary stupidity.

So Bernadette and Ben had no other family, at least nearby, and those they did have were distant relatives. Therefore soon, if things went the wrong way and Ben died, Bernadette would essentially be alone in this world and Chris somehow already knew that, knew how much that would be at the forefront of Bernadette’s mind at the time, and had made sure that we would be there when the worst happened.

I loved her a whole lot more for that than if we’d gone to a Las Vegas casino and she’d won $10 million.

Chris and I were lying on the hard floor covered in white blankets supplied by the hospital with each of us having two pillows propped under our heads.

Naturally, we tossed and turned all night and that was not good. But what was good was that Bernadette appeared to be sleeping like a baby on the couch.

Morning came much too early for me because, although it took me a while to get to sleep on that hard floor, once I did fall asleep I was ready to do so for eight glorious hours. After only four, Bernadette was up rummaging around and getting ready to shuffle down the hall to check on her brother.

Chris also got up. The girls left the room together and they soon discovered Ben was still alive and, naturally, if he’d have had any problems, the nurses would have alerted us to that fact during the night anyway. But still, it was good to have it confirmed that he was sharing the planet with us.

I tried to clean up the room as much as possible in their absence. And myself. Despite not having my own toiletries or having the option of taking a shower. I then strolled down the hall, only to find them hanging out near the entrance to the glassed in intensive care unit.

“This is going to be a long haul,” I thought to myself when I reached the area where they were standing.

Ben wasn’t going to heal up overnight and Bernadette would have to have better accommodations than she currently had or she’d eventually end up in the hospital herself.

It was 6:30 a.m.

“He’s stable and maybe even a little better, according to the nurses,” Chris said to me while Bernadette stood nearby looking through the glass at her brother lying there with most of his face covered with an oxygen mask.

“Bernadette is going to get to talk to a doctor around 9:30,” she added.

“That’s great,” I said, trying to add something positive to the occasion.

“But he’s not yet out of the woods,” Chris added, and that I knew was an understatement. After all, he’d had someone fishing around in his innards with a knife only hours before.

“We should go get some food,” I said.

“I don’t want to leave Bernadette,” Chris said.

“No,” I said. ”I mean all of us. Let’s go downstairs and get some breakfast.”

“I don’t want to leave,” Bernadette said.

“You have to, because you have to take care of yourself,” I said. “It does no good for Ben to live if you kill yourself trying to make sure that he lives.”

“Good point,” she said.

“So let’s go,” I said.

“OK,” Chris said and Bernadette nodded.

“Especially since I hear the food in the cafeteria here is marvelous,” I said. “In fact I hear they brought in some incredible Tahitian chef to spice things up and people from the community are coming here just to eat.”

“Really?” Bernadette asked.

“No,” Chris said. “He’s full of it.”

“That’s what I thought,” Bernadette said and smiled.

I smiled too.

There were groups of other people in the cafeteria who were scruffy and had the stare. People like us confronted with problematic situations that served to put life into perspective whether they wanted it to not. Most of them were silently picking away at the food on their tray.

I had my typical breakfast of two eggs over-easy, hash browns, rye toast, orange juice and sausage. Meanwhile, the girls each had coffee, yogurt, some toast and a frosty roll.

“Where is the protein girls?” I asked. “I see little protein in that which you’ve placed upon your tray. You need protein to build a solid foundation for the day!”

“OK dad,” Chris said.

“You know I’m right,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “but…”

“But nothing,” I said, “Perhaps the both of you should get back in line and make better choices this time.”

“I know what I want,” Bernadette said.

“What?” I asked, “An omelet or steak and eggs?”

“Nope,” she said.

“What then?” I asked.

“A beer,” she said and then she smiled.

“Make it three,” I said and got off my soap box.

Back upstairs, we quickly checked in on Ben and then went back into our suite. I turned on the big-screen television while the girls took turns freshening up some more.

After being in there for about a half-hour, one of the nurses said that Ben was awake and wanted to talk to Bernadette. She insisted that Chris and I accompany her and the nurses dressed us in surgical garb, I guess to make sure that we didn’t bring any infections or diseases into the intensive care unit, and soon we were at Ben’s bedside.

He was completely motionless, with an oxygen tube going into his nose.

His eyes were open, although his lids were still heavy and it appeared that it was hard for him to stay awake, I assume because of the drugs they had him on.

Suddenly his hands moved and he motioned for us to get closer.

“It was Harvey,” he whispered.

“What?” Bernadette asked with her eyes opened very wise and a horrified look on her face.

“Harvey stabbed me …” Ben said, and Bernadette ran out of the room.

Chapter 32

We found Bernadette four blocks away. She was just walking and walking some more, trying to out walk reality I suppose.

Her friend Harvey had stabbed her brother. How would that make you feel? It had to be hard to digest.

Heck, it was hard for ME to digest! Because I’d spent some time with Harvey, holding him as a hostage in my car, trying to get the truth out of him and, in the end, I thought the guy was on the up and up.

Even after he stabbed Ben Watson, I still thought he was on the up and up and simply figured that if he’d intentionally done so that he had to be getting a whole lot of pressure from someone or somewhere: a WHOLE lot of pressure.

Not that I was letting him off the hook.

After all, what does it take to get a man to stab another man? Feed him booze or drugs? Promise to pay him an exorbitant amount of money and then, instead of paying him, knock him off? For some reason, I didn’t think Harvey was a terribly bad guy. Call it a gut feeling.

Or maybe they threatened to kill someone who was very close to him. Maybe they told him that if he didn’t kill Ben that they’d kill Bernadette? Who knows?

I had to be fantasizing and, at the same time, giving him too much benefit of the doubt. He’d tried to kill someone after all. That’s pretty crazy.

Then there was the other issue: The knife on the hood of my car.

Was it Harvey who had put the knife on the hood of my car? Or was it the person who had killed Harvey?

Obviously they were making sure that I was part of it all or at least that I was affected by it all.

Putting the knife there had to be some kind of scare tactic. After all, they could have killed me at any time, so why not do so instead of playing with my mind?

Then again, maybe it was Harvey who had put the knife there as some sort of signal. Maybe he was trying to tell me something? That might be why he used my knife.

Perhaps he was constantly being watched so he had to give me subtle hints. Could that be it? But what were the hints? Why not just tell me?

Another thought then suddenly occurred to me: If I hadn’t followed and forced Harvey into my car, he might still be alive. Because whoever it was that hired him for all those cleanup jobs and watched him from then on might have assumed that I had found out too much from him. Except that the way they had the situation set up, with him knowing very little about what he was cleaning up, seems to me like he didn’t really know anything anyway.

Oh man. It was much too confusing.

At any rate, when we came upon Bernadette walking briskly down the street, she was already being harassed by a carload of tattooed male gangbangers in an ’80s model Monte Carlo. So I pulled up behind them in my ultra-conservative four-door sedan.

I could see four of them in the car and knew that I was putting both Chris and myself in a bad position, but what else was I to do? Leave Bernadette to fend for herself amongst the wolves?

It would have been nice to have had a gun.

“Call the cops,” I said to Chris and she dialed 911.

At first, I thought that the gang bangers were so preoccupied that they might not notice us behind them — at least until the cops arrived but that wasn’t going to be the case.

I could see them talking amongst themselves in the car and then the two in the backseat looked back at us and flipped us the bird. That was a sure sign of trouble to come.

Shortly after that, they stopped the car at a bit of an angle — with the front tires closer to the curb than the back tires — and the gang banger in the right front seat grabbed Bernadette and another from the back seat popped out and walked toward my driver’s side window with one of his arms pinned to his side.

When he got to my window he raised that arm and pointed a pistol at my face.

“You got a problem mister?” he said to me.

“Really tired,” I said. “I had to pull over for a minute and rest my eyes.”

“I don’t think so,” he said.

I could hear Bernadette struggling up there against someone in front of their car and I figured that she was probably giving the front seat dude all he could handle.

“No really,” I said. “Plus I wanted to inspect something that my girlfriend was cleaning for me just to make sure that she’d done a good job.”

He looked for a minute at his buddy wrestling Bernadette and then looked back at me.

“Oh,” he said, “what was that?”

“Just this Smith and Wesson lightweight .347 Magnum I have pointed at you,” I said.

“You’re full of shit,” he said and looked over at Chris.

Chris, thinking quickly, held up a tissue and that seemed to cause him a moment of pause. In fact, it seemed to make him a whole lot more nervous.

“You see,” I said, “you might not be the only one with a gun in America.”

That’s when a police cruiser came around the corner behind us and Mr. Courageous, who’d just been pointing the gun at me, took off on a dead run across the street and the guy holding Bernadette did the same in the other direction.

Meanwhile, the cops pulled in front of the Monte Carlo, blocked them in and handcuffed the other two who were still in the car while another cruiser pulled up

“They’re not going to chase the other two guys?” Chris asked me as she began to crawl out of the car.

“They don’t really have to,” I said.

“Why not?” Chris asked.

“Because their buddies are going to turn them in anyway,” I said.

“Nice deduction Sherlock,” she said to me as she took off toward Bernadette.

“Elementary my dear,” I murmured to myself.

Post incident, Bernadette was in no condition to give the police a description of the perpetrators but I did, down to the ring and tattoos on the fingers of the gun hand.

“Sorry,” Bernadette said as we drove back to the hospital. “I put you guys in a bad position.”

“Yes you did,” I said, “not to mention yourself.”

“It’s all just so crazy,” she said. “It’s just a little more than I can bear.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It’s a little more than a small army can bear.”

“I think I need help,” she said.

“You’d have to be Superman not to,” I said.

Which brought up an interesting point: Bernadette was going to need some counseling, especially if her brother didn’t live.

“We’ll get you help,” Chris said and I was glad she did because I didn’t know a thing about how to line that up.

In the meantime, Bernadette had a childhood friend by the name of Cassie, who lived in Las Vegas, who called to offer her a bedroom for as long as she needed it. Apparently, Cassie had read about the stabbing in the Las Vegas newspaper and tracked Bernadette down to see how she could be of assistance.

We stayed with her the rest of that day until about 6 p.m. and Ben still hadn’t woken up again. Or, if he did, he didn’t feel compelled to tell us anything new. Although Bernadette did meet with the doctor, he had little to say other than that it would take time for Ben to heal and that was no real news at all.

So Chris and I took off for Mesquite, hoping to have some sort of relaxing evening, something that I’d not experienced since I’d been there.

“What should we do now?” I asked her.

“Drive to the airport and hop on a plane,” she said.

“To where?” I asked.

“Some exotic location,” she said.

“Like Las Vegas?” I asked.

“That’d be a short flight,” she said.

“Almost unnecessary,” I said, “Which would leave more time for fun.”

“Good point,” she said.

“In fact, we could go straight to a casino,” I said.

“And check into a room,” she said.

“Unless you have to check on your horses,” I said.

“And I should,” she said, “except that they can easily survive without me for another night.”

“So there you have it,” I said.

“That’s right,” she said. “Let the vacation begin!”

And begin it did at the South Point Casino, one of the few major casinos located on the south side of Las Vegas that was far away from the ruckus, bustle and traffic on The Strip.

I guess you could say we were trying to “get away.” Plus, we’d each been to that casino plenty of times before, with it having been one of the host hotels during the staging of the National Finals Rodeo — the Super Bowl of rodeo — which takes place in early December each year. So we checked in with no luggage and set out to begin our adventure.

“Let’s eat,” she said.

“Let’s,” I agreed, especially since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast with Bernadette and we slipped into a restaurant just off the main casino floor, plopped down and ordered grilled cheese sandwiches and soup.

“I hope Bernadette is alright,” Chris said.

“She might not be alright,” I said, “but I’m sure she’s fine with Cassie, if that makes any sense.”

“It does,” she said and then paused.

“I just hope that Ben pulls through,” I said.

“Do you think he will?” she asked me.

“Sure,” I said, “he’s made it this far.”

“Which isn’t very far,” she said.

“No,” I said, “but considering what he’s been through, I’d say that he’s probably a survivor.”

“I just hope we don’t get a call,” she said.

“From Bernadette?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, “because it’d more than likely be bad news.”

“That’s likely,” I said as the waitress came to the table with our food.

Just then, Chris’s cellphone rang and she grabbed it from her purse and looked at the caller ID.

“Who is it?” I asked and she held it up so that I could see who was calling.

“It’s Bernadette,” I said.

“It sure is,” she confirmed and then answered the phone.

Chapter 33

Ben had taken a turn for the worse. That’s what Bernadette had to say when she called us while we were dining at the cafeteria just off the main casino floor at the South Point Casino in south Las Vegas.

It looked like our mini vacation was about to end because, more than likely, we’d be heading back to the hospital to be with Bernadette again and I dreaded that, only because of what the outcome could possibly be.

“We need to go,” Chris said to me.

“That’s what I figured,” I said.

“Vacation is over,” she said.

“I prefer short vacations anyway,” I said.

“Me too,” she said.

“In fact, I don’t even really like vacations,” I said.

“That’s good,” she said.

“So this might be the best one I’ve ever been on,” I said.

“Glad I could be part of it,” Chris said.

“Wouldn’t have been the same without you,” I said.

“Thank you,” she said and rolled her eyes.

I was just trying to lighten the mood.

“Race you to the parking lot,” I said.

“You’ll lose,” she said.

“I can handle that possibility,” I said.

When the elevator doors opened to the intensive care unit at the hospital, Bernadette was in tears and Cassie was holding her because, of course, Ben had died.

“It was just too much for him to overcome,” she said.

In retrospect, doctors probably knew that it was going to be too much, especially since his insides had been reduced to hamburger here and there. Too often, we expect doctors to perform miracles when in most cases they are not miracle workers. We also continually ask “what if?” whenever somebody dies, as if dying wasn’t a part of living.

People die in the craziest ways. Most often not heroically and often times because of a mistake that they might have made behind the wheel or at work and its OK. That’s part of life. We don’t have to die in profoundly heroic ways.

For quite some time after we arrived at the hospital, we sat in a waiting area doing nothing except talking and Bernadette had obviously, at some point earlier, become resigned to the fact that her brother might not make it because she was quite composed or else she was in shock. It seemed more like composure.

“What can we do for you?” Chris asked her.

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m going to take care of things here and stay with Cassie tonight. Then I’ll drive back to Mesquite in the morning.”

I took that as our cue to leave. Not in a bad way at all.

Bernadette was getting confidence and strength from somewhere, I wasn’t sure where, but it appeared to be a good thing, and in leaving we were showing confidence in her assuredness. At least I hoped so.

So we left and drove back to the South Point Casino, since we’d already gotten a room there and bypassed the masses who were gambling, rode the elevator upstairs, popped the card in the key slot, fell inside our room, crashed on the bed, and laid there listening to each other breathe.

No talking. Just hugging and being close, me lying on my back, she with her head on my chest, rubbing my chest with her left hand, with me feeling her breath. Then she turned her head to press her lips against my chest and shortly after that we fell asleep with the darkness, or each other, making us feel secure.

Morning seemed to arrive in just minutes with bright Las Vegas sunshine streaming through the partially opened curtains by seven or earlier and despite the fact that we’d promised each other that we would sleep in, it looked like we might not. Then we did and more.

“We need to get back,” Chris suddenly said at about 10:30. “The horses might be running loose in the desert by now.”

“We can’t have that,” I said and we got up, showered and took off toward Mesquite.

On the way, I pulled in for gas at the turnoff to Bear Watson’s ranch. Chris used the restroom, I bought a bottle of juice and water for her and, as we were leaving, suddenly had an urge.

“Want to check something out?” I asked Chris.

“What?” she asked.

“The last tree,” I said.

“The last tree?” she asked.

“It’s just something at Bear Watson’s ranch,” I said.

“How long will it take?” she asked.

“Too long,” I said.

“But will it be fun?” she asked.

“Certainly more fun than checking on horses,” I said.

“Let me call my stable hands,” she said.

“Please do,” I said and within minutes we were off to Bear’s ranch.

Along the way, I found myself mourning for Ben even though I hadn’t really known him. I’d been so close to him, conversing, interacting not long before he was stabbed with a knife from my kitchen drawer. That was hard to digest.

I thought about him hiding in Bear Watson’s house, watching me walk from room to room the night that the two big sheriffs, dressed in black, had appeared on the scene.

I wanted to ask him a million questions. Find out what he knew. But it was much too late for that, wasn’t it? That information died with him. In fact, I felt that all of the information about what I’d become involved in since arriving in Mesquite was being killed off, and for what? I had to get to the last tree, just to learn something or anything, but taking Chris there with me was probably not a good idea.

“Maybe we should turn back,” I said.

“But we’re almost there aren’t we? Chris said.

“Yes,” I said, “but maybe we’re intruding where we shouldn’t be.”

“I’d like to see it,” Chris said. “I’ve never been there before.”

“It could be dangerous,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said, “but a lot of people are dying.”

“And you think it has something to do with the ranch?” Chris asked.

“I think it could,” I said.

“But you don’t know?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“So we should go there,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“To find out,” she said.

“I’d like to,” I said.

“Then we should,” she said.

“But I don’t want to put you in danger,” I said.

“I give you permission,” she said.

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“I demand it,” she said, “or I’m getting out, right here.”

“Really?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“Some threat,” I said.

“Just go there,” she said.

“OK.”

I began to look at Bear Watson’s ranch warily from as far as two miles away, looking for evidence of anything amiss, dangerous or out-of-sorts.

“Things look dead,” Chris said.

“That’s because everybody is,” I said.

“Is what?” she asked.

“Dead,” I said.

The place had a staleness to it and was already beginning to look like places look when they haven’t been lived in for a while. In other words, it was turning into a ghost ranch.

I thought about driving by one time just to make sure that no one was there but didn’t simply because I couldn’t see a single tire track or footprint in the sand in the ranch yard.

The screen door in back was partially hanging off of its hinges. Tumbleweeds were bunched up here and there. Nothing appeared to have been moved but a big sliding door on a barn had either fallen or been torn off of its hinges.

“What are looking for?” Chris asked.

“See that row of trees?” I said, pointing behind the barn.

“Yes,” she said.

“We’re going to dig around there a bit,” I said.

“For what?” she asked.

“A box,” I said.

