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It All Comes Out In The Wash

It All Comes Out In The Wash

 

(The Silver Lake Cozy Mystery Series – Book 1)

A Laundry Day Novel

 

by Sophia Watson

 

Copyright © 2014 Sophia Watson

 

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any matter whatsoever, including Internet usage, without written permission from the author, except in the form of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

As the purchaser/owner of this E-book, you are granted the non-exclusive,non-transferable right to access and read the text of this E-book on screen. The text may not be otherwise reproduced transmitted, downloaded, or recorded on any other storage device in any form or by any means, except those allowed by Nook and Kindle.

 

Any unauthorized usage of the text without express written permission of the author/publisher is a violation of the author’s copyright and is illegal and punishable by law.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places; and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

Chapter One

Zucchini!” shouted Asia desperately as she lay on her face, her hands tied behind her, on the cold, dark forest ground, the dampness of molding leaves seeping into her clothes. A deep, rough voice laughed and commanded, “Shut up you!” The man turned to his companion and continued, “She thinks a vegetable will save her. I hate these New Age people. They are so weird.”

 

“Don’t worry,” said the other man. “Even if there is anyone way out here, no one will pay any attention. We sound like we’re having an argument over a recipe.” They both laughed.

“Maybe it is some sort of prayer,” answered the first man. “I don’t see any long, green cucumber-like super hero coming. Maybe she should call out for an onion instead. Might be more useful.” Both men laughed even louder.

__________

Two weeks earlier, on June 12, at dawn, the deep green of the Silver Lake community park near the downtown area was covered with carnival equipment. The first to set up was a huge inflated play castle for children, which had already gleefully been in use since the day before.

 

This was to be no ordinary carnival. It was the opening of the summer Eco Tourism season in the Cape Girardeau area of Illinois and Missouri. The bungee jump was almost set up. Parachuting was available at the local airport. White water rafting was right on the banks of the Mississippi. Hang gliders, kayak rentals and hot air balloon rides were offered on the shores of Silver Lake itself. Tickets and brochures for all the extreme sports were also available here at the carnival and at the airport. Regular carnival rides such as bumper cars, a Ferris wheel and the Tilt-A-Whirl were also being put together, plus a professional sound stage for local and internationally known musicians.

 

Instead of cotton candy and other sugar snacks, gourmet health snacks were to be sold from local cafés, restaurants and bakeries and from colorful wooden carts and booths set up between the rides. This was a very high-end form of tourism. Jet setters flew into town in private jets and smaller planes from all over the country and the world. The mighty Mississippi River, Mingo Wildlife Refuge and the many fantastic caves of Mark Twain National Park and the Meramec Caverns all offered chartered private and public tours. These were the main attractions in nearby southern Missouri.

 

Besides the ultra-rich, hippies from around the country also packed into this small mid-western town in order to panhandle, play music on the street and bandstand – and sell their handicrafts. They rented tent space in local campgrounds, although it wasn’t unusual to see them camping rough out in the woods and using the local YMCA to shower. No one really minded that. The hippies were generally polite, soft-spoken and cleaned up after themselves. As a result, the local police looked the other way and usually protected them from unreasonable homeowners and other critters of the forest.

 

__________

A small group of female deer paused, synchronized in a graceful, balletic movement together, quietly alert, on an expansive, nicely landscaped lawn as the sun came up high over the steaming dawn mist of the nearby woods. As the early morning fog began to clear, a woman opened her front door, still dressed in her rather wrinkled flannel pajamas, holding a fresh, hot cup of spearmint tea. The deer looked up, not startled, bent over again and continued pulling at the soft grass.

The woman put her mug down on a porch table, walked out to her mailbox gingerly in her bare feet, and grabbed her newspaper. The deer turned, lifting their heads at the same time, still synchronized. Like magic, they evaporated into the trees, soundlessly like the mist. She walked back up to her front porch, got her mug of tea and went back inside her house.

This woman was usually up this early. No real reason, other than it was her favorite time of day. Add a sunset or a summer twilight to that and you would have Asia Reynolds’ daily set of natural comfort zones. Although, when not working a gig, she might go back to sleep for a few extra hours in the morning.

She padded through her living room, which she had decorated in dark green paint interspersed with varnished, natural pine paneling. This was a simple but striking setting for her nature photography. Besides being a mildly well-known documentary filmmaker, she sold many of her photographs to both nature and travel magazines -- and to local art patrons, as well. She entered her large stainless and polished granite kitchen, getting out her Vita Mix blender. She made a fat-free yogurt smoothie with her own fresh blueberries. After thinking, she added the last of her best friend’s, Elise Snuggles, homemade honey and a soy-based vitamin powder.

Her big 120 lb. Husky-German Shepherd dog, Zucchini, came over to her and sat down, sniffing at the good smells above her head.

“No, baby, no dairy for you. It gives you looseness.” Zucchini snorted (probably in naive disagreement.)

 

Asia filled a tall glass with the frothy blue mixture. Taking a sip, she set the glass down on her kitchen table and went over to the sink. Filling a large watering can, she went around the back of her home and watered her numerous houseplants, opening curtains as she went.

 

She finished her early morning ritual just as the sun came up fully over the horizon. She shoved the empty can under her sink. Picking up her glass of smoothie, Asia reached over for her newspaper and went out the sliding glass doors to her back yard. Zucchini followed her, lying down at her feet by the padded wicker lawn chair in which her mistress was sitting. Asia put her feet up on a matching footstool and opened her paper.

 

An elaborate architectural drawing of a large and beautifully designed building in the town center (with proposed landscaping) illustrated the day’s headline: New Spa/Laundromat for Silver Lake. Next to the drawing, was the photograph of a sailboat bobbing on the lake that this rural Illinois farming town was named after.

 

Asia looked down at her dog and commented, “What’s so exciting about a laundromat that it has to take up half the front page?” Of course, Zucchini only snorted, put her head down on her paws and groaned. Asia reached down to scratch her dog’s ears and continued talking to her idly, “Who ever heard of a multi-million dollar laundromat? Even if it does contain a workout room, sauna and health spa/café?”

 

Asia flipped to the second page, which folded out to reveal drawings of the elaborate layout of the new building. A heated indoor swimming pool was surrounded by large sliding glass doors and floor-to-ceiling plants -- enough to make it resemble an indoor/outdoor botanical garden. Wooden decks extended outside the glass walls on three sides to reveal an impressive vista of rolling hills and the closest shore of the Mississippi. In the next drawing, another vista portrayed sailboats gliding serenely underneath the wings of eagles and hawks hunting the waters for fish.

 

One of the decks held a dozen outdoor hot tubs, covered by a metal awning. The view of the forest and nearby lake from there was spectacular.

Asia put her feet down on the cement tiles of her patio, hunched over the paper, chewing her lip and starting to read more avidly. She took a long drink from her smoothie. Gentrification had hit every small town surrounding Central Illinois University, as many out-of-town entrepreneurs tried to lure the local college students (and their parents and families) into their establishments. Asia had to admit she loved the new attention these small farming towns had been giving to beautification lately. There were flowers, new trees and benches sprouting up everywhere. The new little cafés certainly showed promise in attracting an exciting and lucrative sort of tourist trade in the summer. There were winter sports, too. such as snowmobiling, snowboarding; tobogganing and cross country skiing when the snows came.

People unrelated to the university also came to Silver Lake simply to vacation – to white-water raft and go spelunking in the caverns of Mark Twain National Park over the nearby state border in Missouri. They were not just the folks who came to look at the university with their kids. No more greasy burgers and fries, the small restaurants in Silver Lake served everything from Moroccan and Somali cuisine to local game and fish with macrobiotic and vegetarian/vegan entrées.

A price list from the proposed new spa caught Asia’s eye. Membership was very reasonable. Basic membership could get her pool time and enough sauna/steam room/workout room access to fit neatly inside her work schedule. She didn’t need the laundromat part. There was even a lovely teak-paneled health food café on the first floor open to the public. New membership came with some coupons for discounts in the café.

After Asia had quit smoking two years ago, she had decided to become a vegetarian, learn Hatha yoga, meditate and become healthy. Zucchini, the dog, was a child of this transformation.

A woman’s voice echoed from the front of the house, “Yoo-hoo! I’m tired of cornfields! I need another continent. You there, Asia? You forgot to lock your front door again.”

Just as Zucchini got up to wag her tail, a small black woman with a wicker basket walked through the kitchen and out into the back yard.

 

“You still in your pj’s, girl? It’s almost ten o’clock! Don’t you ever go to work?”

“Sometimes,” came Asia’s answer from behind a spray of Acacia and a short Japanese maple.

“Well, I just came over on my break to bring you a fresh batch of honey.” The petite woman rounded the bushes and put the wicker basket she had been carrying on the glass-topped outdoor table in front of Asia.

Hmm, Ms. Snuggles,” commented Asia as she reached in the basket, drew out an amber jar and opened it. Sticking her finger in, she hummed in pleasure as she tasted the fragrant syrup.

“You try it. You buy it.”

Smacking her lips, Asia said, “Of course.”

“You can, by the way, call me Elise. Just so long as you don’t call me Mrs. Snuggles, who is my mother -- and probably the name of a few dozen cats and a dirty 900 number.”

“Sure,” said Asia, smiling. “Just joking.”

“Ha,” answered Elise, sardonically, helping herself to a chair. “What ‘cha got for breakfast?”

“Blueberry smoothie and toasted bagels. Do I need to ask if you want some?”

“No.”

 

Asia put the newspaper down and got up, releasing the wrinkles in her flannel pajama bottoms to fall to her ankles as she stretched, letting out a long, loud sigh.

“Oh, shoot,” said Elise. “Don’t let me disturb your sleep. I’ll get it.”

“Okay,” replied Asia, not needing a further prompt to slide back into her comfortable overstuffed, wicker patio chair. Zucchini followed Elise back into the house.

“Don’t give the dog any smoothie. It makes her loose.”

“I know,” called Elise.

 

Asia could hear Elise use baby-talk on her big husky as she poured smoothies and toasted the bagels. She grimaced. Zookie (Zucchini) had been trained as a certified Search and Rescue dog. She practically had the doggie equivalent of a college degree. No need to use a demeaning, creepy tone of voice. Not that Zookie disliked it. Quite the opposite, she loved it. Asia was the one that disliked it. To her it was like squeaky chalk on a blackboard. Elise came back outside with a breakfast tray holding a large plate filled with buttered, toasted and split bagels and their two glasses of smoothie.

 

“I gave Zookie a doggie cookie and some salmon jerky.”

“Good. Then maybe she’ll recover from your baby-talk.”

“This dog loves me,” said Elise running her hand through Zookie’s magnificent silver and golden caramel neck ruffle. The dog laid her huge, wide head on Elise’s thigh, letting Asia’s friend continue talking trash and scratching her behind her ears.

“See,” said Elise squeezing her larynx closed and puckering her lips so she could squeal. Her words took on a pudgy sound. “Th-ou could probably sth-peak baby-talk in any language of the world like this, and some dog, somewhere, would let you do a tummy rub for it.”

“Ick,” said Asia, deftly fighting for part of the newspaper from Elise.

“This dog is impressive. She would look so-o-o good next to my new raincoat. Ooo… P-wetty girl…” Zookie wagged her tail.

“Take her to work with you, then.

“Mmm,” said Elise in agreement, lifting the entire front section of the newspaper up in front of her face, setting her feet up in the exact spot that Asia had been using on the nearby foot stool as she crunched on her bagel.

Asia was left with a lovely wicker basket containing seven jars of Elise Snuggles’ honey, only part of the story she had been reading and Zookie falling asleep on her left foot, which was also falling asleep on its own rather uncomfortably.

 

Elise sipped her smoothie with a loud smacking sound. “I’m really getting into my Jiujitsu right now,” she said from behind the newspaper, sort of crumpling it as she took it away from her face to talk. She half sat on it to keep it from flying around in the light summer breeze that had picked up a few of the maple leaves on the lawn. Asia relaxed, even though there were flaws in this picture, like the fact that Elise seemed to forget that she had been reading the exact same section of the news that Elise was sitting on right now.

 

“I like to kick people,” Elise continued, apropos of nothing, but getting a big silent nod from Asia. “You know I’m small for regular Judo…Jiujitsu gives me the element of surprise, and the right fulcrum for my size. Those throws where you grab the opponent’s shirt and land them on the floor are too much for me. I only weigh 95 lbs. Zookie’s got twenty-five pounds on me.”

“Yeah. I know,” commented Asia, getting up to get some more to eat from the kitchen. “Just a minute. I’ll be right back. I need a bowl of granola,” she said. Elise handed her an empty smoothie glass, asking for more.

“Aren’t you worried about your carbs?”

“No. Besides, the bagels and granola are whole grain. Aren‘t you worried about too much soy…or becoming over-vitiminized?”

‘I didn’t know you could become over-vitiminized!” answered Elise, sounding concerned.

“Look it up on the Net.”

 

Zookie got up, stretched and yawned. Elise called into the kitchen, “So much could happen when a tiny woman grabs a man’s shirt. Not all of it good. A seemingly innocent arm grab is easier to hide. My highly-trained thumb and fingers grab a secret fulcrum. With a twist, the pain that shoots through your opponent‘s arm, shifts him or her onto their opposite foot which you deftly kick out from under them, pulling them forward and then letting them drop to the ground backwards when they lose their balance. The whole thing is to make your opponent lose their balance.”

There were sounds of crashing silverware, along with the rushing sound of dog kibble being poured. Asia re-emerged through the sliding glass doors a few minutes later with a pottery bowl filled with granola, milk and fruit, and Elise’s refilled glass of smoothie, ducking under an enormous hanging Boston fern that was part of her informal security system – truly designed to catch the uninformed.

“Hmm?” answered Asia. “I lost half of what you said.”

“No bother. I’ll show you later.”

Zookie sniffed the air, shook her long sable ruff and sauntered into the kitchen, passing on one side of Asia, going in the other direction.

Asia sat down at the glass-topped table again and set the bowl of cereal in front of herself, pulling her new jar of Snuggles honey over in front of it. She opened the jar, sniffing the golden syrup appreciatively. “Mmm…I really love this blueberry. Yum.”

Elise said, “My bees are all over the berry bushes this year, as usual.”

Asia took a spoon and emptied two large spoonfuls of honey over her granola. Greedily, she licked the syrup into her mouth right from the spoon. “You’re going to get another blue ribbon at the Silver Lake Agricultural Fair this year.”

“Probably.”

“It tastes just like blueberries.”

“I’ll bring some buckwheat flavor over when it’s ready.”

“Sounds good. Let me put on some music and light some incense…create some atmosphere to celebrate this fine honey.” Asia gave Elise a ten dollar bill and went back into the house through the sliding glass door. She put a set of jazz and ambient CDs on her stereo and lit some pungent Indian sandalwood incense, bringing the smoking sticks outside. The sweet sounds of a jazz saxophone drifted through the open doors to the house.

“Ah. You put on the African Smoothie CD I gave you for Christmas. I love Isaiah Katuma,” said Elise as she took another honey-soaked bagel from the plate. “Love him…” She and Asia smiled at each other as they bit into the moist, nutty bagels.

Three doe appeared at the break in Asia’s forest, timidly walking onto the lawn in her back yard. “Ssh,” exclaimed Asia, pointing at them quietly. “Look! I saw them early this morning in front of the house.”

“Oh yeah,” commented Elise as she turned slowly to observe the animals with a smile. “They are beautiful. A great vision to start anyone’s day with. I have a couple of wild rabbits over by my house that hop around from time to time. I see them in the winter, too, after they change color. I think they like me. I put dry oatmeal out on the snow for them as an extra treat last winter. I nick-named them Valerie Simpson and Nick Ashford.” The two women laughed as they finished their bagels. Elise said, “I have to get back to work.”

Elise paused and sniffed at the air, “I smell weed.”

“Hippies. I think they camp in my woods sometimes. I don’t mind.”

“Me either. Might as well get a contact high before I go back to my computer.”

 

Asia picked up her video camera and got a nice long shot of the deer munching their way back into the forest. A high, sweet saxophone riff drifted into the air over the two women. Then a rough saxophone began to set a beat when the CD changed to Soul Makossa.

Elise grinned and said, loudly, “Asia, stand up, I want to show you something.” Asia frowned, standing up with a little curiosity and some irritation after finally getting her front page back and getting Zookie to move off her foot. “Why bother?” said a more wary part of her brain.

 

“No. Go over there on the grass.” Elise followed her and quickly kicked her right foot out from under her with a lilting giggle as she pulled Asia‘s arm forward. “Got ‘cha,” she said, elated, raising her right fist in the air as Asia lost her balance and fell backwards when Elise released her arm.

 

Asia looked up at her, laconically, lying flat on her back, looking up at the robin’s egg blue of the late morning sky and puff-balls of traveling clouds. “Ow. Uh. What is that called?”

Yoko Gake with a wrist grab from Jiujitsu.”

“What do you study again?” still philosophical, not trying to get up yet.

“Kodokan Judo and Jiujitsu. Not bad for a beginner, eh?”

Zucchini went over and slurped affectionately at Asia’s face. “Ugh, Zookie! Quit it, girl.”

“You want the front section of today’s paper?” asked Elise, holding up the massively crumpled front page and ignoring the fact that her best friend was still lying on her back.

“Yeah. You can get the paper at the cable station, when you go back to work. They should have one. I wanted to look more closely at that strange laundromat plan.”

“The one with the spa? It looks extravagant.”

“Yeah, very. They are going to have everything: reiki, yoga, steams, qigong, a sauna and more. I’m joining. The paper said the entire plan will cost in the ballpark of $20 million.”

No way!”

“Yeah, way. I wonder who is financing the thing?”

“Dunno. But, I bet we find out.”

“Yeah. The cable news anchor at your station will know eventually.”

“That’ll be the biggest news in Silver Lake since they renovated the high school.”

“Or required plastic doggie bags if you walk your dog on town sidewalks,” replied Asia as she rolled over onto her stomach, groaned, and got up using Zookie’s sleek back as a brace. “Well, now that you crumpled up my newspaper and knocked me down … feel energized?”

Yeah. Using judo brings up my Chi.”

Asia laughed, standing up and brushing herself off a little. “Mine, too. What a rush. I can feel Chi all over my backside.”

 

Elise picked her basket up and smoothed the hair on Zucchini’s back. The dog wagged her shaggy tail like a large fan, stirring up a small breeze. “I have to get back to the station; everyone will be waiting breathlessly for me to add tonight’s movies to the TV Guide. One day, I’ll be a news anchor, too. You know I have a Master’s degree in journalism.”

“Yeah, I know. But, think about how important you are now. No one would know what was on cable tonight if you didn’t type the information into the rolling yellow banner.”

“Oh, whoopee,” said Elise, getting up to leave. “See you, girl.”

“Luv ‘ya, Elise.”

 

 

Chapter Two

Towards the end of the day, a large yellow and green John Deere earthmover rolled slowly over the smoothed and hard-packed surface of a large lot near Silver Lake Boulevard. Next to that there was a huge concrete square with iron re-bar sticking out of it, obviously part of a semi-finished foundation.

 

Two men in bright yellow hardhats stood watching a few carpenters working on a large façade facing the street and framing a section of the front foundation. The smaller of the two men in hardhats rubbed his hands together and looked over to the architectural plans the other, rather obese, man was holding and frowning into. The smaller man was smiling and looking excited. He said, “We’re ahead of schedule. Looks like we’ll be done building a couple of weeks before we advertised.”

“Yeah,” commented the bigger man in a cavernous, deep voice. “But, the price of construction materials is really skyrocketing. We might be early for our opening, but we might go over budget.”

“We’ll make it up.”

“You’re so optimistic.”

 

“It’s a great business plan! People already come up to me on the street to ask about membership. Besides the front page article in the Silver Lake Daily News, two national Eco-Tourism companies are going to list us as a local attraction in the Cape Girardeau area with full color photographic spreads. Imagine whitewater rafting, then relaxing in a sauna? Then buying a box of Baklava soaked in local organic honey to bring back to your hotel suite, rented condo or rustic lodge? Beats rice crispy squares, a candy bar and a smelly tent.”

The bigger man was very big, he must have weighed circa 300 lbs. or more. He was obese, but had beautiful skin and was very handsome. Thick, wavy black hair brushed down to his shiny, finely molded eyebrows. He frowned, and looked like thunder when he did. “I still think there is something weak in our inclusion of a laundromat with the spa and café.”

“Again? Tobias, we already discussed this. Health spas need a lot of promo. They need promo that borders on community education.”

Education? Vance, get real. We are not spokespeople for the New Age movement.”

“Yeah, actually, we are. If we are smooth and media-savvy, we can bring travelers and Central Illinois students into the laundromat and hand out brochures, coupons, freebies and samples from the café. And what do tourists and college students really need? A comfortable local laundromat…” Vance Smithers chuckled a little bit, and said, “…with really good food.” Even something to take home for dinner. And a heated pool. Something healthy to soothe your feelings when you lose that first boyfriend freshman year.”

 

Tobias Smart gritted his teeth and punched the bridge of his sunglasses back up his nose. He started to fold the plans up. “It’s the strangeness of the combination: ‘Like, go swimming in our heated indoor pool and wash your clothes! -- Come to the California Spa and Laundromat!’”

 

“Separately. They can’t swim in their clothes,” chuckled Vance.

“This is not funny. It’s my money that’s paying for the start up.”

“Boy, do I know that,” answered Vance, sourly.

“Hey! I don’t have to continue paying for this. Check your attitude.”

“Don’t worry.”

“I am,” bantered Tobias Smart irritably.

Vance Smithers kicked a rock down the sidewalk in reply.

 

A large black limousine made its way down Silver Lake Boulevard following three motorcycle cops. Two more limos followed the first one. The leader in the phalanx of police was a strikingly beautiful Latina woman, who looked more like a Vogue model for police Public Relations than a cop.

Tobias Smart looked at his overly expensive Swiss watch and slapped his huge hand on Vance’s shoulder. “Must be Senator Villalobos’ motorcade.” Smart’s cell phone rang and he stepped away from Smithers who was busy scribbling in a small notebook.

Smart ended the call and took a photo of the motorcade with his I-Phone.

“Look Tobias,” commented Smithers, handing the notebook to Tobias Smart. “We will save a lot on labor costs by being so far ahead.”

“Let’s see,” replied Smart, flicking the notebook out of Vance Smithers’ hand. “Hmm. Looks good. That will make a difference. I don’t want to skimp on construction quality.”

“Me neither.”

Several loud popping noises trailed down Silver Lake Boulevard and echoed around the plywood enclosure of the new building. Loud, screaming police sirens followed along with the roaring sound of speeding engines.

“What the hell was that?!” sputtered Smithers.

Tobias Smart looked startled, then guarded. He said, “It sounds like gunfire. Maybe we should go.” He turned abruptly towards the new parking lot in the direction of his SUV. “Let’s go,” he repeated, grabbing Vance’s arm, pulling him along firmly.

“It could just be some kids setting off firecrackers. It’s the first day of the carnival. You don’t have to be so morbid.”

An ambulance chased by a couple of state police sedans raced past them, raising concrete dust in the air. Smithers looked over his shoulder and tried to see down the street. As the two men turned towards the parking area again, Sergeant Sheila Rodriguez of the Silver Lake police department stood in the way of both men and blocked their escape to Smart’s SUV. She folded her arms across her ample chest. The setting sun flashed across her badge. The two men came to an abrupt halt directly in front of her. They were almost toe-to-toe.

Buenos tardes, gentlemen. May I ask you a few questions?” said the rather dazzling Sergeant framed by the colors of the sunset.

Tobias Smart looked irritated, nonetheless, and glanced at his diamond-studded watch as he barked, “I have a dinner conference appointment.”

“This is really important,” the officer went on, unfazed by the tone of Smart’s voice. She looked at him stonily. Her jaw was tense and flexing off and on along the side of her face, indicating she was already irritated herself. Not good, as those who knew her would know. Her eyes were covered by silver-mirrored sunglasses, so part of her expression was hidden.

 

Vance Smithers extended his hand. Sergeant Rodriguez smiled and shook it as Smithers gave her his name in lieu of introduction. “Vance Smithers of Smithers’ and Smart’s California Spa and Laundromat.”

“It’s Versace and Armani,” commented Tobias Smart, looking up into the sky, sounding deliberately out of synch.

Hmm?” queried Rodriguez, confused and angered again, refocusing her attention on Mr. Smart.

“My dinner conference is Versace and Armani. Deep political formal dress.”

 

“Oh, of course, that’s exactly what I wanted to ask you about in terms of official police business." Rodriguez grinned sardonically. “I needed to know about the lives of the ultra- rich. And what is hip today in the millennium.” She took her motorcycle helmet off and shook her hair out. It cascaded down her uniformed back in a river of glossy, midnight curls. She reached in her pocket, pulled out a scrunchie, and gathered it together at the nape of her neck. “I especially wanted to know what they are wearing.” Sergeant Rodriguez shifted her weight from foot to foot. “Actually, this is official police business.”

 

“Well, hurry up then,” Tobias Smart said, seeing no need to soften his attitude.

“Did you hear the noise down Silver Lake Boulevard a few minutes ago?” asked Rodriguez of both men.

“Yeah. What of it? I saw the ambulance, too. Was it a car accident?”

“Not exactly,” answered the officer.

“Yes. I heard it,” said Vance Smithers, in a much nicer way.

“Did either of you see anything unusual?”

“Not,” answered Tobias.

“Not really,” said Smithers, putting his finger to his bottom lip and sucking on it. Then brightening, he said, “Except I did see that guy they call Harry the Hippie way down the street near the noise. He had his guitar case over his shoulder, as usual. Like he was going to play outside.”

“He belongs to Silver Lake. He’s not a tourist. Some people say he’s a CIU student,” commented Tobias with disdain.

“I see,” said Rodriguez, writing everything down. She handed both men her card, saying, “Thank you both. If you think of anything else, please call me. And, by the way,” she turned her gaze to Tobias Smart, “That was not a car accident. Congressman Harrison was shot. The ambulance was for him. The state police think the actual target was Villalobos of California.”

Smart stiffened and lost his sarcastic attitude. He put one hand on Rodriguez’s shoulder, the other covering his mouth. “You’re joking,” he gasped out from between his spread fingers. His usually smooth face was creased with horror.

“No, sir, I am not. I believe you have a dinner with Villalobos tonight,” Sergeant Rodriguez replied.

“Uh,” choked Smart, turning red. “Yes, that’s my next appointment. I represent Segue Financial of California, the company that owns the national California Spa franchise, among other things. This is the first franchise I am co-manager of. Smithers, here, is the other half of our management team. Senator Villalobos is a former board member of Segue.”

________

State Senator Juan Villalobos (D-California) was a young, handsome Mexican-American lawyer from Los Angeles. He was a well-known Democrat that was a national spokesman engaged in protecting the Santa Ana mountain range from logging and over-development. He also protected other sensitive areas around L.A. such as Topanga Canyon and the Hollywood Hills. This did not make him popular, but he was a very powerful man.

 

He was active, formerly, in a large, international Eco-logistics company that facilitated carbon credit sales and analyzed the corporate use of electricity, insulation, heating, cooling, water usage and recycling opportunities among other things. This was his connection with Segue Financial and Tobias Smart. One of Segue’s specialties was financing ventures like that of the Eco-logistics company.

 

Lately, he and his actress/model wife, Aurora, had been in the national front page media meeting with the head of the Environmental Protection Agency and the President of the United States. Both Aurora and Juan were considered personal friends of the first family.

Congressman Robert Harrison, on the other hand, was a very conservative Republican whose mainframe were a few questionable demonstrations against abortion clinics in his home district and notable media denials of human participation in global warming, as well as a conservative stance on a midwestern agricultural water-sharing issue.

“The two politicians are in Silver Lake to debate the pros and cons of agricultural water usage in the farming areas of Illinois and Missouri. The debate is to follow the evening news tonight on KANU ,” said Rodriguez.

Tobias Smart nodded in agreement. Sergeant Rodriguez continued, “We think that this is an attempt to cancel the debate. Senator Villalobos has received many warnings to stay away from this subject and Silver Lake.

“As Congressman Harrison bent over to retrieve his laptop case, which he had placed on the floor of the limousine, we think the gunman shot at Villalobos – but Harrison startled and caught the bullet in his chest as he sat up. At least, the early evidence points us in that direction”

“Oh my God,” spluttered Tobias Smart.

“You two gentlemen can go now. I have to get back to the station,” commented Rodriguez, frowning at Smart’s histrionics. Turning to him, she said, “Please be careful at your dinner tonight. We are putting extra officers on the banquet. It seems that the Senator refuses to cancel. The local cable station will cover his speech there instead of the planned debate and broadcast it later.”

The sergeant put her helmet back on, stuffing her long hair underneath it and strode back to her motorcycle. Taking her mirrored street shades off, she pulled her tinted visor down, climbed aboard her motorcycle, hit the kick start and roared out of the parking lot, sending up a spray of dust and small gravel as she turned her siren on.

__________

Elise Snuggles went directly to her new Tai Chi class after work, changing quickly into her white uniform in the coat area. The loud cracking of unlimber knees and some grunting followed the voice of their instructor, Mr. Chin, giving warm up instructions from the front of the class. Someone dropped some loose change on the floor as they bent over. Mr. Chin called out in the middle of a graceful half turn, “Please make sure your pockets are empty before you come to class. We don’t want any crushed or broken cell phones.”

As if in answer to the teacher’s comment, a cell phone rang from inside the coat room.

Elise recognized her phone playing Mariah Carey’s “Hero”. Since no one else made a move, she

excused herself and ran back to her jacket as unobtrusively as possible (which was easy in her bare feet) and retrieved the phone.

“Elise?”

Yeah, what? I’m in the middle of class. I just forgot to turn my phone off. Don’t worry,

we sometimes start sort of ragged, anyway. Everyone, except me, just got the kids home from school and took dinner out of the freezer.

“What’s up?” declared Elise, finally taking a breath.

Jeez,” answered the familiar voice of Asia Reynolds. “You haven’t heard?”

“Don’t swallow it, Asia. Heard what?!

“You’d better call KANU as soon as you can, You’ll probably have to type in new headlines tonight.”

“The anchor can do it. I’m off tonight.”

“Honey Boo,” said Asia, acting coy. “You have no curiosity?”

“Not right now. I’m working on my first set of movements. My Chi is moving harmonically – or starting to. I’ll call Alphonsine. That’s her job. They have reporters on Villalobos tonight, too. You’ll notice that I was not assigned that job, either.”

“Never being one to leave you out of the loop, the newest gossip says this has a lot to do with that,” said Asia with a small amount of amazement.

“I’ll find out. Later, Asia. I gotta go…,” said Elise, turning the phone off and clicking it shut.

“Damn,” commented Asia to the melodic sound of the dial tone.

 

Elise joined her class just as the entire group started to move as one unit -- first to the left and then to the right. It was like a group sigh, a subtle movement that produced coolness around the bodies of the overworked women of the class after a long, hot summer day.

About the middle of the class, the strong scent of fresh flowers suddenly filled the room. Elise thought they were really chugging. Cookin’. The class moved as an ensemble like the perfect, coordinated flow of water. Well…maybe not perfect, exactly. Huge three-quarter, floor-to-ceiling floral arrangements floated past the open doors of the classroom. The perfume in the Chi-energized pure air of the large empty practice room sucked the fragrance in as all the students breathed in and out together.

The Tai Chi class rented space in the Silver Lake Civic Center. At night, there was usually something like community dancing in the banquet room; or a country-western band; or a church dinner. They started setting up early, like now. Elise knew the Villalobos Benefit was to be held there this evening.

Mr. Chin called for a ten minute break. Elise bent over forward, touching her ankles and stretching, extending her fingers. She sat down cross-legged on the floor, watching the floral arrangements move down the hall, floating on wheeled dollies. One note from an electric guitar blasted out as someone opened and closed a door down the hall. Elise got up again and slipped into the coat room. She had decided to leave early due to Asia’s tidbit of gossip. She grabbed her jacket, pulling on her canvas shoes in the hall as banquet personnel crowded around and past her.

