The Last Tree: Chapters 16-20
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.
“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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
The Last Tree is mystery thriller which will have one chapter published each week in Our Town.