“A box of what?” she asked.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” I said and parked next to the garage, looked inside for a spade, found one and motioned for Chris to follow me.

We walked along the row of trees, all the way to the end. Once there, I saw nothing that would indicate that there was anything buried next to the last tree. But I speared the ground with the spade anyway and kicked it deep into the soil with my heel.

I must have dug for 15 minutes on the west side of that tree, and in that time neither saw nor felt any evidence of a box of any kind and wondered if the old man had been delirious when he told me the key was for a box buried there.

So I began to dig around the tree, quite deep but not too deep.

Once I’d dug all around the tree and found nothing, I wondered for a second if someone had already been there and found the box. But the ground didn’t look like it’d been altered recently. Then again, the old man could have buried the box in the ’70s for all I knew and somebody had come along and dug it up in the ’80s.

“What do you think?” Chris asked.

“I think this is a lot of work,” I said.

“For nothing,” she said.

“For nothing yet,” I said.

“You need to go deeper,” she said. “Back where you began.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because that’s where it is,” she said.

“How do you know,” I asked.

“Because,” she said, “no one would bury something by a last tree if it wasn’t on the side opposite the other trees.”

“Really?”

“Maybe,” she said.

That’s when we heard a car traveling on the highway towards us. So we abandoned our work and went and stood behind the barn in case the vehicle happened to turn in.

“Are they slowing down?” Chris asked.

“I can’t tell yet,” I said.

“What if they do turn in?” she asked.

“Then we’re screwed,” I said.

“Or at least compromised,” she said.

“Which is a much more pleasant term,” I said.

But they didn’t and I dug some more on the west side of the tree as Chris suggested with still no results, and then decided to sit down, rest and try to determine my next course of action.

“Let me try,” Chris said.

“Try what?” I asked.

“Digging,” she said.

“Go ahead,” I said and she dug for a little while with little to show for it and then leaned on the shovel.

“Futile,” I said.

“Frustrating,” she said.

“Give up? I asked.

“Maybe,” she said.

“Or do you want to try one more time,” I asked.

“Is that a challenge?” she asked.

“No, that’s a question,” I said.

“Sure,” she said and sure enough, with one more thrust of the spade, she hit something.

Chapter 35

Ben’s friend Bennie lived nearby, as it turned out, just a couple of ranches down the highway. Ten miles to be exact, hidden behind a butte that made their ranch yard hard to see.

“We’ve been friends since high school,” Bennie said about Ben.

“So he probably hid at your place when everyone thought he had disappeared a few days ago,” I said.

“He wasn’t hiding,” he said, “but yes, he did hang out there for a while.”

“And Bernadette knew that?” I asked.

“Not at first,” he said.

“But she figured it out,” I said.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Did he say why he hung out there?” I asked.

“He hung out there quite often,” Bennie said.

“OK,” I said, “but did he mention anything about what was going on.”

“Everything,” he said.

“So you know everything?” I asked.

“I’ve always known everything,” he said, “or at least most everything.”

Bennie was kind of a frail-looking lad in his early 20’s. He wasn’t someone that you’d think grew up on a ranch in the desert, worked with cattle and piloted a tractor.

In fact, he was a computer geek, lived with his parents, pitched in a little at the ranch but mostly did high-tech side jobs for companies who needed backup work done but didn’t want to hire additional full-time staff. In other words, he was a highly intelligent underachiever with minimal goals and more than happy with his lot in life. He was also a little bit of a smart ass.

“Was that you on the highway a few minutes back,” I asked.

“Might have been,” he said.

“You’re not sure?” I asked.

“I was on the highway but I can’t account for everyone who was on the highway,” he said, “so you might have seen me or you might have seen someone else.”

“He’s the alien,” Chris said smiling.

“Did YOU see anyone else?” I asked him.

“No,” he said.

“So how did you get here?” I asked.

“I drove,” he said.

“But what route did you drive,” I asked.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because I want to determine if it was you I saw or someone else who might have a bazooka or canon and wanted to do us harm,” I said.

“A canon?” he asked.

“Work with me here,” I said.

“I came in the back way,” he said, “through the desert.”

“So you snuck up on us,” I said.

“Quite successfully,” he said and snickered.

“Let’s bury him in the hole,” Chris said very seriously.

“What?” Bennie asked.

“Just kidding,” she said and smiled. “I couldn’t resist.”

Bennie had noticed us messing around at the ranch and came over to investigate and, yes, he did a good job of sneaking up on us.

\But if we were bad guys, he’d have probably been in trouble, given the way he had so readily exposed himself to us.

“So tell us,” I said to him.

“Tell you what?” he asked.

“Tell us what was going on here with Ben and Bear and everything else that you know,” I said.

“But I don’t know you,” he said.

“Well then tell Officer Black of the Mesquite Police Department,” I said.

“I don’t trust cops,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because they’re dirty,” he said.

“Some are,” I said, “and some aren’t.”

“How can you tell the difference?” he asked.

“Good point,” I said. “I think Officer Black is clean.”

“I think so too,” Chris said.

“I’m not sure,” Bennie said.

Bennie looked a little scared. Like he needed a friend and I almost began to think he’d come to the ranch in hopes that we might be someone who would be on his side, so to speak.

“Can you tell us a little about what you know?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he said.

“Like what?” I asked. “What do you think you know?”

“I know who killed Bear Watson,” he said.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because I hack into things,” he said, referring to his computer proficiency. “Ben would tell me what he thought and that would point me in the right direction, and then I’d hack away.”

“So when Ben was hiding at your place, he wasn’t really hiding,” I said. “You guys were investigating and hacking?”

“That’s right,” he said.

“And that’s why Ben was stabbed?” I asked.

“That and other things,” he said.

“Doesn’t that make you nervous,” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Because someone might want to kill you too,” I said.

“And you,” he said.

“Why me?” I asked.

“Because you’re involved,” he said, “albeit accidently.”

“So you know who I am?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, “I’ve been watching.”

“With binoculars?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “online. I’ve been tracking conversations about you.”

“Who’s conversations?” I asked.

“I call it the network,” Bennie said.

“Sounds like the mafia,” I said.

“Or worse,” he replied.

“Why worse?” I asked.

“Because they are people you know and people we are supposed to be able to trust,” he said.

“Like civic leaders and judges?” I asked.

“And others,” he said.

“Like who?” I asked.

“Like Officer Black,” he said.

“What has Officer Black done?” Chris asked.

“It’s not what he’s done,” Bennie said, “It’s what he hasn’t done.”

“Well,” I said, “what hasn’t he done?”

“His job,” Bennie said. “He has let things happen.”

“So he’s guilty of inaction?” I asked.

“Precisely,” he said, “which is equal to the action in my book.”

“You’re kidding?” Chris said.

“No,” Bennie said.

“I’d love to hear more,” I said.

“Maybe someday,” Bennie said.

“But first you have to trust me,” I said.

“Yes,” he said and then he looked at Chris.

“And her too,” he said.

Bennie had walked up on us so I still didn’t know where his vehicle was and that was a good thing because suddenly there was another vehicle that was approaching on the highway, this time from the direction of Mesquite and Las Vegas.

“We need to get out of sight,” I said and we rushed into the garage, hoping that whomever it was had not spotted our movement. But rather than go all the way into the garage I peeked around the corner to keep my eye on the car and determine its intent.

“They’re slowing down,” I said to Chris and Bennie, who were nearby.

“What kind of car is it?” Bennie asked.

“An old green Chevy Impala,” I said. “It’s real old.”

“Then it’s OK,” Bennie said.

“Why?” Chris asked.

“Because it’s Oscar,” Bennie said, “Willard’s friend.”

“Who’s Willard?” I asked.

“Willard is the old man who died in the pickup rollover a little while back,” Bennie said.

“You know about that?” I asked him. “Finally there is someone else who knows about the old man who, besides Bear, can confirm my story?”

“Yes,” he said.

“He’s the one who gave me the key for the box!” I said.

“It’s a trunk,” Bennie said.

“Whatever,” I said. “Thank God I’m not the only one who knows about him anymore.”

“Oh, there are others that know too,” Bennie said.

“Like who?” I asked.

“Like Officer Black,” he said and then the green Chevy Impala pulled into the yard and Oscar got out holding a shotgun.

“It’s OK, Oscar!” Bennie shouted, and popped out of the garage to greet him as we followed.

Apparently Oscar and Bennie had formed a bit of a team, and Bennie had instructed Oscar to come to Bear’s ranch to make sure things were OK shortly after he had arrived, thus the reason for his confidence in sneaking up on us and readily exposing himself.

“I thought you were coming in the back way?” Bennie said to Oscar.

“I prefer grand entrances,” Oscar said.

“Even if those entrances get you killed?” Bennie asked.

“It looked pretty quiet,” Oscar said.

“It always does,” Bennie added.

Oscar looked like an old gold prospector with fairly long white hair and a thick white beard, a faded denim cowboy shirt, fat suspenders, old Levi jeans and dusty boots. A crumpled cowboy hat sat tilted back on the top of his head and I estimated his age to be somewhere in the mid-to-late 70s.

“What’s going on here?” Oscar asked.

“They dug up the trunk,” Bennie said and Oscar looked at me funny, or at least in a way that I thought was funny.

“Been meaning to do that,” Oscar said. “But I didn’t have the key. Do you?”

“Yes,” Chris said and held it up.

“Wonder where the other one is?” Oscar said.

“There were two?” Bennie asked.

“Yep,” Oscar said. “Didn’t know where either ended up.”

It was at that point that I could have told them that I had both keys, but for some reason I didn’t tell them. Probably because I’d found the second one on the ground at Chris’s stable by the horse pen where Butch Casper, the drunken steer wrestler, had been found dead, and I was still a little mystified as to why it was there and how it had gotten there.

“Let’s look in the trunk!” Chris suddenly said.

“I already know what’s in there,” Bennie said.

“Me too,” Oscar added.

“What’s in there?” Chris asked.

“You might not want to know,” Bennie said.

“Why not?” Chris asked.

“Because once you do you’ll be into this thing way too deep,” Oscar said, “and you might regret it.”

“Well who can resist at this point?” Chris asked.

“Still, my advice is to walk away,” Oscar said.

“Not a chance,” Chris said and I suddenly wished again that I’d never brought her to the ranch.

“You wait here,” I said to Chris, “I’m going to look inside.”

“Forget it,” Chris said. “We’re in this together.”

That’s when I heard the report of a rifle and shortly after that a bullet hit the side of Oscar’s car, went into the back door, right behind where he was standing and we all scrambled for the garage and made it safely inside with Oscar bringing up the rear.

To me, the fact that it had missed Oscar meant that whomever had fired the rifle was either a bad shot or they were firing some kind of warning shot. I wasn’t sure which would have been better.

“Oh my God,” Chris said.

“I told you,” Oscar said. “This ain’t fun and games.”

That’s when I looked around to see if there might be some kind of weapon in the garage that I hadn’t noticed the last time I’d hidden in there and instead noticed something else.

Bennie was gone.

Chapter 36

I wasn’t sure where Bennie had gone. There was no blood trail, so I knew he hadn’t been hit by a deflected bullet or anything like that. Plus, the bullet appeared to easily enter through the back door of Oscar’s car without any deflection.

Bennie was either a very scared bird in flight or he was on a mission. I hoped for the latter.

“How handy are you with that shotgun?” I asked Oscar.

“Handy enough,” Oscar said. “But obviously the range on this is a little short.”

“I know,” I said. “We need something else.”

“They’re not going to come after us anyway,” Oscar said.

“How do you know that?” Chris asked.

“Because if they wanted to kill us they would have snuck up on us, herded us into the garage and done it at one time rather than scatter us,” Oscar said.

“Or they wouldn’t have missed everyone with that last shot,” I said. “But we can’t be sure.”

“Exactly,” Oscar said.

“So what’s the point?” Chris asked.

“They are hoping that we are rookies at this game,” I said, “and that we’ll run and keep running.”

“So, are they watching this place at all times? Chris asked.

“Hard to say,” I said. “Probably not if they let us wander around here long enough to dig up the trunk.”

“Unless they wanted you to dig up the trunk for them,” Oscar said, “And then, when that was done, they thought they could scare you away.”

“Exactly,” I said.

“Is the trunk that important?” Chris asked.

“It’s a big piece of the puzzle,” Oscar said.

“So let’s look inside,” Chris said as I continued to scan the garage for another weapon of some kind.

“We need to make sure that the coast is clear first,” I said, “and that no one is approaching.”

“That’ll take time,” Oscar said. “There’s a lot of brush out there.”

“So we have plenty of time to look in the trunk,” I said.

“As long as someone is watching what’s going on out there,” Chris said.

“Right,” Oscar said. “I’ll do it.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“I’ve done it before,” Oscar said.

“Oh?” Chris said, “Where?”

“Vietnam,” Oscar said.

“You’re elected,” I said and Oscar crept over to the door and looked outside.

“Coast is clear,” he said.

Chris went over and opened the top of the trunk.

“Oh my God!” she said and quickly backed off and nearly ran out of the garage.

The stench was bad enough to make us all nearly vomit. Nevertheless, I crept close enough to see inside.

“It’s the old man!” I said, “The one from the overturned pickup truck who gave me the key.”

“Willard?” Oscar asked.

“Yes!” I said and quickly closed the trunk.

“No kidding,” Oscar said. “That’s not what used to be in there.”

“OK … What used to be in there?” Chris asked.

“Documents,” Oscar said. “Lots of them and maybe they’re still in there.”

“They’d put a body on top of documents?” Chris asked.

“The documents are in a metal box,” Oscar said.

“So we’d have to remove the body to find them,” Chris said, holding her hand to her mouth.

“Yes,” Oscar said.

“You don’t seem real broken up about your friend’s body being in there,” Chris said.

“This isn’t my first time,” Oscar said, “I already saw MOST of my friends die.”

“In Vietnam?” I asked.

“Yes,” Oscar said.

“Oh,” Chris said.

So as Oscar was scouting the horizon for movement, Chris was trying to decide whether to throw up or run away, Bennie was still long gone and I was trying to figure out if all of this was worth it? After all, I wondered, why was I really there?

It didn’t take me long to remember that the reason was simple. It was about justice. There was a wrong that had to be righted. If I could help with that I was in; all in.

“You watch outside,” Oscar said to me. “I’ll get Willard out and we’ll bury him properly. He’s a veteran too.”

“OK,” I said, taking his shotgun and peeking out the garage door.

I didn’t watch Oscar do his job and neither did Chris. She was crouched next to me, nearly in tears. I felt bad for getting her into this situation. After all, she’d never seen anything like this. Unfortunately, Oscar and I had. Oscar more so than me, but at least we could deal with it. I didn’t know if Chris could and I wanted to get her out of there but I didn’t want to get her shot in the process.

Meanwhile, I saw something move in the distance, just to the right of the highway, in the desert behind some brush. It was big, like a car, but I didn’t say anything; not wanting to cause any undo concern — especially since Chris was already on edge. Nor did I want to interrupt Oscar because I wanted him to finish what he was doing quickly. Especially since what he was doing was too gross to contemplate and I had to block it from my mind.

Crouched down like someone trying to light a campfire, Chris started rocking back and forth with her face in her hands, trying to put herself mentally in another place.

I kept my eyes on the spot where I thought I saw movement but saw nothing and began to wonder if I was seeing things when I suddenly saw something move again.

This time it was the size of a human and it appeared to be running.

That’s what it was — someone running for his life. Then I heard a shot. And then another one. But the person, the man, was still running to the right and a somewhat toward me.

Another shot echoed across the desert and the figure fell abruptly, very abruptly. It was shocking to see.

“What’s going on?” Chris nearly shouted.

“Someone just got shot,” I said, though that was the last thing I wanted to tell her.

“What?” she asked again.

“I thought I saw a car move behind some brush and then I saw someone running from where the car was parked. Then someone else shot three times and the runner went down,” I said.

“Oh no!” she shouted.

I looked back at Oscar doing his work and he looked at me, gave me a thumbs up, meaning his work was done. He disappeared for a moment out back, and then reappeared and crouched down by us. I explained to him what I’d seen and he took the shotgun.

“We need to think about getting out of here,” he said.

“I could dash for your car, pull it up front, you guys hop in and we could take off,” I said.

“Too risky,” he said.

“What other options are there?” I asked.

“We go out back,” he said.

“And take off running?” Chris asked.

“No,” he said. “I saw something back there.”

“What?” Chris asked.

“Bennie’s car,” he said.

I knew what he was suggesting. I also knew that if we took off in Bennie’s car, without Bennie, it might just be that we were giving him a death sentence. I figured Oscar knew that too. Still, the reason he was suggesting it — and the reason I was considering it — had everything to do with Chris and her safety.

“What’s in the trunk?” Chris suddenly asked.

“Not Willard,” Oscar said, “anymore.”

“But what’s in there?” she asked again with determination. “If we’re going to die, I at least want to know what’s in there!”

“Is the metal container with the documents still in there?” I asked.

“Yes,” Oscar said.

“What are the documents?” Chris asked. “What’s so important about them?”

“I’m not going to tell you,” Oscar said. “You’ll have to look for yourself. I don’t want to be responsible. But I will tell you this. Chances are you’ll regret looking at them once you have.”

Chris and I looked into each other’s eyes. I could see questions in them. They were asking me what to do or wondering what we should do or if whatever we did … would we do it together.

“We need to keep watching out there,” I said, perhaps to delay things but mostly to make sure that someone wasn’t coming after us.

I pointed to the place where whomever it was had been shot but Oscar couldn’t see him. That’s when I realized that Oscar’s vision wasn’t nearly as good as mine.

“We need to decide what to do,” Oscar said.

I looked at Chris again and she looked at me. I hoped that our short time together wasn’t coming to an end.

“Two of us could run and the other could stay behind to defend,” I said.

“Great idea,” Oscar said. “If we had a rifle, but we don’t.”

“I’ll stay,” I said.

“No you won’t,” Chris said.

“I have to,” I said.

“Why?” Chris asked.

“Because Oscar can’t see good enough to defend us anyway,” I said. “And if you guys get away I still might be able to do the same in one of the other cars.”

“Very true,” Oscar said.

“Except I’m not leaving without you,” Chris said, which put us at an impasse. “Plus, I’m looking in the trunk.”