The deep-fried smells of southern cooking overcame the scent of the previous floral perfume. Elise followed her nose. She had no real plans for dinner. A plateful of free gourmet food sounded good. Her stomach growled. She pulled at the junk in her pocket and her fingers found a tiny digital recorder. She smiled, humming to herself. “Don’t have to be assigned to get a good story. We’ll see what there is to see…Snoopy’s here!…,” thought Elise, looking through the main entrance. She spied a very familiar, large, feminine set of shoulders in the double-toned blue of the Silver Lake police department with long, shiny black hair covered by a visored cap, gathered into a scrunchie.

Oh, shit!” thought Elise doubling her steps to the side and sliding behind an opened door in the hallway. Getting her story together (since she had no formal invitation and shouldn’t have been there), she re-emerged and glided quietly into the kitchen. Peeking at the fine dishes being prepared, she smiled and said, “hi” to the cooks and kitchen workers. “There but for the grace of God, and my mother, go I,” she thought to herself, looking up just in time to avoid a collision with a stainless steel food cart that had turned in front of her. Her sense of smell led her eyes to two large bowls filled with carrot and potato salad respectively.

“Later,” she told herself and took quick photographs with her cell phone. Someone in shirt sleeves and a tie came out of an office just as Elise (using up some of her good karma) left the kitchen through the swinging doors that separated it from the main banquet hall.

The lights were low. Two mirrored balls revolved on the ceiling reflecting multi-colored laser lights from the stage, spreading rainbows over the walls. Elise exhaled slowly as she hugged the wall. There was a small stage filled with antipasto: cold shrimp, shredded lobster and king salmon with cold pasta, split whole grain miniature baguettes, brie and other soft, spicy cheeses surrounded by crushed ice. In the center of the polished granite table was a large, delicate ice sculpture of two intertwined great blue heron in bas-relief, surrounded by tall glass vases filled with freshly cut blue irises.

“Impressive,” thought Elise, musing. “No line yet, either.” She smiled broadly and waved as if she had seen a friend on the other side of the room, which she hadn’t. She scooted quickly past the lights surrounding the stage. She heard the amplifier from an acoustic guitar start playing as she side-stepped behind a large potted plant.

Directly behind her, a warm hand landed on her shoulder. “Fuck,” thought Elise. “There goes my news story.” She turned and met the laughing face and dark eyes of Sheila Rodriguez.

Gotcha’! What are you doing here?” she whispered into Elise’s ear.

“I was in Tai Chi class down the hall.”

“This is not Tai Chi class.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“Well,” drawled Rodriguez. “Good news for you. Your entire class has security clearance. We know all of you. And Mr. Chin knew tonight was sensitive, so I am pretty confident that he would have told us if there were any new people in the class.” The sergeant smiled again. “So enjoy.” Elise looked back at her, surprised. Rodriguez said, “Get a good story. I can always use some extra reconnaissance.”

 

Elise looked at her feet, which were already small and getting smaller as she stared down, saying, “Thanks” into her jacket collar.

“The food will be served in about twenty minutes.”

Elise laughed and looked up just as Asia snapped her picture. Rodriguez waved her over.

 

Elise tried to wave her away. Her co-workers from KANU were over at the bandstand filming some of the musicians. She did not want Asia to attract their attention. She was there without an invitation. She was on her own.

“Trying to avoid the crew from CANOE?” asked Asia indelicately as she joined them. “Not as curious as a cat, but twice as fast,” she added sardonically. “Guess you actually did hear what I said on the phone.”

“I was planning on coming over here after class, anyway.”

The banquet hall was beginning to fill up and people were starting to take their assigned tables, which were facing the bandstand. Long tables were being set up for the dinner buffet. The speakers were all there representing some aspect of the Villalobos Foundation. Lady Gaga was to highlight the stage at the end of the evening. First, though, local musicians were playing. They would play acoustic folk music during the dinner and between presentations. It was an all-star evening.

Asia took a portrait of Sergeant Rodriguez doing her job standing next to a potted palm, then dashed off towards the main entrance.

As the food started to come in with a long line of caterers, Robert Redford walked in with five members of his family. Jane and Peter Fonda followed with a group of actresses from the Women’s Media Center who were joined later by Gloria Steinem. Al Gore, Tobias Smart and Juan Villalobos took a table next to them. Asia was right up in front by that time. She had a press pass, so she had a table assignment in the front also. She set up her video cameras on mini-tripods to capture the evening.

In fifteen minutes, most of the guests were seated and the buffet line was beginning to form. Elise started to edge towards the food. A local hippie musician ended a song with a beautiful acoustic riff on his guitar and the speeches started with Tobias Smart introducing Al Gore with a musical interlude by Joan Baez. She was here representing the United Farm Workers and was to follow Mr. Gore speaking on immigration and farm worker issues. Elise picked up an empty plate and started loading up. She took a folding seat along the wall near Smart’s table and turned her digital recorder on.

A joke from Jane Fonda brought the audience focus to the next part of the program. Ms. Fonda spoke about her ranch and the things she did to protect the animals and water table around it. Senator Villalobos gave a slide show presentation about the delicate ecology of the Hollywood Hills and started speaking about the importance of conserving water among farmers in the corn-growing areas around Silver Lake.

 

 

Chapter Three

A loud yell of protest exploded in the hallway, near the main entrance. A young man’s voice broke into Villalobos’ speech. “You’re lying! You are attacking our farms!” Uniformed police ran to the front of the hall. Senator Villalobos was ushered from the stage and back into the kitchen by his own security.

Tobias Smart took the stage in a rush and apologized for the commotion, calming the guests with the information that the noise was only a few teenagers protesting against local water conservation. The two doors at the main entrance were closed and locked for a few minutes while security set up a stationary metal detector instead of using only a hand scanner. They calmed a few of the attendees and sent them back to their tables, asking the entire audience to use the back exit if they wanted to leave. They assured the people they spoke to that there had been no violence and they could return to see the rest of the program if they chose to do so.

Smart went on to explain the local agricultural water controversy. A band took over after he finished speaking.

Asia dragged her chair over to Elise and sat down, scrolling through some of the thumbnails she had of her photos and videos that evening. “Exciting program,” she said to her friend.

 

“Yeah,” answered Elise. “My hands are still shaking.”

“By the way,” continued Asia. “Congressman Harrison passed away from his injuries about two hours ago.”

“Whoa! No wonder there was some action.”

“Yeah. Some of the locals are angry because he represented the larger farmers who stand to lose the most income if they are forced to conserve or limit their water usage.”

“I’m in the middle myself. My grandfather used to grow corn and hay up here back in the day. That’s one of the reasons I have a college degree,” added Elise.

“The pending state law conserving water in case of a drought will probably not pass because it lacks flexibility. It will need to be re-written, in my opinion.”

“As soon as I finish eating, I’m leaving,” Elise said.

“Tired?”

“Yeah. I’ve had a busy day. You guys have got this story covered. I’m getting a doggie bag full of Bar-B-Que and running. I don’t need any more loud protests right now.”

“I don’t blame you. You get any interviews?”

“Nothing. I’d like to see the photos and videos you got, though.”

“Sure. Here, take my thumb drive. I have a new card in the camera. The first hour and a half is on the old drive. You can get the more recent stuff from my email. The camera sends everything back to that every fifteen minutes. You still have my access codes?”

“Yup. Thanks, sis!” Elise got up and put her empty plate on a passing dish cart. She said goodbye to Asia and headed towards the kitchen again.

A line of young men in jeans and flannel shirts blocked her exit. She moved out of their way, looking for Sgt. Rodriguez or another cop. She dropped behind a row of potted palms and shot a photo of the farm boys and caught them on video with her cell phone.

Freedom for Silver Lake farmers!” they shouted before they were surrounded by the police.

Robert Redford bravely took the stage and invited the protesters to come up and discuss their disagreement, but the police put them in cuffs and herded them outside the hall. The calm of the meeting disturbed again, some of the guests began to file discreetly out through the back exit. Elise slipped back into the kitchen. She got a foil bag from one of the kitchen workers and filled it with ribs and spicy Cajun chicken. Senator Villalobos’ voice, coming from the office, cut through the kitchen noise, as Elise left the way she had come in.

Tobias Smart looked at his exquisite watch and swore, bringing the cell phone out of his breast pocket, dialing it as he looked around the room.

“Okay. I’ll meet you over at the construction site. We are running late here. There was a security breach. Our program can continue without me. The commotion ruined my dessert anyway.

“It’s okay, though, donations to Villalobos are up already. I was keeping watch online during the program. We already made a couple million. Nothing was really disturbed. It was only a small protest by some local hooligans. But our last act, Lady Gaga, has been re-scheduled to play at the sound stage outside tomorrow, instead of ending our evening tonight. All the disturbances set our program times back by at least an hour.

“See you in ten minutes. I’m coming in through the parking lot. ‘Bye.”

_______

Asia took a few more photos of Robert Redford and the musicians, getting one shot blocked by the huge form of Tobias Smart standing up to leave. She swore to herself and moved closer to the stage.

Elise Snuggles started her little, yellow Toyota Camry and began to pull out of the Civic Center parking lot just as a large, black SUV rudely pulled out in front of her, the driver laying on the horn. She saw the large head of Tobias Smart.

“Figures,” she thought to herself. “How can a guy doing so much good be so nasty?” Smart’s SUV screeched down the street probably accelerating way past the speed limit.

“If I did that…” Elise let the rest of her thought lapse.

Asia left soon after Elise, as soon as the speeches were over. She walked out the back exit and saw a large form the size of a small bear by her Silverado. “Zucchini?” she called quietly. The form moved slightly and began walking towards her. “What are you doing here, girl?” she asked her dog as she walked up, wagging her tail. “Okay. No problem. I’m glad you weren’t a bear. I’ll take you home.”

Silver Lake was a very small town and having Zookie show up somewhere was not unusual. Most locals knew her.

A low growl issued from the dog’s throat as Asia moved over by the Silverado’s door to unlock the truck. Asia frowned as she looked down at her dog in concern. A gloved hand swiftly covered her mouth and something hit her on the back of the head. As she was pulled, unconscious, to the bed of an old pickup, one of her boots was dragged off her foot. A rock was thrown at her dog and Zookie ran away, eclipsed into the darkness of the night.

________

Elise drove home and pulled a joint out of her bag, lighting it in the car as she pushed a Whitney Houston CD into the CD player. She sat in her driveway in the idling car, soothing her mind with the smoke. “Ahh…” she said out loud. “No story tonight, dang it. Just some feel-good.” The music numbed her ego pain and she finished the joint. Opening her car door, she let out a small scream as the overly big form of Zucchini came up to her, whimpering.

 

“Oh, sweetie, what’s up? Where’s Asia?” Elise pulled her house keys out and Zookie followed her to her door. She looked down at the dog and said, “Want to stay with me tonight? That’s fine by me. You can even go to work with me tomorrow. I’ll call Asia for you.”

Turning the lights on in her living room, she threw her shoes off as she sat down in a chair with a sigh, clicking on the news as she dialed Asia‘s number. No one answered and the phone went to voice mail.

“Asia? It’s me, Elise. Your dog wants me tonight. If you don’t come to pick her up, I’m taking her to work with me. I have that half bag of Science Diet you left here, so I can feed her from that. Call me when you get this.”

Elise got up and put her foil bag of chicken and ribs in the fridge. From the kitchen, she heard the TV anchor reading the late headlines.

“The Villalobos Foundation Benefit was disturbed tonight by several local protesters who were later arrested for trespassing. They will be arraigned in district court tomorrow. Most were under eighteen, so it is expected that they will be released to their parents.

“The event was further dampened by the death of Congressman Robert Harrison. Local water rights was the suspected motivation in the shooting death.

“Due to the number of death threats against his opponent, Senator Juan Villalobos, police are still investigating the possibility that the shooting of Congressman Harrison was an unplanned accident – the real target being Senator Villalobos.

“We go now to Mr. Harrison’s home and the family he left behind in Springfield.”

_______

Let ‘em go then!” said Tobias Smart, angrily into his phone as he turned onto Silver Lake Boulevard. “We are never going to lose farmers in this area. We might lose some of the over-spenders – folks who bought too much land and are ‘land poor’. You have to diversify your income sources, you just can’t expect acts of nature to support your farming practices. It is the other way around.

“We will never be able to put a grandfather clause in our legislation. We try and insert a sliding scale participation in our conservation bill, and the Republican support for bigger farmers will just ruin the entire thing. The muscles in their heads don’t know compromise…even if it’s in their favor.

“They’ve never been known for seeing too far into the future – or caring what it might be. A pocketful of gold just for today isn’t good enough.

“Actually, we could have at least made sure our opposition could finish paying for their tractors and other farm-related loans or property taxes. See, I can think like a humane person.

“ But, they’ll twist that and hurt us back like unreasonable, angry wild animals, regardless of how well-intentioned we are.” Tobias ended the call and pulled into the California’s parking lot. The back of the large complex was almost finished -- minus the landscaping.

The blue of the water in the swimming pool shone through its three glass walls like a sparkling sapphire. The lights were low for late night atmosphere, elegance and such, but they were on. Around the edges of the reflective water was a band of floor lighting from the lower walls. Lights glowed over and into the water, which glowed lavender around the various decks and lit the bottom of the pool.

Smart really liked this effect. He called it his “Key West – Oahu Effect”. A taste of the sub-tropical ocean in the Midwest. He climbed the back stairs, inspecting the dry concrete as he went.

As he opened an unlocked sliding glass door, he saw Vance Smither’s shadow in the colored lights in the bottom of the pool, floating underneath him like a shark. When he came up for air, Vance saw Tobias, so he climbed out of the subtle light of the water and grabbed a large bath towel.

“Ah, this is ecstasy! I just had to be the first one to take a swim. They turned the pool equipment on for the first time this afternoon. The machinery for most of the plant was finished being installed about the same time – so a test was ideal.”

“Everything works?”

“Yeah. Perfectly, so far. I even took a steam bath.”

“You think you should?” said Tobias with an unusual tone of deference.

“Oh, Tobias, you are always so finicky. I’ll be fine. I was only in the steam for about ten minutes.”

“You know, your doctor always warns you about sudden heat or cold.”

“If I was completely healthy, it would be good for me. It’s great for red blood cells and your skin. You should try it, might help your metabolism. Lose weight.”

“Jesus, Vance, I’ve been this big since I was fifteen. But…I might just try it someday.”

Smithers let out a small, painful cry and clutched at his left side.

“See – I told you,” said Smart, irritably as he belied his feelings and leapt forward surprisingly agile for his size and grabbed his friend, cushioning him gently into a large, padded deck lounge.

“Ah, shit,” said Smithers, cringing into a fetal position on the lounge, still holding onto his side.

Smart frowned at Smithers and asked, “Where in God’s name is your nitroglycerin?”

“I left my vial in the first locker in the shower area. It’s unlocked.”

Smart swore out loud and moved quickly to the stairs leading down to the spa and dressing area. “I’ll get it…breathe deeply and try and relax.”

“Okay,” answered Smithers weakly.

Smart’s heavy footsteps echoed up into the pool area as he pounded down the stairs. He could be heard on the phone as he slammed the metal door shut between the pool and spa area and let himself in.

Smithers gasped several times, groaned and passed out.

_______

Elise Snuggles woke up the next morning to the sound of her cell phone playing “Hero” into her ear from a bedside table. She checked the clock and opened her phone.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Elise,” said the low voice of Sheila Rodriguez. “Get a story?”

“You know I didn’t,” mumbled Elise, instantly depressed.

“Maybe you got more than you know. Hey…” Sheila paused dramatically. “Zookie’s here.”

Elise sat up in her bed and looked around. “No she isn’t. She’s with me.” Elise looked out into her hallway and called, “Zookie…Zookie…come here, girl!” Elise heard a familiar bark in the receiver of her phone.

“She’s here, I told you. She was waiting at the station door when the Chief and I came in to the station this morning at six.”

“Oh. She was here part of last night. She was waiting in front of my house when I got home from the banquet. I must have forgotten to let her back in when I let her out around midnight.”

“Where’s Asia? She hasn’t been answering her phone.”

“I called her last night and only got voicemail, myself. I’ll drop over by her house before work and tell her that her dog is wandering around again.

“When she’s not working, she sleeps a lot and doesn’t really get up before ten, except to get her newspaper. I’ll go over and wake her lazy ass up.”

“ Okay. By the way, the five teenage boys we arrested last night are going to be arraigned in court this morning. Their folks bailed them out last night. They all came up clean in our computer system -- no drugs, alcohol, previous records, DUIs. Looks like we did everything but arrest the next Valedictorian from Silver Lake High. They’ll probably get a fine and a couple days in our local hospice for disturbing the peace and trespassing.”

 

“Any word on the Harrison thing?”

“Still snooping for that scoop?”

“You know it. A little sleep and the energy is there again…”

“Well, we don’t have much right now. Harold Skylar was seen close to the limousines, so we are watching him. Tobias Smart has a photo of him on his cell phone. It’s possible that Robert Harrison was the correct target. Skylar’s politics are known to be radical leftist, like most of the local farmboy hippies. Bob Harrison was as far to the right as one can get before turning in a circle. Bad combo.”

“By Harold Skylar, do you mean Harry the Hippie?”

“That’s right. Nice ol’ Harry. Harold Skylar is his given name. We have to check everything out. I heard he’s living out by Asia’s.”

“Yeah. She thinks so, too.”

“Well, be careful. If you see his camp, let me know.”

God,” said Elise, in a complaining whine, rising up out of her bed and putting her feet into her pink bunny slippers. The day I have to be afraid of Harry, is the day I will quit my journalism career and pursue Shakespearean theater. And you know how much I like that kind of theater.”

“Not at all.”

“You got it. So your list of suspects is comprised of five squeaky clean teenagers and a pacifist.”

“About that.”

Elise went into the bathroom and got ready to take a shower.

“Can you come by the station on your break or something and bring some of that Raven’s Brew coffee you and you alone know how to get?”

“Of course,” Elise said as she bent over to turn the water on.

“See you, then, sis.”

“’Bye, sweetie.”

After her shower, Elise did some yoga stretches, poured a cup of her own Raven’s Brew, letting the deep, dark aroma bathe her senses. She put a pumpkin spice muffin into her microwave. She saw Ashford and Simpson hop across her lawn with a sigh of contentment.

As she got into her Toyota, she found herself thinking of “her” rabbits and dreaming once again about the perfect guy and getting happily married. “Wouldn’t mind a couple of baby bunnies hopping along after me, either,” she thought with rue. She popped her favorite Whitney Houston CD in the player and started the car.

Elise pulled into Asia’s driveway a few minutes later. She noticed that her porch light was still on. That gave Elise an uncomfortable, wary feeling, knowing how energy-conscious Asia was. And how Virgo she was about turning off her outside lights during the day..

Elise had let herself in through the garage and noticed that Asia’s pickup was not there. Another creepy feeling worked its way through her small body.

Asia? Asia?! Get up! Your dog’s been all over town,” she called as she entered the kitchen. She knew Asia did not have a boyfriend right now, but she could have met someone last night. Rather quick, but you never know.

She walked into the empty bedroom and felt, well, left out. Thinking, with a heavy sigh, that she must have met someone. It wasn’t like Asia not to keep in touch. Asia, Sheila, the Almontes and Elise had known each other since grammar school. They talked about most things to each other. Everything, actually.

“Damn,” she said to herself out loud. Seeing no clue as to where her friend was, she left and went to the cable station. She had noticed that none of Asia’s camera equipment was parked around her house as it usually was. Maybe she was out filming. Still, she usually clued someone in on where she was going and what she was doing. It was the natural thinking of a close friend.

Elise worked listlessly for about an hour, checking the wall clock every fifteen minutes. Then, she got up from her desk and walked out to her car. She smoked a joint in the parking lot and drove over to the police station.

Zucchini greeted her enthusiastically, her huge caramel and silver head filling Elise’s driver’s side window.

“Whoa, girl! Down, horsy! Let me get out.”

Sergeant Rodriguez appeared standing next to a body-perfect, tall, tan and muscled Chicano cop with dazzling dark eyes. To prevent any misconceptions, he had on a black T-shirt that proclaimed “Chicano Cop” in six inch brown lettering. He was wearing a matching brown felt cowboy hat and uniform pants.

Elise laughed and handed Sheila the coffee bag.

 

“Ah, food. Have any new batches of honey? We’re almost out and half the station prefers their coffee with Snuggles honey.”

“ Yeah,” answered Elise. “I have two new batches. You didn’t say anything. I have some freshly harvested ginseng root, too, which is great with honey and coffee -- if one must.”

“Shoot, you know I must. I work way over forty hours a week, counting my overtime. You find Asia?”

“Nope. She wasn’t at home. No Silverado and her bed looked fresh. Not slept in.”

Rodriguez looked concerned. She said, “That’s not like her.”

“We all have our secrets.”

“Asia keeps secrets from me ?” exclaimed Rodriguez, putting her hand to her chest. “I don’t believe it and I don’t like it, either. I am going to phone her father. A murder and a disturbance -- and now one of our free-lance photographers is missing.”

“It might be a little early to call her missing,” said the man at Sheila’s side.

“Maybe, Chico, but I want the patrol cars to start looking for her pickup, ASAP.”

“Okay, honey, I’ll tell the station crew.”

“Tell the dispatcher to radio the guys out on the Boulevard.” Sheila paused and continued, “And the Forest Service.”

Chico gave Sheila a kiss on the cheek and smiled affably. “Will do,” he said.

Turning to Elise, Sheila said, “Do you have a good photo of Asia?”

“Hell, yeah. Why?”

“I want you to show it on the news. All day, if possible. Post a missing person’s message with it on your scrolling headline.”

“Sure, Sheila. I gotta get back to the station. Can’t afford to be late. I only have fifteen minutes for break today. Asia makes me late enough when I go over there. What about Zookie?”

“I’ll take her with me. I want to see Asia’s house, myself,” answered the Sergeant.”

Elise got in her Toyota. As she started the engine her sound system blasted the last few bars of I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston at the very high volume that Elise had left on the CD player. She clicked the sound off. “Call if you hear anything…about anything,” said Elise.

“You, too,” answered Rodriguez.

“’Kay…”

 

 

Chapter Four

“Rely on our little CANOE to bring you your local and national news: K-A-N-U.”

 

Oops…program’s on,” thought Elise with embarrassment as she slid into the chair in front of her monitor. She saw with surprise that the yellow ribbon said that, “Vance Smithers of Smithers’ and Smart’s California Laundromat and Health Spa was found at the bottom of the Spa’s pool. He apparently, though, died of natural causes – a heart attack. The Medical Examiner was called in because of bruises caused by a possible fall. There will be more on this story on the six o‘clock news.”

“Where were you?!” came a hissing whisper from behind Elise’s chair. “I had to type the breaking news into your banner.”

“Why are people sneaking up on me?” responded Elise, spinning around to face Alphonsine LaDuque, the anchor from the nightly news. Her fearlessness wavered a little. Some reporter she was, she had to go to the station in order to get the breaking news.

“You better make sure your ssseverance notice doesn’t sssneak up on you,” said Alphonsine in her high, ultra-feminine, heavy-on the-sss’s voice.

“Oh, shit!” exclaimed a slightly irritated Elise.

“Excuuuse me?!” lisped Alphonsine threateningly.

Elise grabbed a Kleenex and blew her nose into it. “Oh, Alphonsine, I’m soo sorry. It’s these cold summer nights, they bother my immune system.” She faked another sneeze.

Alphonsine walked away, clicking her six inch stiletto-heeled ankle boots as she did. Her round butt rolled her already very short skirt up from one dangerous-looking thigh to the other.

“Too bad I’m not immune to you,” thought Elise, staring at Alphonsine’s backside with not a lick of jealousy. “Who’d want to look like that anyway? I don’t need to look like a hooker in order to find love.” She went on thinking about that for a while.

The animation of a large empty canoe went gliding across her monitor. She got busy and typed in Asia’s missing person’s information, inserting her photo.

________

Patrolman Chico Almonte went around to the back of the Silver Lake police station and untied Niño, his jet black quarter horse. Chico was a long-legged man, town guesswork put him at just over 6’6” measured against other tall guys. His horse was the biggest gelding he could find, almost seventeen hands. He and his two brothers raised about fifty steer and had a small diary. They grew corn for their chickens and to mill -- and about fifty acres of hay for their cattle and horses. But he didn’t have a dog.

 

Chico and Sheila were tight. They had been tight with each other since third grade. It was Chico’s suggestion that he saddle up Niño and walk him and Zucchini around town later, to see what the dog would sense in terms of her missing owner. Sheila agreed, but she wanted to take Zookie over to Asia’s first and walk around using her law enforcement training to see if anything was out of place. So far, Asia had not returned any calls.

Chico decided to patrol on Niño, alone, this morning with Sheila’s approval. The tourists usually liked it and the little children were charmed. Niño was a placid, highly intelligent thoroughbred horse who ran like a hurricane. He had almost been named Tornado, but that was Zorro’s horse. For speed, looks and gentility, he was truly a magnificent animal. Chico curried him vigorously and often, with loving tenderness. His withers practically sparked in the sunlight.

“I’ll meet you over at Asia’s at noon. If she is still not back by then, Niño, Zucchini and I will finish walking my beat and take a look in the woods,” Chico said to Sheila, as he stood next to his horse, who seemed anxious to get on his way and walk Chico’s beat as usual.

“Okay. It helps when your girlfriend is your commanding officer. The Chief won’t mind.”

“Got him in the palm of your hand.”

“I suppose,” responded Sheila.

The two cops held each other in a tight embrace and kissed, smiling into each other’s eyes as Niño stamped his hooves impatiently into the dust next to them.

Sheila called the dog and packed her into the back seat of her patrol car. As she pulled out of the station’s parking lot, she saw Tobias Smart in handcuffs being led into the station, obviously complaining, and obviously under arrest.

Sheila paused, hit the dashboard with her fist and radioed the office as she pulled out, shooting gravel out the back of her rear wheels. She had them set up a conference call on her cell phone so she could listen into Smart’s interrogation on the way to Asia’s. She put the cell phone into a holder in the middle of the dash, connecting it by an audio wire to her car’s sound system, raising the volume on the microphone, so she could speak too..

____________

I had nothing to do with hurting Vance! I want my lawyer! Get your hands off me! You’re hurting me! These cuffs are too small. They are cutting into my wrists!” shrieked Tobias Smart’s voice through Sheila’s sound system as she drove down Silver Lake Boulevard with her Mars lights flashing. Zucchini barked once.

“Mr. Smart…is that your real name?”

“What kind of shit is this? Of course that’s my real name! Are you inferring that I’m stupid?”

“We put the largest cuffs we had on you. We even took a trip back here to the station to look for something larger. We need to ask you some questions and have to verify your name, that’s all.”

“You know, I called the EMT myself when I found Vance. I fished him out of the water and compressed the water out of his lungs.”

“We’ll find that out inside this room. Please, take a seat. Your lawyer indicated that he will be here in a few minutes.”

“Good. Then I’ll wait,” said Smart in a conceited tone of voice.

“If you would like some coffee, I’ll take one of your cuffs off and lock the other one to the table, if you promise there will be no violence.”

Without so much as a pause, Smart answered, “Make mine regular. No problems with me. I won‘t hurt anyone.” Sheila smiled at the competence of her men…so far.

As Tobias Smart took the cup of hot Java in his free hand, he commented, “Mmm…you do know how to make coffee. My God, even the police station in this town has gourmet tendencies.”

“It’s Kona and a Jamaican beans, a dark mixture…”

“Hunh?”

Raven’s Brew -- it’s Kona coffee, from Hawaii mixed with Jamaican. A dark brew from an Alaskan company.”

Mmm…” said Tobias Smart, savoring another loud sip. “When this mess is cleared up, I’ll need some of this. Perhaps we can get a supplier for the Spa. Even the milk is unusually tasty.”

“The milk is organic from the Almonte Creamery.”

Smart’s voice broke as he said, “Oh God, the Spa…What am I to do?! Vance was the whole thing!” Smart broke down into loud sobbing.

There was a long pause and Sheila pulled up in front of Asia’s house. She grabbed her cell phone, clicked off and called the station desk. “I want a recording of Smart’s interrogation. Hold him overnight if you can. I think the Chief will want to hold him until the Medical Examiner is done. I want to speak with Tobias Smart before he has any chance to clean up after himself. Tell the chief I’m going over to the California’s pool this afternoon. I know it’s roped off. I’ll join the crime lab people.”

Sheila clicked off and got out of her patrol car. She let Zookie out and she went bounding up to Asia’s porch.

Sheila got her digital video out of the car and started filming as she walked into Asia’s house the same way Elise went in, the guest entrance -- through the garage which was usually open. Sheila made sure that she photographed from ceiling to floor and got every corner of each room she passed through. She stopped in the living room and called out, “ Asia! Asia, you here?!” There was no answer, no scuffling, no noise at all.

Still filming, Sheila went to Asia’s front door and let Zucchini in, noting Asia’s second set of truck keys hanging on her door jamb. Curiously, her second set of house keys were there, also.

Sheila took them and stuck them in her pocket.

Zucchini walked around each room on the first floor sniffing with her head to the floor. She barked a couple of times facing the stairs to the rooms on the second floor. When there was no answer, Zookie climbed the stairs. Sheila followed her with her side arm drawn and the camera filming from a tripod on the dining room table. After that, she sidled down the hallway, looking into each room and the closets as she did. When she was satisfied that there was no one there, she holstered her gun and went downstairs to get her camera. She filmed each room the same way that she did downstairs, seeing nothing out of place.

It began to dawn on her that she had not seen any of Asia’s many cameras or her computer. Zookie suddenly rushed down the stairs and began barking wildly at the back door.

Sheila turned her camera off and pocketed it, following the dog down the stairs cautiously, hugging the wall. Peeking around the corner into the kitchen, Sheila saw an elderly black lady through the window in the back door. She heard her bang on the window and call out, “Hello? Asia? It’s me, Frankie.”

Sheila holstered her gun and went to answer the door. As she opened the door, she noticed that the door seemed a bit stuck and there were scratch marks on the brass of the locking mechanism.

“Oh my,” said the woman, eyeing Sheila’s uniform. “What are you doing here? Is Asia all right? What is going on?”

“I’m a friend of Asia’s. My name is Sheila Rodriguez. I’m a sergeant with the Silver Lake police. Asia has not been answering her phone, so I got concerned. You know her documentary work might have earned her a few enemies.”

The old woman walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table unbidden.

“I can just imagine,” said the woman. “Her opinions on the local water conservation issues could do that. That is a very touchy subject.

“I am the closest thing Asia has for a next door neighbor. I live about twenty acres away.” The elderly woman pointed out a kitchen window. “The big green farm house over there is mine. My name’s Louise Franklin. Most folks call me Frankie.”

“When was the last time you saw Asia?” questioned Sheila.

“Oh, a few days ago.”

Sheila got up and took a short video of the back door jamb, going outside and filming the back area, as well.

 

Frankie looked nervous and said, “You know, you should come over to my house and visit. Have you heard about my animals?”

“No, I haven’t heard about your animals,” said Sheila. “Give me your cell phone number. I would love to visit. I would also like to know anything unusual you might have seen around here.”

“Well, I don’t have a cell phone, just a land line. I have seven rescued dogs, three rescued baby sparrows, one rescued baby yellow finch, two abandoned fawn, and a few productive rescued dairy goats. I’m kind of proud of my menagerie. I’ve never been lonely for even sixty seconds.”

Frankie grew thoughtful and silent, “In terms of your last question, I haven‘t seen anything unusual lately, except that Asia‘s dog is hanging around my house more than she usually does. That‘s why I‘m here.”

“Yes, me and some of her other friends have noticed that Zucchini has been wandering around lately, too.”

“My dogs keep me safe. I also nurture immature or injured forest animals. I am an unofficial wildlife center. I have a Forest Service patch. If I raise certain types of animals, such as a fawn, I need to consult with them and get permissions and wildlife veterinary advice..”

“If you see or hear from Asia, let me know. Do you have any idea where she might be?”

“Sure, if I see her, I’ll call you at the station. I haven’t a clue where she is – unless she went fishing.”