“Don’t do it,” I said.

Curiosity was one thing. Safety was another.

At that moment, safety for Chris was my primary focus. In addition, I wondered if it was Bennie who had been running away from the car off in the distance and if it was, I wondered if it was he who had been shot? After all, who else could it be?

Therefore, since he was dead, there was no longer any concern for leaving him behind if we indeed did make a mad dash for his car.

“Even if we go,” Chris said, “we have to take the trunk with us.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because if we don’t,” she said, “all of what we’ve gone through might eventually be for nothing.”

“Is it worth dying for?” I asked.

“Maybe it is,” she said. “We don’t yet know.”

“She’s right,” Oscar said.

Suddenly there was a noise in the back of the garage.

“I’m coming in,” a voice said.

“Who is it?” Chris asked us in a whisper.

“It’s Bennie,” Oscar said.

“Come in,” I shouted.

“We’re ALL going,” Bennie said as he walked in, indicating that he’d been listening to the conversation.

“But what about those other people out there?” Chris asked.

“There was only one,” Bennie said.

“How do you know that?” Oscar asked.

“Because I saw him,” Bennie said.

“So then you know that someone shot him,” I said.

“Yes I do,” Bennie said.

“And you also know who did it,” Chris said.

“Yes I do,” he said, “I did it.”

Chapter 37

Bennie shot the guy? That is, the man that was running from the car … Bennie shot him? Did I hear him right? If so, it was almost too much to absorb. In fact, the whole situation was too much to absorb.

It seemed to push Chris over the edge. Up to that point, it had all been very difficult for her to be a part of. But having a meek little computer nerd like Bennie actually admit to having shot someone was far too much to contemplate and she seemed to go into a state of shock.

“He was trying to kill us,” Bennie said.

“Who was HE?” I asked.

“He was one of them,” Bennie said.

“Them?” I asked.

“The network,” he said.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Because I overheard him talking on his cell,” Bennie said, “and I heard him say his name. Not to mention that he was shooting at us.”

“And you knew the name?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“From the hacking you had done?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

Bennie knew a lot and I wanted him to fill us in but this was not the time. We’d been shot at by someone and, for all I knew, there might be other people out there from “The Network” or others on the way. Meanwhile, Chris was clinging to me and I needed to get her out of there.

“Can we get out of here safely now?” I asked Bennie.

“Yes,” he said. “There was only one guy.”

“But others might be on the way,” I said.

“Yes,” Bennie said, “That’s always possible.”

“We all need to leave,” Oscar said.

In the midst planning our immediate exit, I gave Bennie my cellphone number and told him to call me. I then pulled Chris to her feet and started to walk her to our vehicle.

“Wait!” she said. “We need to take the trunk.”

“We need to get out of here now,” I said.

“I’m not leaving without it,” she declared.

“You’ll regret it,” Oscar said.

“I’ll take it,” Bennie said.

“Then we need to look inside first,” Chris said.

“There’s no use,” Oscar said.

“Why?” Chris asked.

“Because there are just documents,” Oscar said. “And you can’t just glance at them. You need to study them.”

“Let’s go,” I said to Chris, no longer caring about anything other than her welfare.

“No,” she said.

“Yes,” Bennie said. “I’m taking the metal container.”

She couldn’t really argue with that, given the circumstances and given the fact that Bennie was much more deeply involved in this mystery than either of us.

“Let’s go,” I said to Chris again and grabbed her hand. This time she went with me willingly.

“You better call us,” Chris said to Bennie.

“I will,” Bennie said. “I promise.”

Lost in the argument was the fact that Bennie had just killed a man and we knew none of the real details. In other words, when it came to the whole situation, the more we knew, the less we knew.

We jumped into our vehicle and sped out of there, through the front yard and onto the highway, and away from Bear Watson’s ranch as quickly as possible.

Neither of us talked for a long time because, you might say we were both in a state of shock. Had what happened really just happened? We were both trying to get our heads around it.

“We might regret not looking inside that metal box,” Chris suddenly said.

“Maybe,” I said. “Or we might just thank ourselves for not looking inside the box.”

Chris didn’t respond and at that point I didn’t care because I was fed up with the whole affair. After all, it was alright to want to be on the side of justice, but at various points you had to contemplate whether it was all worth it and I was at one of those points. I just wanted to flee from the whole mess, get outside of the “ring” and look at it from the outside, even though I knew by that point that getting outside “the ring” might not be possible.

“We’re in too deep,” I said, not realizing that I’d said it out loud.

“What?” Chris asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “I was just thinking.”

“You said that we’re in too deep, didn’t you,” Chris asked.

“Yes,” I admitted, and she looked out her side window and I saw some tears form in her eyes.

I wished that I’d never taken her to the ranch.

“I’m sorry,” I said and her eyes met mine.

“It’s not your fault,” she said.

“I should never have gotten you involved,” I said.

“You didn’t,” she said. “I wanted to be involved.”

She grabbed my hand and held it.

“It’ll be OK,” she said and her words showed enormous faith but the quiver in her voice didn’t.

We drove for quite a ways in silence and the whole time I wondered if we’d meet someone or a group from “The Network,” whatever that was, coming from the other direction.

If so, what would they do? Would they recognize us, turn around and try to kill us? It wasn’t a comforting thought. Perhaps Chris was thinking the same thing, but I didn’t want to bring it up in case she wasn’t thinking about it and make her worry needlessly.

“What do you think they’ll do?” Chris asked.

“Who?” I asked.

“Bennie and Oscar,” she said. “What will they do next?”

It was something that I had tried to block out of my mind because, first of all, I didn’t know what Oscar had done with Willard’s body. He couldn’t have buried it properly because he couldn’t have done so in the amount of time that he’d been away from the garage. Plus, I thought that he wanted to give Willard a proper burial.

Then there was the other body. The man that Bennie said he had shot.

Where had Bennie gotten the gun? Had he brought it with him? Or had he wrestled it away from the man, and that’s when the man took off running and then Bennie, who shot three times, finally hit him dead center with the third bullet.

Would they bury that body too? Or would they just get out of there like we did.

I looked in my rearview mirror and saw nothing behind me, so if they did take off, they didn’t do so right away. Then again, we, by then, were too far down the highway and they would’ve already turned off to Bennie’s parent’s ranch by then anyway.

“They could have put the other body in the hole that we dug for the trunk,” I said to myself, not out loud. “That’s what I would have done.”

Or would I have? Most likely not because, in the end, I’d want to report the whole situation to Officer Black and let him deal with it. Then again, that was Bennie’s job, wasn’t it? Or was it?

That raised another point. Was it my responsibility to tell Officer Black everything that had happened? Or was that the wrong thing to do based upon what Bennie had told me about Officer Black? That he couldn’t be trusted.

Instead of getting less complicated, the situation that I’d driven into in Mesquite was getting more complicated by the minute.

Then, suddenly, as if she’d been reading my mind, Chris asked me what we should do next.

“Can we go anywhere and be safe?” she asked me, and I looked into her eyes. For a minute I didn’t say anything because I knew she knew I didn’t have an answer.

“I don’t know,” I finally said. “Maybe we’re not important enough.”

“You mean maybe we’re too far down the list for them to worry about for right now?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s why it might have been important to leave the trunk behind? To keep us further down the list.”

“I know,” she said. “But it bugs me.”

“What does?” I asked.

“Not knowing what is in those documents,” she said. “I feel like we might just have blown an opportunity.”

“Maybe so,” I said. “But your welfare is more important to me than anything having to do with this sordid tale.”

“I appreciate that,” she said, “Except ...”

“Except what?” I asked.

“Except that, in the end, knowing what is in those documents might actually get us to safety,” she said.

“How so?” I asked.

“It might reveal enough of the truth to enable us to put an end to the mystery,” she said, “and buy our safety.”

“I hope so,” I said, “but I’m guessing it’ll have the opposite effect.”

“You’re probably right,” she said. “But then again, how does The Network know that we DIDN’T see the documents?”

“Good point,” I said. “Then again, how does The Network know for sure that we were even there?”

“Because there was only one guy that saw us?” she asked.

“Exactly,” I said, knowing that the guy had probably called someone. But, then again, maybe not. Maybe he didn’t have time.

“There are too many unknowns,” Chris said.

“More than we even know,” I said and she stared out her window again.

I couldn’t help but wonder again what Bennie and Oscar were up to. Did they bury the body? Did they leave the Watson ranch right away? Would Bennie eventually call me? Did I really want Benny to call me? What would they do with Willard’s body? Did they take the documents? What made those documents so important? The questions were bombarding my brain.

We were finally getting close to Interstate 15 and, for some reason, I felt we’d be much safer driving on that freeway then the little highway that we were on.

“Do you need anything?” I asked Chris as I pulled into the gas station convenience store near the intersection. “We need to fill up the gas tank.”

“I’m going to use the restroom,” she said.

As I filled the gas tank, I looked around for anyone who might be part of The Network and saw no one. Then again, how would I know them if I did see them?

“It’d be so much easier if they just wore uniforms,” I said to myself and almost chuckled, topped off the gas tank and put the nozzle back in its proper place.

Then I stood by the vehicle and waited for Chris and then waited some more, and began to think that she was taking an inordinate amount of time and I wondered if I should go in and check on her. That’s when my cellphone rang and I didn’t recognize the number.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hi,” the caller said, “It’s Bennie.”

Chapter 38

“Are you there?” Bennie asked.

“Yes,” I said, but I was very distracted.

We were at the gas station by Interstate 15, on the way back from Bear Watson’s ranch and Chris had been inside the convenience store way too long.

I stood by the pumps, having already filled the gas tank, wondering where she could possibly be and I was beginning to assume the worst.

Had she been abducted and hauled out the back door by someone from the network? Where would they take her? What would they do to her?

I was over-thinking, I thought to myself. At the same time, I needed to hear what had happened after we left the ranch.

“Where are you?” I asked Bennie while staring at the front door of the convenience store.

“Still at the ranch,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Something happened,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s a little complicated,” he said.

“Are you OK,” I asked.

“More or less,” he said.

“Can I call you right back,” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, “If you do it quickly.”

“OK,” I said, hung up and made my way to the convenience store.

Once inside, I looked around, up and down the aisles and didn’t see her.

“Could she still be in the restroom?” I asked myself.

“No way,” I said, “unless there had been a long line or she ate something first and then went inside.”

She hadn’t said anything about being hungry. In fact, I doubted that she could have mustered up any kind of appetite at all after what she’d seen at the ranch.

Obviously I couldn’t go into the restroom so I looked around for some woman who could do it for me but the only ones available were working the cash register and there was a long line.

I stood semi-near the women’s restroom door, trying to determine if anyone was in there, or long enough until I thought someone should have already come out and nobody did so I thought it might be unoccupied except for Chris.

I stepped closer to the door, looked towards the cash register and no one was looking at me so I knocked lightly on the door and no one answered.

I stepped inside.

There was no one in there except a pair of knee-high boots sticking out of the bottom of the last stall. So I quickly spun around to escape the potentially embarrassing situation I was in and suddenly the door opened and another man walked in that was wearing a shirt that indicated he probably worked there.

“What are you doing?” he asked me.

“Leaving,” I said.

“Are you some kind of freak?” he asked.

“Not unless you consider a man being worried about his girlfriend a freak,” I said.

“Depends,” he said and paused for just a moment.

“Is that your girlfriend?” he asked, pointing to the boots in the stall.

“No,” I said. “Yours?”

“No,” he said and I exited, leaving him in my dust so to speak and went out the back door of the place.

Unfortunately there was nothing back there except weeds growing through asphalt, an old car up on blocks and some tires stacked on top of each other.

“Where is she?” I asked myself and circled around the building to the front and when I rounded the corner I immediately heard a man’s voice.

“Looking for something?” Officer Black said.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” I said.

“Chris?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“She’s gone,” he said.

“Gone?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I told her that I’d tell you that she was gone?”

“Gone to where?” I asked.

“Mesquite of course,” He said.

“Well,” I said, quite dumb-founded. “How is she getting there?”

“She is riding with one of my officers,” he said.

“Why didn’t she ride with me?” I asked.

“Not sure,” Officer Black said and looked at his watch. “I think she said she didn’t feel well.”

“Well, I’ve got to go,” he said. “I got a call about some kind of disturbance at Bear Watson’s ranch. You wouldn’t know anything about that would you?”

“I don’t know what I know,” I said in a half-whisper.

“Well whatever,” he said, “I’ll see you back in Mesquite.”

I felt like I was in a dream because there was nothing about the situation that hinted at reality.

Ben had been stabbed, died in Las Vegas, Bernadette went through some kind of “I’m OK” transformation, we went to Bear Watson’s ranch, dug up a trunk, met Bennie and Oscar, got shot at, watched Bennie kill a guy, sped out of there, stopped at a convenience store and then Chris disappeared and somehow Officer Black, who appeared out of nowhere, knew more about her than I did.

Where did the dream start? At the convenience store? On the way to the ranch or when the old man rolled over in his pickup truck?

I went back into the convenience store because I couldn’t believe Chris would just leave without telling me, unless she was abducted by a policeman?

Suddenly Bennie’s words about Officer Black being dirty were ringing in my ears.

“She’s in trouble!” I said to myself.

“But why aren’t you?” I answered back.

“Who says I’m not?” I said.

“You haven’t been abducted,” I answered.

“They have other plans for me,” I said.

I still didn’t see Chris in the store so I asked the cashier is she’d seen a girl fitting Chris’s description.

“I saw a policeman helping her into the back seat of a squad car,” she said.

“Helping her or forcing her,” I asked.

“I couldn’t really tell,” she said. “I guess he could have been forcing her a little if I think about it.”

I called Chris’s cellphone. There was no answer.

“Maybe you can catch them!” I said to myself, ran to the vehicle and quickly sped off.

My speedometer said 90 when I looked at it about a mile down the interstate and, naturally, I was passing cars one after another but I didn’t see any police cars and I probably wouldn’t because they’d gotten a very big jump on me and they might have been traveling 90, too.

Then again, there was the question about what I was going to do when I caught up to them anyway. Perform a citizen’s arrest for kidnapping?

At least I could follow them and find out what was up, I thought.

Then my cellphone rang.

“You didn’t call me back,” Bennie said.

“For good reason,” I said.

“What reason?” he asked.

“Because the police have Chris,” I said and explained how we’d stopped at the gas station, and how I had run into Officer Black and everything that had happened after that.

“You’ll never catch them,” Bennie said.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“They are too far ahead of you,” he said.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“I’m tracking them,” he said.

“How are you doing that?” I asked.

“By satellite,” he said. “Or at least I know there’s a cop car a good distance in front of you.”

“You are obviously at home,” I said.

“Roger that,” he said.

“What happened after we left the ranch,” I asked.

“Cop cars came rolling in from all directions,” he said.

“And you got away?” I asked.

“Barely,” he said.

“Oscar too?” I asked.

“He’s with me,” Bennie said.

“Let me know where the cop car ends up,” I said.

“I will,” he said and hung up and I slowed down a little knowing that I had the benefit of a spy in the sky.

Meanwhile, I wondered if they had drugged Chris to make her go with and then gave her a quick shot in the arm and subtle push into the cop car.

And it did bother me that my spy in the sky had just killed someone and seemed to feel no remorse. Then again, he’d been hacking into the network’s computers for some time and I had to assume that he knew something that led him to act quickly and take things into his own hands.

At least I hoped so.

After all, I needed some friends. Because it appeared that I had just lost one, if Bennie was right about Officer Black being dirty.

But mostly I just wanted to wake up. That was because this had to be a dream. How else could all of these bizarre things be happening and stack themselves on top of each other?

Then my phone rang again.

“They just got off the interstate,” Bennie said.

“In Mesquite?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said, “Five miles south, near the canyons.”

“What’s there?” I asked.

“Just an exit at the base of the hills,” he said. “They are headed north.”

“Keep me posted,” I said and he hung up again.

It didn’t take too long for me to reach that exit, maybe 20 minutes, and I got off the interstate there.

Bennie was right. There was nothing there. Even the road going north was unpaved and covered in some sort of mixture of red dirt and gravel.

“This is weird,” I said to myself and dialed Bennie.

“You’ve got at least 15 minutes of driving ahead of you,” he said. “They are parked up ahead in a circle of cop cars.”

“Are they having a pow wow?” I asked.

“That appears to be the case,” he said.

“So what do I do?” I asked.

“Not sure,” he said. “I’m just a hacker. I watch things. Others have to implement them.”

“What about that guy you killed?” I said, unable to any longer ignore what had happened.

“We had to get out of there quickly and he wouldn’t have let us,” he said. “The army was on the way.”

“How did you know that?” I asked.

“I was listening in on his radio,” Bennie said. “He had an unmarked cop car.”

“You killed a cop?” I asked.

“A dirty cop,” Bennie said. “You have no idea what they are capable of.”

It wasn’t the time to get too deeply into this. After all, I was heading towards a dirty policemen’s pow wow with no solid plan for what I’d do when I got there.

“Go in with guns blaring,” I said to myself.

“Accept I don’t have a gun,” I replied.

Nor would I need one, as it turned out, because suddenly someone popped up onto the road ahead of me and began waving their arms. It wasn’t until I got to within 50 yards of the person that I realized who it was.

“It’s Chris!” I said to myself.

Chapter 39

“Get out of here!” Chris said as she hopped into the vehicle.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Just turn around and drive,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I don’t really want to be surrounded by cop cars,” she said.

I did as she said: Sped down the red rock road towards the interstate, headed north and within minutes was at the city limits of Mesquite with no one in hot pursuit.

Neither of us talked.

“Where are we going to go?” Chris finally asked me.

“Somewhere to talk,” I said as I exited the interstate, entered Mesquite and parked in the midst of a whole lot of other cars in the Virgin River Casino parking lot.

She looked at me and I looked at her and, in the midst of what I categorized as chaos, my initial thought was still all about how beautiful she was.

“Tell me what happened,” I said.

“When I came out of the restroom, Officer Black was there,” Chris said.

“Where?” I asked.

“Right by the ladies restroom door,” she said.

“Waiting for you to exit?” I asked.

“It appeared that way,” she said.

“Then what?” I asked.

“He asked what I was doing,” she said.

“And what did you say?” I asked.

“I said that we were coming back from Las Vegas,” she said. “And that Ben had died, which he already knew.”

“So how did you end up getting into a cop car?” I asked.

“Officer Black told me that you’d left and that he’d promised you that he’d give me a ride back to Mesquite,” she said.

“You believed him?” I asked.

“I didn’t see you anywhere,” she said. “Nor did I see the vehicle at the gas pump anymore.”

“I went inside,” I said. “How could we have missed each other?”

“Officer Black took me out the back door,” she said.

The two of them must have gone out the back door as I was coming in the front door, I concluded. Under other circumstances, I might have considered it comedic.

“Did you really think I’d take off?” I asked. “Why did he say that I had left?”

“No I didn’t believe him,” she said. “But he never really gave me a choice. It all happened very quickly.”

“Were you concerned?” I asked.

“Very much so,” she said. “But I didn’t know what else to do.”

There had been a number of things that she was concerned about as it turned out. First of all, the officer that she rode with was driving too fast to just be returning to Mesquite. Second, she wondered if they had done something to me. Third, she was concerned that they knew what had happened at the ranch and worst of all, she thought they might do harm to her.

“Were you riding in the backseat?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“They said I could rest if I rode in the back,” she said. “Because Officer Black and I had discussed all that had gone on in Las Vegas, and he made the comment that I must be very tired and I said that yes I was.”

“Did you feel a little bit like a prisoner?” I asked.

“Almost immediately,” she said.

“Did you talk about anything with the officer?” I asked her.

“No,” she said. “He wasn’t very conversational. Plus he appeared to be focused on something.”

“So … how did you end up where you did?” I asked.

“A call came on his squawk box,” she said. “There was a big drug bust going on and they needed backup.”

“Thus, the reason for all of the cop cars congregating just off the interstate,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “it was a high-speed chase that ended up there.”

Suddenly, what had appeared to be so mysterious was no longer as mysterious, except for the part about Officer Black wanting to separate us, for whatever reason.

“Then why were you on the road when I arrived?” I asked.

“Because the officer didn’t want me in the car in case things got violent at the drug bust,” she said, “so he told me to wait there and he’d pick me up on the way back.”

Suddenly it wasn’t mysterious at all, to the point that I wondered if Bennie the hacker was living some sort of hacker fantasy and that we’d been roped into his world and, as a result, were now witnesses and hopefully not considered participants in a murder. Add to that the presence of a possibly deranged Vietnam veteran, Oscar, and who knew what was real and what wasn’t?

Of course that still left Officer Black’s unusual actions.

“What are you thinking about?” Chris asked me.

“Everything,” I said. “None of it makes any sense.”

“Do you think we are in danger?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “We haven’t done anything.”

“Except dig up a box and watch someone kill someone else,” she said.

“That’s right,” I said and paused. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” she asked.

“For the mess,” I said, “and for getting you involved.”

“It’s not your fault,” she said.

That’s when my cellphone rang.

“They killed someone,” Bennie said.

“Who?” I asked.

“I saw a flair or fire from what had to be a policeman’s gun,” he said, “and now they are all standing around a body on the ground. Plus they have two other guys locked in the back of squad cars.”

He was talking about the drug bust, I quickly concluded.

“Chris says it was a chase that ended up as a drug bust there,” I said.

“Maybe so,” Bennie said, “or maybe not.”

“Why would you think otherwise?” I asked.

“Because the guy was just standing there when they shot him,” Bennie said which further confused the situation.

“What do you mean?” I asked mostly to buy time for my mind to process what he’d just said.

“He wasn’t struggling, running, drawing a gun or anything,” Bennie said. “They just shot him.”

At that point I felt like I just couldn’t take any more bad news, so I cut Bennie short.

“Keep me posted,” I said and hung up.

I didn’t bother to tell Chris about the fact that someone had been shot. I don’t know why. Probably because I figured she’d already had enough dished onto her plate too.

“Let’s go home,” Chris suddenly said.

I understood that to mean her place because I assumed that she needed some familiarity or to be dropped back into her own world.

“We don’t have anywhere else to go anyway,” she said, “If we’re in trouble, we’re in trouble so we might as well live like we’re not in trouble.”

“Good point,” I said and drove to her place.

When we got there, everything looked pretty normal. Her stable hands were throwing hay into the various stalls for all of the horses that were boarded there. There were no strange cars and nothing appeared to be out of place or disturbed. It was almost as if we had returned to normalcy. But of course that didn’t last long.

Suddenly the door to her house opened and Fin Connolly stepped out dressed in his sheriff’s uniform.

“Does everyone just walk into her house uninvited?” I asked him. “Do you have a search warrant?”

“Sorry,” he said, “I was just looking for Officer Joe Reichert.”

“But you’re in uniform,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m working today.”

“Are you working right now?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“So you don’t have a search warrant?” I asked.

“No,” he said, getting a little perturbed, “Should I? Do y’all have something to hide?”

Nice comeback, I thought.

“Not a thing,” I said. “Do you?”

“Please,” he said. “I meant no harm.”

“Then get out of here,” I said.

“That’s enough,” Chris suddenly said and then turned to Connolly. “Why are you looking for Reichert here?”

“He didn’t show up today and I’ve checked everywhere I can think of,” Connolly said. “This was kind of a last resort.”

“Why here?” Chris asked.

“Because,” he said, “because the two of you used to date.”

“Not anymore,” Chris said.

“I know,” Connolly said. “But there was also another reason.”

“What’s that?” Chris asked.

“His car is parked in front of your house,” Connolly said. “And the keys are still in it.”

“That’s odd,” Chris said. “So he might still be here somewhere?”

“I’ve looked everywhere,” Connolly said. “As a last resort, I knocked on the back door of your house and when there was no answer, I tried turning the knob and it was open so I stepped inside, thinking he might be in there.”

“Without a search warrant,” I said, just trying to be a jerk.

“Stop it,” Chris said.

“Plus, I haven’t seen him for a few days,” he said, “which is unusual, as you probably know.”

I could tell from that statement that they spent a lot of time together, both on and off the job. Not that I hadn’t already assumed that the two of them probably lived in the weight room.

“Are you dating?” I asked.

“Shut up, please,” Chris finally said, having had enough of my asinine behavior.

Of course I knew that Chris and Reichert had dated and that she had severed the relationship and that he had not taken it all that well and had continued to pester her. Despite the fact that she didn’t like his coming around, she’d never actually treated him disrespectfully even though she probably had a license to do so.

Thus, I had to admit that her show of concern at this point was very admirable. Especially since Reichert and Connolly appeared to be caught up in some pretty shady stuff. Then again, almost everyone I met in Mesquite seemed to be caught up in some pretty shady stuff.

“I better go,” Connolly suddenly said. “Sorry to bother you.”

“It’s OK,” Chris said

“It’s not OK,” I said.

“I’ll let you know if I hear anything,” Connolly said. “I guess his car is going to have to sit here for now.”

“I’ll take the keys out,” Chris said. “I’m sure he’ll show up at some point.”

Connolly paused for a minute and squished a rock into the sand with his boot.

“Not so sure,” he finally said.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Can’t really say,” he said. “It’s just that things are pretty messy around here.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, sensing that he might be about ready to confess to something.

“It’s a dangerous place to be a law officer,” Connolly said

“Isn’t it that way everywhere?” I asked.

“I suppose so,” he said. “But it’s a little different here.”

“Why is that?” I asked like a lawyer with a witness on the stand.

“Because around here, it’s a little hard to tell the good guys from the bad,” he said.

Chapter 40

“Are you worried about your fellow gorilla?” I asked Fin Connolly, who I still felt was wandering around in areas he had no right to be wandering around in. “It seems to me that Reichert should be able to take care of himself. Especially since, like you, he’s spent nearly every waking hour in the gym.”

“That’s uncalled for,” he said.

“Spending every waking moment in the gym?” I asked. “That’s what I thought. It’s very excessive.”

“You’re an ass,” he said.

“No,” I said, “I’m a realist. I like to put things into their proper perspective.”

“Seems to me that you like to fit things into YOUR perspective,” Connolly said.

“Not so,” I said. “I know that you and Connolly are up to some shady stuff.”

“You do?” he said.

“I’ve seen you in action,” I said. “I saw Reichert and you at Bear Watson’s ranch after he was killed.”

“I don’t think so,” he said.

“Oh yes,” I said. “The two of you don’t exactly blend into a crowd.”

“Wasn’t us,” he said.

“So what were you doing there?” I asked.

“I wasn’t there,” he said.

“The two of you carried a rug out,” I said. “Are you a rug thief or was there something in it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Connolly said.

“Look Mount Shasta,” I said. “You’re concerned about your friend Mount Everest. Maybe you should just level with us a little and, who knows, perhaps we can help. You said yourself that things are a little bit nuts around here.”

“You don’t want any part of it,” Connolly said.

“I don’t want any part of what?” I asked.

“Just stay out of it,” he said.

“It’s too late,” I said. “I already know about the network.”

“What network?” he asked.

“You tell me,” I said.

“I’ve got to go,” Connolly said and started walking away.

“How did you get sucked in?” I asked him.

“Sucked into what?” he asked.

“Into doing the stuff you do,” I said, “on the side.”

“We’re not doing anything on the side,” he said and continued walking around the house.

“I hope Joe shows up,” Chris shouted after him.

“Me to,” he said and disappeared.

Chris looked up at me.

“What?” I asked.

“Did you have to do that?” she asked.

“He’s guilty as all hell,” I said.

“Of what?” she asked.

“They might have killed Bear Watson,” I said.

“I don’t think so,” she said.

“You mean you don’t want to think so,” I said.

“Maybe,” she said and headed for the back door of her house.

“I’m going to look around,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“In case Reichert is here,” I said.

“Fin already looked,” Chris said.

“I might have better eyes,” I said.

“I’ll be inside,” she said.

So I looked everywhere, including in each corral and stall, in the barn, behind the big stack of hay bales, partway out into the desert and even in the main water tank. I didn’t see anything. I even looked inside his parked car, which Chris had apparently already taken the keys out of.

“Looking for something?” one of the stable hands asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

“What?” he asked.

“A body,” I said. “Dead or alive,”

“Whose body?” he asked, half smiling, thinking I was joking.

“The body of the guy who is parked out front,” I said.

“Reichert?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Do you know him?”

“Sure,” he said. “He used to hang out here.”

“Don’t remind me,” I said. “Did you see him?”

“Yesterday,” he said.

“Yesterday?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “He parked the car there yesterday.”

“Then where did he go?” I asked. “What did he do?”

“Someone met him here,” he said. “They drove off together.”

“Who?” I asked.

“That police chief guy,” the stable hand said. “Officer Black is his name, I think.”

“He just parked and then hopped into Officer Black’s car?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “He parked, they argued about something and then he got into Black’s car.”

“And they just drove off?” I asked.

“They sped off,” he said. “It was like they had somewhere important to go.”

“Interesting,” I said.

“Do you think there’s a problem?” the stable hand asked.

“More than one,” I said and made my way toward the back door of Chris’s house.

By now, the sun was beginning to dip below the mountains in the west and it was casting very long shadows over everything as a result.

Meanwhile, I was a little hesitant to enter Chris’s house, I had to admit, because I knew that she thought I’d been a jerk with Reichert’s buddy, Mount Shasta. But I thought I saw some vulnerability in him and wanted to strike while it might be effective, hoping that he’d reveal something to us. After all, I had no doubt that he had plenty to reveal.

Chris was in the shower when I walked in. I could hear the water running in the back so I plopped down on the couch in the living room and almost turned on the television and then got up and sat in a dining room chair by a big picture window instead, I don’t know why. I think it had something to do with not wanting to appear to make myself too much at home.

And quite frankly I didn’t feel that much at home probably because Reichert’s car was parked out front and it was as if I could feel his presence. In fact, it creeped me out a little.

That’s when I saw someone drive up in a really old Volkswagen bug and park by one of the stalls where a big black horse was snacking on a flake of hay. The car alone got my attention because it had to be a late ‘60s model beetle that was in prime condition and you just didn’t see too many of those around anymore.

Out of it popped what I thought might be a teenage girl, I guessed, because she was small and because I could only see her from behind. She had long black hair, baggy jeans tucked into cowboy boots, and a baggy white t-shirt with blue trim on her short sleeves and collar.

She popped into the stall and began to pet her horse and hug it, and I could see that she was talking to it and I tried to imagine what the conversation might be about.

“Hello Mr. Ed,” she says. “Are you comfy? Can I get you anything?”

“You can get me a big meadow and a palomino filly to go with an overflowing bowl of oats and a few carrots,” Mr. Ed says in response.

“That’s a tall order,” the teenage girl says.

“Well, you asked,” Mr. Ed says.

I watched as the girl grabbed a scooper and cleaned a few road apples out of the stall and deposited them into a wheel barrel at the end of a group of stalls. Then she dumped some sweet feed into a big bowl and hung out a while as her horse snacked, continuing to talk to it or herself or someone else.

Finally, I couldn’t help myself and had to take a closer look at the old bug and see what the story was behind it.

“Hi,” I said as I approached. “Nice bug.”

“Oh,” she said, “thanks.”

It didn’t take long to determine that she was not a teenager and, in fact, I quickly decided that she might be closer to 30 than 15. I guess it was her small size that threw me off, not that it mattered.

“Had it long?” I asked.

“Not me,” she said. “But it has been in my family a long time. It was my dad’s. But he recently passed away and that’s when I got it.”

“He really kept it in great shape,” I said.

“Yes he did,” she said. “I hope I don’t wreck it.”

I surmised that she had some Asian, Latino or other blood in her because she definitely didn’t look like she’d just come over from Iceland or Sweden.

“Do you board a horse here?” she asked me.

“No,” I said. “I’m a friend of Chris’s.”

“You look like a cowboy,” she said.

“What gave that away,” I asked.

“Maybe it was the hat,” she said, “Or the boots or the big buckle. Did you win that?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Where?” she asked.

“Salinas,” I said.

“Kansas?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “Salinas, California.”

That’s when I told her my name and shook her hand. She had a pretty firm handshake.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Misty,” she said. “Misty Jekyll.”

“Do you mean Jekyll as in Jekyll and Hyde?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said with a bit of an eye roll.

“Sorry,” I said. “You’ve probably been asked that a million times.”

“More like a billion,” she said.

“That’s a lot,” I said.

“It’s redundant,” she said.

“Even excessive,” I said.

“Or at least exorbitant,” she said.

“Couldn’t agree more,” I said.

We chatted some more, until I felt like I’d worn out my welcome and then I was about to say goodbye when she cut me off.

“I’m originally from California you know,” she said.

“Really,” I said. “Which part?”

“Salinas,” she said.

“Really?” I asked.

“No,” she said, smiling.

“Where then?” I asked.

“Bakersfield,” she said. “It’s about 100 miles north of Los Angeles.”

“I know,” I said, “I rode in rodeos there.”

“Maybe I saw you,” she said.

“Maybe,” I said.

Turns out she’d been a barrel racer in rodeo and a pretty good one. I didn’t remember seeing her but then she mostly rode only in California.

“Have you been boarding your horse here long?” I asked.

“A couple of months,” she said. “Have you been Chris’s friend long?”

“Not long,” I said. “I haven’t been here long.”

“So,” she said, “She’s not dating that big cop anymore?”

“No,” I said.

“I thought maybe she was,” Misty said, “because he was here yesterday.”

“I heard that,” I said. “In fact, his car is still here.”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “I just saw it drive off when I drove up.”

“You did?” I asked.

“Yep,” she said.

“Who was driving it?” I asked.

“Couldn’t see,” she said. “The sun was reflecting too brightly off the windshield.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “I better go.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said and I made my way to the house.

I entered again through the back door and as I neared the living room, I could hear the water still running in the shower and couldn’t help but think that to be a little strange.

“Chris couldn’t still be in the shower could she?” I asked myself and walked towards the bathroom.

“Are you OK?” I asked Chris through a mostly closed bathroom door.

There was no response. So I went through the door and once I got inside I saw that there was also no Chris.

Chapter 41

The water was running in the shower in Chris’s bathroom but she wasn’t there. What the …?

I’d lost her at the gas station on the way back from the debacle at Bear Watson’s ranch and now I’d lost her again? Suddenly I had the same “Twilight Zone” feeling that I’d had at the gas station and I was asking myself, “Did I miss something?” Did I miss a clue of some kind?

It was like I’d just left reality and suddenly, once again, slipped into a dream and I fought to regain my bearings.

Where could she be this time? Had Officer Black or one of his officers stopped by and grabbed her from the shower and thrown her in the back of a squad car again? I assumed that she would have screamed or something if that was the case, unless they’d somehow covered her mouth.

Did I need to save her from some terrible fate? Or was she just pulling the wool over my eyes in ways that I had not yet even imagined? Because if she was just trying to pull the wool over my eyes, then I didn’t owe her anything, wasn’t that right? I could simply push the body shop to fix my pickup truck and leave town, and why not? I didn’t owe Mesquite anything either, that’s for sure. The place was proving itself to be nothing short of the most bizarre community in America.

I searched through the rest of the house, wondering if I’d find a body somewhere or at least a clue and saw nothing; at least nothing different from what I’d seen before I’d started talking to Misty Jekyll, the little lady with the big black horse and little Volkswagen bug who had once been a barrel racer in rodeo.

I walked out the front door to where Joe Reichert’s car had been parked and, sure enough, it was no longer there just like little Misty had said. So I walked back through the house and out the back door again and Misty was sitting in her bug parked right by the back door with her arms dangling from the driver’s door window.

“Hop in,” she said.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“I thought you might like to go for a ride in this classic bug,” she said.

“Normally I would,” I said, “but apparently Chris has disappeared and I’m wondering if I need to call for the cavalry.”

“Maybe,” Misty said, “but who is the cavalry?”

“Good question,” I said.

“I think you’re looking at it,” she said.

“You and me?” I asked.

“You got it,” she said. “Get in.”

“OK,” I said and did, thinking she might have some kind of idea as to what to do since I didn’t.

“Where are we going?” I asked after she’d driven about five blocks.

“Where do you want to go?” she asked.

“I want to find Chris,” I said.

“I know that,” she said. “But where do you want to go?”