“She’s a vegetarian.”

“Shows you how long it’s been since we had a meal together. No wonder she got so thin. I came over today because I got a little worried. You don’t think Asia’s come to any harm, do you?”

“We don’t know. One of her friends usually knows what she is doing. According to everyone I‘ve talked to so far, no one knows where she is. That is unusual. I called her dad and he hasn‘t heard from her either.”

Sheila called Zucchini and let Frankie know she had to leave. After Frankie went out the back, Sheila put yellow duct tape over the back door jamb on the inside and left with Zookie out the front.

The two of them got into the patrol car and Sheila drove in the direction of the California Spa. When she turned into the back lot, the crime lab people were still in the pool area and some of the technicians were packing a police van and leaving.

Sheila went up into the pool area after locking the dog in the patrol car. Ducking under the crime scene tape, she was met by the head tech. The Medical Examiner had finished the Smithers’ autopsy.

According to the tech, they had found water in Smithers’ lungs, which meant that his infarction had not killed him. He had died by drowning. Although the pain of a heart attack might have caused him to roll off the pool divan and into the water. Officially, the possible deduction was that he also might not have done that by himself. He might have had help rolling into the pool. He could have been pushed. Considering Congressman Harrison’s murder, Smithers’ demise was still in the realm of a possible political retribution.

Sheila nodded her head. She looked up from her conversation and noticed a series of small camera lenses reflecting daylight. They were located around the edges of the ceiling. “Have you checked out the camera feed from the other night?”

“Camera feed?” questioned the tech. “What camera feed?”

“From those,” responded Sheila, pointing up.

“Oh. I doubt if they were activated at the time. The place isn’t even open yet.”

“I think you had better make sure that there was no recording.”

“We are almost done for today. We will have to do that later. We’ll get back to you on that.”

Dissatisfied, Sheila picked up her cell as she got up to leave. Before she could dial, it rang.

“Hey, Sarge,” greeted Elise’s voice.

“Hey, yourself.”

“Found something.”

“Eh? What?”

 

“Asia’s boot. Grounds keeper at the Civic Center found it in the parking lot and put it in the Lost and Found. My Judo class is at the Center after work. Since the Lost and Found box is at the front door, I just happened to look at it and I recognized the boot. I asked who found it and spoke to the guy I mentioned.”

“Really? Can you drop it off at the police station?”

“Sure, as soon as I get out of Judo class.”

“You know anyone named Frankie?”

“Oh, sure. That crazy old animal lady.”

“I didn’t think she was crazy. But she is older.”

“Her whole house is filled with animals. Smells like a zoo in there. Outside of that, she’s a fine old lady. My folks grew up with her. Has a lot of outspoken opinions. She doesn’t have much family around here anymore. Her husband died a couple of years ago. He ran a very lucrative rib shack. She must have inherited a lot of money and she still runs the rib joint herself.”

“Hmm…How soon can you make it to the station?”

“I’ll be over there in about twenty minutes,” said Elise.

“Good,” replied Sheila. As soon as she hung up, she dialed the desk at the station.

“Hi, Sergeant Rodriguez here. Have they finished questioning Mr. Smart?”

“Yes, ma’am,” replied the desk.

“Is he still locked up?”

“Yes.”

“May I speak to him, please?”

“Okay. I’ll let him use my phone.”

There was a pause, then Tobias Smart got on the phone.

“Mr. Smart?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

“Sgt. Rodriguez. What do you know about the camera system around the pool? Would Mr. Smithers have had it on?”

“What camera system? Oh, yeah, Smithers might have been using it. He was fascinated by high tech equipment. You need to talk to the construction company to find out how the system works. I wouldn’t know. They would know where the recording is, if there is one. It is probably in the Spa office. The Cape Girardeau Construction Company is in the phone book. That is who you need to ask.

“I just let Smithers do what he wanted to. I am more of a decorator than a mechanical guy.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

Sheila clicked off and dialed the construction company after getting the number from directory assistance. “Hello, this is Sgt. Rodriguez from the Silver Lake Police Department, may I speak to the supervisor of the electricians that worked on the California Spa?”

“Hello?” came a masculine voice after a minute or so.

“Hi, I’m over at the Spa right now. Do you know where the feed from the pool cameras goes to?”

“Oh, yeah. There is a hard drive in the office that records when the system is on.”

“Can you come over and show me?”

“Sure. Meet you there in fifteen minutes.”

“Okay, that’s good. I’ll go downstairs. Is the office open?”

“Probably. We’re not expecting any customers for a few weeks. The construction workers are the only folks around.”

“No mention of a possible break-in or crime scene safeguards,” thought Sheila, angrily.

She took the stairs down to the ground floor. The office door swung open as soon as she touched the knob. “Damn it,” she thought. Looking around, she opened a metal cabinet -- also unlocked. It contained a small, expensive-looking compact computer desk cassette. She sat down and examined what seemed to be the main desk.

A good-looking, slender black man appeared in the doorway and said, “Sgt. Rodriguez?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Rodriguez, spinning around towards him in the desk chair.

“My name’s Elton Jamison, I’m the project’s electrical supervisor. I see you found the computer.”

“Yes. How do we view the output?”

“Not sure there is any. But if there is, we can view it on the flat screen TV over your head. I’ll rewind the feed and turn the system on for you if you let me sit there.”

Sheila got up and let Jamison take her place. He pulled out a small keyboard shelf underneath the desk top and tapped a few keys. The hum of the computer booting up filled the room. “Looks like there is something on the drive. Here we go…” There was a flicker on the flat screen as five split screen images came up. “Seems to be about four hours on here. Only the pool cameras are here, though. Mr. Smithers must have put them on when he was testing our equipment installation.”

Sheila grabbed another office chair and put her reading glasses on, her head angled up at the screen. There was a date and time stamp on each camera feed. They watched as a living Vance Smithers walked into the pool area in his Speedo with a large bath towel draped over his shoulders which he dropped on a deck lounge. He dove into the deep end of the pool.

Before he started a second lap, the large form of Tobias Smart entered from the parking lot. Smithers climbed out of the pool and threw his towel on. Smart walked over. They spoke to each other. Suddenly, Smithers looked agonized and grabbed his side. Sheila leaned towards the screen, her fist against her mouth. As Smithers began to fall, Smart caught him and laid him on the divan.

“Sheila! Where are you?” Patrolman Chico Almonte stood in the hall outside of the Spa office. Elton Jamison reached over and paused the playback as Tobias Smart seemed to be dialing his cell phone on the video.

“Hi honey, it’s getting late. I want to get Zucchini before it gets dark.”

“Zucchini?” queried Jamison. “Having dinner tonight?”

“It’s a dog. She’s in my patrol car. Here, Chico, take my car keys.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Almonte left, climbing the stairs to the pool area two at a time. After a short time, he returned with Zookie.

“Whoa!” exclaimed Jamison. “Big dog.”

“Here, catch,” said Chico. He threw Sheila’s keys to her as Zucchini walked over and gave Elton Jamison a gentle nuzzle.

“Come on, girl, let’s do some sleuthing,” Chico said as he clapped his hands and the two walked away together.

“Husband?” asked Jamison.

“Almost,” replied Rodriguez. “Turn the video back on. I didn’t stop for lunch today. You mentioned dinner. My stomach needs to get some take-out. Italian sounds good already.”

The video began to move again. Smart disappeared down the pool area stairs. A small dark figure entered the pool area from the unfinished section in the front of the Spa complex where the café was being built. It was impossible to tell if the figure was a man or a woman. The person kept their face down. He or she was dressed in dark clothing and wore a sort of black unisex headband/scarf that they kept pulled slightly over the edges of their face.

“Damn,” said Sheila. “They must know there are cameras. I can’t see their face. See if you can rewind and go through this again.”

Jamison rewound the video and played the entrance of the third figure again. The new person walked over to Smithers quickly, paused, then reached over as Smithers seemed to cramp again and rolled him off the lounge, along the deck and into the pool.

The unidentified person ran back the way he or she came in. Smart re-entered from the downstairs spa area, obviously upset, gave a cry, immediately dove into the water and pulled Smithers out, giving him CPR.

“For such a big guy, that fellow can really move,” commented Jamison.

“Too bad he was a little too late,” responded Sheila. “Can you make a copy of this for me?”

“Sure, as long as I can find the blank DVDs. Should be a few around here somewhere.”

Sheila got up and stretched.

__________

The squeals of children greeted Chico as he rode out onto Silver Lake Boulevard on the big, black stallion with Zucchini following him. Chico rode to the west end of the boulevard and entered a trail leading into the woods. Suddenly, Zucchini gave a sharp bark and took the lead. About a mile down the trail, she veered into an opening in the trees that intersected a dirt road which was not much more than two parallel tire ruts.

Chico had a hard time keeping Zucchini in view. He tried getting Niño to speed up, but the horse seemed skittish about doing so. Chico began to get concerned, not only because the sun was beginning to go down, but also because Niño was famous for his sixth sense. Chico pulled up on the reins, stopped and pulled his shotgun out, inserting a full magazine and unsnapping his side arm. “Come on, boy,” he said to the stallion, making clucking sounds and slapping his legs against Niño’s sides. The horse hesitated and began to walk forward slowly. Chico caught sight of Zucchini just as she entered an open field and turned right.

“Dog must have caught a strong scent,” thought Chico.

As the sun hid its light even further, the smells of the woods became stronger. Chico thought that maybe he should come back tomorrow. It was too dangerous to do this in the twilight. The thudding of Niño’s hooves got louder, scraping some gravel, just as Zucchini started to howl at a distance. Chico called the dog and whistled, but she did not reappear. He thought of dismounting and tying Niño up, but the descending darkness changed his mind. One little bit of clumsiness in the dark could jeopardize Asia’s life – or his. Chico called the dog again, but she did not respond. Niño was getting increasingly skittish, so Chico turned him around and headed back. Both his radio and cell phone were out of range, so he could not call for back-up or a SWAT team. Not to mention that he didn’t know exactly what they were facing. It could just be a couple of bird hunters and a nice male dog that appealed to Zookie. An over-excited dog was not a strong enough reason to worry right now. Although, Chico was worried anyway.

 

 

Chapter Five

Who Let the Dogs Out?”

A very tired and hungry Sgt. Rodriguez drove into the Silver Lake police department parking lot in time to see Chico ride up on Niño. She smiled. Some of her bone-cracking tiredness evaporated as Chico jumped down from his mount with a wide grin on his face and tied his big horse up to a post near the station’s exit.

“Find anything?” he shouted to his girlfriend.

“Yeah. How about you?” responded Sheila.

“Maybe. Zookie took off again. Better keep an eye out for her. She didn’t follow me back here.”

“Dang it. Hope she comes home to one of us.”

“She will. It was getting too dark to continue tracking safely.”

Sheila nodded in understanding, walked over to Chico and put her arms around his waist.

“I’m hungry. Want some take-out tonight?”

“Yeah. I’ll take a double portion. I didn’t have any lunch.”

“Me neither. I would say that I could eat a horse, but I know that would be inappropriate.”

Niño nickered, as if in agreement. Chico kissed Sheila under her eye and said, “I love you.”

Niño nickered again, stamping his hooves, raising some dust, and Chico laughed saying, “You, too, my man. I’ll put Niño in the police stable tonight and we can go from here.”

“Good. I have some evidence that I want to consolidate and log in. I need to have a short conversation with Tobias Smart.”

Chico groaned. “By the way,” he said. “FYI -- I think Smart is homosexual.”

Sheila raised her eyebrow at Chico and asked, “What makes you think that?”

“When we were questioning him and he got nervous, his wrist went limp at one point and he began to lisp slightly.”

“I wonder if that is relevant?” said Sheila quietly, almost to herself. “We’ll find out, I guess.”

“I’ll change into my jeans in the station and we can take my truck. Give me some time.”

“Okay, honey.”

Chico walked Niño around to the stable and gave him an apple horse cookie, some fresh Timothy hay and water. He put on his favorite CD of Snoop Doggy Dog. He wiped the horse down with cool water and brushed him until he was shiny. The stallion nickered and bit Chico’s T-shirt a little in affection and play. Chico scratched the horse’s forelock as Niño bobbed his big head to the rap music Chico played for him when he wanted him to relax before he was bedded down. He wished Zucchini was there. The two animals got along well, like family. And Chico was a family man. He took a shower and changed into his Levis in his groom-room in the stable.

Sheila loaded the DVD copy of the Spa camera feed into a station laptop and brought it into Tobias Smart’s cell. He was glad enough to have some company. Jail can be lonely, it is true. She watched him carefully when she played the DVD. He got excited when he saw the diminutive person run in and knock Smithers off the divan. He positively identified the intruder as Smither’s wife, Gloria.

When he found out that Sheila was going for take-out, he begged for some. Smart said that the jail food was “God-awful” and “unfit for anything except a mulch pit” -- “especially breakfast, even oatmeal is better than those watery unseasoned powdered eggs.” He added, plaintively, “Please, please, please -- get me some take-out.”

He had nothing but bad things to say about Gloria Smithers and, of course, insisted that she be arrested immediately. Sheila explained that it was up to the Chief of Police, not her. And Smart was the only person so far that had recognized Mrs. Smithers. Sheila noticed that he did lisp a little especially when he saw Gloria Smithers on the video. She told Smart that she would get him a pan of lasagna, to which he got effusive and said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you . You can use the jailhouse coffee, though -- that’s edible. Raven‘s Brew is on my list of fine coffees.”

Sheila explained that she needed to fill out her report form. She went to her own office, took out the DVD and locked up the laptop. She noticed a leather construction boot on her desk. She examined it, rolling it over in her hands and looking at the long dark, pitted scratches down one side of the leather. Chico walked in (long, tall and handsome, smelling of men’s cologne) and sat down.

 

Sheila looked up, smiled and said, “Looks like this boot was dragged on the asphalt.”

“She might have been dragged to a vehicle.”

“There are scrapes down one side of the boot. Her truck is not in the parking lot anymore. I’ll label the boot and put it in an evidence locker. The Spa office was wide open. Anyone could have had access to the computer. You gotta be a cop not to be sloppy like that.”

“I believe ordinary folks call it ‘trusting’.”

Sheila made a small raspberry sound, buzzing her lips.

“Let’s go,” she said after she locked the boot away. The Chief would coordinate their evidence.

They took Chico’s F250 Ford pickup over to Vita Bella and got four pans of double cheese lasagna. The extra pan was for Elise. They dropped Smart’s dinner off at the police station.

On the way to Elise’s, they passed Asia’s house. The place was dark. She hadn’t answered her voicemails all day.

In order to confirm Smart’s identification of Gloria Smithers, they would have to examine the video frame by frame, so Sheila took the DVD copy with her after making another copy at the station. There were three things she had to work on: identification, motivation and alibi.

They were at a loss for motivation at this point, but with a clear frame showing Mrs. Smithers’ face, they could at least ID her. She would be called in for questioning tomorrow with her lawyer and the Chief’s approval.

Chico pulled up in front of Elise Snuggles’ house. They both hopped down from the truck. Elise met them at the door with Zucchini. “Hi!” she said, “What’d you get me?”

“ Vita Bella lasagna -- double cheese.”

“Mighty. I skipped lunch.” They all looked at Zucchini.

“The dog met me here this afternoon. I would assume that Asia is not back yet. I would just as soon keep Zookie here tonight. I cleaned and oiled my Glock. With all this craziness floating around, I need to improve my personal security. Come on in, I’ll make a fresh pot of Raven’s Brew.

“Time to chow down. I’ll put together a salad and warm up some garlic bread in the oven. You can fill me in on the local gossip,” said Elise cheerily.

Sheila laughed, “We don’t usually call police business ‘gossip’.”

Elise quipped, “If it’s secondhand – then it’s gossip. Unless you tell me not to repeat it.”

Both cops said at the same time, “Don’t repeat it.”

“Okay,” replied Elise in a small voice. The three friends sat down at the dining room table and Elise busied herself in the kitchen.

As they sat down to eat, Elise asked, “So what’s the scooby?”

Chico answered by saying, “I need the dog first thing tomorrow morning. I want to have all day with her.”

“First thing on Saturday morning, I smoke weed. I’m not working at KANU this weekend. Just come over and take her. I hope you aren’t shocked by seeing a girl in her pajamas.”

Chico laughed and looked at Sheila. “Don’t think I’m not used to that.”

“Ha, ha, ha,” answered Elise.

Sheila commented, “You know you should be a little subtle about your marijuana smoking. Depending on how much you have, it’s not exactly legal in Illinois yet. And we are cops. We could arrest you for a Class A misdemeanor. It would start to drain your wallet the way you smoke.”

“I trust you all,” replied Elise.

“All of us?” asked Chico, feigning shock.

“Just among the three of us. So fill me in. Any ideas about what happened to Asia?”

“Well,” began Sheila. “You know about the boot.”

“Doesn’t look good if she lost her shoe. I thought her absence might have been due to a new boyfriend.”

Chico broke in and said, “I think Zucchini was on to something today. It got too dark to take a look. I’ll go back with Niño and her tomorrow when it is light.”

Elise looked upset. “Can’t you just send the cops over tonight? What if Asia is hurt? I mean, that’s what your job is, isn’t it?”

Sheila defended Chico and said, “If our investigation is too clumsy or inaccurate, we could cause Asia to be hurt or killed. What Chico felt was just a hunch.”

“You have a point,” replied Elise as she served the coffee and cleared their dinner things under the close observation of Zookie who was obviously hungry.

 

Elise gave her the leftover lasagna combined with some kibble. The dog wolfed it down.

Elise called into the living room, “You guys feed her today?”

Chico and Sheila both said, “No.”

Elise answered, “Oh, Jesus, no wonder. Poor thing.”

Chico said, “I have some raw venison she would like. I’ll cut it up and feed it to her tomorrow -- and get a bag of Science Diet.”

 

Chico and Sheila got ready to leave. Chico said to Elise, “See you tomorrow morning.”

Elise shut her front door, locking it carefully and walked down the hall to her bedroom. Zucchini was already lying up on her bed, with her head on the pillow. Elise said, “Oh, no. Oh, no way. You climbin’ into bed with me? Zookie git yo’ ass down! I will not tolerate this! You ain‘t even a male!”

Zucchini reluctantly climbed off the bed, shifting the covers and pillows. She sat on the little shag throw rug on Elise’s bedroom floor and looked up at her expectantly, with a general look of sorrow. Elise clambered into her bed, slowly, pointing her finger at Zookie, saying, “Nooo…Stay there…Don’t move…” As soon as she stopped pointing her finger, though, the dog put her two gigantic front paws on the bedspread and pulled herself up again, stepping on Elise’s hand as she did so, pushing in next to her, squashing into her back and shoving her to the edge of the bed by stretching all four legs out.

“Ow,” exclaimed Elise.

Zookie got up, turned in a circle and pushed her big, broad back up against Elise’s back. Even little Elise had to admit that was pretty comfortable. Good thing she had a king size bed.

“Okay,” she said. “I give up.” she clicked the TV on with the remote. Zookie got up again, snorted, spraying a shot of cold dog snot on the back of Elise’s neck and put her chin on Elise’s shoulder, so she could see the TV too.

Jeez, yuk!” said Elise, moving further away from the big dog but not blocking her view of the television. After about an hour, Elise shut the TV off and fell asleep.

At about six am, Elise’s cell rang into her ear from the bedside table.

“Hello?” she said.

“Hi,” said a man’s voice, “El-seee Snuggles?”

Elise sat up as if she had seen a vampire walk into the room. “El-sie Snuggles! Hug my cow’s rear end! Where’d you get Elsie from? It’s “A” as in apple or Adam and “lease” as in “to rent.” Eehhhlease.”

“Elise, then. Ah’m Chico Almonte’s brother, Cisco. He’s ridin’ Niño over to yo’ house to pick up Zucchini. Just wanted you to know.”

“’Kay. I know now.”

“’Bah, then.”

“’Bye.”

Elise clicked the television on to catch the early morning news, and thought to herself with a chuckle, “That boy’s got a Texas accent as thick as the molasses in Bar-B-Que sauce.” She turned to Zookie and said, “Hope you don’t plan on climbin’ into the tub with me, too.” Zucchini groaned. “Too bad,” said Elise.

As she finished getting dressed after bathing, the sound of hooves reached her ears from the back of the house. She whistled for the dog, who was already waiting by the back door. Elise let her out and waved at Chico who had elevated his stallion onto the horse’s back legs, front legs dangling in the air, shouting, “Hi, ho Silver and away!!” as the dog trotted outside.

Shit!” said Elise to herself. She waved at Chico. “Never get me on the back of one of those things,” she thought to herself. “Scary. Look what could happen! You could slide right down its fanny and drop four feet down to the ground. I might be a country girl, born and bred, but that did not include horse riding. I’ll trade that for a car or a bicycle any day.”

The black stallion and Chico took off -- the stallion following the big husky. Chico was wearing his earth-colored cowboy hat and a “Chicano Cowboy/#1” T-shirt today with his police utility belt and uniform pants.

Zookie found another trail into the woods directly behind Elise’s house. It seemed to be going in the same direction that she took the other day. The black stallion followed Zookie tentatively, since the trail was much narrower than the one from the west end of town. The dog barked once or twice and hightailed it down another “road” which was mostly a wide path, marked entirely by tire ruts. Chico glanced at the sky. The sun was high.

Just as they reached the same clearing as the day before, Chico dismounted and tied his horse up. Exchanging his cowboy hat for a black watch cap, he took his rifle out of the holster on Niño and unsnapped his side arm. Bending low, he ducked behind the undergowth and circled the perimeter of the field, catching the scent of wood smoke as he followed what he could see of Zookie.

A cabin came into view. Quietly, he called Zookie to stop and come. She did, and they both crept up to the cabin together. It was quiet and Chico tried the door with his rifle aimed inside.

“Don’t shoot!” yelled Asia, tensely, from inside the cabin.

“It’s Chico! Are you alone?”

“Yeah. They won’t be back until tonight. Hurry, anyway.”

Chico threw the door open and rushed into the room.

“Shit, man. Get me out of here!” exclaimed Asia, nervously.

Zucchini went over and started whining and biting through some of the ropes binding Asia to a bed in the corner. Chico cut the rest off with his hunting knife. Leaning over her, smoothing her curly hair, he asked soothingly, “Are you all right? You have a big bump on your head.”

“Yeah. It doesn’t hurt anymore. I’m okay, if you call living on bread and cheese for two days okay. My feet are cold and I lost a boot.”

“We know. We found it.”

“How’d you figure out where I was?”

“Zookie found you.”

“When they were gone, I kept calling her. I thought I heard her at the door late yesterday afternoon.”

“You probably did. It was getting too dark, so we came back today. Let’s get out of here. I’ll have to carry you or your feet will get cut. It’ll be faster anyway.”

“They took my truck keys and cell phone. You’ll probably have to look for my Silverado. I wouldn’t mind getting my cell phone back, either.”

“Okay, boss,” said Chico, giving her a reassuring grin.

Grabbing Asia, Chico threw her over his muscular shoulder. The three of them picked their way back to Niño. Chico gave Asia a hand up and joined her in the saddle.

As they cantered back towards town, Chico asked, “Any idea who did this and why they did it? No one has received any demands from your abductors.”

“Not entirely. I’m not even sure they are from Silver Lake. They were angry about my documentary about the Midwestern drought and my stand on water sharing. I think they were fixing to kill me. The other idea they discussed was holding me and contacting KANU until the folks that shot Harrison came forward.” Chico felt a shiver go through Asia’s body. “They wanted to wait until Sunday and take me out of this area. I think they have to go back to work on Monday. Kill me on Sunday and go back to work on Monday. They were talking about planting at one point, so I presume they are farmers, too, probably from Illinois. You just made it in time. I think I would have been gone tomorrow.”

“I’m taking you to my house. My brothers and dad will protect you there. Any idea whose cabin this is?”

“Nope. I need a shower. I stink.”

Chico made sniffing noises and laughed. “Well, you smell like you are alive.”

“Phew! I smell like Zookie after she’s been digging in a rancid trash barrel.”

They cantered up to a large red barn. Chico helped Asia get down and carried her into the kitchen of his big Victorian farm house. The smell of fried chicken filled the room. Chico’s brother, Cisco and his father were sitting at the table.

Asia said, “Wow. That sure smells good. I can fry some tofu to go with the vegetables.”

Chico chuckled and said, “I can do that for you. Want that shower? You might have to wear Sheila’s clothes.”

“Sure, if you promise not to eat all the vegetables.”

“No problem,” answered Chico, walking down a hallway to get Asia some clothing and a towel. In a few minutes, he gave her the things he had gotten and said, “I’ll call the police station and tell them I found you.”

As Chico joined his family, Cisco asked, “What the hell happened to her?”

“It seems as if it was a political kidnapping. She was kidnapped by two angry farmers who are against the state’s agricultural water conservation plan. They thought they could put some pressure on the Illinois legislature that way.

“I brought her here to protect her, since somebody is usually here all day. You might want to lock the doors and windows and keep your small arms handy. I want her to sleep in the windowless attic storage room. We can set up one of the televisions there and put on the central air conditioning. She suspected those two guys were planning on taking her out of town tomorrow to kill her. Until we catch the guys, I don’t want her out of your sight. Where is Julio?”

“He’s at a cattle auction. He’ll be home in a day or two.”

Chico called the police station and gave them a head’s up and did the same with Elise and Sheila. He addressed his family again, “I think Asia is basically okay -- just dirty, scared and hungry with a big bump on her head.”

“We’ll fix her up,” said Cisco warmly.

“I’m going to bed Niño down.”

When Chico walked outside, his horse came over to him and nickered as he took the reins and led him into the barn, palming a horse cookie into his mouth. He suddenly remembered Zookie who was nowhere to be seen.

_______

Three wet and dirty men in headlamps crawled one after the other down a small tunnel by the edge of town.

“Are you sure this leads to a Meramec cavern extension?”

 

“Positive. We’re safe. I crawled down here early this week and put our camping equipment up on a rock shelf. I am not an Eco-Tourism Guide for nothing. The main tourist entrance is about two hours by car near Stanton, Missouri. This connects to the tourist cavern, but the connections go much further into Missouri if you know the way.”

“How did you find this particular tunnel anyway?”

“Spelunking last year, plus sheer luck.”

“My knees hurt.”

“I told you to wear your knee pads. You have your gloves on?”

“Yeah. Ow.”

“We’re almost there. Then we can eat. I have plenty of propane – so no problems with smoke. Don’t be scared, but we’re probably under the Mississippi River right now. Or getting close to it.”

“Oh, cool,” said the youngest man as they all began to sink and slip on mud as they headed downward on a slick decline in the tunnel.

“What about snakes?”

“Believe it or not,” said the lead man. “I think we are too deep underground to worry about that.”

“Are the heavy sleeping bags in the cave?”

“Of course, all our equipment is. It wasn’t easy to get it all down there. I had to wade a small stream.”

“You didn’t say we were going to get wet.”

“We won’t. I built a small bridge out of some bamboo. We should be grateful for the water. We can wash with it downstream. The stream might also be spring fed, so we might be able to cook with it and drink it too, even if we have to add a few drops of bleach.”

“Bill, You’re a real boy scout.”

“Hey, you know it. I was an Eagle Scout, which was where I learned to respect nature and its power. I obtained a lot of wilderness survival skills – including earning a badge for lashing and knot tying.

The young boy answered with a giggle, “I like this. Wow, it’s exciting! How far underground do you think we are?”

“For a nineteen-year-old, you giggle like a little kid. I sure hope we can get back out of here,” said the last man in line.

“We can,” said the leader. “This is not the only way out. I’ll show you later.”

 

The tunnel began to widen and the sound of rushing water became audible. The youngest began to laugh with excitement.

_______

Eight dogs surrounded the decaying cabin in which Asia Reynolds had been held captive.

“What the hell!” yelled one of the men. The other pushed the door open and rushed in.

He exclaimed, “Shit! She’s gone!”

“Oh, no. We’d better get out of here,” answered the other man. As the two men turned to leave, the eight dogs entered the cabin and blocked the door. One man was knocked down by a huge, golden, wolf-like dog and the other met the eyes and open mouth of a large, female Doberman. He screamed, as several other large dogs joined in biting both men.

A small black woman looked cautiously around the outside door jamb, leveling a silver 9mm hand gun at the two men. She dialed 911 on Asia’s cell phone. Asia had dropped it inside the cabin, and it had fallen underneath the wooden bed frame. “Hi, this is Louise Franklin. I’m at the old cabin by Jim Petris’s fallow field. Ask Chico Almonte where it is. There is a truck track from the west end of the Boulevard all the way here. I have the two men that attacked Asia Reynolds cornered with my dogs and my gun. Caught ‘em sneakin’ around the back of my house this morning, the scum. Think they can terrorize our town. I let my dogs loose on ‘em. In fact, if you want them uninjured, you better hurry. Listen…” Frankie held Asia’s cell up to the snarling pack. “Cain’t help it. My dogs were trained to protect me, and protect me they do. Guess these two men heard my interview on Asia’s ‘Share the Water’ documentary and don’t much like my opinions. Too bad.”

Just as a screaming police siren headed towards the cabin, the two men shoved their way out the door, bleeding and angry, knocking Frankie face down on the porch of the cabin, her hand shaking on her 9mm.

The dogs chased the two men to their pickup, but they were able to slam the truck doors shut in their faces and take off. Frankie peeked over at the retreating pickup cautiously, but there were no license plates on the truck. She aimed a couple of wavering bullets at the tires, but missed.

 

 

Chapter Six

That same day, in town, at about the same time, Harold Skylar aka Harry the Hippie sat down on an empty milk crate near a bagel shop, across the street from the Ferris wheel in downtown Silver Lake. He usually got his milk crate from Zinski’s Bagels and dutifully brought it back at the end of his “work” day. He had no money for breakfast today. It was too early in the summer. Ordering take-out for every meal at first was really expensive. He didn’t feel like doing food storage in his tent until he got better containers. Or tree containers because of the wolves, coyote and bear. Take-out was safer. He had to play his guitar on an empty stomach. He put out a coffee can and settled down to an instrumental.

The passers-by smiled at him and he smiled back. He had fly-away, shoulder-length, mousy blonde hair, a sweet smile that made folks like him and a funny T-shirt from the college that he got volunteering to teach music in the public schools: Central Illinois University Teacher’s Exchange or CIUTE.

He lived out in the woods in the summer to save money, since his music scholarship only covered expenses during the school year. He made pretty good money playing his guitar and singing on the street, but it was all savings, camping equipment, supplies, laundry, transportation, food and a membership at the YMCA. He occasionally met a nice girl in the summer, too. But no one steady, yet.

Harry began to sing and strum his guitar. Someone threw a five in his can. He stopped and said, “Thank you,” picked it out of the can, started whistling, put his guitar away and went into the bagel shop. He ordered a steamed milk and two toasted whole grain bagels with unsalted butter. As he sat down to wait for his breakfast, two patrolmen walked into the store. Harry put on his “invisible-I’m-not-here” look, which he was usually pretty good at. Not this time. The cops came right over to him.

“Harold Skylar?” asked the first cop.

“Yes, sir,” answered Harry.

“The guitar case over your shoulder is yours?” asked cop number two.

“Yes, sir,” answered Harry again.

“Do you have a license to play on the street?’

“Hunh? Yeah, this is my second year,” answered Harry, showing them the Silver Lake panhandling, vendor and music license with his photo on it. Cop number one put it in his chest pocket.

“Can I have my license back? I need to make some money today.”

“You might have to wait.”

Harry looked confused and said, “I don’t know what you mean.” He looked at the floor more intently than he had before.

 

“Harold Skylar,” announced the girl at the bagel shop counter. “Your order is ready.” Harry attempted to get up, but cop number one put a large hand on his shoulder and said, “Wait a minute. Give my partner your money.” Harold looked pained, but he did what he was told. Cop number two went over and paid for Harry’s order. Harry, standing up, still looking at the floor, added to the cop getting his order, “Can you please put a take-away container of honey in the bag?”

The cop smiled and put two containers of honey in the bag, handing Harry the bag and his change, saying, “Harold Skylar, you are under arrest for the murder of Congressman Robert Harrison. Please come with us quietly. There is no need to use handcuffs if you do.” To which Harry answered, “What the f***!” and got handcuffed to cop number two.