“I don’t have a clue,” I said, “except for maybe the police station.”

“Have you called her cellphone?” Misty asked.

“No,” I said, because it’s sitting on a dresser in her bedroom.

“That’s puzzling,” Misty said.

“Very,” I said.

“Actually,” she said, “I have an idea.”

“What that?” I asked.

“I know where Reichert lives,” she said, “thus the reason I suggested that you get into my car. At least I know where he USED to live.”

“Used to live?” I asked. “How long ago was that?”

“A month ago,” she said.

“Not that long,” I said.

“No,” she said and we drove on in anticipation and silence.

After about three left turns and a right we were at what was apparently Joe Reichert’s house.

“Is this it?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

It looked like a house but it really might have been a condo or townhouse or something, since it was affixed to another similar but opposite condo or townhouse.

In other words, you could almost call it a duplex with 12 square inches of front lawn.

“Nice place,” I said.

“Not really,” Misty said.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Because I’ve been inside,” she said.

“Really,” I said. “When was that?”

“Before Chris,” she said and she looked at me with one of those long looks.

“Oh,” I said, “I get it.”

Meanwhile, we didn’t see Reichert’s car anywhere, which didn’t mean that it couldn’t have been in the attached garage but for some reason I didn’t think it was since it would have had to have gone inside the garage almost immediately upon arrival.

Also, the weather was very nice and most people, if they were home, would have had the main door open with air flowing through the screen door. Reichert’s house was locked up tight.

“Should we knock?” I asked Misty.

“You can if you want too,” she said. “But I’m not going to.”

“Because you and Reichert have a history,” I asked.

“You might say that,” she said. “If fact, you could say that I’m the one who introduced him to Chris, albeit indirectly.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “You were boarding your horse at the stable and Reichert went there with you.”

“Exactly,” she said.

“And you introduced him to Chris,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.

“And then they end up dating?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, “but not exactly the next day.”

“When then, the next month?” I asked.

“The next night,” she said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Seemed like it,” she said.

“So Chris might be your least favorite person?” I said.

“She’s up there,” she said.

“But Reichert is top on the list,” I said.

“Bingo,” she replied.

That gave me some insight as to why she might have brought me there. It might have been part vendetta or jealousy with a scoop of curiosity on top.

“So what’s our plan?” I asked.

“Do you mean what do I think you think we should do or what I think we should do?” she said.

“What you think we should do,” I replied.

“Go have a beer,” she said.

“And just blow it off?” I asked.

“Not really,” she said.

“What else would you call it?” I asked.

“Research,” she said.

“It’s research because we’re going to a bar to put our heads together?” I asked.

“No, because that’s where they might be,” she said and we left.

Would Chris really just take off on her own, despite the fact that I was at her house, and drive away in Reichert’s car without her cellphone? Did I really not know her at all? It seemed pretty farfetched to me but since I didn’t have another option, I elected to go along with Misty on the adventure that she was authoring.

In addition, part of me was pretty angry with Chris. I mean really, why would she just take off and leave me hanging unless she’d been abducted? That must have been what happened, I thought, so I called Officer Black, despite the fact that I no longer trusted him anymore than I did most politicians and a few auto mechanics.

“How can I help you?” he asked.

“Do you know where Chris is?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Of course I’m sure,” he said.

“She’s missing,” I said.

“I know,” he said. “One of my officers was giving her a ride home and she disappeared.”

“No,” I said, “after that.”

“After that?” he asked.

“After the drug bust off the interstate,” I said, “I picked her up and took her home.”

“Thanks for telling us,” he said. “We’ve been searching for her all over the desert.”

“Oh,” I said, “and why?”

“Why? Because we thought she might be lost,” he said. “So she disappeared again?”

“That’s right,” I said, realizing that he wasn’t going to be of any help.

“Can’t help you then,” he said.

“Didn’t think so,” I replied and hung up.

But as soon as I did, I wondered where Officer Black was at that moment and wished that I had asked him. I thought he’d said earlier that he was going out to Bear Watson’s ranch from the convenience store, but then he said that we were searching for Chris in the desert. So did he mean “we” as in he and them, or did he mean “we” as in them without him. Either way, I felt pretty confident that Chris wasn’t with them but that didn’t help the situation at all.

“Where are we going?” I asked Misty when I suddenly realized that we were driving quite a distance.

“For a beer, remember?” she said.

“Will that be in this state or the next?” I asked.

“The next,” she said, which actually wasn’t far away since the Arizona and Utah borders were literally right next to Mesquite.

We drove two or three miles east and then probably five miles north and ended up parked in front of some tiny tavern with a barking dog chained outside and a squeaky screen door with plenty of holes in it.

“Nice place,” I said to Misty.

“Reichert’s favorite,” she said.

“Fin Connolly’s too then I surmise,” I said.

“Don’t think so,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because Fin doesn’t know everything,” she said.

“But you do?” I asked.

“More than him,” she said.

“Interesting,” I said.

“It gets interesting,” she said, and I suddenly realized that she might know a little more than I’d previously thought.

The bartender was Hispanic and spoke with a thick accent. I looked around and then gave Misty a look that probably said “let’s get out of here” and she gave me one that said “sit down and shut up.”

We bellied up to the bar and ordered two bottles of beer. At her size, I figured that she’d be drunk after about half a bottle but that wasn’t the case, since after three bottles she appeared to be no worse for wear.

“Is this still research?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“What then?” I asked.

“Relaxation,” she said and that’s when two more Hispanic fellows walked in and sat at the bar four stools away. One of them was bigger than the building itself.

“We couldn’t have relaxed anywhere else?” I asked.

“No,” she said and gulped some more beer.

“OK,” I said. “But do you have any idea how much more relaxation will be required?”

“Up to an hour,” she said.

“By that time we’ll be calling a cab,” I said.

“Or something else,” she said.

“Like what?” I asked.

“Like the cops,” she said immediately looked toward the front door.

Chapter 42

We were in what is commonly referred to as a dive bar, there was no question about that. The place had peeled aqua paint on the walls and old beer ads for various foreign beers. In fact, it had old beer rings hooked together, slinked around the mirror behind the bar and wrapped around the hanging light fixtures. They were those rings that used to be the pop tops for beer cans.

Misty was watching the door and making me nervous. She was expecting something to happen but I didn’t know what.

“Are you afraid that someone is going to steal your bug?” I asked her. “Is that why you keep looking outside?”

“Not at all,” she said. “I come here all the time. No one would dare mess with it.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because most people who come here think that I still date Joe Reichert,” she said, “and super-sized, slightly insane cops have that effect on people.”

“Do tell,” I said.

“Oh yes,” she said.

“So this is the bar that he usually hangs out at?” I asked.

“It’s his little hideaway,” she said.

“Nice place,” I said.

“Liar,” she said.

In the corner there was a table with empty beer cans and what looked like five-day-old pizza sitting on it. The floor looked like it’d not been swept in a month and I assumed that if you dared to order a mixed drink, you might be drinking it out of a glass that had not been washed between uses.

The bartender wore khaki shorts with big pockets in it and a soiled, striped tank top. Tattoos covered most of his body up to his ears and he had patches where whiskers grew but nothing resembling a real beard. His shoes of choice were flip flops.

“Another beer?” he asked us.

I was about to say no when Misty beat me to it.

“Sure,” she said, and I realized that I had to somehow survive for at least another beer.

That’s when four more guys came in that looked like they didn’t care what they looked like. They were all built like fire hydrants, just short of fat and wearing baggy pants and triple-XL T-shirts.

I had trouble guessing their possible occupations simply because they weren’t dirty like they were just off work construction workers and yet they certainly weren’t dressed like retail managers at JCPenney either.

By then, I felt really outnumbered and uncomfortable but Misty looked to be completely at home and very much in her element so I had to assume that she knew what she was doing.

“Are we assuming that we’ll run into Reichert here?” I asked her.

“Would you like that to happen?” she asked.

“Yes and no,” I said. “Yes, because he might know of Chris’s whereabouts. No, because I am not his biggest fan and he is not mine.”

“Could it be because you dated the same woman,” she said.

“Dated?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “still date in your case. But it hasn’t been for that long.”

“Good point,” I said, and her comment once again was much like a splash of cold water in the face because she was right.

I’d only known Chris for days and I could hardly call that a lasting and meaningful relationship, after all, though enough had happened in those few days to make it seem like a lifetime.

“Tell me about you and Reichert,” I said to Misty.

“Not much to tell,” she said.

“You’re a cowgirl driving a slug-a-bug and he’s a slugging thug,” I said. “That’s hardly the perfect match.”

“But he kept things interesting,” she said, “and I hate being bored.”

“I can see that,” I said.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“This bar is far from boring,” I said.

“It’s a little peculiar,” she said, “and peculiar is a little peculiar but it is seldom boring.”

“But boring also has it benefits,” I said.

“Like what?” she asked.

“Not sure,” I said, “but maybe boring and stability are close cousins.”

She again looked towards the front door.

“So you’re still in love with Reichert,” I said.

“Why do you say that?” she said.

“Because it’s true,” I said.

“Perhaps,” she said, and took a swig from her beer.

“Or perhaps not,” she added. “I’m not sure. He intrigues me.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because he’s such a mystery,” she said.

“A mystery?” I asked.

“Or at least complicated,” she said.

“And complicated is attractive?” I asked.

“It can be,” she said.

“So can simplicity,” I said.

“Nope,” she said. “Simple is usually boring.”

“Like moderation?” I asked.

“Bingo,” she said. “Moderation is for moderates.”

“And you’re an extremist?” I asked.

“I tend to be,” she said. “But I think the term passionate is much more appropriate.”

“It does sound more appealing,” I said.

“It’s all in the words,” she said. “It’s word art.”

“Words can be art?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” she said.

“Well how about this?” I said. “The next time the bartender asks us if we want a beer, let’s use the word no and leave.”

“No can do,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because Reichert just parked outside,” she said, and I felt myself involuntarily cringe.

“Great,” I said. “Is he driving HIS car?”

“He sure is,” she said.

“Is anyone with him?” I asked.

“Don’t think so,” she said.

“Good,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because then I know Chris isn’t with him,” I said.

“But you still don’t know where she is,” she said. “By the way, did you check to see if there was sugar in her cupboard?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because maybe she went next door to borrow some,” she said.

“There is no next door,” I said. “She’s on the edge of town, remember?”

“Good point,” she said.

“Not to mention the shower being left on,” I said.

“Another good point,” she said.

That’s when Reichert entered the bar and did a double-take, obviously because he wouldn’t have expected to see me there and because he might not have expected to see me with his ex-girlfriend.

“Peace,” I said, and flipped him the sign. He simply grunted and sat down next to Misty.

“Why is he here?” he asked her.

“Guess he was thirsty,” she said.

“He’s a little out of his element don’t you think?” he said to her.

“I don’t think this is anyone’s element,” I said.

“I was talking to her,” he said.

“Couldn’t help but overhear,” I said and gulped some beer.

“He’s looking for Chris,” she said.

“I don’t think she hangs out here,” Reichert said.

“But YOU do,” I said, “and we thought you might know where she went.”

“Oh,” he said. “Did you lose her?”

“She was there, your car was there, and then your car was gone and she was gone,” I said.

“Interesting coincidence,” he said.

“How did you get your car?” I asked. “And why was it at her place in the first place?”

“None of your business,” he said.

“Great,” I said in disgust and ordered another beer from Mr. Clean, the bartender, knowing that no answers were going to come easy.

“Tell him,” Misty said to Reichert.

“It’s none of his business,” Reichert said. “He’s just a newbie.”

Which I assumed meant that he had officially classified me as a newcomer who was sticking his nose into places that he shouldn’t be or was getting involved in things that he didn’t deserve to be getting involved in and didn’t understand.

“You’re right,” I said, having quickly given up.

“Tell him,” Misty said again.

“No,” Reichert said.

“Tell me what?” I asked.

“If you don’t I will,” Misty said.

“I don’t think so,” Reichert said.

“You know I will,” she said and apparently he did because I could see that he was beginning to weaken.

“Do it now,” Misty said, and he did and I had to admit that I wished he hadn’t.

As it turns out, Chris had a weakness for drugs and her drug of choice was ecstasy and apparently she would periodically fall off the wagon as it were, and that would lead to plenty of bad things. Unfortunately, I knew little about drugs but I knew enough to know that ecstasy was one of those things that ruined a lot of lives and led to a lot of trouble.

So I did a quick search on my cellphone, and discovered that ecstasy produces intensely pleasurable effects — including an enhanced sense of self-confidence and energy. The effects also include feelings of peacefulness, acceptance and empathy.

Users say they experience feelings of closeness with others and a desire to touch others. Other effects can include involuntary teeth clenching, a loss of inhibitions, transfixion on sights and sounds, nausea, blurred vision, chills and sweating. Increases in heart rate and blood pressure, as well as seizures, are also possible. The stimulant effects of the drug can also lead to severe dehydration and hyperthermia or dramatic increases in body temperature. This can lead to muscle breakdown, and kidney, liver and cardiovascular failure. Cardiovascular failure has been reported in some of the ecstasy-related fatalities. After effects can include sleep problems, anxiety and depression.

I also learned that repeated use of ecstasy ultimately may damage the cells that produce serotonin, which has an important role in the regulation of mood, appetite, pain, learning and memory, and that there is already research suggesting ecstasy use can disrupt or interfere with memory.

A pit began to grow in my stomach. Even if I tried hard not to care, I still cared for Chris and to me this was heartbreaking news. I wondered if she was off on some big-time binge based upon what Reichert had told me.

“That’s what broke up our relationship,” Reichert said.

Of course, that statement implied that Chris still loved him and that he had ended the relationship. If that was true then my world with her had been turned upside down by not only the drugs but by the implication that she might still have feelings for him.

I tried calling her again as a last-ditch effort but there was no answer. For some reason, I had a real tough time believing Reichert.

“It’s true,” he said as if reading my thoughts, and it seemed that he was getting a little too much pleasure in telling me.

“I need to go,” I said to Misty.

“Where?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, “but somewhere.”

I looked around and spotted the number for a cab on a piece of paper taped to the mirror behind the bar and dialed the number.

“I need a ride,” I said when the dispatcher answered and then suddenly I heard the signal for an incoming call and looked at my cellphone to see who was calling.

It was Chris.

Chapter 43

The caller I.D. on my cellphone said that it was Chris that was calling me but the voice on the other end didn’t.

“Who is this?” I said.

There was no answer.

“Chris,” I said, “Are you there?”

Still, there was no answer.

I kept listening but the racket in the bar made it hard to hear so I stepped outside and that’s when the dog that was tied up started barking at me.

“Love this place,” I said, getting very frustrated.

Whoever was on the other end still hadn’t hung up and I didn’t want to hang up because naturally my mind was imagining that Chris was in distress on the other end. Or else there was someone who had gone to her house, gone into her bedroom, picked up her cellphone and dialed me for whatever reason.

I imagined him standing there right now listening to me. It had to be a “him” and a very mysterious him at that and he couldn’t have had anything particularly good in mind.

He was tall and thin, with a two-day-old beard, thinning black hair and baggy pants with suspenders and a soiled white button-down shirt that was wrinkled from having been slept in.

My mind was going into overdrive and creating images that had nothing to do with reality as if it was consorting with the enemy, whoever that was, to torture me into reaching some kind of breaking point.

“What’s going on?” Misty said as she exited the bar and watched me pace back and forth with my boots kicking up an occasional rock in the midst of a sea of sand.

“It’s Chris,” I said. “Or at least it’s her cellphone number.”

“Where is she?” Misty asked.

“That’s just it,” I said, “There’s no voice on the other end.”

“Give it to me,” she said and nearly grabbed it out of my hand.

That dog barked again and I wanted to kick it.

“Hello,” Misty said, “Hello!”

“There’s nothing,” I said. “Or whoever it is … is playing some kind of mind game!”

Misty continued to listen.

“Let’s go,” she said.

“Go where?” I asked even though I thought I knew.

“Her house of course,” she said, confirming what I thought she’d say and we piled into her classic Volkswagen bug.

“Where are you going?” Reichert shouted from the doorway as we pulled away.

“To find Chris,” I shouted back through my opened window.

“Wait,” he said, and waved for us to come back but of course we didn’t.

At least I knew it wasn’t Reichert who’d made the call on her cellphone, I thought to myself as we drove down the street.

Misty was still listening on my phone for some kind of noise or voice and then gave up and handed it to me. I listened for a bit but then pulled it away from my ear. We still hadn’t hung up because there was still a signal showing that whoever had made the call had not yet hung up.

The image of the creepy guy in Chris’s bedroom using her cellphone suddenly crept into my head again as if it was a reality which, of course, it wasn’t. I relented and put the cellphone to my ear again.

As we approached her place it looked like business as usual.

“Drive by the front door side first,” I said to Misty and she did.

There was nothing there so we circled around back and saw that the back door was left open so we got out of the car cautiously and I slowly made my way inside.

Initially, I saw nothing in the kitchen or the living room as I crept in cautiously, trying not to make a sound in case someone else was inside who might reveal themselves and their whereabouts by making a sound.

I rounded the corner to the bedroom and I could see the dresser from the hallway and noticed that her cellphone was no longer there. I waited there for a minute just to see if there was any other movement. Meanwhile, Misty stayed outside in case someone scurried out another door or made some kind of movement away from the house.

With my patience waning, I snuck towards the bedroom doorway, wishing I had a weapon of some kind in my hand and then simply barreled inside, doing some kind of surprise tuck and roll so that the thin man with the suspenders, who didn’t actually exist, couldn’t get a clear shot at me.

There was no one in there. Not in the closet and not under the bed. Nor was the cellphone there.

I was very discouraged and trudged back outside. That’s when my cellphone rang again and I looked at it quickly to see if it showed Chris’s number again. It didn’t.

“Hi Bennie,” I said.

“I’ve got some information for you,” Bennie said.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I’ve tracked Chris’s cellphone to a lumber supply store on West Mesquite Boulevard in Mesquite,” he said.

“How did you do that?” I asked.

“Nevermind,” he said, “just go there.”

“Do you know who has it?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “but it’s not Chris.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s a male.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“I’ve been tapping into the cellphone calls,” he said.