__________

Sgt. Sheila Rodriguez spent her Sunday on duty, viewing the relevant part of the California Spa pool DVD frame by frame. She found one possible frame that might be clear enough to identify the small intruder. She handed the laptop over to the station’s computer tech with instructions to enlarge and clear up the image if he could.

She then went over to Tobias Smart’s jail cell, opened the barred door and said, “Mr. Smart, you are free to go. You can go to the patrolman at the desk and get your things. Please stay in Silver Lake. You may be called in for questioning again. The Spa DVD supports your version of the events, but we still have some investigatory procedures to perform, so we might need you again.”

“All right! All right!! Yesss!! You may call me any time you like. I have to find another Spa manager, so I will be in town for a while.” A stray tear traced its way down his round cheek. He frowned, looking like thunder, “Did you arrest that horrible Smithers woman? I could tell you some stories about her.”

Sheila looked up sharply, “No. We need a clearer frame from the DVD to ID, as well as your corroboration. Do your stories have to do with this situation?”

“Oh, my God! She could kill again! No, the stories are in the realm of character witness.” Smart looked horrified and put his hand to his lips, “She could kill me!”

“Do you have a gun?”

“Yes. I can borrow security personnel from Senator Villalobos, as well.”

“There you go. Give us your local address and we will put a patrol car on your residence as well as the Spa.”

Smart put his huge hand on Sheila’s shoulder and smiled slightly, saying, “Thank you. I will be in touch.”

Sheila answered, “Do.”

Smart tossed back a giggle as he walked up to the front desk. A free man. For now.

_______

The three men reached the main space of the cavern after crawling across the bamboo bridge on their stomachs. The youngest laughed in exultation. They set up three camp cots and put their sleeping bags out on top of them.

The youngest rubbed his hands together and asked, “What do we have for dinner?”

“Hold on, Jimmy, I have to set up the camp stove. Then we have a choice between lentils and herbed rice with venison jerky or freeze-dried soy chunks,” said the leader with a smile at the youngster.

“The air seems so fresh down here,” answered Jimmy in wonder.

 

“I think there must be really good natural air vents. I’ve noticed that too,” said Bill. “We need that to run our propane safely, although this cavern is large enought to have good air circulation. I’ll go up later and see if I can find good wood smoke air vents, as well. Never know. If the smoke goes out – the air must come in the same way.”

“Yeah, you never know. I’m starved and tired. Let’s just make dinner,” commented the grouchy caver, grouchily.

“Oh, Jeez, cheer up, Tom. This is fun. I’m going to see what my Yanni CD sounds like down here,” said Jimmy.

Bill set the camp stove up and started boiling the venison and lentils with some herbs, doing the same in another pot with the soy chunks for the veggie version. The echoing sounds of Yanni’s ethereal vocals bounced around the irregular sides of the cavern until Bill reached over and turned it down.

“Hey!” objected Jimmy.

“It’s too loud,” said Bill. “We don’t want anyone to know we’re here. This is not on a regular tourist map. If anyone in authority, such as the Forest Service, hears us we could be in a lot of trouble.”

“Okay. Okay, sorry,” said Jim contritely.

Tom, the third spelunker, turned to the other man and said, “Bill, I figure we should be out of here before daybreak. I want to find the other exit tonight if we can. It would look really weird if we came up out of a hole in the ground even if it is on the edge of town. We don‘t want to draw any negative attention to ourselves.”

Jimmy giggled and went over to the stream to wash up. “This water is great! So clean and fresh. Wow! Look at this! There are impressions of giant trilobites in the clay bed of the stream.”

Bill brightened a little and said, “Yeah, Tom noticed that before. These caverns preserve a lot of prehistory. They are millions of years old. Farmers in Missouri occasionally dig up dinosaur or giant sloth bones when they plow, or the entrance to a cavern. Missouri was home to these prehistoric giants at one time. It was one big sloppy, gooey, animal spawning ground, with giant Magnolia trees.”

Jimmy lay down on his cot and put his hands behind his head and let his eyes travel lazily over the yellow, red and blue crystalline pillars around the cavern. “Even the ceiling looks fantastic,” he commented, quietly. In about ten minutes he fell sound asleep.

Tom added the rice in their stew pots and turned to Bill. “Let’s go look for that other exit.”

“Sound’s good. Just let Peter Pan snooze. Last thing we need is to have him break into song in front of a bunch of late tourists.”

Tom smiled in spite of himself.

 

The two men stood in the center of the cavern. Bill lit a candle and went around each section of the perimeter. In one area the flame bent forward and went out. “I think it must be around here somewhere.”

“Overhead?”

“A little, but more to the right.”

They both grabbed their small pick axes and rope and put on their cramp-ons. Bill went up the wall first, throwing the rope back to Tom once he secured it onto a rock shelf with an ax.

“I think it’s behind this shelf,” he gasped, helping Tom up next to him. “Give me a boost up a ways further.” Tom shoved Bill onto the shelf, unceremoniously pushing on his behind. “It’s here!” Bill exclaimed. “And it’s wide enough for us to crawl through.”

They both turned their headlamps on and crawled into the space they had found.

“Be careful,” said Tom. “That tunnel could drop off into another cavern at any time. Don’t let it take you by surprise.”

“Don’t worry. Remember, I’ve done this many times before. That’s why I’m here.”

The two men crawled forward, little by little, for about a hundred yards.

“Hush, wait!” said Tom. “I hear voices. Turn your head lamp off.”

“We must be getting near a tour area. We don’t want to fall on top of a bunch of tourists.”

Even dour Bill had to stifle a gruff laugh. They crawled forward slowly, Bill feeling the floor of the tunnel with his hand extended. “There it is,” he exclaimed excitedly as a circle of dim light hit the ceiling of the tunnel. “Now all we have to do is drop down quietly on the rope just as the last tourist turns to leave and follow them out.”

“Knew there had to be a thorn there somewhere,” complained Tom, grumpily.

“We can do it, Tom. That cavern is huge and we’ll be partially hidden by the giant stalactite formation over there.”

“Hmm. I think they count heads on the way out. I guess we could just let them try and figure out why they have two extra tourists.”

“Well, we only have to do this once and we’ll know the way out.”

“I just hope there isn’t a metal grate or something over the tour entrance. When we leave later, we’d have to hack our way out. I think that is where they start counting. We can drop back when we see them starting to count.”

“Sounds good. We have a blow torch for later if we need one. I know how to do that. Besides, these caverns are difficult enough. No one would be watching for someone breaking out,” commented Bill, sitting on his thighs to avoid hurting his knees any more.

“But I’ll bet there is a grating. I’ll bet anything,” said Tom.“Gosh, this place is beautiful. Look at the sparkling reflections. The dripping moisture just turns into crystal.”

“Calcite, actually. Yeah, it is, Tom. It is a wonder,” answered Bill and then he sneezed, loudly.

“Oh, shit!” said Tom, as three tourists looked right up at them, unseeing.

“Dang it, that sneeze could have been from one of them. Could have been anyone.”

“True. They’re leaving. Wait until the last one turns the corner to go out and drop down.”

“That’s what I like most about being first.”

“I have the pick secured. Go on Bill, hurry.”

__________

Several gaily colored hot air balloons glided slowly and majestically over the wide Mississippi River as the last light of day began to spread a golden light like the slowly unfurling wings of an eagle. A long, rainbow-striped banner spread out from the basket of one of the balloons, wafting up and down on a breeze. A cheer went up from a small group of hippies that were riding on a Green Tortoise tour bus. The banner proclaimed, “Reclaim the Earth” and stretched out so it could be clearly seen from below. A small crowd of tourists gathered on the shores of the river, joining the Green Tortoise group who put another “Reclaim the Earth” banner across their tour bus.

A rifle shot rang out, barely missing the huge balloon that carried the banner. A woman observing the slow-moving balloons screamed and the police were called on several cell phones.

Sgt. Sheila Rodriguez got the call as she patrolled the town on her motorcycle. She put her siren on and raced to the scene.

Tobias Smart walked out of the Silver Lake police station as the last light of day disappeared, and entered the patrol car which would take him to his residence.

Harold Skylar had been booked that morning and had then settled down to his breakfast. The duty cops offered him a cup of coffee but he declined it and asked for a glass of milk instead. Lucky for him the station still had some of the Almonte’s fresh milk. He asked, “Why was I arrested for Congressman Harrison’s murder? I’ve never shot a gun in my life and don’t even own one.”

The arresting officer answered, “We have a video and several cell phone photos of you standing up by the limousine with your guitar case around the time of Harrison’s murder. Where are you living? We need to search your possessions.”

“I live in a camp in the forest. The only thing in my guitar case was my guitar, a few extra strings, my picks and some sheet music. I saw the gunshot go through a car window and ran away, that’s all.”

“Do you know who Harrison was?”

“Sure, all the hippies know who he was and what he did politically. That doesn’t mean that I killed him. I don’t believe in killing.”

“Yeah,” commented an officer, cynically. “Especially now that we have you in custody.”

Another officer said, “We will read you your Miranda rights: ‘You have the right to remain silent and to speak to an attorney. You can request a free attorney and we will provide one. Would you like us to call one for you?’”

“Yeah,” answered Harry. “This is ridiculous. Everyone knows me. I’m just a guitar player. I have a full scholarship to Central Illinois. I’ll be a junior in the Fall.”

“You should have thought of your future before this happened.”

“I tell you nothing happened. I’m only a musician. Not a killer.”

“Okay, Harry. Your attorney will meet with you as soon as he or she can.”

Harry said, “Thank you.“ He laid back on his cot as the door to the jail cell clanged shut.

By the end of the day, Harry had spoken to his attorney, Jane Fitzhugh, and felt a little better. She promised that she would get in touch with his parents and bring him a couple of books that he had requested. His court date was set for slightly later in the week.

He told her to tell his parents that the jailhouse food was awful, mainly consisting of bologna and cheese slice sandwiches, oatmeal, boiled eggs, peanut butter and jelly, and some sort of imitation hamburger with or without a bun with an occasional side of mashed potato buds and canned green beans. Harry asked Jane to please ask them to try and get him some decent food from around town, preferably whole grains, almost anything vegetarian was okay. She said she would relay his messages. He gave her a start by telling her he came in with about two dollars and they could have that to get him something and he was sorry he was costing them money. Jane assured him that she would take care of it. He told her that he would pay her back when he started working again.

_______

Sheila was met at the shore of the river by two patrol cars. The five police personnel scoped the scene and took down all the relevant eye-witness testimony they could gather. There were not many places a shooter could hide, but there was one large, empty, abandoned warehouse that had probably provided cover. The investigating police searched the building and found a shell casing near a broken window that would have been suitable to the angle they estimated the shot might have come from. They put it in an evidence bag and dusted the perimeter for prints. None of the remaining witnesses had seen anyone come out of the building.

Later that evening, Gloria Smithers was contacted and agreed to come in to the station for questioning the next day.

Sheila Rodriguez left the station at about seven pm. and took her motorcycle to Chico’s house. She ran up the stairs to the attic and bear-hugged Asia, glad to see her safe again.

___________

Bill dropped through the hole in the tunnel, coursing down the rope, landing silently on the floor of the big cavern. Tom followed him and they joined the back of the tour group, following them out almost to the exit. When they saw that there was no closed gate or obstruction at the exit, they hurried back to the rope dangling down from the opening in the tunnel. Tom grabbed the rope and swung himself back up into the tunnel. Bill did the same.

They smiled at each other and crawled back to their camp in the other cavern where Jimmy had awakened and finished cooking their dinner.

_______

The sounds of sniffling echoed from the cell block at the police station. The desk officer went back to check on Harry and found him face down on his bed, his chest heaving as he cried.

“Aw, come on, Harry. It can’t be all that bad. Stop crying,” said the officer.

“I can’t imagine it getting any worse! And now my parents know what happened. What am I going to do?”

“Here, take this box of Kleenex. You’re going to fight to defend yourself. Don’t give up so easily. There are a zillion ways to appeal in the legal system. Use them. Tell the truth, if you are innocent.”

“I am innocent,” cried Harry into a Kleenex. “Ugh. Why do they always put so much artificial scent in these things? My nose is full of some powdery chemical smell.” Harry laughed a little looking up at the officer for understanding.

“Well, don’t worry about that, either. Eventually, corporate America will probably start to use natural scents even in the Kleenex. Just stop crying. Think of all the paper you will use up if you don’t.”

Harry’s eyes dried for a minute. “Hmm. You have a point there.” He blew his nose and handed the box back to the officer. “Thanks, sir. I appreciate your kindness. I only hope the judge tomorrow will be as kind as you are.”

“Oh, Harry. Everybody likes you. You’ll have chance. At least you are a musician. Think of it if you were studying law or criminology. You would have to defend your license. I don’t think you will lose your scholarship unless you get convicted and go to jail.”

Harry burst into tears again

 

 

Chapter Seven

Monday morning dawned clear and bright as a blue crystal. It was to be a busy day for the Silver Lake police. The season’s opening of the extreme sports arena within the carnival was today. This meant that at least five officers and deputies were to be posted around the area to provide crowd control and safety. Gloria Smithers was coming into the station with her lawyer and Harold Skylar’s investigation was ramping up.

Sheila brought Asia over to her house with an extra two officers so that she could get some of her things and take a look through her home to see if anything was missing.

Asia had been to the emergency room at the local hospital the night before to get an x-ray of her injured head. She was still a little shaky after her ordeal, but basically had gotten a clean bill of health.

Her home felt good and she wished the whole investigation was over. She wanted the comfort of her familiar surroundings, even if it meant she would be alone. Sheila felt it was too early to let her leave the Almonte residence. She wanted Asia at the Almonte’s home as a kind of witness protection.

“Ahh…it’s good to be back,” said Asia, settling down in the Laz-E-Boy in her living room.

“I’m going to help Officer O’Brien search your woods out back while Officer Timmons stays with you. I want you to take a close look around. Your back door shows evidence of tampering, so I suspect that there is something the person or persons who broke in were looking for, assuming it was the same two men that kidnapped you who broke into your home.”

“Okay. No rest for me, then.”

“Not here, not now. You can rest at Chico’s later. I heard he is making a big meal for everyone. Pack a bag of clothes to take back with you. We want to see if we can find Harold Skylar’s camp.”

“Harry the Hippie? He’s a gentle soul. I cannot believe he’d hurt anyone regardless of their politics.”

“Well, perhaps you will be surprised. Remember the case of the old lady that poisoned her husband? Even KANU tried to argue against her arrest. So many people knew her and loved her. Yet, all the evidence pointed to her guilt. And then there was her confession. She gave her hubby a dangerous herbal tea and he had a heart attack. After that, the physical evidence was against her as well. Innocence is a structural thing. One cannot use instinct alone to run a police department. One needs facts.”

“Of course,” answered Asia, tiredly, getting out of her familiar cocoon and going upstairs to start looking around. Timmons sat down where he could see out the front window as O’Brien and Rodriguez went out the back door.

The first thing Asia noticed was that her digital video camera was not on her bed where she had left it. She looked everywhere in her room and could not find it.

She entered her office and felt her heart sink. Her laptop and her other video equipment was also missing. In fact, an examination of the rest of the upstairs revealed that the DVD recordings that she had used in all her documentaries were also gone. The only digital recordings she had were her published films and in her email.

Disheartened, she packed enough clothes and toiletries for a week and went downstairs to make tea. Peppermint tea would clear her mind.

Rodriguez and O’Brien re-entered the house about an hour later with a scary-looking automatic rifle that had a large laser scope on it.

Asia heated up the tea again and offered it to all of the officers. They accepted. As they sat around her kitchen table, they recounted how they had found Harry’s campsite.

“That horrid thing can’t possibly belong to Harry,” said Asia, feeling a little dizzy.

“We also found a loaded magazine and a three pound brick of marijuana. Enough to bring him up on charges on the dope alone,” commented O’Brien.

“Now, that I’d believe,” answered Asia.

“Looks like he was pretty serious with his weapons. An assault rifle is no toy,” said Sheila. It’s a military automatic assault rifle – basically a light-weight machine gun.

“You sure the camp belonged to Harry?”

 

“Pretty sure,” answered Sheila. “We found a chapbook with his name and parent’s address on it. He writes poetry. Pretty good stuff, too. This rifle would probably fit into his guitar case easily. We have the case at the station, but measuring it visually gives us a pretty good idea of the size.

You were lucky he didn’t use it on you, living so close to your house.”

“His poetry?” said Asia.

“Don’t be flip,” commented O’Brien holding his cup out as Asia poured him some more tea. “Not one person I spoke to in Silver Lake thought Grandma Nelson poisoned her husband, either.”

“Another ten years and we won’t have to worry about her temperament ever again. She’s eighty-five this year.”

“And in jail,” commented Timmons.

“And we are safe from her loading up the basket on her walker with weaponry,” said Asia.

“Never can tell,” answered Timmons.

“Oh, by the way,” continued Asia turning to Sheila.“All of my video equipment, DVD library and digital cameras are missing.”

 

“Really?” Sheila retorted, concerned. “Elise thought that might be the case, as well. She noticed that your equipment was not strewn all around the house like it usually is. I’ll bring you a report form tonight when I get to Chico’s and you can list the specifics about what is missing for us.”

Strewn? Any leads on where and who my abductors are?” questioned Asia.

“A possibility,” answered Sheila. “The officers who searched the cabin you were tied up in spoke to Louise Franklin and she knows who owns the place…a Jim Petris. They will question him today to see if he knows anything.”

“Louise?” asked Asia, trying to place the name.

“Frankie,” responded Sheila.

“Ahh…I knew there must be an elderly culprit somewhere.”

Sheila looked at her friend piercingly, “This situation is no joke. Whether or not Harry is involved with this doesn’t matter. You could have lost your life. I have to take all our options seriously.”

“Sorry,” said Asia.

“Get your bag,” said Sheila. “Officer Timmons will take you back to Chico’s.”

___________

The music from the Merry-Go-Round started playing against the distant sounds of the waiting crowd and a reggae band tested their sound equipment on the bandstand. A cloudless sky promised a long day of fun uninterrupted by the weather. A line formed at the bungee jump. One of Silver Lake’s finest looked up at the contraption and commented to his partner, “Why would anyone want to make a milkshake out of their breakfast bouncing up and down on that thing?”

“Same reason we loved the Tilt-A-Whirl when we were kids,” answered the other officer.

“Better get the barf bucket ready.”

“That’s the job of the kids they hired to work here for the summer.”

“Lucky them.”

“High school memories from 2014.”

The jump opened and the first customer of the year was loaded into the bungee harness, dropped a good forty feet, bounced up another twenty feet and dropped another twenty feet again, bouncing up and down three or four feet from the bottom, yelling and laughing until they were lowered to the ground.

The sound stage amped up the volume and the song, “One Love” spread its melody over the carnival goers as the lyrics and very heavy incense from giant sticks stuck around the edges of the stage floated over their heads, “Let’s get together and we’ll feel all right…”

Right on the beat, the rich hippie vacation-tour bus, the Green Tortoise, pulled up with the brash, fearless “Reclaim the Earth” banner on it. Some of the regular tourist crowd looked fearful and moved away from them, peering over each other’s heads for snipers. The reggae band sang on, appropriately, “Don’t worry. Be happy…”

The nearby police officers noticed that the atmosphere suddenly contained added tension which started to spread out into the fairgrounds. They peered over the heads of the crowd for the same thing the populace was worried about.

Another crowd of hippies pulled up in camper vans and cars, setting up large folding tables to put their crafts on. The displays of handicrafts were diverse and beautifully done, attracting a different kind of tourist – a group not interested in the whirling, bouncing and bumping rides…maybe a Ferris wheel ride after dark…maybe Japanese sushi – but not something that would break their wife’s necklace or pop off their shirt buttons. A movie at the international art theater after lunch, perhaps. Maybe a museum.

The scent of marijuana began to loft and swirl into the air of the fair. Nary an officer felt tempted to inquire. This was 2014, a new millennium, snipers and accidents were the priority in Silver Lake right now. The human factor was hands down more important than a drowsy herbal feeling with the giggles. No open alcohol containers, though. The local farm boys would just have to smoke hooch until they got back home.

Weed wasn’t exactly legal in Silver Lake, but it can be decriminalized on the word of the judge – a fine or no fine – community service, or no community service. Mostly all the officers at the police station felt the locals and tourist crowd drove more safely after partaking of marijuana than alcohol or cocaine. Or worse, alcohol and cocaine.

Sgt. Rodriguez likened this combination of intoxicants when combined with poor driving skills to an uncoordinated, over-anxious twelve-year-old without their very, very necessary contact lenses driving in the dark without their headlights at 100 mph, pumping the bass from their sound system and forgetting what a red hexagon symbolizes. Hazardous driving did not exist in Sgt. Rodriguez’s bible of legalities or “s***” she’d put up with even if she wasn’t a cop.

Watching the opening of the fair on cable over at Chico’s house, Asia felt flat. She was tempted to dun a disguise, grab her non-existent camera, go over to the street carnival area and get her usual series of tourist/hippie portraits which were so popular in the local and state media. It was a good yearly job and usually made her some good money, too. She felt depressed and her head hurt. She needed Zucchini. Where was that dog?

Elise was fond of saying that this mood of hers was like Popeye the Sailorman without his spinach. Get it? Asia without her Zucchini. No one knew were her dog was. She wasn’t too worried about Zookie’s food. The dog had a fondness for raw wild rabbit. Or, Asia knew, she would go to one of her friends’ houses who had all been supplied, at one time or the other, with Asia’s favorite super-nutrient kibble. Besides, Zookie was a little on the fat side right now anyway.

Asia cried a little, feeling sorry for herself. She changed the channel from the Silver Lake coverage to a travelogue on the Greek islands and felt much better.

_______

Sheila Rodriguez rode her motorcycle to the police station after checking on her men at the carnival. Gloria Smithers and her attorney were waiting for her inside the building. Rodriguez had not stopped for lunch again, so she had picked up some salad, Hummus bi Tahini and Pita bread. Reluctantly, she put it in the fridge in the station lunchroom.

Every step she took, her stomach growled. This did not put her in the best of moods. Mrs. Smithers had better tell her the truth. Right now, she did not want an iota less.

 

Gloria Smithers smiled apprehensively as Rodriguez strode into the conference room, turned a folding chair backwards and sat down with the back of the chair between her legs – with some noise and a grunt. Not very lady-like, but with her striking physical beauty, she knew she could get away with it. And she usually did.

“Mrs. Smithers?” said Sheila, finally looking her suspect in the eyes and softening a little, seeing the woman’s humility.

“Yes,” said the woman across the table from her.

“We have some testimony that you may have been involved in your husband’s death.”

“I had nothing to do with Vance’s death. He died of a heart attack. He had been having heart problems for years.” She looked at her attorney who made some notes.

“Where were you at nine pm on Friday night of last week?”

“I was at the Villalobos benefit.”

“Without your husband?”

Gloria Smithers looked crestfallen and looked down at the table, hiding her expression. Answering, she said, “Vance and I did not always go out …together.” She paused and continued, “…as a couple.”

Her attorney started to say, “You don’t have to answer…”

Gloria waved her hand and said, “It’s all right. This is important in my own defense. I need to tell her.”

Sheila frowned and caught Gloria’s eyes again. “Do you mean that you and he had some problems with your marriage?”

Gloria nodded her assent.

“I see,” said Sheila. “What kind of problems? Arguments, violence?”

“Oh, no. Nothing like that,” answered Mrs. Smithers. “It was just…something. Like we just seemed to be moving apart.”

“Coldness, insensitivity?”

“More like coldness. Not something I could even put my finger on exactly.”

“Hmm…did you see a marriage counselor?”

Gloria looked embarrassed and said, “No. I’m not even sure Vance knew I noticed anything. He was used to working late on the Spa. I think he just assumed our relationship was ‘business as usual.’ Neither of us liked the fact that Tobias Smart was making advances towards Vance from time to time. That didn’t help either.”

“Okay. We’ll talk about your husband and Mr. Smart later on. Now I want to show you a video. Please watch it closely because I want you to answer some questions about it. Did your attorney tell you about this film?”

Gloria nodded in the affirmative.

Sheila got up and put a DVD into their projector and turned the conference room light down. The beginning of the film flickered on the screen behind her. She walked around the table and sat down next to Mrs. Smithers.

Gloria Smithers did not show any reaction to the film until the small figure rushed into the pool area and bent over her husband.

Excitedly, she said, “Can you freeze that frame? Rewind it and go forward frame-by-frame?”

“Sure. I would appreciate it if you could identify that person that just walked into the pool area.”

“I don’t think I can right now, but I have some ideas.”

Sheila did what Gloria asked her to. “Is that you?” she asked doubtfully.

“No. Absolutely not. I was at the Silver Lake Civic Center at the time. There must be films of the event. Some of those might have time and date stamps.”

Sheila thought of Asia’s lost cameras and swore to herself internally. The videos she took that night would be invaluable now. Some of her cameras had time and date stamps, too. Some of her cameras did not copy to her email. The videos from those that did would be examined.

“That’s all right,” said Rodriguez, slapping her thighs with both hands simultaneously and getting up, thinking more about Asia and the break-in than the fact that she was pretty much beginning to believe that the former Mrs. Smithers was not the killer. If she could prove on video that she was at the Civic Center at the exact time of their own surveillance video, and she seemed pretty sure that she could, that would indicate an almost positive innocence.

She realized with some trepidation that Mrs. Smithers might be about to do something very dangerous like go looking for videos of the benefit. She would be running the risk of facing off with some of the agitated big farmers who might be the real perpetrators behind all of this trouble in Silver Lake.

Little did their antagonists know that Asia was sometimes on their side. Not in terms of the violence against the Silver Lake population, but with their water/economic concerns. Asia was actually a local third choice member. She felt that any move to conserve water for a drought could be good. So the most hard hit farmers right now, on this day, were the bigger ones. Asia thought that any conservation law needed to have a sort of water “sliding scale” even if only just to begin with.

Mrs. Smithers looked up, surprised, and said, “I can go now?”

“Yes,” answered Sheila. “You are free to go, but please stay in town. But, be careful when you ask around about benefit media. If you leave town, let us know where you are going and when you will be back. It would be more helpful if you stuck around right now, though. We might want to ask you some more questions.”

“All right,” said Gloria.

Sheila got up and followed Gloria Smithers and her attorney to the front desk. She called Officer O’Brien and told him to meet her in the conference room.

As Sheila sat with O’Brien in the conference room, they began to talk about the assault rifle and the fingerprinting that was done both on Harry and the rifle. O’Brien ran his hand over his crew-cut head and said, “We ran the ballistics tests on the bullet removed from Congressman Harrison and the casing found near the waterfront. The bullet from Harrison matches; the casing from the waterfront warehouse doesn’t.”

Sheila nodded. “That makes some sense.”

O’Brien went on, “But listen to this, there are the fingerprints of two different people on the rifle and neither set belong to Harry.”

Sheila added, “And anyone could have put that rifle in Harry’s tent. Did you run the prints in our system?”

“We’re doing that right now. We should know if they have any records by tomorrow morning.”

Two plain-looking people dressed like a midwestern farm couple, obviously not tourists, appeared in the doorway of the conference room. The man was wearing jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, and she was in a simple flowered cotton dress but with an attractive large bead necklace.

“Hello? Sergeant Rodriguez?” greeted the woman, pleasantly but tentatively.

“Yes, ma’am,” answered Rodriguez. “Mr. and Mrs. Skylar?”

Both people answered, “Yes.”

“Come in, take a couple of chairs.”

After Harry’s parents sat down, Sgt. Rodriguez asked, “Do you know what your son is being charged with?”

Both parents again said, “Yes.” Mrs. Skylar looked pleadingly at Sheila and said, “It’s hard to believe that Harry would hurt anyone. He has such a fine future as a musician. He plays gigs all over the Silver Lake area…and his scholarship…” Mrs. Skylar began to sob.

A voice came from down the hall in the cell block. “Mom! Mom? Is that you?”

Sheila broke in. “We can go back and see your son now, if you like.”

They all walked into the cell area and Sheila unlocked Harry’s door and let his parents in. Harry got up and hugged his parents. His mother gave him a plastic grocery bag containing a notebook and a couple of paperback books he had asked for: The Hobbit and The Gulag Archipelago. His attorney, Jane Fitzhugh, had put several Styrofoam containers of food in the lunchroom refrigerator for him.

“These books should last me for a while, but I need a pen, too,” he said.

Sgt. Rodriguez answered, “We’ll provide the pen.”

Harry picked up one of the books and started looking at it nonchalantly as the three adults spoke to each other, talking about Harry’s first court hearing and the fact that his campsite was now in police custody. In order to get any of his precious camping equipment back, it needed to remain in the department until Harry was cleared of all charges.

Harry finally looked up from his well-worn fantasy book when Sheila mentioned the fact that the rifle contained two other person’s fingerprints. Ms. Fitzhugh, the lawyer appointed to the Skylar case, reassured Harry that they could argue that the weapon had been planted in his tent. Ms. Fitzhugh also said that the facts that the tent and Harry’s campsite were open and had no locked containers were in his favor also. So anyone could have had access.

Sgt. Rodriguez took up that thread and began to ask Harry if he saw anyone else standing around when he turned to walk away from the scene of the shooting, since the shooter must have been rather close. The angle of the bullet indicated that he or she would have been standing in the same passageway between the buildings that Harry claimed to have walked or run through after the shot had been fired. Which meant that the bullet had been fired right past him.

Sheila sat up and asked him with new interest, “You did not see anyone else in the passage?”

“Yeah,” answered Harry, closing his eyes, trying to remember. “I did… I would have to think about it. They were not people that I knew, but I could talk to an artist and try and work out a description.”

“That sounds good. We’ll send someone in that can do that,” said Sheila.

“Can I have my guitar and the notebook in the case?” asked Harry plaintively.

“I think so,” answered Sheila, smiling. “Sure. I think our department is going to be investigating the identity of the other two sets of prints on the weapon and your description of whoever else was in that passageway at the time of the murder.

“You said you were standing next to the Silver Screen Movie Theater?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“There are a couple of exits from both sides of that passage that could have been used by the shooter. There was no film scheduled at the movie house until later that afternoon. There was a camera shop on the other side of the passage?”

“Yeah, Wilson’s Cape Camera.”

“I know the place. A good friend of mine has some of her photographs sold there from time to time.”

 

 

Chapter Eight

Let us paddle your little news canoe…KANU”

Elise Snuggles made a small sucking noise with her teeth. That was one ad from KANU that she hated. It was way too juvenile. She went on typing the breaking news for the noon report onto her beloved little yellow banner. It must have been close to noon, because her stomach told her she was late for her lunch. She felt like typing her birth date on the banner and announcing that she would be accepting gifts starting now. It wasn’t worth losing her job over, though. As slow as things could be at the cable station, she knew the administration consistently looked at her in terms of a promotion. They paid well, and she didn‘t want to take silly risks with her career.

Alphonsine LaDuque teetered over to Elise’s cubicle and handed her a news print out, smiling and showing a smear of too-red lipstick in an arc across her front teeth. “Here are some updates on the spate of murders around town. ‘Harry the Hippie’ Skylar was arrested yesterday.”

“Harry the Hippie wouldn’t kill the fly that bit him,” said Elise. Thinking to herself, “What bullshit! The Silver Lake police department needs to try harder.”

“Well, someone thinks he shot Harrison. They found an automatic assault rifle in his tent.”

Elise started laughing in spite of herself. “I’ll bet he cried when he was arrested.”

“You laugh at the worst stuff,” retorted Alphonsine. “This is not funny. Harrison was a fine politician. He was a Republican – like me.” Elise tasted the contents of her slightly empty stomach in her mouth. Alphonsine continued, “He was a Right-to-Lifer and so am I.”

“I’m not, you b****,” thought Elise right back. “Especially when it comes to your life.”

When Alphonsine walked away, clicking her heels, Elise read the news sheet and noticed that Harry was being held pending the identification of the fingerprints on the rifle found in his campsite. There were two portraits, which Harry had described to a police artist, that she had to scan into the computer.

One looked vaguely familiar to her. Someone she had seen in a camera shop, maybe an employee. She sometimes dropped off Asia’s framed photo prints to sell. “Hmm,” she thought, making an extra set of copies. She could take them to Chico’s tonight and maybe even get some dinner there. She needed to get some lunch right now. She decided to order a pizza and have it delivered to the station in her name only. She had them phone her right before they arrived. You couldn’t trust the staff here with pizza. They always thought someone had ordered it for everyone.

Elise actually got her pizza with only one slice missing. She tucked a large paper napkin under her chin and covered her lap with another one. She dug in, watching the proof of her yellow banner as she ate. Alphonsine peered over her shoulder at the pizza. Elise thought, “Oh, no, you don’t.” She grabbed the last piece herself, taking a large, sloppy bite.

Alphonsine chuckled and said in her best tiny kitty voice, “Oh, Elissse I would have loved a piece of that.”

“Sorry,” lied Elise, her mouth stuffed with the last of the pizza.

Elise thought, “What do you know about love?” then mused on that as Alphonsine removed her hot breath from her shoulder and tottered away on her stilettos.

Elise started drinking from her large coke with ice. “One coke a year won’t hurt,” she thought, thinking about what Asia would say about nutrition and sugar.

Since the station owed her an hour for her skipped lunch, she left at four, driving to Chico’s and picking up a box of pumpkin-spiced muffins on her way over.

“Hello there, guys” Elise called through the front door as she knocked. Cisco opened the door with his .45 aimed at the opening. “Shit, it’s only me! I assume you’re Cisco – Chico’s older brother? I’m Elise. Elise Snuggles. You called me Saturday about the dog,” stuttered Elise, ducking behind the jamb.

 

“Cain’t be too careful.”

Yeah, you can! I don’t need to go down like the others.”

“I wasn’t going to shoot you. Mah family and friends never use the front door. What do you have in the box?”

“Fresh muffins. Smells good in here,” said Elise, stepping into the house.

“Chico’s cookin’ tonight. He’s makin’ catfish jambalaya for us, and a bean loaf for Asia.”

Mmm…move over, let me see.”

“Come on into the kitchen, Elise. Ah know you’re hungry.”

“You know it. Here, just save me one,” she said, handing the bakery goods to Cisco. “Asia! Come on down! I’m here. Chow time!” Elise put her two index fingers on each side of her mouth and let loose a very loud, shrill whistle.

“All right, all right. I’m coming, you nutcake,” came Asia’s voice from the third floor.

“Whose callin’ me a nutcake?” Elise shouted back.

Asia came into view and Elise went over and gave her a hug and a half. “God, I’m glad you’re all right! I was so worried.” She pushed Asia back to look into her eyes, “Who would feed me when I skip breakfast, if you hadn‘t come back?”

“Oh,” commented Asia, dryly. “You’d probably have found someone. Hey, have you seen my dog?”

“No. Hey, right back at you, I have something to show you. Do you know that they have Harry the Hippie locked up in the Silver Lake jail?”

“Really?”

“The cops say he fired the assault rifle that killed Congressman Harrison.”

“I don’t believe it. Gentle ol’ Harry. Naaw…”

“Not too many people actually do believe it. But lookie here…” Elise grabbed Asia’s shirt sleeve and pulled her to the living room couch, forcing both of them to sit down. “Look at this.”

Elise pulled a manila folder out of her briefcase.

“Harry gave a description of two men that he saw in the passage after Congressman Harrison was shot. I thought I recognized one of them from Cape Camera.

“I thought you might remember the guy, too. Look…” Elise pulled out the copies of the sketches.

Asia gasped when she saw the second drawing. It was very close in likeness to a man that she knew as Edmundo Alcosta who worked at Cape Camera.

“Yeah. This portrait looks like one of the part-timers that works the counter. We need to call Sheila.” Asia hesitated. “Um. I dropped my cell phone when I was kidnapped, so I don‘t have one right now.”

Elise took her cell phone out and dialed Sheila’s phone directly. “She-she?” she said, using Sheila’s childhood nickname out of the nervous tension of being sure she was a fine detective (normally known as an investigative journalist – or even a gossip), and the strain of being right all the time.

“What is it, hon?” answered Sheila, surprised to hear her old nickname and the tension in

the usually smart-assy Elise’s voice.

“Asia and I recognized one of the police artist’s portraits described by Harry Skylar.”

“Which one?”

“The guy with the well-trimmed goatee. Asia says his name is Edmundo. He told her he was born to Portuguese-American parents – and we both think he is an employee at Cape Camera.”

Sheila interrupted her and said, “They’re closed right now. Ralph Wilson owns the place. I’ll give him a call at home. By the way, one of our officers saw Zucchini wandering around the fairgrounds. He said she looked fine. Happy as anything. Does Asia want us to pick her up and bring her over to Chico’s?”

Elise turned to Asia and relayed the question. “Asia said no, let her wander around. She’ll find her way over when she wants to. She’d probably take off again if she got carried over here, anyway. Maybe she’s hot on the trail of something important.” She could hear Sheila kickstart her Triumph loudly and rev the engine, ready to put it in gear.

“’Gotta go, Lise. ‘Gotta catch a bad guy,” shouted Sheila.

“Okay. ’Bye,” shouted Elise back as she clicked off the phone.

She followed Asia into the kitchen where they joined the four men of the Almonte family and were served heaping plates of jambalaya, fruit salad from the Almonte orchard, dressed with Snuggles honey, Chico’s vegetarian bean loaf, and corn on the cob from their own fields.

“This is truly a Cape farm feast. Let’s pray,” said Elise with a sparkle in her eye, bowing her head. The five other diners looked up, surprised.

“For more food like this…always,” finished Elise.

“Amen,” came the chorus after her.

Asia sat down next to Elise on the couch after dinner and clicked the TV on.

Elise said, “You know I haven’t heard much about targeting someone like Harrison, assuming he was the intended victim. Now that’s interesting. Politically, he was not my favorite guy.

“I mean, if someone shot at Reclaim the Earth, and even the townspeople think hippies are being targeted, that is serious. That is also only one set of perpetrators. The same people that probably abducted you. But, the Harrison assassination is the opposite. That would be a liberal action, assuming he was the real target. Another set of perpetrators. The other things would be retaliation from a conservative group or set of people,” continued Elise, clicking down the sound on the TV.

Mmm…,” responded Asia. “It is a thought I’ve had myself.” She grabbed the remote and turned the sound up again, turning the channel to the KANU evening news.

Shit. I can’t get away from work anywhere there is a TV,” complained Elise with a little laugh.

Ssh,” commented Asia. “Sheila must have questioned Ralph Wilson from Cape Camera. Alphonsine just said Edmundo was a part-timer that quit last week. ”

“What the hell would Alphonsine know about anything but her shoe size?” said Elise.

Oww…mean. Really, Elise. Are you jealous because she’s a knockout and has the job you want?”

Elise responded indignantly, “I am not a jealous person. What I mean is why doesn’t she see a more important point? I can interpret the news better than that by a mile. And, you know she shoves me around sometimes. I think it is my politics which are a little bit left of hers to put it mildly. Plus, she sleeps with more than one of the male staffers. She ego-trips on me.

“If that dude, Edmundo, is in this town, someone is bound to turn him in. In fact, he has my permission to get Alphonsine before he gets caught.”

Asia laughed. “She sleeps around the station?”

“Probably.”

Rea-ally?”

“Probably, really.”

“Oh. I hope we catch the guy that shot at the balloon. He could drive our summer business away. Snipers do that.”

“Asia, we have a big story on our hands.” Changing the subject, Elise asked, “Are we having some of that homemade maple-pecan ice cream with Chico’s gourmet, fresh whipped cream? I need some comfort food. All this makes me nervous.”

“You are. I don’t need the fat.”

“Damn straight I’m having some.” Elise raised her voice, and called, “CHICO!!”

Chico walked over and stood in the doorway of the farmhouse kitchen, leaning on the door frame with one shoulder. “Yeah, baby, what do you want?”

“Some of that ice cream you had planned.”

“Almost ready. How about you, Asia?”

“I’ll take a rain check.”

“There will be more in the freezer,” said Chico with a wide grin.

Damn, that boy is handsome. How did Sheila find him?”

“Her third grade teacher introduced them by putting them in the same reading group.”

“Grammar school kids have all the luck.”

 

Chico came in with a small tray of ice cream, whipped cream and maple syrup. He stood there while Elise tasted her creation, flexing his round shoulder muscles in a tight black T-shirt and white apron.

“Chico you make me scream, this is so good. I’ll trade you some Snuggles buckwheat honey for some of your sharp Cheddar. If Sheila didn’t claim you, I’d kiss you for this.”

“You can anyway,” said Chico flashing his white teeth again, bending down and flexing his round, dimpled cheek at Elise. She kissed it. They both chuckled.

She commented to Asia, “That’s all I get, just squeaky clean. Like brother and sister. What does my name mean to anyone?”

“I’ll tell you what it could mean to me,” said Sheila walking in, her highly polished, knee-high motorcycle boots flashing in the light.

“Oops,” said Elise.

“Oh, I know what you don’t mean Elise, part of me owns several guns.”

“Hi,” said Asia. “Long day?”

“Yup. And there are bound to be a few more coming up real soon. My lunch is still in the fridge at the station.”

“What does the other part of you do? The part that doesn’t own a gun?” said Elise, getting kind of smart for the end of the work day.

“Loves you and always has,” said Sheila.

“Me too to you, too, She-she,” said Elise, smiling.

A gunshot shattered the living room window with a jolting crash.

Wrong house!” yelled Sheila as she and Chico ran out the back door. Chico had his patrol car revved in the back as Sheila took off on her motorcycle, shooting gravel onto Chico’s shiny chrome grill as they followed each other at top speed around the corner of the house and out onto the dirt road in front.

The shooter’s pickup was barely visible as they raced after it.

Chico pulled in front of Sheila’s cycle and kicked up some dust, adding some torque to the chase. Within minutes he was right behind the pickup. He could see the muzzle of a rifle poking through the sliding back window of the truck cab, so he let his speed drop suddenly, getting a good look at the pickup. It was an old, beat-up Chevy with different colored side and door panels – and good tires. But no plates.

Sheila zoomed around Chico on the shoulder. She fired her .45 at the back right tire and hit it square in the tread. As the tire deflated down to the rim, the truck careened around to the left in a 360° spin, almost turning over. Sheila stopped, jumped off her cycle and fell flat on the ground, gun still pointed at the truck supported by her forearms propped up on her elbows. Both doors opened in the cab and two men jumped out, firing hand guns rather inaccurately and running into the woods, not seeing that Sheila was four feet lower than they expected her to be.

Chico drove up to cover Sheila and she jumped into the front seat of the patrol car. Panting, she breathed, “Should we chase them?”

“Let’s not. They have too good a head start – and guns. Let’s radio the report in and I’ll meet you back at my house. They just lost their truck. It’s a hell of a long walk back into town. Just tell everyone at home to keep an eye out, turn the house surveillance cameras on and stay away from the windows. I don’t think they’ll try anything else tonight. If they try and hitchhike, chances are we’ll hear of it. They’re probably just a couple of local hooligans.”

Sheila disagreed. She said, “Joy-seekers don’t fire live bullets into people’s houses. They use buckshot. These folks are serious.”

She got out of the patrol car and hopped back on her cycle, turning around and leading Chico back to his house.

Chico radioed the incident in to the station. The pickup had no plates and neither he nor Sheila got a good look at the two gunmen other than noticing that both had short dark hair, were of medium height, had full beards and wore the usual plaid, flannel shirts and jeans. The station would send patrolmen out to pick up the truck, impound it, and search it.

Sheila and Chico parked behind the Almonte farmhouse. Sheila walked her Triumph into the barn with Niño. Both Chico and Sheila tromped through the back door and landed on kitchen chairs. Cisco was washing the dishes and poured them both steaming mugs of Raven’s Brew. He also fixed Sheila a heaping plate of the catfish. She closed her eyes and tilted the back of the chair against the wall, letting the various aromas of that elusive meal soak into her senses.

Sheila began to talk to Chico with her eyes closed. “You know the tech that came back with the fingerprint report said the grip of the rifle had a woman’s prints on it? Male prints were on the stock.”

“So, whoever might have fired the rifle…” added Chico.

“Might have been that woman,” concluded Sheila, leaning forward on her chair and landing on her feet again. She began to eat.

She spoke between bites. “Harry must have been standing pretty much right in front of the shooter.”

“Or shooters,” added Chico. “It’s actually rather easy to not notice a bullet whizzing past you. It happens all the time. Or, someone will think the bullet is an insect and swat at it, which is a good way to get your hand shot up. The man’s prints were not his?”

“No. Even the explosion from a silenced rifle could easily be hidden in the noise of the carnival,” said Sheila, getting up to get more coffee. “But, it’s unbelievably foolish to lose a weapon after something like that.”

“Maybe they didn’t lose it. Maybe they threw it away somewhere and someone found it. It wasn’t even wiped clean. It might have been stolen from where the perps put it. We have truck cab thefts all the time.”

“But why put it in Harry’s tent?”

“Maybe Harry found it and put it there himself. Did you ask him? It’s a way lesser charge.”

“No, I didn’t think of it. I’ll keep it in mind, though, and ask him later. He’s just not the type to deal with a weapon – especially one like that. I am still of the opinion that the shooter saw Harry in the passageway and is trying to frame him.” Sheila sighed. “Back to square one,” she thought, resignedly.

“I think that is what both Harry and his lawyer think,” said Chico.

“Which means whoever shot at us could be working with the guy who shot Harrison.”

“And there were two of them, two sets of prints.”

“Right. We’re missing the female, though.”

“We have to fingerprint that truck. Her prints might be in the cab.”

“I’ll call it in,” said Sheila, wiping her hands and reaching into her vest pocket for her cell.

Chico laughed at her. “You’re really tired. You need some rest. Go on upstairs and take a shower. I told the desk to make sure that the mechanical department didn’t touch the interior of the cab or bed of the truck without gloves. They’ll run any prints they find tonight.” He raised his hands, palms up and smiled. “What’s a boyfriend for?”

Sheila folded her arms on the table and put her head down on them, saying, “Thanks, Chico.”

Chico got up and leaned over her, rubbing her tense back gently. She spoke again, “So Harry was targeted by these anti-hippie farmers.”

Chico answered, “Could be.”

“That leaves Asia’s abductors, Smither’s murderer and the two guys that shot your living room window out tonight. I doubt if farmers shot Harrison, either. That’s the wrong side of the fence, politically.”

“Looks like the whole town is taking sides.”

“Spy vs. spy vs. spy vs. spy…”

“Something like that.”

“Conservative hunting tourists could also target hippies. And Harry was well-known and out in the public every day playing his guitar.”

“Or just set off other conservative farmers, redneck folks that come here for the hunting and fishing – forgetting that Harry and some of our own artisan, hippie kids are from the same farm stock as them.”

“It gets murky.”

 

“Like the question could be asked, ‘why wouldn’t Harry shoot Congressman Harrison?’ who has made at least two-thirds of this county angry at him. Most of our corn and wheat fields are of moderate size – so we stand only to benefit from extra water conservation. And a lot of our children, the millennials, don’t go to a church anymore, like their parents and grandparents did.”

“We do have our share of Buddhists and even a Hare Krishna member or two. Although the upswing in our economies due to gentrification has just strengthened family ties, regardless of those changes. I think not seeing our children head towards an inevitably beer-soaked future as a poor ranchero has led folks to accept a lot of things.”

“Like a computer programmer in the family.”

“Like Harry’s scholarship – which is why I don’t think he actually shot anyone. He seemed genuinely embarrassed when his parents walked in. He has a lot of pride in his independence and popularity. He earns all of his own money for school.”

“We might even be looking at a pro-Harry demonstration on Silver Lake Boulevard.”

“Funny.”

“Or a Reclaim the Earth demonstration if they get shot at again.”

“That could be dangerous. I don’t think the City Council would issue a permit right now, with all the tension around town.”

“With or without a permit, hippies will be hippies.”

“I’m going to bed,” said Sheila, stretching her arms up as Chico walked past her. He bent over and pulled her up into a hug. She relaxed into his strength.

“I’ll follow you up when I am done putting everything away.”

“You’ll make some woman a fine wife someday,” said Sheila.

“You’ll be that woman, Sergeant.”

“Love you mucho, Chico,” said Sheila as she kicked her boots off by the back door and staggered out of the kitchen towards the stairs.

“Same here,” called Chico, putting some of the clean dishes away.

 

 

Chapter Nine

Around midnight, Elise got ready to leave the Almontes. Chico’s youngest brother, Julio, had gotten home from the cattle auction and was puttering around in the kitchen after helping his brothers nail plywood over the broken living room window, when Elise walked in, heading towards the back door. He grabbed his .45 and said, “I’ll walk you out to your car.”

Elise shivered a little – still shaky from the attack on the Almonte house, and replied, “Okay.”

Julio put on the back fog light. Their motion sensors put on the rest of the outdoor lights as the two walked over to Elise’s Toyota. As Elise started her car, Zookie sauntered over out of the dark corners around the barn and scratched on her passenger side door.

Elise called to the dog and said, “Zookie! Hi, there! Go see Asia. She’s in the house. Go on.”

Julio also shouted at Zucchini, but she would not move and whimpered at Elise again, who reached over the front seat and let Zookie in. She yelled back at Julio, “I’ll take her with me. I guess everyone is covering me tonight.”

“Okay,” Julio answered as he watched the two of them pull out of the driveway.

Elise drove home and pulled right into her garage, something she rarely did. She did not like backing out of anywhere, let alone her slightly messy garage.

Zucchini stuck to her side all the way into the house. Elise had taken to packing her Glock the last few days. She felt creepy as she entered the kitchen. Zookie didn’t. She went right over to her food bowl and started munching kibble, finishing the whole bowl and drinking some water.

Elise walked around her house, turning on all the lights. Zookie walked upstairs and hopped right up on the bed as Elise turned the bedroom TV on, not thinking Zookie would listen to her say, “No, no” – so she didn’t say it. She got her pajamas on and shoved Zookie’s hairy hulk out of the way gently. Zookie growled at her. She growled right back and said, “Don’t you dare bite me. I’m a TV personality. We don’t like dents or scars.” Zookie groaned and licked Elise on the hand.

Suddenly, Zookie barked, stepped on Elise and ran downstairs. Elise heard someone banging on her back door. She took her 9mm, got up tiredly, put on her pink, fluffy robe and bunny slippers, and called out, “Who’s there? It’s too late to be visiting.” There was no answer except Zookie’s barking.

As she got closer to the door, she heard Frankie Franklin’s voice saying, “It’s me, Frankie. I want to talk to you, let me in.”

“Don’t you have a phone, Mrs. Franklin? You half scared me to death with all these people shooting at people around here. It’s one o’clock in the morning!”

Frankie Franklin said, as Elise unlocked her door, “I’m so sorry. I was out patrolling the neighborhood and shopping at the twenty-four hour stores at the mall. I saw the light in your bedroom, so I thought I would just drop in. You don‘t usually stay up this late.”

“Patrolling the neighborhood? At one in the morning? Don’t you use clocks, either?” Elise was a bit disturbed that Frankie knew her sleeping habits. Not that it would matter, or change Frankie’s ‘patrol’.

As Frankie stepped in she said, “Sorry, the clock in the car isn’t working and you know I don’t have a cell phone of my own. I still have Asia’s, but I don’t feel good about using it. It’s at the house. I’ll bring it over to Chico’s tomorrow. I have a landline, but I wasn’t sure about coming over here. As for my citizen’s patrol, I have been doing that for years. Right now, I think it is rather appropriate. I sleep really well after all that walking. I even hear myself snore sometimes.”

“Sit down. Want some coffee?”

“Sure, honey.”

Frankie dropped a big bag of dry dog food on the kitchen floor that had been sitting on the porch next to the door. Which Elise obviously had not seen. “This is for Zucchini. I was worried that she wasn’t getting enough to eat. I brought it with me a couple of days ago, but I guess you didn’t see it out on the back porch. Zookie spent the last two nights at my house and slept with my dogs. I think she likes my golden retriever, Big Boy. I’ve seen her following him around before. With seven dogs, she might not get as much food as she is used to.”

Elise yawned and plugged in the coffee pot. She sat down and looked at Frankie. “Well, I know you didn’t drive over at one in the morning to deliver dog food and chat about Zucchini. I do appreciate that you are the only one in Silver Lake that is interested in crawling through our back yards and woods, protecting all of us sleeping people lying innocently in our beds. So, I guess a neighborly cup of coffee might be a good ‘thank you’ once in a while.”

Frankie smiled and answered, “Yeah, sort of like cookies and milk for Santa Claus. In fact, Zucchini is why I came over. And thinking that was an issue, I felt your safety was an issue, as well. And your lights were on. Just checking up on you.”

Elise laughed and said, “Well, I’m glad you are not an old, white-haired white man, dressed all in red right now. I might have called 911. Or shot you.”

“No. I’m just an old, black lady that likes to snoop around late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. Pokin’ around to make sure everyone is all right.

“You know Zookie was actually the one that found Asia and made her rescue possible.”

“Yeah. She’s a very smart dog.”

“But, you were with Asia tonight and she wouldn’t stay there. I’ve spoken to the Almontes to check on Asia and they told me that Zookie deliberately went with you tonight. Even with what happened to her mistress,” said Frankie, peering over her coffee cup at Elise with a significant spark in her eyes.

“You’re scaring me, Frankie. Like Zookie feels that I need more protection than Asia?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Dogs do have a sixth sense, though.”

“I sleep with my gun. I know my job could make me vulnerable.”

“But, you’re not even a reporter.”

 

That hurt and Elise was tired. “I know, Frankie. Get to the point. It’s really late. Then Zookie should protect Alphonsine, the anchor.” Elise paused. “For more reasons than one,” she thought, not willing to give up vindictiveness, even at this small hour.

“Well, Zookie might not be here for a negative reason, such as sensing more danger around you than Asia. Animals are sort of magical. It could just be a kind of sensing of something else. A kind of special love,” Frankie raised her eyebrows over her cup and smiled a little.

Elise laughed and smiled at Zookie, making kissing noises. “Come on, Frankie. Zookie’s in love with me? That’s the big message?”

Frankie frowned. “She’s on a mission. I want you to watch her and tell me what she does. Could be that you need to lock everything and be more careful. Or it could be something else. Zookie might think you need a sweetheart and might just find you one. Dogs do that too.”

“Okay, Frankie. I need to go to sleep. Some of us have to work tomorrow. I might just take her with me to work. I’ve been thinking about it.”

“I think you should.”

“If she’ll go. Asia, Sheila and I have a policy of giving her a lot of freedom.”

“I know. I take her in occasionally, myself. I don’t mind since she is very sweet and has good habits. This is just intuition. And, you’re light was on, so I wanted to visit and get any updates on what’s happening. I drive and I walk. The dogs follow me even when I am in the car. Try and keep Zucchini with you as much as possible.”

“Okay, okay. I will. She should probably be with Asia, but she wouldn’t even go into the farmhouse. And you want to know why. I dig it.

“Next time, though, leave a message on my phone. I love you, Frankie, but I need my sleep, too.”

“I don’t even know your number.”

Elise wrote her cell number on a sticky note and gave it to Frankie who pasted it in her wallet. “I’ll go. That coffee was great. My dogs will walk me to where I left my car. I’m packing, too. Got my .45 loaded and ready.”

Elise let her out, thinking, “Crazy, old lady.” But she locked everything and left the hall, front and back lights on, actually a little relaxed and grateful that Frankie and her dogs were out there somewhere patrolling and protecting her and everyone else.

Zookie stuck to Elise like glue. She took her to work the next day. Thank God, she didn’t like Alphonsine who got a quiet low growl for her version of baby-talk. Elise smiled to herself. “Good dog,” she said to Zookie, quietly, after Alphonsine had teetered away.

On her lunch break, Elise called Chico’s house for Asia.

“Hi, Asia. You need to get your cell phone from Frankie. She’ll probably use up all your minutes.”

“She brought it over this morning. And, by the way, I have unlimited on my credit card. What’s up? I’m getting bored and frustrated. I hope they get the two guys that abducted me. I need to get out of here. You know I love all of the Almontes, but I need my old life back. And soon.”

“The cops are working on that now. By tonight, they should have interviewed Mr. Petris. Zookie is here with me. She wouldn’t leave my side last night.”

“I know. Frankie told me.”

“Boy, I’m telling you, that old lady doesn’t just think she’s a cop – now she’s the town gossip as well.”

“Be nice. She likes you.”

“I know. I am nice. Say, I want to take you with me to the Spa after work. They’re handing out discount coupons for membership. The construction should be finished by sometime next week.”

“Sure. I’ll tell Sheila. She wants to know my every move. I want to go home, but she and Chico think it is still too dangerous.”

“Well, it shouldn’t be too hard to find two farmers in this state. They’re all over the place.”

“The cops think they’re probably still around.”

“I’ve been packing twenty-four hours since you took that ride.”

“Me, too.”

“I’ll see you around 5:30.”

“’Kay…”

__________

Sheila and Chico sat at the lunchroom table, ate their salads and sipped cheese bisque soup, munching on sourdough bread. Sheila put her hand on her stomach, which was warm. “Ahh…,” she said. “Finally, I’m full. I needed more than one meal to catch up with myself.”

 

Chico flashed a beautiful smile at her, with a whisper of a dimple. “Good. You know we got the fingerprint report on the pickup from the drive-by at my house. The prints on the truck are the same as the ones on Asia’s Silverado and back door. There was nothing else of note on either truck.”

“Any news on whose prints they might be?”

“Not yet. They’re not the same as the ones on the assault rifle we found at Harry’s camp.”

“I’ll take the Silverado over to your house after work,” said Sheila.

“Asia will be glad to see that part of the puzzle coming back together again.”

“Yeah, as long as she doesn’t use the truck to start going all over town. I still want her in our protective custody. In fact, she should probably keep on using one of our vehicles.”

“Petris is using one by three’s and plywood to nail his cabin shut. He said he has no idea who those two men were and seemed plenty steamed to know they had invaded his property. He says he doesn’t mind the hippies using the cabin, but not some sort of thugs or criminals.”

“We tend to think the two men are not locals. But they must know someone that knew about that cabin. Or they come up here to hunt and saw it themselves at one time.”

“Asia called and said she’s going over to the Spa with Elise around 5:30 when she’s off work.”

“I want an unmarked patrol car following her every time she goes out. See if she’ll drive one of our old unmarked Crown Victorias. If anyone tries anything, we’ll be there.”

“Sure, she’ll love being followed,” said Chico.

“Then she shouldn’t have gotten herself kidnapped.”

“Way it goes.”

__________

Elise drove over to Chico’s at five. Zookie followed her in this time.

Cisco greeted Elise at the back door with his .45 pointed at her, safety off and hammer cocked, ready to shoot. Elise let out a shriek. Cisco exclaimed, “Ahh…you should knock. You know there has been trouble here recently. You can’t just sneak in that way.”

Shit, Cisco! Everyone here knows me. And…by the way, I don’t sneak. You say that just because I can walk quietly because I don’t wear cowboy boots.”

 

Cisco put the hammer down on his gun. He said, “Ah assume y’all came to see Asia. She’s upstairs watchin’ TV. Go on up. And…by the way, knock the next time.”

“Yeah, I guess I will.” Elise pushed past him as he put the safety back on his gun and stuck the weapon back in his pocket. She climbed the stairs to the attic with Zookie following right after her. This time, Zucchini went right over to Asia and nuzzled her. Asia gave her a big hug as the big dog attempted to climb into her lap.

“Whoa, girl! It’s about time you showed up. I’ve wondered where you were.” Zookie wagged her tail and gave Asia’s hand a quick, dry lick. Asia bent down and kissed her on the head. She said, “It’s nice to have her back.”

“Took her to work with me today.” Elise smiled. “She doesn’t like Alphonsine.”

“That must have made you feel a little triumphant.”

“Just a little. She growled at her.”

“That’s what she gets for annoying you.”

“Right on. And eating off my personal pizza.”

“Well, you know, dogs are psychic.”

“Then, that’s how she knew. I really thought that maybe Zookie just plain preferred me over Alphonsine. Or sensed her phoniness.

“Ready to go over to the Spa? I have Jiujitsu tonight.”

“Sure. Let me get my shoulder bag.”

“Packing?”

“Right now, yes. And you?”

“You know it. Can’t be too careful. In fact, Cisco almost shot me on my way in.”

“Try knocking next time.”

“That’s what he said.”

Asia, Elise and Zucchini left the Almonte house and climbed into Elise’s Toyota. Zookie hung her head on Asia’s shoulder from the back seat. Asia relaxed and felt a deep, inner contentment that she had been longing for. The past few days had been tense without her dog. Zookie’s hair felt soft and comforting against her face. Asia kissed her on the muzzle and laughed.

Elise said, “Ugh. You shouldn’t kiss dogs. There are germs. You could get a disease. That means you need a boyfriend.”

“You could get germs from a boyfriend, too.”

“That’s why you don’t have one?”

Elise!!”

“Well?…”

“Come on.”

Elise turned into the Spa parking lot. Zookie jumped out of the car and took off as soon as Asia opened the door. “Damn it,” Asia swore. “There she goes again.”

“We have to go around to the front. The office is through there. Maybe she’ll be there, waiting for us.”

“Sure hope so. I’m thinking of tying her up for a while. I’m starting to miss her.”

The two women walked around to the new front door. The large display windows were filled with floor-to-ceiling plants. One double door was the laundromat and the other was the café. They entered through the laundromat. As Vance Smithers had predicted, it was already busy with CIU students using the wireless internet, munching complimentary pastries from the café, doing homework, watching the widescreen TV – and, of course, washing their clothes.

Zookie had been waiting inside the laundromat and followed Asia and Elise up to the counter.

The man at the counter was slender and expensively dressed, flashing a diamond-studded pinky ring. “Hello, ladies,” he said in a light, musical tenor.

“Hi,” responded Asia.

“Hi, yourself,” said Elise. “We want to sign up for Spa membership. Do we still get the Grand Opening discount?”

The slight man answered, “Oh, of course. We just opened yesterday. At least the laundromat and café did. The spa opens a week or so from now. Please follow me to the office. We can do the paperwork there.” The man turned to go, looked down and spotted Zucchini. “Oh! Which of you owns this beautiful dog? I saw her yesterday walking down Silver Lake Boulevard all by herself. In fact, I see her a lot…”

 

“…wandering around town by herself,” finished Elise for him. Asia looked embarrassed and commented, “I own her. I believe in giving her a lot of freedom. Almost everyone in town knows her and the tourists don’t seem to mind.”

“Who would? She’s really exquisite,” complimented the small man.

“Thank you,” answered Asia.

“Here it is,” he said opening a metal door to a small office.

A tall black man was hunched under a desk, finishing some wiring. He grunted, bumped his head on the underside of the desk, said “ow” and crawled out, backside first. Standing up, he stretched out to his full six foot height. Flashing a brilliant smile at the two women he said, “Hi, ladies. Just putting a few finishing touches on the building.”

Elise smiled at her feet, which was what she was wont to do when embarrassed. Asia chuckled at her friend, understanding that Elise was shy in the face Elton’s handsome, elegant presence. She held out her hand and said, “Asia Reynolds.”

The electrician shook her hand saying, “Elton Jamison.” Looking at Elise, he said, “I’m the electrical supervisor for this project.”

Asia looked at Elise, too, who hadn’t looked up from her feet yet. When she did, she simply said, “I’m Elise Snuggles. I work at KANU and raise bees.”

Elton let out a great basso laugh. “You must be the Snugglie Honey lady. Great stuff. I use it frequently.”

Elise, flattered, nonetheless stated emphatically, “The name is Snuggles. It used to be Snipes, but my ancestors decided to change it into something warmer.”

Elton cracked another huge laugh. “That it is. I love that honey. Snugglie is a compliment.”

“Thank you,” said Elise in a quiet voice. “I guess I should be used to other euphemisms by now. If I ever marry, though, it would be a little too revealing to hyphenate. Like, Elise Snuggles-so-and-so. It‘s nobody‘s business who I snuggle.”