“Let’s go,” I said to Misty while still on the phone and we climbed back into her car and took off.

“Bennie,” I said, “what are they saying?”

“The name of the guy who has her phone is Roland,” Bennie said.

“Why do they have her phone?” I asked. “Why do they want it?”

“Because they also have her,” he said. “She’s with them.”

“They kidnapped her?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he said, “or may not.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Roland is her old drug supplier,” Bennie said. “She might be relapsing.”

That wasn’t good news and it confirmed what Joe Reichert had said about Chris having a questionable past.

“Was Reichert really on the up and up?” I asked myself. I still didn’t trust him.

When we arrived at the location of the lumber supply store that Bennie had given us, I could see that there were few cars out front, but there was one blue four-door sedan with two people sitting inside.

“Pull around to the side of the building,” I said to Misty. “I’m going to sneak up on that car.”

“Do you think that’s wise?” she asked.

“Not at all,” I said, “but it may be our only opportunity.”

I could see that there were two people sitting in the backseat and none in the front.

I figured that the smaller one on the right side was Chris, if it was the right car, and I had no clue who was sitting on the left. Meanwhile, whoever had driven the car had to be inside the store.

Approaching from the rear, I quickly opened the left back door, grabbed the guy sitting there, a smallish, frail-looking, acne-covered possible drug user covered in tattoos, and wearing a baseball cap backwards, a baggy T-shirt and baggy drooping pants.

He muttered something unintelligible as I pulled him from the car and pinned him to the asphalt and then I shouted at Chris to “get out of here!”

She looked puzzled and afraid but did get out of the car.

“Follow me,” I said and dragged the frail little drug user with us to the end of the building and around the corner. He had to be high because he didn’t put up much of a fight and said very little, which was perfect.

“Get in,” I said to Chris.

“But…” she said.

“Just get in!” I shouted and she did so.

“Now go!” I shouted at Misty. “Get out of here. I’ll catch up with you later.”

They sped off.

So there I was holding onto one guy while his friend or friends were in the lumber supply store doing who knew what.

“What’s your name?” I asked him.

“Dean,” he said.

“What are you on?” I asked him.

“What?” he asked.

“What drugs are you on?” I asked again.

“I don’t know,” he said stupidly while semi-slurring his words, “A lot of them.”

“Who are you with?” I asked.

“What?” he said.

“Who are you with?” I asked again.

“Roland,” he said.

“Is there anyone else with you?” I asked.

“What?” he said again.

“Is there anyone else with you?” I asked again more forcefully.

“No,” he said.

Dean was going to be mostly useless, I thought to myself and wished I had some handcuffs to tie him down to something. But I didn’t, so I looked around the corner, saw that the blue sedan was still empty and drug him to the front of the store and entered through the front door.

A cashier who might have been a college-age kid with a shaved head looked at me like I was some kind of serial killer.

“Call the cops,” I said.

“What?”

“Call 911 now!” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because there are people in here who are going to rob you,” I said, which wasn’t necessarily the truth but could have been who knew?

Still holding Dean, I scanned the place for anyone who might look like a Roland and saw a number of people but no one who I thought might be a small-time drug dealer. Then again, I knew nothing about drugs or drug dealers, so the possibility of me spotting him from amongst a few shoppers might have been slim and none anyway.

“Do you see Roland?” I asked Dean.

“No,” he said.

I wanted to tie Dean to a tree or something so that I could go up and down the aisles and find Roland, but finding rope would take time and I didn’t know what Roland looked like.

In the meantime, the thought occurred to me that I could just drop Dean and leave there, since Chris had already been scurried away to safety, and I could let Roland and Dean carry on in their usual drug-induced way. But something kept me there, which I was pretty sure had everything to do with wanting to discover the truth .

“Let’s go,” I said to Dean and led him with me as I began to walk up and down each aisle.

As we rounded the corner to the fifth aisle, my heart sunk when I spotted someone looking at a can of paint or paint thinner or whatever it was he had in his hands. He was tall and thin, with a two-day-old beard, thinning black hair and baggy pants with suspenders and a soiled white button-down shirt that was wrinkled from having been slept in.

“That’s our man,” I said to myself.

Chapter 44

The tall, thin man with a two-day-old beard, thinning black hair and baggy pants with suspenders and a soiled white button-down shirt took off running when he saw us looking at him from down the aisle.

There I was, holding his buddy or his drug customer, Dean, when my eyes met his, the pupils of which were two cavernous holes that led to a bottomless pit.

In just seconds I could somehow read his soul and see that it had been scathed, forced out of his body or shut up in a dark sanctuary and evil had replaced it.

Maybe I was imagining things, but that look into his eyes dropped the temperature in the room by about 30 degrees.

I couldn’t tell what he was doing and I’m not sure he knew what he was doing. It seemed to me that, although he was in this world, he wasn’t entirely of this world or perhaps it was just that he was carrying a part of another world with him.

We are born with the innate ability to sense evil, I think, and this was the biggest evil that I had ever sensed and I wanted to flee, capture him, put him in a bottle and shut the lid all in one.

Whatever the case, besides seeing me holding Dean, he must have read something in my eyes because he dropped what he was holding and took off running in the other direction and that’s when the first police siren sounded.

I assumed that slim man would try to locate a back exit and flee so I dropped Dean, who staggered but remained upright and took off running.

“He’s too old,” I said to myself.

In other words, the tall thin man was at least 20 years older than Dean and that seemed to put him in the “bad mentor” category at best.

It also implied, given his drug use, that he might not be able to run a marathon but then again perhaps whatever medication he was on would propel him to other-worldly performance levels. Who knew?

At any rate, I didn’t see him when I rounded the other end of the aisle, but I did hear a door slam somewhere in back and headed in that direction.

When I got to the door, which clearly led to the outside of the building, I hesitated a moment and thought of what I might do if he was lying in wait but concluded that he was too messed up to do much anyway and barged through the door and saw him running down a hill on a beaten dirt path.

I chased after him.

Halfway down the hill I caught up to him, gave him a shove in the back and, thanks to the angle of the hill, he went head over heels into some sage, grunting and screaming all the way.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey what?” I responded.

“Why did you push me?” he said.

“Why did you run?” I asked.

“I just remembered something,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “you remembered that you are a drug user and dealer, and that I was about to kick your ass!”

“You,” he said, “you don’t even know me!”

“I know you well enough that if you have given or ever give any drugs to Chris that you will quickly experience your last day on this planet,” I said.

“What?” he said.

“If you gave Chris drugs, you are going to die! I said. “Can I make that any more clear?”

“I didn’t give her anything,” he said.

“Then what was she doing with you?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing at all?” I asked. “She didn’t say or do a single thing?”

“No,” he said.

I picked him up and was about to punch him.

“Hold it there!” a police officer screamed from the top of the hill.

I looked back and saw two of them with guns drawn. I flung slim man away and he fell further down the hill and lay in a heap.

“Put your hands up,” they said.

“Call Officer Black,” I said.

“Don’t move,” they said, and began to make their way down the hill where they made me lay spread eagle on the ground and then handcuffed me. Meanwhile, they let slim man go and he sauntered off, and gave me a cocky smart ass salute as he did so.

“Brilliant police work,” I said.

“Shut up,” one officer said and they both grabbed me and hauled me up the hill and shoved me in a squad car which was parked not too far from the blue sedan that Dean, Skinny Man and Chris had arrived in.

I’d forgotten that there were three people in the car after Slim Man had gone into the store and, in my preoccupation with getting Chris out of there, and in attempting to suck information out of Dean, who was not forthcoming, I’d forgotten about that extra body.

As it turned out, it was Dean’s pregnant wife who was about to go into labor at any time and, as a result of that, they were being lenient on her drug-addicted husband, which might have been the worst favor they could have done for her.

Apparently there were no drugs in the car and thus Dean could not be charged with anything and since Slim Man, who had the keys, was long gone, the police had agreed to give the lovely couple a ride home.

For me, in the meantime, there would also be no charges thanks to Officer Black, my oldest and best buddy and maybe the dirtiest cop in Mesquite.

“Must you always be at the center of the action?” he asked.

“Do you mean the epicenter?” I asked,

“Yes,” he said.

“It’s the eye of the storm,” I said.

“And you rarely miss a storm,” he said.

“Only because they tend to surround me,” I said.

“Like hens surround a fox,” he said.

“Nice analogy,” I said. “But I don’t get it.”

“Nevermind,” he said and opened the back door of the squad car and undid the cuffs.

“Now scurry off,” he said.

“You’re not going to bust the druggie?” I asked.

“What druggie?” he asked.

“The skinny dude with the car!” I said.

“Did you see any drugs in there?” he asked.

“No,” he said.

“Then what do you want us to bust him for?” he asked, “being too skinny? That’s not a crime.”

“For kidnapping my girlfriend,” I said.

“I’d hardly call it kidnapping,” he said.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because brothers rarely kidnap sisters,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“That skinny guy is her brother,” Officer Black said.

“She doesn’t have any brothers,” I said.

“I wouldn’t admit it either,” Black said.

“To say the least,” I said.

“A real thorn in her side,” he said.

“Both sides, I’m guessing,” I said.

“She has dealt with him for a long time,” he said.

“So she’s not on drugs?” I asked.

“Probably aspirin,” he said, “since she knows you.”

“Funny,” I said.

“Mildly funny,” he replied and then gave me a ride to Chris’s place, where my borrowed car was parked.

I knocked on her back door and she answered almost immediately.

“Busy?” I asked.

“No,” she said and opened the door to let me in.

“I missed you,” I said and looked into her eyes.

“I missed you too,” she said and looked into mine.

“Forgive me,” I said. “I’m confused.”

“I bet you are,” she said.

“And you’re brother is not my biggest fan,” I said.

“Do you care?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“You failed to mention you had a brother.” I said.

“On more than one occasion,” she said.

“I understand,” I said.

“No one does,” she said.

“Good point,” I said.

“I wish it was,” she said.

“So what was that all about?” I asked.

“Another false emergency,” she said.

“So I need not have called in the Cavalry?” I asked.

“Nor pulled a fire alarm and shouted that the British are coming,” she said.

“Sorry,” I replied.

“No need to be,” she said.

I decided to drop the topic and kiss her. She seemed to not only approve of my gesture but responded gleefully.

“Reichert said you were on drugs,” I said.

“He said a lot of stupid things,” she said and then we kissed again.

“I’m glad you’re not,” I said and smiled.

“I’m glad you’re glad,” she said and led me to the bedroom.

The next morning I was awakened by the ring of a cellphone that happened to be mine.

“Hello,” I said.

“Bennie here,” the caller said.

“You guys need to leave,” he said.

“What?”

“Don’t ask questions,” he said. ”Just leave.”

“For where?” I asked.

“Far away,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Go now!” he said. ”It has to do with the box. They think you saw the papers. You have maybe 20 minutes.”

“What’s the matter?” Chris asked.

“Get dressed!” I said. ”We have to go now.”

“But …,” she said.

“Please just do it!” I said.

We dressed quickly and jumped in her big pickup truck because we didn’t know what type of terrain we might have to travel through.

Southbound on Interstate 15, we were in and through Las Vegas in no time and, according to Bennie, no one was following us, at least that’s what he said when I checked in.

“Who are we running from,” I asked.

“It’s whatever you want to call it,” he said. ”It’s a good old boys club.”

“Made up of whom?” I asked.

“Ranking political figures, businessmen and others,” he said.

“And why do they care about us?” I asked.

“Because you keep pressure on them,” he said.

“How?” I asked.

“By turning things up,” he said. “You’re a menace.”

“Then why don’t they do me in?” I asked. “Or why haven’t they already?”

“Because you also reveal things to them,” he said. “You reveal weaknesses that they have to patch up.”

“So I’ve been both a problem and useful,” I asked.

“That’s right,” he replied.

“Then why are we running?” I asked.

“Because you’re getting too close,” he said.

“Too what?” I asked.

“To who they are,” he said. “You’ve outlived your usefulness and they think you know more than you do.”

“But that’s not true,” I said.

“Actually it is,” he said and that’s when I spotted the red flashing light in my rearview mirror.

Chapter 45

I couldn’t tell if the cop behind us was a highway patrolman, sheriff or Dudley Do-Right. His red flashing lights were very bright and shining in my mirror while we rounded a curve and the sun was even brighter in my eyes from the other direction, obstructing my view from more than one angle.

The cellphone rang again. It was Bennie.

“You need to get away from that cop,” Bennie said.

“How did you know I was being followed …?” I began to ask.

“Nevermind,” he said. “I just know what’s going on.”

“And how do you propose I get away from him?” I asked. “Shape shift, disappear or do the high-speed chase thing?”

“He’s a sheriff,” Bennie said. “Who knows what side he’s on? If he catches you, you’re done.”

“What do you mean … done,” I asked.

“You’ll probably be charged with something and eventually your credit cards will be denied, bank account drained, you’ll be locked away, or who knows what they’ll ultimately do, but it won’t be good.” Bennie said. “They can do anything because they’re the law.”

“I’ve got to pull over,” I said and looked over at Chris. I could see that she was near some sort of breaking point.

“No don’t,” Bennie said.

“What do you know that I don’t?” I asked Bennie.

“I know that they’re in big business,” Bennie said.

“So?”

“So, people are making big money in bad ways,” he said.

“What people?” I asked.

“People who aren’t supposed to be,” he said. “Like politicians, judges, state officials, county officials, you name it.”

“And Chris and I have somehow stumbled into the whole mess?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“How did we do that?” I asked.

“You took a key from the old man in the overturned pickup truck,” Bennie said.

“And since then I haven’t really done anything,” I said. “Except open a box in a trunk and not have time to look inside.”

“Right,” he said. “But they don’t know that.”

“Do they think I have the box?” I asked.

“Yes,” Bennie said.

“But you do instead,” I said. “You’re the one that took the box.”

“That’s right,” he said.

“So you’re probably safe as long as they think we have it,” I said.

“Right again,” Bennie said.

“That’s why you’re monitoring us,” I said. “So that you know you are safe as along as we are not.”

“Yes,” he said. “I do have a vested interest. But I’m also obviously concerned about your welfare.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Really,” he said.

I didn’t know if I trusted Bennie. After all, we’d only met him hours before and he was a weird, computer nerd kind of guy who had killed someone. For all I knew, he was a nutcase and none of this was true. Sure, he had warned us to get out of town. But maybe that was only to protect his hide.

My life situation was not getting any clearer.

One thing I knew, I was not in the mood to get into a high-speed chase, have other squad cars called in and dig myself a really deep hole.

“I can get rid of the sheriff,” Bennie suddenly said.

“How?” I asked.

“Divert him to something more important,” he said.

“You can do that?” I asked.

“I can try,” he said and then hung up. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, the sheriff slowed down dramatically, dropped way back, crossed the ditch between the north and southbound sides of the interstate and headed back north.

“What’s going on?” Chris asked.

“We were just granted a momentary reprieve,” I said.

“What?” she asked.

“We’re still in trouble but there’s hope,” I said and looked into her eyes and she looked back into mine with fear in hers.

“I can’t leave my horses and stable behind,” she said, and I explained to her what Bennie had told me about what would happen to us if they caught us. She stared off into the distance.

Meanwhile we continued south on Interstate 15 all the way to Victorville, California, at the top of the mountains, just out of the Los Angeles basin, where we stopped for gas at a big gas station and convenience store.

Once again, Chris went in to use the restroom while I filled up the tank in her big pickup truck, all the while looking every-which-way to see who might be lurking about.

Once I had the tank filled, I parked the pickup truck next to the building and went inside. Naturally, I didn’t see Chris at first amongst quite a number of junk food shoppers. Then, suddenly someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“What are you doing here?” a familiar female voice said.

“Running from the law,” I turned and said to Bernadette, which unfortunately was the truth.

“Did you rob a bank?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “but that’s probably what they’ll charge us with.”

“We?” she asked.

“Chris and I,” I said.

“Oh.”

“What are you doing here?” I asked her.

“Just decided to visit a friend in Redondo Beach,” she said, just south of LAX, the Los Angeles International airport.

“Is it a boyfriend?” I asked.

“I wish,” she said. “No, it’s a girl I went to high school with in Mesquite. She’s a flight attendant for American Airlines. Her name is Patty.”

“I see,” I said.

“I just want to relax on the beach and get away from it all,” she said.

“Love to join you,” I said.

“Why don’t you?” she asked and that’s when Chris came up the aisle.

“Why don’t you what?” Chris asked.

“Join me for R and R in Redondo Beach,” Bernadette said.

Chris looked at me and I nodded.

“Why not?” Chris said, and we were off to the beach.

It took about an hour-and-a-half to get there, following behind Bernadette, and when we did, as in most beach communities, it took another hour to find parking.

Bernadette’s friend Patty lived in a semi-small apartment within two blocks of the beach, where there were no yards and everyone lived on top of each other because real estate there was pretty precious with everyone and their mother’s uncle wanting to live near the beach.

I felt a little concerned that Patty could have in no way anticipated our arrival but as it turned out she wasn’t there anyway since a number of flight delays had screwed up her schedule and left her stranded in Dallas for the night.

“I get the couch,” Bernadette said. “You guys get to sleep on the floor.”

“We need to shop,” I said, since we had arrived there with no toiletries or change of clothes. “And we need to talk.”

“Talk about what?” Bernadette asked.

“Things that have transpired since we last saw each other,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, and I described everything that had happened since we last saw her at the hospital in Las Vegas after her brother Ben had died.

She sat on the edge of the couch listening intently. After I had finished, she sat quiet for a minute and then looked at us both as if she was debating whether or not to tell us something.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I haven’t been entirely truthful with you,” she said.

“About what?” Chris asked.

“About my brother Ben,” she said.

“What about him?” I asked.

“He was involved in some bad things,” she said. “I didn’t tell you before because I didn’t want to get you in trouble.”

“Get us in trouble?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s not good information to have but now that you’re in trouble anyway, you might as well know.”

“Well, if you have the information too, whatever it is, then why aren’t you in trouble?” Chris asked.

“Because I don’t know any details and they know that I won’t do anything,” she said.

“Who’s they?” I asked.

“The associates,” she said. “That’s what I call them.”

“And how do they know you won’t do anything?” I asked.