 

Ever marry?” said Jamison with a sly grin that lit his face with a halo of amusement. Elise sat at a long folding table with a clatter of noise. She said, “Haven’t found anyone, yet.” She looked directly into Elton’s deep obsidian eyes, being her usual forward self. “And you?”

“No, ma’am. Still single.”

The thin man from the laundromat sat down with an equal clatter and said, “Well, let’s get started signing you ladies up.” He seemed a little dismayed at the sparks between Elise and his electrical supervisor.

Asia and Elise paid for a deeply discounted two year membership as Zookie and Elton played with each other and Elton finished wiring the outlet.

Elton got up and stretched as they completed all the forms and got up to leave. Zookie snorted at Elise and stood in front of her, blocking her path out the door. Elise got shy again and used a sweeping hand gesture, smiling at the dog, trying to get her to move. Asia gasped as Zucchini went over to the paper trash and knocked it over, scattering it artistically around the room.

Zookie!” exclaimed Elise. “She never does stuff like this. I don’t know what got into her.”

“I do,” said Asia, laughing. “She’s trained to do that and a few other things, such as pretending to defecate so that I have to take her outside. I sometimes get into conflicts making films and need excuses to leave. If you look directly at her, smile and make a sweeping hand gesture, she assumes you just told her to dump and scatter the nearest trash can. Good thing you don’t know the hand gesture for the other command.”

“Oops,” said Elise, looking embarrassed again.

 

Elton went over to Elise and asked, “How would you like to go to dinner and a movie some time? This job is almost done and I need some down time. I’ve heard that Superfly is coming to the Silver Lake Movie House. I wasn’t born when it first came out. I am a big fan of Gordon Parks, being a black photographer myself.”

Elise backed up a little and looked at Asia. She answered with a smile, “Sure. Here’s my Snuggles Honey card. It has my email address and cell number on it. You can call me any time.”

Elton took the card and put it in his wallet. “Nice meeting you both. You, too, Zookie,” he said, patting Zucchini’s broad brow. She barked and wagged her tail. She looked at Elise and then swung her large head around to Elton. Seemed the dog thought it looked like a bull’s-eye to her, a good match. She barked again.

“Sounds enthusiastic. I trust her judgment,” said Elise to Asia, laughing, as the two women left with Zookie following, walking slowly out to the front of the building. The small man at the laundromat counter called them back, giving the dog a Milk Bone dog biscuit and handing Asia a white cardboard pastry box, saying, “Welcome to the California Spa. There are more coupons inside the box. It contains our organic gingerbread squares. They taste divine with a whipped cream topping. Those are still warm. They were freshly baked in our kitchen this afternoon.” Both women thanked him and walked outside.

Asia bumped into Elise’s shoulder on purpose with a grin. “Looks like you found a boyfriend.”

“Maybe,” replied Elise. “Looks like you got your dog back.”

“Hope so. I’m serious about tying her up for a while. I missed her like crazy.”

They got in the car. Elise started the engine. “You know Frankie said Zucchini might find me love. She said some dogs do that.”

“Maybe,” replied Asia. “Elton seems rather nice. Smells good, too. I think he wears lemon-scented aftershave.”

“Yeah, I noticed. Damn good-lookin’, too. I like a clean man that smells good.”

“Better than a guy that smells like he cleans barns.”

“Plenty of those around here.”

“You know it.”

 

 

Chapter Ten

The next day, Elise was back at her computer. She had a stack of memos on her right. She leafed through them, getting familiar with the breaking news and sorting out last minute cable programming changes.

One memo caught her attention. It was a message to the station “From Two Illinois Farmers Against Water Sharing…” Her eyes scanned the message:

To Whom It May Concern:

Miss LaDuque –

Elise bit her lip at the second heading until she drew blood, but read on quickly -

We are two corn, hay, wheat and soybean growers that both plant over 600 acres each. We are supporters of the deceased Congressman Robert Harrison. The hippies have declared war on us.

Hippies don’t believe in handguns, but they seem to have access to combat weaponry. They want abortion; animals running wild everywhere; all the fish in the store; our construction and well-paid jobs on oil rigs, gas drilling projects and coal mines – and our local agricultural water rights.

THEY ARE OUT TO GET US!!!

The next part of the memo went off into a long list of irrational invectives against famous liberal politicos and peace movement activists, with statements such as: “John Lennon is a Commie Tree-Hugger”. Elise’s eye caught on: “Asia Reynolds is a Liberal-Issue Hippie-Monger” and “Sheila Rodriguez is a Crooked Cop.”

A note was added below the original message. It read:

 

The Silver Lake police department believes this message is from the two unidentified men accused of kidnapping documentary filmmaker and photographer Asia Reynolds and shooting at the home of Silver Lake patrolman Chico Almonte.

Any information about either man wanted for the above crimes should be given to Sgt. Sheila Rodriguez of the Silver Lake police.

Two nondescript sketches of the men were also in Elise’s stack of memos. Both were of average height – 5’6” to 5’8”; had dark, short hair, Caucasian, had full beards and wore flannel shirts and jeans.

Elise thought, “That’ll describe half the county and the other half is female. Asia must have given the cops this info to add to Harry Skylar’s descriptions. I know she looked through their ‘wanted’ photo book. Obviously there was no one there she recognized.

Their junky, multi-colored patchwork pickup truck could be from anywhere.”

Elise typed the memo into her banner and scanned the sketches onto the end of the message.

__________

Tobias Smart heaved a long sigh of relief as his longtime partner, Samuel Fuller brought him a large whiskey and soda on ice and an enameled wooden tray of cracked crab with an herbed sour cream dip.

“You are truly an angel, Sam. Bring your drink and join me.”

The two sat on the balcony of Smart’s large, rented condo.

Smart lifted his glass and declared, “To freedom!” Sam raised his glass, touched it to Smart’s and repeated the same phrase with a twinkling broad smile. Samuel Fuller was a very good looking man, dressed in a tight stretch fabric shirt that emphasized his slender but sleek torso. He had one diamond in his ear, as usual, which spilled light across his perfect teeth. He also wore a new diamond-studded pinky ring.

Sam looked over the railing of the balcony and said, “Look, Tobias, there’s that pretty husky again.”

“Mmm…that dog wanders around town all the time. Come here, Sam, I want to talk to you.”

Sam walked over and sat down next to Tobias. He inquired, “Yes?”

“You know, there is no manager for the Spa.”

“Yes, I know. Do you have anyone in mind?”

“You.”

“Me? Tobias I don’t have any experience with accounting or management. I am just a houseboy. That‘s all I’ve ever tried to do. All I know how to do is stand at the laundromat counter and sign up new members for the Spa.”

“I can hire an accountant and I will teach you management. You just have to do what I tell you to, just like you do now.”

“If you think it will work.”

“I need someone to start right away. We are only about a week away from opening the Spa. Think you can continue to stand behind the counter and run the cash register?”

“Like I do already? Sure.”

“I will be in and out of the office and you can call me on my cell if you need to. This will be more than a stand-in. I will teach you everything about managerial work that you need to know.”

“Sounds workable,” answered Sam tentatively, with a slightly delighted giggle.

“We’ll continue with Vance’s format – the laundromat/health spa combination. I think it is crass, but I think it will attract our initial members to the Spa. And we need that.”

“So, I will basically run the laundromat…”

“And sell memberships to the Spa, like now. Except I will teach you everything I can about the financials on the side.”

“That sounds okay with me.”

Tobias smiled at Samuel and put his hand affectionately on his slender shoulder. “I want to rename the Spa ‘Smart and Fuller’s California Spa and Laundromat’. If the laundromat part doesn’t work, we can always clear that out and put café tables in there with some décor.”

“Sounds good. Can I get my hair done and get some new clothes for the Spa opening?”

“Of course, darling,” said Tobias and gave Sam a kiss on the cheek.

“I never really liked Vance, despite the tragedy. It’s hard for me to like straight, married people.”

“I know, but Vance was a teddy bear, and a sweetheart of a business genius.”

“Which I am not.”

“But I love you more.”

Samuel smiled and put his arm around Tobias.

Tobias gazed off into the beauty of the setting sun and Samuel was sitting close, leaning slightly on Smart’s arm. Smart commented, “You know Vance had an MBA, but he was a naturally brilliant businessman.”

Samuel frowned and pulled away from Tobias a little.

Tobias continued, “We have had over 150 Spa memberships as of today. The laundromat is actually going to more than pay for itself. I even saw Robert Redford’s oldest son washing his clothes there. The comfortable furniture and upbeat décor really helps attract wealthier clients. Couches and easy chairs were Vance’s ideas, too.”

Sam laughed and grabbed Tobias’s arm. He replied, “Oh, come on, Toby. It’s only a laundromat. I’ll give you that Vance was a genius of the laundromat. There’s not much competition for that title. Big fish, small pond.”

Tobias jerked forward disturbing the snack tray and pulling away from Sam. He slapped his large hand on the balcony railing to emphasize his words. “Sam! I didn’t want to risk my investments on Vance’s ideas at one point, either. But, after his unfortunate death, I felt inspired to leave a legacy for him. As a friend, I loved the man. I tried his ideas in memoriam and they worked. Now, I have to say he was right.”

Sam got up suddenly, grabbing the disturbed tray, delicately wheeling on one foot towards the kitchen, saying, “Well, I don’t give love away that cheaply.” Five minutes later, there was the sound of breaking ceramics from the kitchen.

Sam came back out to the balcony with a fresh tray containing more crab, dip and two Margaritas, saying offhandedly, “I accidentally broke those two ugly coffee mugs, sorry.”

Tobias answered warmly, with forgiveness, “Sit down, Sam. Don’t worry about the past. Don’t be jealous. You have always been the only one.

“I need to tell you about your new role in the Spa. I was thinking of moving my branch of Segue here to Silver Lake.”

Sam snorted in reply. “I thought we would have to hire another manager eventually. I like the idea of extra money myself, but this town is grim compared to Los Angeles. I’m happy just working in your condo, actually. But, that’s why our location matters so much!”

Tobias laughed and said, “That’s one of the reasons I love you. You are so humble. In fact, I had my lawyer write up a pre-nuptial agreement for the two of us.”

Samuel leaned closer with this news.

“If we divorce without contest, you will receive one million dollars for every year we were married – up to ten million dollars.”

Sam leaned over further and kissed Tobias on the cheek, responding gently to the surprising invitation, “Of course, I will marry you.”

Their doorbell buzzed. Sam got up and went to the video intercom. “Oh, my God,” he exclaimed. “It’s that horrible woman! Talk about bad timing!”

“Who?” asked Tobias from a distance.

“It’s Gloria Smithers,” called Sam from the door. “Should I let her in?”

No!” answered Tobias, with equal distaste. “Tell her I am busy right now. Tell her I’ll call her on my cell when I have time.”

Delivering the message, Sam walked back to his balcony seat. He said, as if in confidence, “I never told you that I saw her over at Bagdasarian’s Armenian Restaurant. She was in the take-out line in front of me. I heard her complain about ‘the flying queers all over the place’ while she looked right at me. What nerve! She is soo rude! Then she said, ‘They even had a dance at the Civic Center after the Villalobos Benefit…and you know what?’ She leans over me and whispers to her friend, ‘I even heard that the Villalobos Foundation sponsored the thing. Imagine that! Probably to attract gay voters. There were even local lesbians there. I didn’t know we had any.’

She said that as if she owns the local lesbians.”

“Oh, Samuel,” answered Tobias, laughing as he put his hand over Sam’s. “Don’t you pay any attention to her. She is a busybody and a malicious gossip. One day I will tell you some of the things she did to Vance. It’s no wonder he had heart problems. She was terrible. She used to treat her husband so badly. I had to calm him down all the time when she would bother him about his work hours or when he missed dinner. She liked his money well enough, though. You know they suspect her of her husband’s murder. They just did not have enough evidence to hold her. She should be in jail. I believe she is dangerous as well as obnoxious.”

“She’s a menace. They should lock her up regardless,” agreed Sam.

__________

Underground in the hidden cavern Tom, Bill and Jimmy had found, more campers shimmied down with their sleeping bags and camping supplies from time to time until there were now about twenty men and women, with more coming minute by minute. Tom went up the way they had come in to lead even more hippies down into the cave with a large hand held spotlight.

The new campers quietly went about setting up their belongings on both sides of the small stream. Someone had painted “SAFE HAVEN on one of the cavern walls. They could hear noise from the regular tour groups on the other side of the cave wall.

Towards the evening, after the last tour group left the other side, the smells of cooking filled the cavern and a small group of musicians started playing guitars quietly. A circle formed around them as the other campers sat down with plates of food. A few folks sang along. They sang old folk songs from the Sixties and some Ozark music. Kerosene lanterns and candles edged the large group, giving it an almost heavenly glow.

The campers that could, had hauled fold-up cots (courtesy of Green Tortoise) to put their donated sleeping bags on (also courtesy of Green Tortoise) in order to avoid having to lay on the hard rock floor of the cave. Most campers had sought refuge in the cavern because, since the shooting of Congressman Harrison, they had found it more difficult than usual to camp out in the woods, despite the protection of the Silver Lake police. Silver Lake had only a small police department and, due to the added stress of recent events, it was stretched to the max.

Some of the hippies were talking about leaving and going up to the Salton Sea where there were regular hippie gatherings and they could sell their handicrafts. Or going home to visit their primary support – their parents.

There was a general feeling of drawing together. Some hippies complained that when they went into town, their tents and tarpaulin were slashed with knives and their belongings scattered and trampled. Those that sold handicrafts were worried that they would not make enough money this year. Sales were down since the shooting at the Reclaim the Earth balloon by the river. The tourists were afraid to come too close to them and had started avoiding their handicraft booths in the carnival area and on Silver Lake Boulevard. Some craftspeople were getting downright real-time hungry and starting to look thinner. Thus, the free food in the cavern was very appealing.

There was also a caravan of vehicles that was preparing to go to Mexico City. By midnight, there were close to forty campers in the spacious cavern.

In the morning, they could leave early and not have to move any of their equipment, since the cave was safe from intruders. Bill had tamped in a rope ladder to the upper crawl space leading from the entrance, in order to make ascending and descending to and from the rock shelf passage easier. Others happily distributed extra food, drinks and blankets. Two folks played a game of Go by candlelight. Someone had brought a kitten with them and it played around near the stream. Differing aromas of incense mingled upwards into the stalactites. Folks laid on their cots and read by flashlight, drew in sketchpads and wrote in their diaries.

A girl with waist-length hair started quietly playing a bamboo flute to Jimmy’s guitar. A candle sat on the rock floor between them, flickering gently from face to face. The sound of the crystal clear stream with the ancient hardened mud impressions of giant trilobites thrummed behind them.

Tom and a few others had heard the alleged kidnappers’ message on cable last night. He counted 45 people in the cavern and didn’t think they could accommodate many more comfortably. He and Bill were going to look for another cavern later. Some folks that were staying only the night were packing to leave Silver Lake as soon as they could. Most of the people with children were already gone. There was a general exodus of hippies from the town. Most of the townspeople from Silver Lake expressed regret that this was happening and proffered their apologies with offerings of food and money when they would see a small hippie family or familiar crafts person or musician.

Most campers in the cavern left before the sun came up. They crawled out of their hidden entrance hole located in a field slightly outside of town. They left as early as possible so noise did not carry across to the tour groups. Jimmy was left in the cavern to clean up. They agreed that no one should come down until after dark, so they would be hidden from any curious townspeople or tourists.

The town above them was concerned about the message broadcast last night and actually opened their doors to the threatened hippies camping on their land and took out, cleaned and oiled their hand guns to protect their “guests” in case of any real danger. After all, lives had already been lost or seriously threatened.

Of course, some of the cruder farmers were delighted to attack the camps, since they did not like hippies (or some of the tourists, either).

This meant that the Silver Lake police department was busier than usual, so they deputized some new members as well as offering overtime to the regular cops. An all-out effort was being made to keep an eye out for the safety of the hippies and the regular tourists, as well.

Sgt. Rodriguez’s motorcycle was blasting all around town – up and down Silver Lake Boulevard, and kicking up dust around the dirt roads of the homesteads further away from the town center. Someone had been pasting threats on light posts and walls, so the police department was also busy helping to take those down and painting over mean-spirited graffiti.

Two of the churches – the Silver Lake Baptist and Silver Lake Lutheran – opened their doors for meals, storage and overnight accommodations. They even offered dog and cat food to the artisans that used part of their income to feed their canine and feline friends. The efforts of Silver Lake’s citizens to defend their innocent summer residents made the news as far away as Chicago and St. Louis. So did the description of the two men that Asia had given to the police.

Much to Samuel Fuller’s dismay, Tobias Smart gave free shower and laundry tokens away to the hippie population. All of which got the California Spa a lot of delightful live music out on the sidewalk in front of the establishment. Smart’s generous attitude also got him more Spa memberships and a good reputation. Sam was not happy about the rise in the hippie population around the laundromat and kept a hand-sanitizer up under the laundromat counter, putting out a couple of commercial air freshener containers. He was not as enthused to help what he considered a useless and ragtag community.

Two local political parties faced off, pro and con, about the presence of hippies in their town. This was an old issue, with some farm families on one side and some on the other. Those that were pro-hippie started pushing for the release of Harold Skylar on the basis that they knew some of the anti-hippie antagonists and added to the police department‘s feelings that he could easily have been set up. The Silver Lake police were still baffled as to why Harrison was shot on his side of the car. The assault took place on the wrong side of the street to accurately hit Villalobos – indicating the correct planned target actually was Congressman Harrison. This last conclusion was what most folks in Silver Lake agreed was the correct implication. Not too many people thought that anti-water-conservationists would shoot a big supporter like the Congressman. So, the perpetrators must have been political liberals. That’s what the supporters of that theory surmised.

Bitter arguments could be heard in front of the Post Office, banks, parking lots, the library and other gathering places. It took the place of gossip about one’s neighbors in many cases. The fingerprints on the rifle were still unidentified. The whole situation might have been used just to antagonize Harold, which was Harry’s position. And Sgt. Rodriguez was presently inclined to agree with him. His lawyer would be arguing for his release on bail in a couple of days.

Since Asia’s kidnappers gave the local cops the slip, the cable message was considered to be their demands – as if they were holding the entire town hostage through the fear that they might represent a larger group of armed antagonists. Or might kidnap somebody else.

Asia was working on identifying the two men who had detained her in the Petris’ cabin. The email from the “two farmers” would help Harry in court. That sort of tied her abduction to Harry’s situation. She tended to think Skylar was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and had run the risk of being shot, himself. She believed he was being framed by some anti-hippie farmers, who might have seen him standing at the entrance to the passageway the real shooter or shooters had taken aim from and followed him back to his camp. Too many maybes. Perhaps they had seen where the shooters had stashed or thrown their weapon, and stolen it themselves, just to plant it in Harry’s tent.

The police sketches Asia had helped produce were not very helpful and caused some suspicion around the dinner table in Silver Lake, since the artist’s rendition was bland enough to fit quite a few local farmers.

KANU asked Silver Lake residents to review their photos and videos of the Villalobos benefit and motorcade, as well as any other media they felt might be relevant and send them to the cable station or Silver Lake police department. The police were not ready to release Harry Skylar until after his court date – for his own protection. He had been playing some rather nice music in the halls of the jailhouse, regardless of his incarceration.

Asia knew, despite the conflicts around town, Elise and Elton were planning to go ahead with the plans for their first date. They were planning on going to the Metaxas Greek Restaurant for dinner and the Silver Lake Cinema for a movie and then back to the Almonte’s for dessert.

Asia was still restricted to the Almonte farmhouse unless accompanied by a squad car and two armed patrolmen which made her tearful, frustrated and angry. So, having as many friends around her as often as possible was her only compensation for this kind of restriction right now.

 

 

Chapter Eleven

Elton drove over to pick up Elise at her home around 6:30 just as the sun began to set.

She wore her pink, sequined slinky dress and had even found a pair of matching flats, not being steady on heels. She put her Glock and a full magazine in her shoulder bag, she also packed her cell and digital video recorder. “You never know,” she thought to herself as she adjusted the shoulder strap. “A good story can occur anywhere.”

She heard a horn outside and walked out to Elton’s red mustang, smiling at him and at the match between her outfit and the car.

Elton had an incense cone burning in a holder in the ashtray and was quietly playing a Natalie Cole CD. Elise got in on the passenger side and sighed loudly.

“This is really the only way to end my work day.”

“Difficult today, baby?” answered Elton sympathetically.

“Oh, yeah, a little. I probably viewed a hundred photos and videos of the Villalobos benefit trying to find two cowboys tailing Asia.”

“See anything?”

“Nope. I found myself staring at any white man in jeans. Not that there were very many.”

“That’s a start. Any man in jeans at that party would stick out.”

“There were a few guys hauling kitchen and musical equipment.” Elise smiled at Elton, forgetting her frustration, and said, “Want to smoke a joint? I know the best growers in town. My family has two hundred years of farming history in this area.”

“For a fact? Sure. Light up. We can keep the top up for now.”

“Yeah. That incense is fine.”

“It’s Egyptian musk, and my favorite.”

Elise handed the lit reefer to Elton who took a deep, man-toke. Elise laughed at the deep toke and said, “We’d better go, we need to finish our dinner before eight. Besides, I‘ll burn my fingers on what you have left there.” Elise rolled another joint for herself and smoked it down halfway, handing the rest to Elton.

“Okay,” responded Elton, amiably. When he was finished with the weed, he started his engine. “Better put your scarf on. I want to put the top down, it’s a little muggy tonight. There was no air conditioning on my job today. We might want to air the car out, too.”

“Poor you, I’d die. That’s the one nice thing about working at a cable station. They always pay attention to the climate control. Sweating anchor people embarrass everyone.” With one deep thought about Alphonsine with sweat circles underneath her arms, Elise put on a pink triangular scarf with white pompoms, tying it behind the back of her head. She had just worn a braided wig tonight, but didn’t need braids whipping into her face with the wind. Or losing an expensive wig to the pavement behind them.

In ten minutes, they parked behind the Metaxas, got out and walked into the restaurant. The Silver Lake Cinema was only a few doors down and they could hear the score to Superfly on the Cinema’s outdoor speakers drifting towards them. The evening was mellow, a brief but intense rain had paused and the sky was now clear again.

“I never got a chance to see this film. I wasn’t born until ten years after it was first released.”

“Same with me,” replied Elton.

Elton and Elise walked into Metaxas and stood near the hostess stand.

“This is my treat,” said Elton. “When I was in the service, I visited Greece on leave and fell in love with the place. I hope you like it.”

“I like most food,” answered Elise.

They were seated near the front window at a small, round table. Elton ordered right away and included a bottle of Ouzo.

“What’s Ouzo?” inquired Elise.

“It’s an anise-flavored liqueur. Rather spicy, but a wake-up taste.”

He also ordered squid in red sauce.

Elise, confused and intimidated by most of the menu, ordered the same thing.

When the waitress brought their Ouzo and Elton had poured their drinks, Elise tried hers and said, “Wow! This is strong. Nice, though.”

When she saw her plate of squid, she exclaimed, pointing at the rubber-like things sprawled on her plate “What, Elton, is that?”

“Octopus leg segments.”

“Me, oh, my. They eat them?” she frowned at the numerous easily recognizable suction cups reaching out of the sauce.

“Yeah. Greeks are famous for diving off the rocky shores where the octopus dwell. I guess this is their way of culling that population.”

“I guess. There are some things I don’t like that I wouldn’t eat,” said Elise, looking down at the big arm sections of the squid with their suction cups resting in herbed tomato and olive oil sauce.

Elton forked a whole octopus section, dripping olive oil and popped it into his mouth, big suction cup and all. “Mmm… It’s been years since I tasted this. Yum!

“Yeah,” commented Elise, pushing a piece of octopus around her plate, pretending to make it squirm and swim. It was her appetite that took a dive, though.

“Try it,” said Elton.

“Just soaking up some sauce.” Elise picked up a whole section of squid on her fork. Closing her eyes, she put it in her mouth. “Chewy,” she said. “Nice sauce.”

“Very chewy,” responded Elton with a delighted chuckle. “Surprisingly filling.”

“They look like they could crawl off the plate. They kind of taste like super-firm ballpark franks. That hot-tasting alcohol make me think that octopus would taste good with hot sauce.”

Elton laughed and then choked a little. He said, “Uh, oh. Speaking of hot sauce, Lookout! Here comes one of my old girlfriends.”

Elise swore silently and then looked up. She saw a black lady in fancy black net stockings, knee-high black patent leather stiletto boots and a shiny black vinyl mini. In fact, she looked like a black Alphonsine LaDuque and gave Elise a similar feeling of dread. She was wearing a very pretty, finely braided wig. She must have been fifteen years older than she and Elton, but with a body that would equal two of Elise. And this woman had her fat in places that men shouldn’t look. Outside of the fact that Elton was a complete gentleman during this obviously chance encounter, he probably had looked…at least once.

Elton seemed to notice her discomfiture and said, “Don’t worry, honey. We are way over with.” He smiled at the woman, saying, “Oh, Amy, hello!” He turned to Elise again and said, “This is my date, Elise Snuggles. Elise, this is Amy Steele.” The woman smiled at Elise and offered her hand. Elise took it, unsure of what to do with it – not being good at shaking other women’s hands, except in Judo. And she couldn’t do that here.

She had an upsurge in mercy as she noticed how old Elton’s ex looked. That fifteen years she had on Amy felt good.

“Join us for some Ouzo,” said Elton to Amy Steele.

Elise said, “No, no, no…” in her head.

 

Amy gave Elise a long, deep look and wisely answered, “No, thanks, Elton. I’m here to do business and have a busy evening ahead of me.” She smiled down at Elise and said, “Nice meeting you, Elise.”

Elise smiled back at Amy, feeling warmer towards her due to Amy’s cultivated elegance. She said, “You, too.”

“Wonderful,” she thought, gratefully watching Amy mince away in the other direction.

“Oops,” said Elton. “She’s a fine person. Just not the one for me.” He looked down at his hands. “I want children. She has two grown kids and can’t have any more. We didn’t see marriage in our future. And I want that too. Sadly, because of these things, we just drifted apart.”

“Sadly,” thought Elise. Stifling a belch in her linen napkin, Elise finished her last piece of octopus. “We better get going if we want to get to the movie on time.”

Elton said, “Okay, honey. I’ll order dessert and bring it with us to the Almonte ranch for later.”

He and Elise got up and paid at the cash register, sauntering out of the restaurant. Elton caught Elise’s hand and they walked over to the Silver Lake Cinema, hand-in-hand. Elise could swear she felt some big suction cups tickling the inside of her stomach.

She turned her attention away from the negative thought and watched Elton buy their movie tickets. Walking into the theater, they chose two seats near the center aisle, down by the front as the signature theme to Superfly came on the sound system. Still holding hands, they settled into their seats. Elise became uncomfortably aware that the salt from her dinner was making her thirsty. Around the time Gordon Parks’ photo stills were flashing across the wide movie screen, Elton commented in a neutral tone, “Want some coke?”

“Yeah, baby. I’m thirsty. With ice and a straw, please.” Elise settled more contentedly into her plush movie house seat, took her hand back and threw her arm over Elton’s shoulders.

“No,” responded Elton, shifting his weight. “That’s not what I meant. I mean do a line. Cocaine.”

Elise looked at him, surprised, and answered, “No, thanks, honey. I’m too small. I’d need a parachute. Weed’s fine for me. I get enough dust up my nose from the Almontes riding back and forth on their horses outside the kitchen windows.”

“Just asking.”

Mmm,” mused Elise, “Old girlfriends and cocaine,” still wanting a Coca Cola.

Elton got up and made a move to leave. Elise, looked at him. “Where are you going?” she asked, surprised.

“To get you that coke with ice and a straw,” he responded with a wide smile.

Elise moved her knees and let him pass. “Mmm,” she thought again. “Two gold karma stars for you.” She touched his hand as he passed her. They smiled at each other.

__________

Asia went downstairs to start fixing desserts for later that night. She had decided to make strawberry cheesecake. Cisco had brought the ingredients that they did not have last night. There were their own canned strawberries from this summer – plus some fresh for the topping. She decided to use Snuggles Honey to sweeten the confection. The rennetless cream cheese came from the Almonte dairy. Elton had better like it. If not, there was Chico’s homemade vanilla ice cream from the other day. This was a vegetarian cheesecake, so Asia could have her choice of either the ice cream or the cake or both.

As she got out the mixing bowls, Elise called on her cell.

“Hey,” said Elise.

“Hey, yourself,” responded Asia.

“Elton and I just ate some octopus legs in tomato sauce at Metaxas. We’re at the movie now. He just went to get me some Coke to wash their suction cups away from the walls of my stomach lining.”

“Octopus? Greeks eat octopus?”

“Yeah. They taste really good, but it takes time getting used to what they look like. What ‘cha makin’ for dessert?”

“A surprise. Elton will be impressed.’

“Better be good.”

“You know it will be.”

“See you later, then.”

“Call when you’re heading over. I don’t want Cisco to shoot Elton.”

“Shit. Okay. I’ll be glad when we catch those two guys that abducted you. Any headway identifying them from your own files?”

“No. And how about KANU?”

“We got tons of photos and videos to look at. The cops have some. Nothing outstanding yet.”

“See ya’ later.”

“Bye…”

Frankie’s Big Boy had been staying side-by-side with Zookie since last night. Asia was playing Dionne Warwick’s Then Came You on the stereo system in the living room. Asia looked down at the two huge dogs and laughed. They looked like newlyweds. She smiled and felt like a happy mother-in-law. Like she was viewing a Vegas animal act in Elvis’s Wedding Chapel.

Big Boy had a scent. Almost feral. He was a quiet, feral giant who spent most of his time outside according to Frankie. He even slept mostly on Frankie’s porch. He was pretty, though – a mix of golden retriever and Newfoundland. He must have weighed close to two hundred pounds. Newfoundlands are, full grown, close to the size of a full grown, standard St. Bernard, or larger. Zookie got up from the kitchen floor and stretched, walking across Asia’s bare foot, inadvertently digging in with her nails.

Oww!” exclaimed Asia, moving her foot away from her dog’s big paw. She sat down at the kitchen table and took stock of where she was in blending the filling. Rubbing the top of her foot, she stretched. It shouldn’t take her more than a half an hour to finish the cake. It should be nice and cold by the time her friends got there.

Cisco, Chico and Julio walked in the back door with a rush of summer air. Big Boy and Zookie got up and stretched to their full length. Both of them walked out the back door past the three brothers.

Cisco said, “Whoa, who is that huge golden?”

Asia laughed and said, “That’s Frankie Franklin’s dog, Big Boy.”

“He shore is. Big, Ah mean.”

“He and Zucchini have a thing going on.”

“I see,” he said. “Love is something we all have in common, no matter the species.”

Chico leaned over Asia to gaze into the mixing bowls. “What are you making?”

“Strawberry cheesecake. Elton Jamison and Elise are coming over in about a half an hour.” Asia paused and continued, “Has Silver Lake’s finest found any clues to our antagonists?”

“Not anything definitive. But we are constructing a file of all the possible men dressed in jeans and plaid flannel shirts in all of the videos and photos. Those we cannot identify locally might narrow our field. The men working on that aspect of the videos in the department believe they can ID Asia’s assailants by using a process of elimination. Some of the men belong to the bands, but the musicians would recognize who they were. Same for the caterers and Civic Center administration.”

“That’s a great idea. We need to have KANU do the same thing. At least they would notice the same men carrying things for both the caterers and the bands.”

“They are doing that right now. Sheila spoke to them this evening.”

Asia dipped her finger in the cheesecake filling. She poured in half a cup of Snuggles Buckwheat honey. Mixing it in the blender with a few tablespoons of Chico’s butter, she stuck her finger in again. “Oh, yeah…” she thought, “molto bene!”

This cake was built like a stack of condos. There was a floor plan which allowed for variations. The no-bake filling had been easy – just one 8 oz. package of cream cheese, pre-made graham cracker crust, a quarter cup of honey, half a cup of whipping cream, a teaspoon of both vanilla and cinnamon, three large strawberries, thinly sliced. And freshly canned strawberries from this year blended into the filling. The finely sliced fresh strawberries nestled in a thin layer of decorative whipped cream covering that socko filling. The whole cake was frozen instead of baked.

Asia had a nice collection of cake decorating implements. She chose the large pint-sized star-ended tube for the whipped cream, especially around the round edge of the soon to be frozen cake.

She thought of the lunatics that were out to get her. If they only knew what they were missing by not being friendly – no cheesecake for you. She was lucky to have her life back and she knew it. And this was a good life with all of her friends and how they surrounded her. She just hoped the men that abducted her did not represent a militia or some organization. Sheila had said that she thought that they were too sloppy to be in a militia. They left prints all over everything, for one thing.

She really hoped that the process of elimination might bring their identities to police attention. Somebody didn’t like Harry enough to plant an assault rifle in his tent. They just needed to find out who. If they could catch Asia’s abductors, they just might find out that it was them. That made sense to her, especially if they had been brazen enough to shoot a bullet through Chico’s front window.

Asia’s cell rang at the same time as the Almonte land line.

“Hello?” she said, answering her own phone as Cisco answered their home phone.

“It’s Elise. Party started, yet?”

“Yeah. The boys just got home.”

“Are we good for dessert?”

“Sure. Park in the back of the house. It is more protective back there. We have motion sensor lights and cameras. Come to the back door. Try and get the motion sensor lights to go on, so we can see you better.”

“Oh, my God! What have we come to? Okay, we’ll be careful.”

“Thanks. Luv ya’ Elise.”

“You’ll have to get in line after tonight. Bye, Asia…. Be there.”

“Bye…”

 

Asia turned to Cisco who was heating up some fine-smelling leftovers.

“Have enough for me?” she asked.

“Sure, sis. All the boys, Pop and Sheila will be eatin’, too.”

“Oh, thanks, Cisco, you’re so sweet.” She pecked him on the cheek and gave him a squeeze across his shoulders. He blushed. “I’ll heat up some tempeh sausage and steamed kale to go with the beans for myself,” Asia commented.

Asia sat down with the Almontes as soon as Cisco set the food out. Sheila was not home from work yet, so they set some food aside for her. Asia looked at Chico and said, “Hey Chico, assuming that Harrison was the real target, have you thought to check arriving and departing flight lists – including private aircraft – for the time period spanning the Villalobos motorcade? The shooters were on the wrong side of the street to aim at Senator Villalobos. I know the department thinks that the two men who abducted me were amateurs because of the fingerprints all over their truck – and mine. But I think no one would aim from the wrong side of the street if they were Harrison supporters. That would be too risky and there are passageways on the other side of the street that would have been good cover as well.”

Chico looked up from his sausage and mashed potatoes and answered, “Ah, no, we haven’t thought of that. We considered the side of the street, but not flight lists. Checking flight lists is a really good idea. I’ll bring it up to the Chief.”

“I just thought of it because I would like to see the passenger listings, too. With my background in documentary film, I might recognize someone.”

“I’ll run it past my commanding officers.”

“Thanks. No point in wasting time, or risking anyone else’s life.”

“True.”

Suddenly, Big Boy and Zucchini started barking. Cisco looked up at the split-screen camera monitor on the kitchen counter. They all looked with him and saw Elise and Elton waving their arms at the motion sensor lights. A few minutes later, a loud knocking clatter came from the back door after a large set of floodlights lit up the back of the house. Elise’s voice followed with, “It’s us, don’t shoot!” The two friends had turned on all the motion sensor lights in the back area, which was now lit up like high noon.

Asia cleared the kitchen table and put all the used dishes in the sink. She looked into the freezer and took out her cheesecake and the leftover ice cream. She plugged in the coffee pot and put out a fresh bag of Raven’s Brew.

She heard Elise yell again, “It’s us! Asia, open up!” Cisco checked the window and the monitors again and unlocked the back door. Elise stumbled in quickly, saying, “My God! It smells good in here!” She peeked into the cooking pots containing the leftovers and exclaimed, “Sausage and mashed potatoes. Ah, a nice American dinner. I can’t say anything about squid. Elton loves them. I can use some Raven’s Brew, though. And, girl, what is that!” Elise pointed at the elaborate cheesecake sitting in the middle of the table.

Asia answered, “Strawberry cheesecake. I even have some Greek espresso to go with it if you or Elton want to try some.”

“Elton might. He also brought a box of baklava. I will taste it, but the octopus don’t need anything familiar to make them wake up and take notice.”

“Afraid they’ll try and get out?” commented Asia, wryly.

“Ha. Well, I’ll never forget my first date with Elton. A fine man, great movie and disgusting dinner. I even met one of Elton’s ex’s. She walked by our table on her way to do some business.”

“You don’t say!”

“I do. She was actually just as taken aback as we were.”

“Name?”

“Amy Steele.”

“As in Steele’s Athletic Equipment?”

“Probably. She’s too old for Elton, anyway. He said so.”

Elton followed Elise into the kitchen, handing a white pastry box to Asia.

“You ladies gossip too much. Did I hear you say you have some Greek coffee? I’ll take some.” Asia gave Elton a squeeze and took the box of baklava. He looked at the kitchen table and said, “Whoa! That’s the surprise? It looks like holiday fare. Yum!”

Cisco ushered the two friends into the living room. They sat down in front of the coffee table. He brought in the cheesecake and a platter of baklava. Chico followed with one pot each of Greek and Raven’s Brew coffees. Elise, of course, lit a pipe filled with marijuana and passed it towards Julio and Asia.

Mr. Almonte, Sr. came in through the kitchen with a loud snort and said, “It sure smells good in here. Who’s smokin’ pot?”

Elton looked a little scared and glanced at Elise. She said, “Don’t worry. He’s just joking. He smokes too.” Elton let out a big sigh of relief as Elise laughed at him. “With two cops in the family, we don’t need to worry about Papa José.”

“It’s Elise’s pot as usual, Mr. Almonte, who else?” commented Asia. “Sit with us and have some dessert.” Before sitting down, José Almonte went over to the CD player and put on Isaac Hayes’ Shaft score.

“Right on,” said Elise in sync with the lyrics. “We’re having a black cultural extravaganza tonight. ‘‘Cept for those little black critters I had to eat.”

“Hey, you chose them,” said Elton.

“I couldn’t read the menu.”

“You could have asked me.”

“I wanted to seem competent. I was embarrassed.”

“Ah, Elise, how about some humility?”

“Shit. How about some weed?” she answered saucily, pushing a newly filled pipe under Elton’s nose until he moved his head back and grabbed it with his hand. Chico came in with a tray filled with his homemade ice cream and a bowl of fresh Almonte whipped cream.

“Toppings?” he asked, cordially.

Sheila came in the back door behind him. “What do we have tonight?” she asked rubbing her hands together as she used one foot to remove a heavy motorcycle boot, then reached down to remove the other as she balanced on the back of a kitchen chair.

Asia shouted back at her, “There’s leftovers on the stove. When you get to dessert, it’s in here. So is the coffee. Come on in and smoke some pot with us. Meet Elton, Elise’s new beau.”

Sheila came into the living room in her slippers and sat down in an over-stuffed chair, resting her feet on an ottoman. Chico lit a stick of myrrh incense and leaned over her shoulder to kiss her. He said, “Asia wants to help us check all the national and international flight lists coming into Silver Lake a week or so up to the date of the Villalobos motorcade and after.” Chico looked at Asia. “She just wants to read the names and see if anything clicks with her documentary experience.”

Sheila frowned. “I’ll take any possible lead at this point. We should run all the names through our criminal records system as well. It will take a subpoena, though. I think the judge will be favorable. I think cross-checking with Interpol would also be appropriate if necessary. Unusual request, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Good idea, Asia. My feet under a desk sounds good right now, especially if it helps our investigation. Maybe I’ll even find time for lunch, but somehow I doubt it.

“I just called the station and they think it will take days to sort all the media KANU has been receiving. I think we are actually after at least two completely different assault teams – opposite in politics, too. If Asia wants to use her international journalistic credentials to examine anything, I think the Chief, the judge and I would go along with it.

“We still have the Smithers’ murder. You have any other theories? Asia?”

Asia looked up and said, “Yeah. I’ll have to talk to you about it later, though.”

Elise sputtered a little, her mouth full of cheesecake and ice cream. She swallowed and took a sip of Raven’s Brew. “Mmm…Asia, this cheesecake swings. You gotta give me that recipe.” She looked at Elton. “I like Greek. But, not octopus. The coffee, the islands and the baklava are good.”

“Octopus is an acquired taste,” responded Elton with a laugh and a sparkle sideways at Elise. “It grows on you.”

“I certainly hope nothing like that grows on me.”

“Try the Souvlaki next time. It’s just mutton in a similar sauce.”

“The sauce rocks, actually,” said Elise, taking another sliver of cheesecake, putting only a dab of ice cream on that and a touch of whipped cream. “Once in a lifetime,” she said, laughing as best she could with her mouth full. Elton put his arm over her shoulders. Elise finished her plate, and handing a black patent leather pouch to Chico, she said, “Fill your bong, Chico. Go ahead and stoke it. I grew all of that.” She looked at Sheila and continued, “Really good harvest this year. I grow Hindu Kush Bhang. Don’t ask where I get the seeds. But it’s good karma weed. That I will tell you.”

Sheila said, “You know, Elise, I am still on call. I can’t smoke right now. I shouldn’t even have my uniform on. What if they smell it on me? I could get a pee test.”

Elise spoke up sharply, “Well, you’ll pass it even if you give the entire police department a contact high. Take a dime bag for yourself, for later…I do ounces. Grams is my mother’s mother. This is ghetto weed.”

Sheila smiled, taking a whiff as the still smoking bong passed under her nose as Chico passed it to Cisco on the other side of her.

“Whoa,” said Sheila, grinning slyly. “I got a hit.”

Elise clapped her hands and said, “Yay! ‘Bout time.”

Elton picked up a tiny demitasse cup of hot Greek espresso. He took a cigarette out of a pack in his breast pocket and lit it. “Ahh…” he sighed as he breathed in and sipped a small amount of hot liquid from the demitasse cup.

“You smoke cigarettes?” Elise asked, surprised. “I never saw you light up before.”

Elton sipped his coffee, unperturbed. “I smoke one cigarette a day, right at the end of my day.”

“No wonder I haven’t seen you. Only one?”

“Yeah. I don’t consider myself a smoker anymore. Silly to only have one cigarette left to quit. But I think I’ll survive it.”

“Not much left to kick.”

“No. It also keeps folks from saying anything negative to me since I usually do not smoke at all.”

 

 

Chapter Twelve

Sheila was not called in to the department for the rest of the night, to her vast relief. Around midnight, after Elise and Elton had left, she showered and fell asleep next to the gently breathing Chico like a rock. She greeted her digital alarm the next morning with a deep groan. She needed a day off. No real hope for that. She rolled off the bed and into the bathroom. “The mirror will be my friend again in twenty minutes,” she thought as she felt the steam from the running shower relax her muscles.

Around ten o‘clock that morning, the police team assigned to the media investigation of Asia Reynolds’ abductors began seeing the same two men consistently unidentified. These two men were photographed or videoed carrying both kitchen equipment for the caterers as well as musical equipment for more than one band. All of these organizations hired their own haulers separately, and none of the administrators had recognized either man. Their employees were also questioned. Some of them remembered the men but couldn’t identify them by name. There were clear photographic portraits of both suspects. Sheila Rodriguez decided to run their photos against the state ID and driver’s license data bank. The results would take a couple of days.

Meanwhile, Gloria Smithers had not forgotten to research her own alibi. She had also collected time-and-date-stamped videos and photos. She had put an ad in the local paper, saying she was creating a scrapbook of the benefit, so she had a continuous stream of media to examine. The Silver Lake police department was aware of her efforts. She had been instructed to notify the police as soon as she found anything to support her alibi or anything connected to identifying who the third person in the Spa pool video was. Or if anyone threatened her. Sheila felt that what she was doing was still a little bit dangerous.

Two people loudly did not encourage Gloria’s search for an alibi. They were, unsurprisingly, Samuel Fuller and Tobias Smart. When Sgt. Rodriguez told them that the police had doubts about the identity of the third person in the Spa pool video, they both burst out in anger at the information and vehemently objected to it, giving examples of Gloria’s former attacks on her husband.

Sheila did not like her role in interviewing them. They shouted at her and, despite Smart’s obvious role in trying to save Vance Smithers’ life, they made her suspect them. By noon, she was hungry and exhausted again.

To top it all off, there was a report of a stolen SUV. Now, Silver Lake was a very small town, and it was unusual for the police to have to investigate any stolen vehicle reports unless they came from outside their own town. There weren’t many places to hide a vehicle for very long (except in the woods) – especially if the thief wanted to drive anywhere – unless it was out of town. The commercial area of town was only about fifteen blocks square, more or less. The police could usually see stashed vehicles easily by air. And they did have access to quite a few volunteer aircraft and two multiple-craft licensed pilots in the department.

There was a fist fight on Silver Lake Boulevard over an identical SUV (but, as it turned out, not the stolen one). Sgt. Rodriguez answered the call on her motorcycle and broke it up, getting punched in the process. Alphonsine LaDuque had gotten an unofficial copy of a photo of the stolen vehicle and published it on the afternoon news at KANU without police permission, which was what caused the problem. KANU’s lack of corroboration with the police once again angered Sgt. Rodriguez and caused quite a few false reports of seeing the stolen SUV, which Sheila had to clear up all that afternoon. Around four o’clock she got a container of spaghetti, couldn’t eat it and gave it to Chico who was the only bright star in her day so far. She had been punched in the face during the altercation over the perfectly legitimate SUV and went over to the local ER for treatment instead of eating, since her injured nose hurt when she tried to chew. Chico took her over in his patrol car. There was a cut over her eye that was still bleeding and impaired her vision until the ER doctor stitched it closed. Tensions ran high in Silver Lake and gossip was rife.

The real inner life of Silver Lake would be incomplete without its regular town gossips. Their names, right now, at least, are irrelevant. Where they hung out, though, is not. In order to have a really bad day, Sheila Rodriguez needed to visit the Post Office and the public library – both on Silver Lake Boulevard. Of course, today she needed to visit both places on patrol or for personal business. Gossip ran the pulse of Silver Lake public opinion. One thought that floated up and down Silver Lake Boulevard was that the two men that kidnapped Asia and shot the Almonte living room window out, were the thieves that stole that missing SUV. Sheila vehemently quelled the rumor when she could, since no one knew who had stolen the truck. No one at the station anyway.

She told Town Crier No.1 that they would know who the two abductors were soon enough and only information relating to them was requested. The police would be updated on any new situations

Also, Asia’s Zucchini was not pregnant with Big Boy’s puppies. And the puppies would not be raffled off at the town hall later in the summer. Both dogs had been spayed…and why would Asia Reynolds and Frankie Franklin release their dogs all over town unless they had been fixed? That was just one example of the kind of annoying gossip that floated around town on the back of the shootings and Asia’s abduction.

Sheila said to Town Crier No. 2 who had reported (and precipitated) the fight that morning, “Don’t you think I would recognize the VIN number? I was right there. You only had to let me do my job. Look at my nose. That guy who said he owned the vehicle actually did own it. He broke my nose.

“If anyone saw the SUV, the police need to know about it. But no one except us are allowed to approach anybody.”

To which Crier No. 2 apologized profusely. Sheila replied, “That’s okay. Just give us a call on your cell phone if you think you have a great idea or a question relating to our work or investigations. Don’t make assumptions on your own, please. And don’t approach anyone personally. Even if you have a hand gun, you need to call the police to make an arrest. That’s one of the reasons we have an open switchboard.” That got a smile and a nod. How exciting to receive an actual invitation to call the police station! No matter that Sgt. Rodriguez was emphasizing accuracy not just communication. For Crier No. 2, it was like being invited to sit on the review stand on the Fourth of July.

Sheila wearily went on to correct another comment made by the same person, “Oh, and by the way, Betty Robinson was found in the woods behind the Silver Lake Old People’s Home this morning by Patrolman Chico Almonte. She is not lost anymore.” She really wanted a digital headline machine for the front of the police station. One of these days, that gossip would cause some trouble that a headline machine could put a quick stop to.

By quarter to five, Sheila’s nose began to ache again, and she stopped at the bakery to get a cup of water so that she could take one of the pain pills she got at the ER that morning. Tired, she let her Triumph tear up some gravel on the way back into the station. No overtime today, hopefully.

Of course, there was a small car accident on the way back in and Sheila took the call. She turned her flashers and siren on and pulled over to the beat-up old car that had just gotten a new dent by not watching the crossroads at a stop sign. The driver had circled the dent with a magic marker which just proved that the dent was more decorative than worrisome. She issued tickets to both drivers. The driver of the beat-up car turned red-faced and objected loudly that it was not his fault. Sheila responded, “Tell that to the judge. The reason we have stop signs is so you will take the time to watch the cross traffic.”

The driver of the beat-up car swore he wouldn’t pay the ticket, to which she answered, “That is your choice, but there are penalties for that. Remember, your driving record affects your insurance premiums.”

To which the driver said, “F*** it.”

Sheila literally hopped onto her motorcycle and shouted, “Your choice!” and tore up some more gravel heading in again. “Back at you,” she thought. The driver of the crummy car had looked vaguely familiar and a thought that she should have recognized him crossed her mind. She put the Triumph into high gear and raced onward, speeding around homeward-bound traffic, cleansing her mind with the speed underneath her – where the rubber hit the road.

She saw Chico sitting up on Niño when she pulled into the station’s parking lot. He shouted at her, “Really Sheila, you need to slow down on that thing.” Sheila yelled back at him, “That’s my sanity. I can drive that way because I‘m a cop.”

“Bad day, again?”

“Ever since the Villalobos benefit, the whole town has been going crazy. I’m beginning to feel like a desperado.”

“Don’t let it get to you.”

“Yeah, right. How, Cochise?”

Chico dismounted and tied Niño to his official station post. “Come here,” he said as he opened his arms. Sheila walked over and leaned backwards into his hug. Chico moved Sheila’s long hair aside and kissed her neck. His strength felt delicious. “Careful, my face still hurts. How come you’re riding Niño today?”

“I thought you knew he found Mrs. Robinson this morning. I decided to exercise him and let him canter around town as a reward.”

“Oh, right. I didn‘t realize you had kept the horse out all day, that‘s all.” Sheila snuggled closer to her man. “Taking me home tonight, Chico?”

“Sure. I’ll drive.”

“We have to take the Triumph with us on the trailer. It needs a tune-up and some small mechanical work that I want to do at home.” Both cops walked into the station and clocked out.

__________

Later that evening, Asia laced up her construction boots and grabbed a light jacket. She had volunteered to help serve dinner at the First Baptist Church of Silver Lake. She stuck her new digital camera in a pocket. It wasn’t her best photo op. – but it was newsworthy. Cisco was accompanying her and they were to be followed by Timmons and O’Brien in their patrol car. For protection on top of that, she packed a loaded Derringer in her jacket’s zipper pocket.

Timmons and O’Brien indelicately pulled around the back of the house, put on their Mars lights and siren to let the household know that they had arrived. Asia preferred to ride in the pickup with Cisco, for obvious reasons. The constant presence of a uniformed police escort intimidated and embarrassed her. Their actions right now didn’t help. She felt that deep depression settle on her shoulders again. That was the real reason she was going out tonight, even though it felt like it was going to rain. She grabbed her big vinyl, yellow floppy-brimmed rain hat. The brim covered her camera.It had been raining heavily off and on for about twelve hours. The dinner tonight was mostly for low-lying flood victims. Even the Mississippi was beginning to overflow its banks. Sand bagging crews were being organized at the Town Hall and other meeting places.

Zucchini started barking and wouldn’t stop until Asia came downstairs. Cisco smiled at her. There was a large pan of lasagna on the kitchen table that Chico had prepared for their donation to the dinner. There was also a basket filled with honey-sweetened desserts. “Ready to go?” he asked, putting down an empty coffee mug and small plate near the sink. “Thought I’d have some of that before we go. So I don’t have to serve dinner hungry. Give it a taste test.”

 

“How is it?”

“Pretty durn good. Chico can cook.”

“I’ll eat at the church where I‘m sure I can get a vegetarian dish. The lasagna looks good – but a meat dish is better for the church dinner than me.”

Cisco picked up the pan of lasagna and held the back door open with his foot. Asia carried the dessert basket. Zookie jumped into the back of the pickup as Asia and Cisco got in the front. They were taking Cisco’s pickup since the police felt Asia should not be driving her own truck right now.

As they drove up near the church, they spotted a long line from the front of the First Baptist all the way down Silver Lake Boulevard. The line was at least three blocks long.

“That’s a lot of hungry people. For so late into the carnival season, it is surprising,” commented Asia. “The vendors should be making some good money by now.”

Cisco answered, “Didn’t you know that the artisans and vendors are suffering because of all the disturbances? Folks are afraid of them. It will pass. But I’ve seen five families leave at one time. This doesn’t usually happen until way after the end of the season.” He parked the truck and Zookie leapt out of the back as soon as he stopped. Two little hippie children ran up to her, yelling, “Oh, look! There’s that doggie from the Fair!”

Asia smiled and said, “Looks like Zookie made some friends.”

“What’s her name?” asked the little girl.

“Zucchini,” answered Asia, handing both children pumpkin spice cookies from her dessert basket.

Both children were laughing at Zookie’s funny name. “Thank you,” said the little girl and boy together. “Is that doggie named after the vegetable?” asked the little boy with his mouth full of cookie.

“Yes,” answered Asia as their delighted laughter rang around her again.

“I like Zucchini,” said the girl.

“I love Zucchini,” said the little boy, breaking of a corner of his cookie and sticking it into Zookie’s mouth. He put his arm around her thick, shiny ruff and laid his head on her back and said, “And I love you, too!” as he hugged her.

A woman in a floor-length tie-dyed dress called both children from the back door of the church hall. The hall doubled as a shelter after dinner. People with children were the church’s first priority. They handed out money, gasoline vouchers, food, clothing and provided services such as long distance phone calls, internet, laundry times and even a free day care. And, of course, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Asia had just about reached her limit in terms of staying at home alone, so she had called the church committee and signed up for some of their volunteer programs created to protect and provide for the visiting artisan population, as well as locals and tourists who had lost their campsites or had flooded homes due to the driving rains which had just started up again about ten minutes ago.

As Asia and Cisco entered the hall, they noticed that there were several long, folding tables loaded with handicrafts such as pottery, baskets, framed photographs and watercolors. Asia went over and bought several items as Cisco brought the lasagna into the kitchen, coming back to her to get the basket of food she carried. She went outside to the parking lot and put her purchases in the truck. As she did so, she noticed the car with Timmons and O’Brien in it. Timmons leaned out of the patrol car and said, “You better be careful even coming out here alone. You know you were originally abducted from a parking lot. Those guys could be anywhere.”

Asia, both comforted and irritated, answered, “Yes, Officer Timmons. There are people all over the place and I have my Derringer right here in my jacket.”

“Okay for now,” said Timmons. “I’m going to be posted inside, anyway. So I will be at your side. Officer O’Brien will cover the parking lot and be on our radio. I’ll bring him his dinner.”

“Fine,” said Asia, closing and locking the cab of Cisco’s pickup.

Timmons commented, “Dinner should be particularly good. All the restaurants in town are donating dishes. You need to check it out!”

“We have some beautiful people in this town. I plan on getting a vegetable dish,” answered Asia.

“I know you are a vegetarian. They have a lot of tofu dishes. Many of our hippies are veggies, too.” He hesitated and then went on, “It is such a shame that these talented and harmless people are being so unfairly targeted.”

Asia glowed at Timmons and said, “Oh, Officer, I totally agree. Perhaps we’ll make it up to them somehow. The church is doing a great job, though. I gotta get back inside. They’ll be serving right about now.”

“Bye, Ms. Reynolds. See you in a few minutes.”

“Bye…”

Some of those sitting down for dinner were unusually grimy. As Asia served, she overheard comments about “living underground” which she took to mean in the more metaphorical or political sense until someone said that, “crawling out of that muddy hole messes up my clothing for the whole day.”

“Hole?” she thought, wondering. The woman’s companion saw that Asia was listening and shushed her quickly with a look and a jab to the side with her elbow. Asia noticed the movement and frowned.

A banjo began to play, accompanied by two singers. There was virtually no large gathering of hippies that was without music. And this trio really got down with some traditional Ozark music. The two singers picked up both a mandolin and a guitar for the next song. Asia hummed along and served the next person, who was a woman with a flowered satin garland woven into her hair and a heavy Swiss-German accent. Asia’s international antennae went up. She asked the woman, “Where are you from?”

The woman answered, “I flew here from Zurich.”

“Quite a ways to come,” commented Asia.

“It’s worth it. I come every year. Between Silver Lake and the Salton Sea, I make about $10,000 over my transportation. I can do that in three months, plus internet sales. I weave large baskets.”

“Wow. I have to see your handicrafts. I’m a photographer. I can give you some local news coverage.”

“That would be great,” answered the woman, enthusiastically. “I have moved my vending inside and I am sharing a storefront with a potter. I prefer to spend the day outside, but since the trouble, I’ve even been thinking of leaving early. A lot of folks are going to the Salton Sea. They leave every day. If they can pull my U-Haul, I can get a ride for my share of the gasoline.”

Asia’s eyebrows went up in surprise. “That’s too bad. The police have only one suspect for the shooting of Congressman Harrison.”

The woman looked down and said, “I didn’t like him anyway. I’m more worried about the gunshots that were fired at the Reclaim the Earth balloon. And the hate speech. We are a quiet, artistic bunch. There is no need for violence. No one knows who shot Harrison. We’re the ones who are paying for that anyway. Perhaps a few young girls will be safer for the passing of the Congressman, so perhaps our own suffering will not be in vain.”

“You have a point.”

“The Ozarks are famous for their handicrafts. Many of us are from farms – either here or overseas – our skills are a great supplement to farm income. I started weaving that way and so did my grandmother. The rest of my family runs a dairy in Switzerland.”

A circle of diners started a ring dance with a few children dancing and laughing in the middle. Asia filled many more plates with area delicacies. She looked up and saw that Frankie Franklin was next in line. “Frankie! Come over to join the party?”

“Hi, Asia. Yeah. That’s exactly why I’m here. I thought I’d come over before I start my nighttime rounds. My dogs are waiting outside.”

“I heard about your personal patrol. Be safe. Be careful, Frankie.”

“I always am. I just won’t sit by and have whoever is shooting at us hold us hostage to their crazy political beliefs.

“Just load up my plate, there, so I can enjoy some of that fine music with some fine food before I go out to do my business. Looks like I’ll have to walk in the rain tonight. I want to warm up before I tromp around in the cold and damp.”

“Sure, Frankie,” said Asia as she filled Frankie’s tray. She glanced at the clock as another volunteer walked over to her.

“Ready for a break?” she asked.

“Sure am. I’m going home after I eat. Sounds like it’s raining out there already,” Asia answered.

“It is. It’s coming down in torrents. They said the Mississippi is starting to flood. You can borrow a church slicker to get to your car.”

“Thanks, I just brought a rain hat. I’ll need the slicker.”

“Go to the church office. They’ll give you a slicker and walk you out to your vehicle.”

__________

Underground in the cavern where Bill, Tom and Jimmy were cleaning up and welcoming about twenty campers from the day before, there was a trickle of water sliding down the entrance tunnel and dripping into the cave area. Within fifteen minutes, the trickle turned into a regular stream. Bill looked at it with concern. Folks coming down the rope ladder were soaking wet and muddy.

Bill said, “We’d better put up the laundry ropes and get out the boxes of donated clothing.”

“Okay,” answered Jimmy. “I hope it doesn’t flood in here.”

 

Bill said, “I’m going up to block that hole and get the word out that we are full for tonight. I don’t want any more people having to sleep in all this moisture. The kids could slip and fall in the entrance tunnel. They can stay in one of the churches until it is dry and safe enough for them to return.” Bill sent Jim a worried look and grabbed the rope ladder, swinging himself upwards to the rock shelf leading to the entrance tunnel. Even he had a difficult time crawling out. He slid backwards several times and noticed that the water flow had increased even in the few minutes that it took for him to crawl out.

Standing up as he exited the sinkhole that lead to their cavern, he was instantly soaked with the torrents of rain. He also saw lights along the Mississippi as volunteer workers sandbagged the shoreline. He decided to walk into town to see if he could get any news. He wanted to stop by the church shelters to spread the word that the cavern was closed for tonight.

As he reached Silver Lake Boulevard, to his great consternation, he noticed a river-like torrent of water rushing into the local sewer system. Many store owners were sandbagging their entranceways to keep the overflow from seeping under their doors.

The hippies that Bill saw looked wet and bedraggled. Most of them did not have adequate rain gear. He made a mental note to solicit such gear from their townie donors.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

When Asia got home to the Almonte ranch, the place was empty. A note on the kitchen table explained that everyone was at the shoreline of the Mississippi River that edged downtown Silver Lake filling large canvas bags with sand and putting sandbags against the town building entranceways and handing them out to store owners. She reluctantly went out the back door and waved Officers Timmons and O’Brien into the house, to sit in the living room until the men got home.

The Mississippi river, itself, was a tumultuous gush pummeling its shore with six foot white-caps and overflowing the beachfront by hundreds of yards – right into town. The sewers were overflowing, making Silver Lake Boulevard into a tributary of the Mississippi. The rain was predicted to last about a week – maybe longer.

Asia took a shower, put on her cotton flannel pajamas and dried Zookie off with an old bath towel, crawling into bed and clicking on the TV to watch film of the breaking news. Elise’s yellow banner rolled past, giving out local warnings and instructions for available emergency help.

Asia wondered who typed the banner when Elise wasn’t there. She knew Elise was sensitive to the public service content of “her” banner, but most of her job was pretty much straight typing and she considered it a bore and steeped in drudgery. As a result, she took every opportunity to leave her job early and take extra time on her breaks. One nice thing about her college degrees was that they got her out of most jobs that used a punch-in/punch-out system. It got her off the clock.

The next day, Asia got up early when Zucchini lobbed a tennis ball into her face and seemed to snicker when she sputtered awake. As she went downstairs and entered the kitchen, opening the back door to let Zookie out, she saw all four Almonte men drive up and tiredly get out of their vehicles. They were all splattered from head to toe with mud. They asked her to go into the house and get a plastic laundry basket and their bathrobes. She did what they told her to do and set all of these things (plus four old towels) out on the back porch. After that, she started fixing cheese omelets and Canadian bacon for their breakfast – with scrambled herbed tofu in turmeric and olive oil; and a pot of brown rice for herself. Glancing at the clock, she noticed with a start that it was ten.

There were two new SLPD officers sitting in a patrol car outside. Probably called in to relieve Timmons and O’Brien. They were invited in for breakfast.

“Late night, gentlemen,” she commented with warmth as they filed into the kitchen, smiling at her culinary offering.

“Jes’ what Ah needed!” said Cisco, going over to the sink and washing his hands. Chico, Julio and José Almonte trooped upstairs to shower before their breakfast. Asia set their portions in the oven in a ceramic baking dish to stay warm while they bathed.

A loud snore that sounded like a crack of thunder broke through the air fifteen minutes later as Cisco was already munching on his food. He laughed and got up to peek into the living room.

“Chico only made it as far as the couch. A nice hot shower can put a man to sleep after a hard night’s labor. I’ll call his department and tell them he will be late reporting for duty. If he makes it at all.”

Asia went into the room, got an Afghan and laid it across her roommate’s prone body. She smoothed his bangs out of his eyes and closed the curtains, blotting out the late morning sun.

She got on the phone after Cisco and spoke to the desk at the police department, asking for Officers Timmons and O’Brien to pick her up in about an hour, giving herself time to shower and pack her cameras. Even though these officers were working overtime during the flood, they were still assigned to her security.