“Because I never have,” she said.

“Can you fill us in?” I asked.

“It’ll take time,” she said and then someone knocked on the door.

It was a pizza man at the wrong address. Except he looked a little too old to be a pizza delivery man since most of them were college or high school kids it seemed. But not this one, because he had a thick, two-day stubble and it looked like he was wearing a finally pressed white shirt under his pizza delivery t-shirt, and his shoes were really well shined.

“Sorry to bother you,” he said, and Bernadette closed the door.

“Lock it,” I said. “Lock the deadbolt too.”

“Why?” she asked.

“That guy looked suspicious,” I said.

“What makes you say that?” Chris asked.

“Because most pizza delivery boys don’t wear $200 shoes and heavily starched shirts,” I said, “unless Redondo Beach is a real high-tipping town.”

“Maybe it was the manager filling in,” Bernadette said.

“Not even managers wear $200 shoes,” I said.

“Good point,” Chris said.

“I think you better tell us what you were going to tell us,” I said to Bernadette, “so we know what we’re up against.”

“Well,” she said, “I think my uncle Bear Watson was killed because of what Ben was involved in.”

“Go on,” I said.

“Bear had found out about some of the things that Ben was involved in,” she said, “big things and that put Bear in jeopardy,” she said.

“What things?” I asked.

“Ben had some gambling issues,” Bernadette said, “and really got himself in debt. So he owed some people who agreed to let him work it out in trade for services rendered.”

“What kind of services?” Chris asked.

“Things Ben never would have done otherwise,” Bernadette said.

“Like what?” I asked.

“Spy on people, deliver things, take trips to strange places, collect dirt on city, county and state political leaders,” she said. “Stuff like that.”

“Doesn’t sound real healthy,” I said.

“He hated it,” Bernadette said, “and it was like he was in prison. Bear found out and wanted to free him from it.”

“And that got Bear killed,” I said.

“It wasn’t because he wanted to help Ben that he got killed,” she said. “It was because he’d found out too much about the stuff they were involved in.”

“Just like us,” I said.

“Maybe,” she said and looked down.

“I don’t think any of us is safe,” I said to Bernadette.

“Maybe not, but I’m not sure I care anymore,” Bernadette said, and that’s when someone knocked on the door again.

Chapter 46

Bernadette had been run through the ringer. It was as simple as that.

She’d known more about Ben and Bear’s situation than she had told us and had finally let it out right there in the little apartment of her friend, the flight attendant in Redondo Beach, California.

Her brother Ben was a go-fer for the association, the good old boys clubs, or whatever you wanted to call it.

Her revelation didn’t really shock me simply because I had reached the point where nothing shocked me anymore. Yet I couldn’t really vouch for Chris, who I think was in a semi-perpetual state of shock over it all, probably because she had come on board a little later than I had, and had not had time to adjust to the chaos like I did.

If I was to describe it all, I’d still have to go with it seeming like a bad dream from which I thought I could wake up from at some point. The discouraging thing was that the dream just seemed to go on and on and get worse and worse. But the only recourse was to persevere simply because the power to survive that we all possess is so strong.

I wondered if we should actually order pizza to see if the same guy who’d mistakenly knocked on the door dressed in $200 shoes would return to deliver it. Then we could jump him, tie him up and torture some information out of him to see if he actually was a “spy” for the association, as I thought he might be. Then again, maybe I was just losing my mind and everyone seemed to be on the “other side.”

“Why did you keep this from us?” Chris asked Bernadette.

“I guess I just didn’t think it would do you a lot of good to know,” she said. “After all, you were getting yourself into this mess pretty good on your own and needed little help from me. I thought you might just drop it at some point and not have to become a part of it, but I guess that’s not the way it happened. Now you’re probably in as much of a bind as I am.”

“What kind of a bind do you think you’re in?” I asked Bernadette.

“I don’t really know,” she said. “I have to assume that they look at me as a problem. But I’ve not really done anything that would give them concern. I’ve not snooped like you have, mostly because I don’t have the courage and because I thought it would all eventually go away. And yet it hasn’t and instead I’ve lost an uncle and a brother.”

“We’re very sorry,” Chris said.

“It has taken the wind out of my sail,” Bernadette said. “I just have to assume that bad things are going to happen. It’s almost as if I’ve resigned myself to my fate.”

Chris and I looked at each other.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“You don’t think what?” Bernadette said.

“We’re going to fight our way out of this,” I said. “We’re not giving up and you’re not giving up either.”

Bernadette looked into my eyes as if she was measuring my sincerity.

“But they are so relentless,” Bernadette said.

“And so are we,” I said. “We are not going down without a fight simply because we deserve to win!”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“At some point, evil has to come to an end,” I said, suddenly sounding a bit too philosophical perhaps. “Even if you simply believe the theory that what goes around comes around.”

“You mean that we don’t deserve this,” Chris said, “and at some point it has to turn around and we have to come out of it.”

“Yes,” I said. “That doesn’t mean that it won’t be difficult. We simply have to use our heads, be alert, and hope for some assistance from someone and persevere.”

“I’m not sure I have the energy,” Bernadette said.

“Then we’ll give you the energy,” I said. “All you have to do is have some hope and not assume the worst. That’s all I ask.”

“I can do that,” Bernadette said, suddenly looking as if she might have seen at least some light at the end of the tunnel.

Chris and Bernadette were sitting next to each other on the couch and Chris grabbed her hand and held it.

Meanwhile, I suddenly wondered, after having given the big rah-rah speech, how I was going to battle an organization I knew so little about? After all, I’d just convinced Chris and Bernadette that there was hope and still had to convince myself.

Things had been pretty bizarre, eventful and depressing for some time. The easy thing to do would be to assume that it’d continue down that same path. But, for some reason, I sensed some sort of turnaround. Like things had to be coming to an end. I simply hoped that the end didn’t have a really bad ending.

“We need to assume that they know where we are,” I said, “or soon will.”

“They?” Chris asked.

“The enemy or the association or whatever we want to call it,” I said. “Whoever they are, they are the bad guys.”

“So what does that mean?” Chris asked.

“It means that we have to develop a strategy,” I said, “and we need to get some help.”

“I’m all for that,” Bernadette said. “Do you have any idea where to begin?”

“No,” I said.

“That’s comforting,” she replied.

“That doesn’t mean that we can’t begin,” I said. “It simply means that we have to figure out where to begin.”

“How about at the beginning,” Chris said.

“Good idea,” I said, “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“Wow,” Bernadette said. “I feel better already! And where is the beginning?”

“You can help with that,” I said.

“I thought you might say that,” she said.

“Because your beginning is earlier than mine,” I said. “But let’s start with mine.”

“Which is the day you discovered an old man in an overturned pickup truck and since then things have never been the same,” Chris said.

“Exactly,” I said.

“And someone rammed into your big red pickup truck at the Virgin River Casino,” Bernadette said.

“Precisely,” I said looking at Bernadette, “do you have any ideas on who it might have been and any theories on why?”

“I have thoughts,” she said “and theories.”

“Care to share them?” I asked.

“I think that Bear did it,” she said.

“You do?” Chris asked. “Why would he?”

“Because he wasn’t sure about your involvement,” she said to me. “So he needed to keep you around a while to discover what your part was in the whole scheme of things.”

“Couldn’t he have just asked?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “Because he wouldn’t have known if he could believe you anyway, so he simply thought that he’d have to observe your actions.”

“Rather than beat me and torture me and get quick answers out of me,” I said.

“That wouldn’t be his style,” she said.

“So we were on the same side from the very beginning and could have helped each other if we had known,” I said.

“Yep,” she replied.

“Instead,” I said, “I was inadvertently helping the enemy.”

“Yes and no,” Bernadette said. “In the big scheme of things, you were helping to expose the association for what it is. In the short term, you might have been contributing to Bear’s demise. But that was going to happen anyway.”

“He was going to be a casualty of war no matter what?” I asked.

“Precisely,” she said.

“For some reason I don’t find that comforting,” I said.

“No,” she said, “I can see why you wouldn’t.”

“Nor do I want us to be the next casualty,” I said.

“Nor do we have to be,” Chris suddenly chimed in. “Because, correct me if I’m wrong, but I have the feeling that Bear was used to doing things by force. In other words, he tended to act before thinking which tells us that we need to be more creative and make a plan and follow that plan. A more intellectual approach, if I can say that without sounding snobbish.”

“You can’t,” I said, “but that’s OK.”

“That’s right,” Bernadette confirmed. “We need to be really smart.”

“I hope we have the IQ’s for the job,” I said.

“We’ll soon find out,” Chris said.

“That’s the scary part,” I said.

“And the challenge,” Bernadette said.

“Absolutely,” I said and if we’d had glasses, we’d have probably hoisted them in a rousing cheer, thus was the moment, but it was short lived when someone once again knocked on the door and Bernadette went and looked through the peep hole.

“It’s a guy,” she said.

“Could you been less specific,” I said.

“He’s wearing a wetsuit and holding a surfboard,” she said.

“That’s unusual for these parts,” I said.

“Obviously not,” Chris said, stating the obvious.

“Should I answer it?” she asked.

“I think so,” I said.

“OK, here goes,” she said and opened the door.

“Oh,” the surfer said, slightly taken aback, “Um … is Patty here?”

“No,” Bernadette said, “her flights got mixed up and she’s spending the night in Dallas.”

“Well, OK,” he said, “I guess I’ll catch her later.”

“Do you want me to give her a message?” Bernadette asked.

“No,” he said, “I can just call her.”

“OK,” Bernadette said and watched him scurry away on a skateboard with his surfboard under one arm.

“Seemed innocent enough,” she said as she closed the door.

“Cute guy,” Chris said, having caught a glimpse of him.

“She’s a cute girl,” Bernadette replied.

“Is that her man?” Chris asked.

“I don’t know,” Bernadette said, “she has no trouble attracting them. Thus he might be one of a few.”

“I see,” she said.

“At any rate,” Bernadette said, “where were we?”

“We were developing a strategy,” Chris said.

“Oh yes,” Bernadette said, “and how are we doing?”

“We’ve got a ways to go,” I said.

“Then we best get started,” she said and then there was another knock at the door.

“Who is it?” Bernadette asked as I looked through the peephole.

“It’s not a surfer,” I said.

“No wetsuit?” she asked.

“Oh, he’s got a suit on,” I said. “It’s just not wet.”

Chapter 47

There was no way I was going to answer the door for some official looking guy in a suit at this point in an adventure that had begun in Nevada and somehow expanded to sunny Southern California, simply because that’s where we’d wandered to with Bernadette.

“Look out the window and see if there is anyone accompanying him or if there is an official-looking car parked anywhere nearby,” I said to Chris and Bernadette.

If he was official, and how could he not be, there had to be some backup nearby and, sure enough, Chris said that there was another male sitting behind the wheel of an unmarked sedan a little bit down and across the street.

“From his position, can he see the front door of the apartment?” I asked.

“Not sure,” Chris said. “I’m going to guess he can’t but he might be able to.”

That was a crucial bit of information because it determined whether or not we had any options other than not answering the door, which would only delay the inevitable.

Perhaps they were stupid and hadn’t thought of the need for one to provide backup for the other. Or perhaps there simply wasn’t a parking spot available that would put the driver inline to observe the actions of the other. Either way, they’d made a big mistake and that gave us a little bit of hope.

“Can you see the license plate on the vehicle?” I asked.

“It’s Nevada,” Chris said.

In one sense, that was good because it might indicate that we were limited to dealing with people from Nevada. On the other hand, it was bad because it seemed to imply that they could track us down no matter where we went. But at least they couldn’t or shouldn’t have official jurisdiction in Redondo Beach.

“We’re going to gamble,” I said.

“This is an odd time,” Bernadette said. “We don’t even have cards.”

“This gamble is a life-or-death gamble,” I said, “maybe.”

“Oh,” Bernadette said, “now that’s a comforting thought. Do we need cards?”

“No,” I said, “we just need for me not to screw up.”

“How so?” Bernadette asked.

“We’re going to open the door quickly and grab this guy, take him down and find out what we can find out before the other one realizes what we’re doing,” I said.

“You’re right,” Bernadette said. “That is a gamble.”

“Got a better plan?” I asked.

“Nope,” Bernadette said.

“But we’re going to have to lure him in first,” I said.

“Because you just can’t grab him and drag him in?” Chris asked.

“Precisely,” I said. “He’s a trained professional, I’m assuming.”

“So what do we do?” Bernadette asked.

“You have to lure him in,” I said. “And then I will jump him.”

“Lure him in?” Chris asked.

“Just open the door,” I said, “chat a bit and invite him in.”

“Okay,” Bernadette said, “let’s go.”

“I hope we don’t bust up Patty’s place,” Chris said.

“That’s the least of our worries,” Bernadette said and she opened the door very quickly.

“Hi,” she said to the guy.

“Hi,” he said. “Are you Patty?”

“No,” Bernadette said.

“Is she home?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, “come on in.”

That was the best we could have hoped for: Getting the guy to come into the apartment with little conversation or effort. Bernadette had played it simply and brilliantly. Now it was my turn to perform on an equally high level and I did so by quickly putting him into a half-nelson while locking his legs in some type of wrestling hold and dropping him to the floor where I could continue to hold him while we asked some questions.

“Grab his gun!” I said to the girls once I had him pinned.

“Where is it?” Bernadette asked.

“In a holster near his ribs,” I said in the midst of the struggle.

“Be careful,” I said. “We don’t want it to go off.”

Bernadette grabbed the gun a bit shakily and looked like she didn’t know what to do next.

“Get it out of here,” I said and she took it into an adjoining bedroom, left it there and came back.

“OK,” I said to the guy in between deep breaths, “who are you?”

“A sheriff’s officer,” he said.

“And why are you here?” I asked.

“To transport fugitives back to Nevada,” he said.

“And who are those fugitives?” I asked.

“The three of you,” he said.

“Based upon what crime?” I asked.

“There are a number of offenses,” he said.

“Which are all bogus,” Bernadette chimed in.

“I just follow orders,” he said.

“Given to you by corrupt officials,” Chris said.

“Find something to tie him up with,” I said to Chris and Bernadette. “We need to get out of here. He’s just a robot following orders.”

“No I’m not,” he suddenly said.

“What?” Bernadette asked.

“I’m not just a robot,” he said. “I’ve seen some things.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Bad things that I don’t like,” he said and I sensed that a door had just been opened a crack to a whole new beginning or at least I hoped so. Eventually I let him go and sat him down on the couch.

As it turned out, Officer Grant was very young, impressionable and still in the early stages of wanting to be an officer of the law so that he could do good things for people. In other words, he hadn’t yet been tainted by the realities of the world.

Thus, he was interested in hearing our side of the story and even called in the other officer who’d been waiting in the car to participate. So I told them everything I knew.

Once every few decades, someone might come along who will put honor, integrity and what is right ahead of greed, ego and giving in to the will of the powers that be and Officer William Grant appeared to be that kind of guy, as was his partner, Officer David Anderson.

“We’ve been asked to do some interesting things recently,” Officer Grant said. “To do some things that shouldn’t really be in our job description.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Like spy on people,” he said, “for someone’s personal and perhaps monetary gain.”

“And that’s why we’re not totally surprised by your revelations,” Officer Anderson said. “We’ve done some investigating ourselves.”

“And what have you discovered?” I asked.

“That there is corruption at high levels,” Anderson said. “And that some big businessmen are using politicians like puppets for big profits.”

“And that’s unusual?” Bernadette asked.

“Maybe not,” Grant said. “Maybe it’s been going on for a long time, but that doesn’t make it right. Nor does it mean we have sit back and let it happen.”

“Tell me more,” I said.

“Well,” Anderson said. “It’s happens like this. In order to rise through the ranks in the political hierarchy, you have to play by the unwritten rules. “

“That’s right,” Grant said. “It starts out small. Someone new in the system, like a city commissioner, a new congressman or a junior senator is asked to do a small thing that compromises his moral values. He agrees to do it just one time. Once he does it, once he has given in. The next time it’s easier to give in just one more time, and then on and on, and he is sucked in and can no longer get out without legal ramifications or without being destroyed in some way by the good-old-boy system.”

“So to rise through the ranks, you have to comply with their wishes,” I said.

“That’s right,” Grant said.

“Sounds like the mafia,” Chris said.

“It’s not a whole lot different,” Anderson said.

“Even to the point of having someone killed?” Chris asked.

“Anything is game,” Anderson said.

“And that is what we have stumbled upon?” Bernadette asked.

“That’s right,” Anderson said.

“Because we represent a leak in their dike,” I said. “And they have to plug the leak.”

“Yes,” Anderson said. “They don’t want to necessarily kill you. They simply want to destroy your credibility, destroy your life, get you to shut up and go away. If that doesn’t work, then they’ll resort to more drastic measures.”

“Like shoot your tire out on a highway and hope that you die in the resulting wreck,” I said.

“Something like that,” Anderson said.

“Or have someone stab you on the floor of a Mesquite casino,” I said, “and hope you die from the stab wounds.”

“That too,” Grant said.

“Or shoot you in the back of the head after someone else has knocked you out by a red pickup truck parked at a body shop,” I said.

“Bingo,” Anderson replied.

“Or harass you enough so that you kill yourself, like Harvey did,” Bernadette said.

“That also works,” Grand said.

“So what exactly is it they are hiding?” Chris asked. “And who is it that makes up the group?”

“They are hiding illegally and unethically obtained profits,” Grant said. “And they are everyone from senators to the governor, legislators, the secretary of state, the attorney general and more.”

“Some of them are blatantly involved,” Anderson said, “and others just look the other way. But in all cases they are guilty, if only of inaction.”

“You see, to get to where they are, they’ve had to make concessions to the system somewhere along the line and the payoff has been money, profits, insider trade information, under-the-table payments, cabinet or committee appointments, prestigious jobs or power,” Grant said. “Often times power is enough, because a lot of what motivates these people is ego driven.”

“And you’ve been researching this for how long?” I asked.

“Two years,” Officer Grant said.

“And what do we do about it?” I asked.

“Make it public,” Officer Anderson said. “Get it in front of the court of public opinion.”

“Through the media,” I said.

“Yes,” Officer Grant said.

“So why don’t you do it?” Bernadette asked.

“Because of two things,” Officer Grant said. “For one, because the politicians have people in the media in their pocket so they won’t cover the story and secondly, because people are afraid to come forward as witnesses and you can’t do a story without legitimate confirmation.”

“In other words,” I said, “it takes sacrifices from people who are going to end up paying one way or another.”

“Exactly,” Officer Anderson said. “It takes heroes.”

Chapter 49 Now, since Officers Grant and Anderson had to eventually report to their superiors, they had to make up some sort of story regarding what they had been doing, plus what we had been doing and it had to be one that was credible enough to protect them and yet slightly off the mark, to protect us.

“What’s going to happen?” Chris asked me.

“I don’t know for sure,” I said, “but I have a feeling that things are coming to a head.”

It bothered me that I didn’t know absolutely what Grant and Anderson’s report might entail, but I did know that they were hatching their plan as we drove north towards Nevada. Then then my cellphone rang.

“I’ve given Officers Grant and Anderson some instructions,” Bennie said.

“What kind?” I asked.

“They are to stop in Baker,” he said, “which is that small town midway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.”

“And then what?” I asked.

“They are to stop at a gas station where a friend of mine will have deposited some copied documents under a case of bottled water in the convenience store at the last minute, just before they walk in,” he said. “There are also some documents for you stuck behind the towel dispenser in the men’s room.”

“Very 007,” I said.

“That’s the way it has to be,” Bennie said. “We give them a taste of what we have, just to serve as a confirmation, so that we can move forward.”

“Then what?” I asked.

“They have to get it out to the court of public opinion,” Bennie said, “to a legitimate media outlet that hasn’t sold out.”

“And if they have legitimate a high profile media contact and a political figure on their side, then we have a chance to get something done?” I asked.

“Perhaps,” he said.

“But if what is being done by this group is illegal,” I asked, “then why can’t they just get an arrest warrant from some credible judge.”

“You haven’t been listening,” Bennie said, “Judges are part of the system so they own them, so to speak.”

“They can’t own everyone,” I said.

“Nearly everyone,” he said, “or they wouldn’t be in the position they are in.”

“Because you have to sell your soul to climb the ladder,” I said.

“And most of them did that long ago,” Bennie said.

“But not all of them,” I said.

“I hope not,” he said, “but we can’t be sure.”

“Are we too paranoid?” I asked. “Are we simply thinking that too many people are corrupt?”

“I might have thought that at one point,” he said, “but that was before everybody started dying.”

“Good point,” I said.

We reached Baker in a couple of hours, pulled off of Interstate 15 and the officers and I went inside. Bernadette and Chris waited in the cars, nervously.

“Be careful,” Chris said.

“As careful as I can be,” I said and Bernadette waved as I walked by her car and Officers Grant and Anderson entered the convenience store of the filling station first, found their paperwork under the case of bottled water and went back to their unmarked police car. Meanwhile, I went into the men’s room, waited for one person to leave and then pulled some documents out from behind the towel dispenser, stuck it in my pocket and walked out. The situation felt very weird and stupid, as if we were being set up to be on some kind of comic video feed that a group was watching somewhere and laughing.

After that I got into Chris’s pickup truck, took the documents out of my pocket immediately, handed them to Chris and we all drove off in the same order that we arrived in.

“What is it?” I asked as I drove.

“It’s a contract,” she said.

“What kind?” I asked.

“It’s an agreement for a natural gas purchase for $242 million,” she said.

“There must be more pages,” I said, “because no contract for $242 million is just a couple of pages.”

“Yes,” she said, “there’s a signature page and there’s another page attached.”

“Signed by whom?” I asked.

“Someone from a foreign country,” she said. “It looks like it might be the Ukraine or Crimea or from somewhere over there.”

“Spell the name,” I said.

“It’s N-i-k-o-a-l-i S-l-o-c-h-a-v-s-k-i,” she said, “Nikoali Slochavski.”

“Is there a company name?” I asked.

“Morisma Holdings Limited,” she said. “There is an address in the Ukraine, something about the Crimea, and there is another address. It’s listed as St. George Square in London.”

“What else?” I asked.

“There’s another paper with something listed on it,” she said.

“What’s on it?” I asked.

“Rance Kensie Generating Station, Location: 30 miles north of Las Vegas, Nevada, Peak Generating Capacity: 1,102 Megawatts, Plant Description: The Rance Kensie Generating Station is a clean-burning, natural gas-fueled power plant that is located north of Las Vegas. It is the largest combined-cycle energy generating plant in the Nevada energy fleet,” she said.

“Clean-burning natural gas-fueled power plant,” I said. “That’s interesting. Apparently Morisma Holdings Limited sells clean-burning natural gas?”

“Wait,” she said. “There something copied on the back side too.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“A bank statement,” she said. “According to this it’s Governor Chris Perry’s savings account and it shows a deposit into it of $30 million in May, two years ago.”

“What’s the date on the contract?” I asked.

“May 15, two years ago,” she said.

“Interesting coincidence,” I said. “It looks like Governor Perry brokered a deal and got a real nice cut.”

“But the deposit doesn’t show that it’s from Morisma Holdings,” Chris said. “There’s some writing which says that it’s from Statoil in Norway and it’s a payment for a sale of oil shares.”

“Statoil must be a subsidiary of Morisma or at least affiliated with it enough so that money could be channeled through it and in a direction that might be harder to trace,” I said and then my cellphone rang.

“Hi,” Bennie said. “By now you’ve probably figured a few things out.”

“Maybe,” I said. “It looks like Governor Perry brokered a deal between a big natural gas energy plant/company here in Nevada and a natural gas provider in the Ukraine or somewhere who has an office in London?”

“Bingo,” Bennie said, “and he was paid handsomely for it in oil shares.”

“Just another day at the office,” I said.

“As it turns out, yes,” Bennie said, “because there are plenty of other documents implicating him and other good old boys in others deals to the tune of millions of dollars affecting billions of dollars.”

“A yellow brick road full of sweet deals,” I said. “But who put all of this paperwork and evidence together?”

“Willard, the old man in the overturned pickup truck that you happened to stumble upon,” Bennie said. “He was a retired state auditor who discovered things here and there and then, when he retired, went into full-time investigative work and discovered a bigger pile than he could have imagined.”

“So he’s a hero,” I said. “How did you find out it was him?”

“Oscar, his friend, told me,” Bennie said. “You see, Willard was someone who got pissed off when his reports about illegal activities to his state superiors fell on deaf ears.”

“Because his superiors were part of the good old boy system,” I said.

“Bingo again,” Bennie said. “So, as you can see, there are no laws when the people in charge of enforcing them are breaking them.”

“That’s just not right,” said Chris, who’d heard everything Bennie said because I had him on the speaker.

“I also found out who fired the shot at the front tire that killed Willard, the old man,” Bennie said.

“Who?” I asked.

“That sheriff’s officer, Joe Reichert,” Bennie said and suddenly Chris’ face turned ashen when she heard her old boyfriend’s name.

“He and his partner were ordered to do it,” Bennie said. “I’m unclear as to whether they knew what they were doing or just following orders. But either way, a man died.”

“How do you know it was them?” I asked.

“I’ve established a contact at the sheriff’s department,” he said, “and I’ve kind of motivated him into giving us information.”

“How did you do that?” I asked.

“I have some information about him that he’d just as soon make sure isn’t made public,” Bennie said.

“What kind of information?” I asked.

“Something to do with his personal habits,” Benne said. “Or should I say hobbies.”

“I don’t think I want to know,” I said.

“I don’t think you do either,” he said.

“I wonder if Officer Black in Mesquite is dirty too?” I asked out of the blue.

“He knows a lot of things,” Bennie said, “but he lets them go and thus he is guilty of inaction. To me that’s just as bad as if you were involved in the original illegal action.”

“And who shot Bear Watson,” I asked. “Do you know that?”

“Someone we don’t know,” Bennie said, “from Las Vegas, who is very professional.”

“A hired mafia gunman?” I asked, half in gest.

“Mafia, police department, businessmen, politicians, energy executives, contractors …,” he said. “Illegal activities involve so many people. It hardly matters which group they belong to or who hired them.”

That prompted both Chris and I to sit quietly for a minute.

“Do we have a chance?” I finally asked Bennie.

“A chance?” Bennie asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Is there any way we can come out of this alive?”

“Sure,” he said, “if you believe in miracles.”

“I’ve heard they can actually happen,” Chris said. “Or at least it says they can in the Bible.”

“Good, because we’re going to need one or two,” Bennie said and hung up.

I tried to digest everything he had told us and, with everything going on, had a little trouble getting my head around it. Especially since one little thing was bothering me.

If someone shot a hole in the old man’s tire to get rid of him and then buried him, why would they bury him in the trunk with the documents and in the process not destroy the documents to get rid of the damning evidence?

That’s when I spotted a big semi rig rapidly approaching from behind, driving at a speed normally reserved for a Corvette or Lamborghini. It passed me in no time, then zipped by Bernadette’s car and was soon side by side with Officers Grant and Anderson’s unmarked squad car.

“This isn’t good,” I said.

That’s when the big semi cut right into the lane in front of two sheriff’s car and dark blue smoke came off of their back tires.

Chapter 50

I didn’t know where I was, but having ridden in hundreds of rodeos I knew the familiar signs of having been knocked out. My head hurt, I rubbed where the pain was coming from and my hand came away with plenty of blood on it.

I was lying in the ditch and, in the distance, dark black smoke was billowing into the sky. I made a conscious decision to momentarily not look at where it was coming from because I knew that what I would see was going to be bad news.

As I tried to collect my thoughts, I remembered that I had been driving Chris’s pickup truck, Bernadette had been driving her car in front of us, and in front of her in the lead were the two sheriff’s officers, Grant and Anderson.

That’s when I also remembered the big rig that had zoomed by me and cut in front of the officers. I assumed that it had caused a chain reaction that left me lying in the ditch, having apparently been thrown from the vehicle.

That’s why I didn’t want to look up because I knew that if I was in the ditch, everyone else had to have gone through a cataclysmic experience too and they might not have come through it as well as I did. Not that I knew the full extent of my injuries other than the apparent head wound.

I could move my legs and I could roll to my side but that move was accompanied by plenty of back pain, which, when I thought about it, was there most mornings when I woke up anyway.

No, what I feared most was finding out what had happened to everyone else, especially Chris, who I’d obviously taken quite a liking to, to say the least.

I lifted my head and looked up towards the highway and couldn’t see anything. Then I looked to my right, to the north along the ditch and saw that the smoke was coming from Officer Grant and Anderson’s unmarked squad car, which was pinned under the overturned big rig in the ditch.

To the right of that, in front of it was Bernadette’s mangled car, which was also upside down with the top completely crushed and smashed into the body, implying that anyone who had been inside could not have survived and certainly wouldn’t be able to get out and, quite frankly, probably didn’t need to anymore.

It was bad news, that’s for sure, and still I didn’t know where Chris’s pickup truck was and feared that the worst news was yet to come.

“Chris,” I said.

There was no answer.

“Chris!” I shouted and there was still no answer.

That’s when I looked south along the ditch and saw tracks going every which way, tire gouges where vehicles had obviously performed a complicated dance and I saw Chris’s pickup truck sitting upright with dents everywhere, including on the sides and top, which meant it had more than likely rolled over at least once.

Of course the windows were knocked out, the roof of the cab had been crushed down a little bit on Chris’s side and there was no sign of anyone inside. I had to get up to investigate more.

“Chris!” I shouted again.

“Are you OK?” someone asked me.

What?

“Are you OK?” she said again.

“I think so,” I said.

“You’ve been in a bad accident,” she said.

“I know,” I said. “I can see that.”

“You can see that?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “I can see it all.”

“How can you see it?” she asked.

“How could I not?” I said, “It’s right there in front of me!”

“What’s right there in front of you?” she asked.

“Well look!” I said, “Can’t you see the semi truck and trailer and the sheriff’s car pinned under it and Bernadette’s overturned car and Chris’s mangled pickup truck! Are you blind?”

“No, I’m not blind,” she said. “But I have to tell you something. You’re not there.”

“I’m not there?” I said. “What do you mean I’m not there? I’m right here!”

“You were in a bad accident,” she said, “but you’re not there anymore. You’re in a hospital.”

“Don’t be stupid,” I said, “I’m right here. I can see it all! Where’s Chris? And where are you?”

“I’m right next to you,” she said. ”I’m holding your hand.”

“No you’re not,” I said, “I can see my hand.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. ”You can’t see anything. There are bandages covering your eyes.”

“This is nuts,” I said, “I can see Chris’s pickup truck right over there!”

“Yes,” she said, “you can see it in your mind but you’re not there.”

“I’m getting up,” I said. ”I need to look in Chris’s pickup truck.”

“She’s not there,” she said.

“Where is she?” I asked.

“She’s in intensive care,” she said.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I’m your nurse,” she said. “I’ll be taking care of you. I’m going to give you something to help you rest.”

When I woke up later I couldn’t see and because I couldn’t, I wondered if I was really awake or not. Then I heard a voice and it sounded like the nurse that had talked to me earlier. I felt my face and I could feel bandages wrapped over my eyes.

“You got some glass in your eyes, in the accident,” she said. “We had to carefully take some slivers out and then bandage your eyes to prevent infection.”

“Are they OK?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, “they should be fine, as long as they don’t get infected.”

“So when can I get the bandages off?” I asked.

“We’ll check them later and put some drops in them,” she said, “then you can see for a while but we’ll have to bandage them again for the night.”

“My feet and back hurt,” I said.

“You have some broken bones in both feet,” she said. “It’s not serious. They are not casted but you’ll have to wear a strap-on boot on both of them. You’ll put them on when you walk. There are pieces broken off of your two lowest vertebrae but those injuries happened some years ago and you have plenty of bruises. The main reason you are in here is because of your head injuries.”

“In where?” I asked.

“Centennial Hills Hospital in Las Vegas,” she said.

“What happened to Chris?” I asked.

“Her neck is broken,” the nurse said.

“Oh no,” I said. “How bad is it?”

“She can live,” the nurse said.

“CAN live?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, “I think she can live.”

“I need my cellphone,” I said to myself.

“What?” the nurse asked.

“I need my cellphone!” I said.

“I’ll check your personal effects to see if it’s there,” she said.

What is happening I wondered? Is this a dream? Are Chris and all the others OK?

“I need to be able to see to figure things out!” I said to myself. “I’ll just be quiet and listen. When the nurse leaves the room, then I can tear the bandages off and figure out what’s real and what isn’t.”

I didn’t hear anything for a while. Was it possible that my personal effects were in another room somewhere and thus I had time to tear the bandages off? But tearing them off and getting the nurse pissed off at me wouldn’t do any good if I didn’t have my phone. I needed the nurse to find my phone first and then I could tear the bandages off. I needed my phone to call Bennie because he would know what was going on.

“I found your phone and I’m setting it on the stand next to your bed,” the nurse suddenly said to me. “Why don’t you rest? I’ll come back after a little bit and help you dial whomever it is that you need to call.”

That comforted me somewhat, enough for me to once again drift off to sleep. Then I woke up suddenly, sitting in my red pickup truck in Bear Watson’s ranch yard with someone tapping on my driver’s side window.

“Can I help you?” asked a heavyset older woman wearing an apron over her baggy dress. “You must have gotten tired and pulled off the highway and fallen asleep.”

“Oh yes,” I said, dumbfounded, “I fell asleep.”

“Yes,” she said, “you’ve been sleeping here for over a half-hour. I saw you pull in and assumed that you must have gotten pretty tired. I figured I’d let you sleep rather than drive on ahead and then fall asleep and go into the ditch like that fella did earlier today.”

“What fella?” I asked.

“That older man,” she said, “the one that used to be a state auditor. He went off the road up there a ways and his pickup truck rolled over and he died.”

“When did that happen?” I asked.

“A couple of hours ago,” she said. “Bear was out there shortly after it happened.”

“Bear?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “Bear Watson. He owns this place. I’m the housekeeper.”

“Bear is alive?” I asked.

“I hope so,” she said and kind of smirked. “He still owes me for cleaning. Do you know Bear?”

“Well,” I said, “I think so …”

“Nice enough guy,” she said. “Wish I could say that about his nephew though.”

“His nephew?” I asked.

“Yep,” she said. “Bear’s nephew’s name is Ben. He lives here too. He’s kind of a pain. Been in some trouble lately I hear. Oh well, that’s the way it goes I guess. Say, can I get you some coffee or something to keep you awake on the highway?”

“Oh, no thanks,” I said and started my pickup truck and put it in drive, “I’ll be OK. Thanks anyway.”

Was I dreaming I wondered? Or had I been dreaming before and now I wasn’t dreaming? Were Chris and Bernadette, Officer Black, Phil the bartender, John Reichert and Ben and Bennie and all of them not real? They had to be real because I was just at Bear Watson’s ranch and the old woman said he was alive.

It had to have been a dream. But if it was just a dream, was it a dream so detailed that I would know Bear Watson’s name?

I took off down the road.

It wasn’t long before I drove past a cutout and noticed some people cleaning up an accident in the ditch. There was a tow truck hooked up to a ’90s model pickup truck that had obviously rolled over, judging by the damage.

“That’s the old man’s pickup truck,” I said to myself.

For some reason I didn’t stop because I felt like I already knew what had happened and what was going to happen. I had obviously dreamt it or had a vision or something.

When I got to Interstate 15, I pulled into the gas station/convenience store by the onramp because my throat was extremely parched and my fuel tank was getting a little low. My windshield also needed washing, so I grabbed the scrubber from the water tub to clean it as the fuel tank filled.

That’s when another pickup truck pulled in on the other side of the pump driven by an attractive young lady.

She filled up her tank and as she made her way towards the convenience store she dropped something out of the wallet she was carrying.

“You dropped something,” I said as I scurried over to pick it up.

“Oh thank you,” she said.

“I know you,” I said.

“You do?” she asked. “I’m from Mesquite. My name is Chris.”

“I know,” I said. “I’ve met you before.”

“Where?” she asked.

“It’s a long story,” I said as we walked toward the store. “I’ll tell you later.”

The Last Tree is mystery thriller which will have one chapter published each week in Our Town.

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