After a good hot shower, she put on a CIU hoodie and a clean pair of blue jeans, stuffing her feet into a pair of knee-high gum boots. She heard the short blast of a police siren as Zucchini started barking outside and ran down the stairs and out the door. By the time Asia got down to the back area, Zookie was in the back of the patrol car. The other two officers that were called in to relieve Timmons and O’Brien because of the flooding emergency had gone in to the station clock out and go home. Asia joined her dog in the back of the patrol car. The car splattered mud all the way into town on Silver Lake’s ubiquitous dirt roads.

“We’re going to have to switch our trip downtown to a flat-bottomed boat. Starting at about Tenth Sreet, Silver Lake Boulevard is completely flooded. The current is so rough down the street no one can even cross the boulevard from curb to curb without being knocked down,” said Officer Timmons. “It’s supposed to start raining again sometime this afternoon, so we have Silver Lake police department rain gear for you. As you know, this is hardly the first time we have flooded this badly. The town center has had two foot high curbs and optional ungrated flood sewers since the early 1900’s, like Pacific Beach, California and Tijuana. The present flooding has made our street currents really treacherous.”

“Oh, my God,” said Asia as they turned into a Tenth Street parking lot. “Good thing this shoulder bag is water-proof. It’s actually made for kayaking and it’s completely sealed. It will float if dropped in water.”

Zucchini stuck her head out a window and barked loudly as a flat-bottomed boat floated past them. Elise Snuggles and Elton Jamison were riding in it. Elise was filming as they slicked along with the current and Elton was handling the rudder and a pole.

Asia powered her window down and got a great portrait shot. She yelled, “Hey, you Elise Snuggles! Hey, hey!!”

Elise looked up and smiled as she waved. Elton answered, “Asia! Come sailing!”

Asia yelled back, “I’m on my way! See ya’ later!”

There were small waves lapping at the curbs on both sides of the former street. Seagulls glided past hawks overhead, giving the scene the unusual flavor of a waterfront. Zookie barked furiously until Asia was forced to let her jump out. “Sorry guys,” she said to the two officers. “She does this. Big personality, but she’s still only a dog.”

“No problem,” answered O’Brien. “Must look pretty interesting.”

“I’ll say,” said Asia as she looked at Zucchini’s feathery fanny hop into the water with a large splash and swim up to Elise’s boat as both friends broke out in delighted laughter. Elise threw her a handful of potato chips. Zookie ate the chips off the surface of the water. She put one huge paw up on the side of the boat and acted like she wanted to climb into the conveyance.

“Oh, shit,” said Asia. “Never feed an animal if you don’t want them to follow you around.”

The small boat rocked back and forth dangerously. “Hey! Git’ down, girl!” shouted Elise at the dog, while Elton slapped at Zookie’s offending paw, unhooking her claws from the edge of their boat. Asia called her. Zookie just ignored Asia and swam after the boat anyway.

Timmons put the patrol car in gear and commented, “You can get your dog later, we have to get a boat from the police outpost if you want to get some shots down our new town river.”

“Fine with me,” answered Asia. “Are there any dry areas where I can get an overview of the flooding before we do that?”

“Yeah,” said Timmons. “But you will have to climb some of the hills on the outskirts of town. From there you can get a view of the Mississippi and the flood going into our township.”

“Oh, cool. Sounds like that would do.”

As they drove to the edge of town, it began to rain again and a wild wind started to pick up the water and drive it sideways against the current. After they parked, Asia and her bodyguards donned orange, hooded slickers that had Silver Lake Police Department written in bold black letters across the back and began walking through the fields that bordered the higher elevations around the shores of the river. A hot air balloon whipped past overhead wrapped in a banner that proclaimed “You, KANU and the News” as the horizontal drizzle turned into a heavier rain.

Asia’s boots sank into ankle-deep mud as she followed the two officers through a field of weeds. She almost fell over a cairn of boulders in the middle of the field. If she hadn’t seen it, she could have shattered her leg on it. She swore and tripped a little to the side, almost falling flat out in the slippery mud.

“All right?” shouted O’Brien as he looked back at her. “Watch out. Watch your feet. There are small sinkholes around here. Someone must have filled one of them in back there.”

“Thanks,” yelled Asia back at him. She thought it was a little late not to have warned her when they had entered the field.

As they ascended the first hill, Asia began to get a panorama of the bigger picture. The Mississippi was so swollen that the runoff had edged into new streams for at least two miles in either direction from where they stood: downstream and upstream. She panned her video camera 360 degrees and found the commercial area in her view finder. There were walls of sandbags blocking the doors of a few closed stores and bedraggled store owners pushing debris away and loading it into dumpsters. She caught Elise and Elton in the boat, still skimming down the boulevard.

The shores of the Mississippi were littered with the remains of broken and sunken yachts, skiffs and sailboats, along with quite a few ruined docks. With her camera, she caught a floating tree giving a free ride to a couple of blue jays clinging to the upper branches and giving their raspy, jagged calls as they traveled the mighty river. Asia and the two officers climbed higher to a police shelter where they were greeted with hot coffee. There were several wet people wrapped in Army blankets sitting on benches facing a propane heater. They had been rescued from various points along the river.

Zucchini appeared suddenly, totally soaked and thankfully shaking herself off outside the shelter before entering. There were several other dogs and cats in carriers waiting to be transported to the local humane society.

A shout went up suddenly as the KANU balloon lurched way too low over the raging torrent of the river, obviously in trouble. Officer Timmons swore as he got on his radio. He stated angrily in frustration, “They should never have let them go out in this weather. What were they thinking? The airport has been closed for over twenty-four hours.”

The balloon, caught in crosswinds, swooped lower and lower towards the water, bobbing up and down as it struggled in the wind-driven rain. A gasp echoed around the shelter as the basket carrying a news crew started to touch the dark swirling water. A police speed boat raced towards it, barely missing a floating log. The basket was buffeted in the waves and caught on several pieces of debris, dragging it down and around in a circle. A huge, dead catfish floated by it, adding a little humor to the perilous situation.

Their humor died as the deflated balloon hit the water and made the basket tip backwards, dragging it and the snagged debris with it. Just as the basket seemed to take on too much water to remain afloat, the police boat threw several lines onto the basket and righted it temporarily, pulling it over to their side. Another speed boat sped up to the lines on the balloon and cut it away from the basket.

Two of the news crew were helped into the first boat, but one member fell out into the torrents of the river. As the balloon was swept away, the second boat floated up to the struggling person in the water and threw them a line attached to a buoy. Asia swallowed a tense gulp in her throat as she recognized Alphonsine LaDuque being hoisted clumsily over the dead catfish to safety wearing her skinny jeans. She thought, “Well, I bet that story is going to get a first person front page treatment. One wouldn’t have thought she even owned a pair of dungarees – skinny or not. Too working class for her.”

The folks in the police shelter collectively sighed in relief as Alphonsine’s feet disappeared into the rescuing craft. Asia got most of the rescue on film, as well as a great shot of Alphonsine’s tight fanny being awkwardly hauled over the side of the streamlined boat as her feet seemed to brace themselves on top of the gigantic dead catfish.

She reached over to the dry dog and cat towel rack and picked up a rag, rubbing Zookie’s still-wet fur vigorously, trying to stifle a rising laugh at Elise’s nemesis from KANU. Now she knew why the balloon owners let the news crew try and fly a balloon in this weather. Alphonsine had a reputation for being aggressive and pushy if challenged in any way, especially if she wanted a story.

The smell of rotting dead fish hit her nose as a police van with huge over-sized “mud tires” drove up to the shelter. They had come to transport the rescued people back to the township and possibly for an examination at the local hospital. She decided to ride back down into town with them. Timmons and O’Brien clambered into the vehicle with her. Zucchini would have to follow them down on foot. There was really no space for a wet (and smelly) oversized dog in the van. The rescued dogs and cats sat on the floor of the vehicle in their crates. A retractable set of stairs was pulled up into the door space and they began to bounce along down the hills towards town.

The oversized tires raised the vehicle entrance to over three feet off the ground, making it difficult to get in or out of the van without a staircase. The cats began to cry as they hit some rough spots in the fields at the bottom of the hills. Asia dialed Elise on her cell phone.

Elise answered with a shriek, saying, “Hello? Sorry…we just ran over an old traffic cone floating in the street.”

“Hit me one more time. Can you and Elton meet me for lunch at the California Spa café? We can use our membership discounts. The Spa was spared, which is good. At least the whole town can wash and dry anything they need to over at the new California laundromat.”

“Yeah. Okay, Asia. Saving money in a storm sounds good. Any time is money-saving time. Good thing Tobias Smart chose to build on a hill.”

“Same for us.”

“Truly. This is not the first flood we’ve ever had. What time?”

“How about one?”

“Okay. See you then.”

__________

Back at the Almonte ranch, Chico had spent the afternoon splitting firewood and had started a small, warm fire in their living room fireplace. Due to the heavy rain, it was unusually chilly and the weather was due to continue being cool into the evening. He had called the police department this morning and had taken the day off in order to regenerate himself and sleep late. Last night he had spent over twelve hours rescuing flooded homeowners, dogs, cats, cattle, horses and other livestock. And, of course, tourists and hippies.

The police department plus many volunteers had moved food from two large grocery stores into the Civic Center which was safe from the flooding and had an 18 wheeler refrigerated trailer and the same sized freezer trailer ready for such emergencies. The Mississippi river was historically famous for flooding. This was only the first time this had happened in the last twenty years in this area. In the 1950’s, the flooding was much more frequent and catastrophic.

With each thwack of the log-splitting ax, Chico felt his muscles warm with the exercise. Sweat had started to run down his face mixed with the rain that was still in his hair. The wood pile was inside the barn and Niño whinnied occasionally, begging for a horse cookie which Chico usually carried in his jean’s pocket.

Chico looked up from his work, grabbed a clean rag and wiped his face. Niño stamped his right foot impatiently and made Chico grin at him. He walked over and patted the stallion’s neck, deftly pushing the vitamin-enriched cookie into the horse’s mouth. Niño bobbed his head up and down in enjoyment, crunching the cookie. When he was finished eating, he shoved Chico in the cookie pocket with his nose, sending his caretaker stumbling backwards a little with his huge strength. When Chico gained his balance again, he patted the horse on the face.

He loaded the wood cart and wheeled it into the back yard just as Sheila rode up in a patrol car.

Baby!” she called towards him as she got out of the car. “Playing hooky?” Chico ambled over to his girlfriend, pushing the cart ahead of him. Sheila looked at it and smiled. “Are we having a fire today?”

“Oh, yeah,” answered Chico. “It’s kind of cold and damp in that old house. After a day of sleep and good food, I’m feeling romantic.”

Sheila came over to him and he threw his long arms around her in a bear hug. Sheila wrinkled her nose after enjoying his muscular squeeze. “You need a shower, Bubba.”

“Sorry,” aid Chico, humorously putting his nose next to one of his armpits. “Whew! I think it’s time for Irish Spring.”

Sheila looked at him sideways. “Want to save water and shower with me? I’ll scrub your back. You scrub mine.”

“Need you ask? Sure. Hold the back door open for me and I’ll park this thing next to the fireplace, so I can stack the wood right there. It can dry out next to the fire.”

 

“Oh, by the way, Harry Skylar went to court today. The judge refused to set bail. She wants Harold in our custody for his own protection. She, like most of the police department, expects that we will find out who else was involved with that rifle. She doesn’t want to use Harry for bait. She said there are other, safer, ways out draw out whoever set Harry up.

“Even Harry’s attorney felt that her client could be a target. She did not put up much of a fight. Harry’s parents are poor farmers and do not have much cash anyway and would have had to use the local bail bond office and their farm as collateral.”

“I’m not surprised. I like the guy, actually,” commented Chico.

“I dig it. He has a lot of local positive character references. In general, most folks like him.”

Sheila continued with her update, “We have, though, pretty much identified Asia’s abductors. She was sent their images to her phone this afternoon. She identified them as the guys who assaulted her. The names of her alleged kidnappers are Kinsey Nesbitt and Talbot J. Patterson. Their families have been notified of the charges against them and were shocked. Both of their wives had no clue that they were still here in Silver Lake. They were supposed to be buying seed in Texas by now. Both women were very upset and agreed to speak to reporters from KANU and plead over our media for them to turn themselves in without a fight.

“Horrified is the word I would use to describe both women’s reactions. Mrs. Talbot burst into tears. I doubt if they know anything about their husbands’ activities here, which are still alleged, anyway.”

Chico frowned and commented, “They must be camping out or using cash and false names locally.”

“After the KANU news broadcast tonight, they won’t be staying anywhere in the public where they could be recognized.”

“They could be sleeping in empty cabins. There’s enough of them. They seem to have some knowledge of the town. Like when they stuck Asia in Petris’s old shack.”

“True. But they still have to come into town for supplies. We need to use Niño and our dogs – even Zucchini – to try and track them down.”

“Sounds about right, sweetie. Just hold that door,” said Chico.

He rolled the stainless wood crib into the warm, dry light of the kitchen. He had built another small fire in the wood cook stove there and had baked two pans of bran and blueberry muffins. The space was filled with their fragrance.

Sheila exclaimed, “Oh, honey! Marry me!

Chico looked at her with mock surprise and flashed a dimple. “I thought we were married.”

Sheila answered him with a kiss in his ear, “Yeah, lover, since that back yard ceremony we had in 4th grade.”

“Wasn’t that good enough?”

“Always has been.”

Chico grabbed Sheila by the waist and swung her around to face him after parking the wood crib. “No, really, honey. We need to think about our timeline for starting a family.”

Sheila put her head in her favorite place – on top of Chico’s heart. “We can get serious about that when you or I make Chief. I want that kind of salary for the future of our children.”

“That will probably be you. I’ll be a patrolman forever. There is freedom in the humble beat cop routine.”

“You’re right, my hard-working public servant,” said Sheila. The two sweethearts kissed in front of the arms of the flickering warmth of the firelight.

The back door banged shut rudely and the two of them startled and laughed. Sheila drew her service weapon and aimed over the arm of their over-stuffed couch (where they had landed in each other’s arms, locked in the kiss.)

“Damn,” she said. “I forgot to lock the door.”

“Forgivable,” said Chico.

“But stupidly dangerous right now,” answered Sheila with a frustrated sigh.

“It’s only me,” called Cisco. “Ya’all’d better learn to latch this here door, unless ya’all want to be frahed and fricasseed by our local most wanted.”

“Don’t worry, Cisco. I’ve got my revolver on your ass. I could kill you right now.”

“Kahn you please wait until ah find the butter? Some fine woman made us some bran muffins.”

“That woman was your brother,” said Sheila with a spark of pride in her deep, dark eyes. “Why does everyone compare Chico to a lady?”

“Because I’m just as good at cooking, cleaning and so forth – as any fine girl.”

Cisco guffawed and said, “’Cept you don’t look anywhere near as good…”

“…in a dress,” echoed Sheila tagging Chico’s brother.

Chico turned brownish red in a very cute blush. “F*** it,” he said in an overly deep, exaggerated masculine voice. He flexed a bicep and Sheila laughed, burying her face back into Chico’s still smelly T-shirt.

Cisco started a large pot of coffee and walked into the living room, easing himself down on the other side of Sheila. He threw his arm behind her. He asked, “Whose makin’ dinner tonight?”

“Your dad is bringing a bag of Bar-B-Que home.”

Chico said, “Only Pop could find an open restaurant today.”

 

Cisco agreed and said, “Yeah. It’s like Christmas Eve out there – everything is closed. Except instead of snow, we are overwhelmed with water.” He reached over and picked up the TV remote. “Let’s see what our window to the world has to say,” he commented as he clicked the TV on.

 

They were greeted with a close-up shot of a very wet, panicked Alphonsine LaDuque. Then they saw a shot of her butt falling over the sleek side of a police speed boat pulling her out of The Big Muddy as a parade of trash, dead fish and rubble floated past her designer shoes.

“Whoa!” exclaimed Cisco. “She shore looks clumsy! Wonder how she fell in?”

 

Sheila looked up, past Chico’s chest and laughed. “Fool was flying around in a hot air balloon in this typhoon, landed the balloon in the river, fell out and dumped her ass in the water…Couldn’t be dumber. There is some question as to how she got the balloon concession owners to agree to let her and her news team go up in this weather. KANU is investigating her investigative reporting and her endangerment of the team that was with her.”

There was loud knocking on the back door and a loud familiar bark. Cisco got up and walked into the kitchen, checking their split screen surveillance camera display. “Asia’s home,” he called over his shoulder.

José Almonte followed Asia into the kitchen, filling it once again with the good, rich smells of cooking. He carried a large bag of Bar-B-Qued mutton ribs, Bar-B-Qued wheat gluten, a tub of cole slaw and a dozen freshly baked whole wheat biscuits from Franklin’s Bar-B-Que shack and the California Spa café respectively. There were so many vegetarians in the town during the tourist seasons, that most restaurants offered a healthy veggie alternative to their meat dishes, even Frankie Franklin‘s rib shack.

Asia was still wearing her ankle length orange Silver Lake police slicker which she hung from the hood on a peg next to the door, taking off her muddy boots and putting them in the rubber boot tray.

“Hello, everybody!” she called into the other room. She proceeded to set the table for their mouth-watering take out. “Chow!” she added when finished laying the food out.

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

After taking two full days off work, Alphonsine LaDuque had her hair cut and tipped with two complimentary shades of blonde. She also went out and bought a couple of new outfits.And, of course, new shoes to replace the ruined ones that were soaked in the river.

The day she came back to work, she let everyone know that she did not want Asia Reynolds’ film of her falling into the Mississippi river and clumsily crawling out – butt to the camera – to be played any more. The fact that the emergency room doctor at the Silver Lake Hospital had to cut her skinny jeans off was also not to be repeated. The worst part of the incident was that Alphonsine was called up in front of the KANU Board of Directors for poor judgment in taking a news crew up in a hot air balloon in hazardous weather, with a suspicion that she had bribed the balloon owners. As a result, she was put on probation.

Elise Snuggles was notified by her station that she was being considered for a position as an assistant anchor person. She was delighted, but let it be known that she was not going to watchdog Alphonsine and if the Board thought she could control her – they should think again. But as a regular, independent assistant anchor – no problem. KANU showcased the film of her boating down Silver Lake Boulevard in a Sunday afternoon special. They showed her flood film interspersed with footage showing the boulevard dry – as it usually was on a normal summer’s day. Updates on cleared debris followed.

Elise was still on the banner and typed in the names listed on two warrants for Kinsey T. Nesbitt and Talbot J. Patterson who were the two men who were picked out of the hundreds of photos and videos submitted to the SLPD and KANU. The Silver Lake Police Department found their identities by running a facial recognition program in the Illinois driver’s license data bank. Interviews with the Nesbitt and Patterson families would be broadcast from their home town of Vandalia, Illinois on the KANU 10 p.m. late night news, and local radio, asking that they turn themselves in without any more trouble. The counts against them were assorted. They included charges of kidnapping, two counts of assault, breaking and entering, theft, reckless endangerment with the use of a weapon and property damage.

Two very clear photos of the men were also posted on the banner. No more sneaking around town to get supplies, if they were still here.

Back at the station, Sheila Rodriguez and Chico Almonte watched an early broadcast of these interviews.

Sheila commented to Chico, “We know who they are, what they look like, and where they come from, but we still can’t catch the suck-ahs! Now where do we go? Asking them to turn themselves in? That is kind of weak.”

Chico responded, “But Sheila, that kind of plea has worked before. Be patient. Let’s wait and see. Their faces are everywhere. We have broadcast the license plate number on the car they bought recently. We have a national APB out on them, so they cannot travel anywhere.”

Sheila agreed and said, “Maybe they’ll care what their families have to say tonight.” Sheila had suddenly remembered that morning why the guy in the weird stop sign accident made something in her memory spark. The guy that ran from the beat up pickup after they shot out Chico’s living room window was the same person in the beat up car at the stop sign. She slapped her coffee cup down after telling Chico the story, and said, ruefully, “Had ‘im and let ‘im go! Dang it!”

The KANU television broadcast that morning also showed a film of some of the sinkholes in a field outside of town overflowing with flood water, creating small ponds in the field. The TV commentator said that the sinkholes were connected to underground caverns and that they had flooded all the way up to the holes at the surface – and then overflowed into the field. They warned the general population not to enter that area, with a warning that the newly created ponds were not as shallow as they looked. Some of them were over a hundred feet deep.

There was a humorous blurb in the middle of the emergency footage of the flooding: Bagdasarian’s Armenian Restaurant was invaded by dozens of chipmunks this morning seeking refuge from the rising waters. KANU’s camera showed the poor, frightened animals scurrying around on table tops, knocking over salt and pepper shakers, as the Forest Service ran after them with nets.

One of the officers commented, “These little guys are so small, we might not be able to catch them until Christmas. Maybe if we sang the Christmas chipmunk song they would just jump into our nets and cages. And then again…”

__________

Later that night, as Asia began cooking a large pot of five bean soup in the pressure cooker, she turned the TV on to watch the late night news. All of the Almontes and Sheila were still out around Silver Lake helping with flood relief. The heavy rain was not predicted to let up for another week.

As the sound came up on the television, the wives and children of the Nesbitt and Patterson families had just begun to speak. Mrs. Nesbitt and Patterson were the first to be interviewed. Mrs. Patterson began by giving an impassioned plea for her husband to consider his obligations to his children and farm. She said he should turn himself in to the SLPD before someone gets hurt and that his family and parents would have a hard time surviving without him. She also said that his older sons would have trouble during planting season without him. Mrs. Nesbitt interrupted and mentioned the fact that their husbands were supposed to be buying seed that both farms could not do without.

The camera switched to a shot of the church that both families attended and a close-up of a minister flashed on the screen. He was introduced as Reverend Quincy of the local Baptist congregation. The Reverend opened his arms and said, “Gentlemen, please come home. We need you here. We will help your families procure seed and plant your fields, so that they will survive. You don’t want to lose your farms or houses. This could happen if your families cannot plant or harvest this year, as you must know. You should be planting right about now.

“I understand your political complaints, and many members of our congregation do as well. You are not alone. We believe as you do. But, we must think of those who depend on us first. The whole point is Christian family values. We must protect our loved ones. Why not work with all of us? Find a safer way to get our beliefs heard. There is power in numbers.

“We can support both your families during a jail sentence. But, you must stand up, be strong and believe that Jesus would want you to think of your children as he thinks of us. Do not abandon us, just as you must believe that Jesus will not abandon you.”

The camera switched to a film of an older teenage boy dressed in worn overalls and a Chicago White Sox baseball hat. He was introduced by the correspondent as Joey Nesbitt, the eldest son of Kinsey Nesbitt.

He said, “Poppa! The local police don’t think you and Mr. Patterson will get more than twenty years at this point. That’s a lot. But, Pop, I can run this farm by myself. I need your input, though. Nothing is more important than mom, the kids and the farm. That is why you are doing all of this anyway, isn’t it? Don’t go too far. You and Mr. Patterson cannot hide for too long. The cops have too much information on you.

“We really need you. You know more about farming than I do. You can help us even from jail.”

A large, shaggy dog walked up to the young boy and he reached down to pat it.

“Even Jake, here, is worried about you. You could get killed running away from the law. Remember when I got busted for drinking and getting into a fight? You told me that inner strength was the measure of a man. You said that there was always another way to do everything.

“Daddy, turn yourself in. We need you. No one here blames you for trying to change the things you don’t like. But, don’t make us suffer. And we could. We are running out of money. I had to take a job at Beederman’s Hardware so we can pay the bills and eat. Everyone is donating seed to us and the Pattersons. I need your help with the planting. I can’t fix every machine on the place and you can. And mostly everything needs a Spring tune-up.

“Come home, Dad. Don’t worry, we have a good pro bono attorney for both of you and we will get the best deal in court that we can.”

Alphonsine LaDuque came on from KANU and said, “This poignant interview has been re-broadcast from the family farms of Kinsey T. Nesbitt and Talbot J. Patterson – alleged kidnappers of documentary filmmaker Asia Reynolds of Silver Lake.” She refocused her attention directly into the camera and said, “Anyone who can give information on these two men, please notify the Silver Lake Police Department. Do not approach either of the accused. They may be armed and dangerous.”

Photos of the two men were again broadcast. A shot of the Nesbitt and Patterson families linking arms was shown after that.

Asia started frying some Tofurky for her own sandwiches and added carrots, sweet potato, garlic, fried onions, marjoram, olive oil, bay leaves and basil to the soup in the now opened pressure cooker. She also started two loaves of sourdough bread. All the fine meat-oriented meals in the Almonte house seemed to invigorate her own vegetarian needs.

For dessert, she decided on a large honey-sweetened sweet potato pie. She hoped deeply that the two men accused of abducting her were affected by the words of their kin, so that she could go home. She truly missed her kitchen and her own home. The Almontes had a fine garden and grew even more fresh herbs than she did. Although, they did not have condiments such as coriander and cumin like she had in her own home.

Elise Snuggles knocked at the back door. Asia let her in. She was followed by Zucchini and Big Boy. Elise went over and peeked at the food Asia was making.

“Yum,” she commented and glanced into the other room at the television. “You know, I edited that piece on Kinsey and Talbot. The station is giving me more assignments since Alphonsine has been put on probation.”

Asia got out two mugs, filled them with steaming peppermint tea and sat down at the kitchen table. Elise took another chair, saying, “Oh, good. I need to stop drinking so much coffee.”

Asia responded with a smile, “Help yourself. By the way, I saw the film you did with Elton about floating down Silver Lake Boulevard. It was very artistic, especially the old footage of the boulevard as it usually looks this time of year.”

Elise laughed and said, “Yeah, finally. The station has started letting me do small complete Op Ed pieces like that. I edited that entire piece myself. We got a lot of positive comments on it from our viewers.” She leaned over the table excitedly, sipping her tea. “You know, I think the station is considering replacing Alphonsine with me. They offered me an assistant anchor position, but I turned them down. I don’t want to work shoulder-to-shoulder with Alphonsine. I’ve been waiting for an anchor position for over two years. It’s funny that I never thought of dropping Alphonsine into the river before to get my chance. Seems like the natural thing to do.”

Asia giggled, adding some honey to her own mug, pushing the honey pot over to her friend.

Zucchini whined, stretching her long legs out on the floor. She stood up and went over to Asia. Asia got up and filled two large ceramic bowls with kibble topped with a large Milk Bone cookie. Big Boy arose and shook himself, digging into the dry dog food.

Asia commented, “It must be difficult to feed a dog that big. He always seems to be hungry. Zookie is half his size.” Zucchini went over to her bowl and joined Big Boy munching the dry food. “Well,” Asia continued. “I’m pretty sure if you had dumped Alphonsine into the river on your own, KANU wouldn’t have offered you a better position.”

Mmm,” mused Elise, quietly. “This honey really came out tasty. Want to come over and see this year’s bees? I have some spectacular queens. I will be having a honey harvest soon. The frames are almost full. Want to help?”

“Yeah, definitely,” answered Asia with some hesitation. Living this way sometimes got her down. More stuff to do was not necessarily something she wanted.

“Scared?” slung Elise, looking at Asia out of the corner of her eyes.

“Really, Ellie…I was just got knocked on the head. Besides, I don’t think your bees will sting me. They are nice bees.”

“Besides, twice, you can wear a beekeeper’s suit and a face net. I wear those things more often than you might think. Now that I might be in front of a camera, I have to think more cosmetically.”

“I see. By the way, you can always use some of my videos whenever you need to. I’ll always offer them to you first. You have first choice.”

“Yeah, I know. We used your video of the flooded sinkholes outside of town.

 

“They closed part of the tours. One of the underground lakes flooded an entire cavern. Those things give me the creeps anyway. Who would want to crawl around in a big hole a hundred feet underground unless they really had to?

“My people had to hide from slavers. But, I can’t see going all the way down there to have a picnic while looking at all the pretty blind albino fish. I even dream in color – with bird song. I like clouds in blue skies, rainbows and butterflies.”

“You hear birds singing in your dreams?”

“Don’t you?”

“Maybe…probably.”

“Make mine definitely. I would probably have wings if evolution had seen far enough ahead,” said Elise, finishing off her peppermint honey tea with a loud smack of her lips.

__________

While life struggled to get back to normal during the flooding in Silver Lake, Kinsey and Talbot sat dry and cozy in another empty hunting cabin about twenty-five miles outside of town on the southern border of Mingo National Wildlife Refuge. They were pumping heat from a small wood stove and went fishing for some fine tasty local catfish and hunting for game birds (out of season). They had gotten supplies on the Missouri side of the border and stole a license plate from time to time to put on their “new” dinged-up car. They heard the KANU re-broadcast of their families on WATR radio.

Talbot Patterson remained stony after hearing the program. It seemed to put him in a bad mood. Kinsey Nesbitt, on the other hand, began to cry with his face in his hands when he heard his son Joey plead for his return. He was softening and couldn’t eat that night. Patterson reacted to his change of mood with anger. He was not at all sympathetic. He thought of himself as a man’s man and was not at all fond of giving up or giving in.

Kinsey said, “Tally, where are we going with this thing except right to jail? Maybe we can at least avoid getting shot. We can’t help our families if we die. None of these things are worth dying for. Nor did we take anyone’s life…yet.”

Talbot answered, “No thanks to you. The only reason no one was shot was because you are one lousy shot, unless you are aiming at dinner. We can get away. We are almost in Texas. We can go out west.”

“You gonna move your whole family out there?” demanded Nesbitt, doubtfully. “How can we go back to our farms after this? If we give ourselves up now, maybe we can get reduced sentences.”

“Maybe I can move the wife and kids out west. California. The Napa Valley. We can still run,” Patterson shot back.

“And have even more water conservation facing you? What about your parents?”

“They can come, too.”

“Your cousins, aunts and uncles?” Kinsey persisted.

“Ah, shut up, Kinsey. If you leave me – you’ll betray me.”

“No, I won’t.”

“Bulls***,” said Talbot. “You won’t be able to help it.”

The next morning Kinsey Nesbitt was gone before dawn. Talbot Patterson looked outside, walking around the cabin and sauntering down to a nearby lake in case Kinsey had gone fishing early, but there was no sign of him. Patterson swore when he noticed that their flat-bottomed skiff was missing too. He went back inside and spent the rest of the morning sharpening his hunting knives, planning something Nesbitt undoubtedly would no longer like. He whistled to himself, unconcerned. He had no plans on turning himself in.

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

Armed with all of his small weaponry and wearing a Kevlar vest exhumed from his local hunting stash, Talbot took their car along all the dirt roads, bringing it as close to Silver Lake as he dared. Then he slunk through a stand of five foot high bushes after walking miles in a forested semi-circle to avoid detection. He was careful now to stand in wind heading away from the house he was watching. The entire back of the converted Victorian was mostly glass, which made some of Talbot’s plans easier. He knew that standing in the wind heading away from the house did not guarantee that an animal would not pick up his scent. But when hunting, he would much rather smell the deer than have the deer smell him. Same here. Same now.

He was careful to watch his head, and the closer he got to the back entrance to the house – his feet. He didn’t need to stumble like a fool and give himself away by being clumsy. Nesbitt would come right out and say he was a fool to try this. He felt he had one more chance to make good on his politics this way. To make a loud statement. Maybe get some headlines, or a spot on the late night news – especially if he could get Asia Reynolds to appear on KANU with him.

It was almost dark. The sky was still cloudy from residual rain clouds, but was clearing little by little. He might be lucky and avoid a bright moon and a starlit Illinois plains country bright night. But, the early dark was a sheet of obsidian right now. Perfect.

He began to crawl on his stomach. The vest hid his weapons and was slick, so it made this easier. He felt a sudden surge of anger against that turncoat coward Nesbitt. He was sure he had gone and turned himself in. Ah, well, he just would have been clumsy and given him away, anyway. He couldn’t hit anybody in that hot air balloon. He couldn’t even hit the side of the basket, thought Talbot with a grunting laugh. Lousy shot and always had been. He could fish, though. He sort of hoped that that was what he was doing, but he doubted it.

Nesbitt was such a bleeding heart, he wouldn’t even let him beat his oldest boy for drinking. Stupid. What if his boy grows up thinking that beer drinking is fun? Who would want him to feel that way? Or grow up like that? Talbot felt frustrated, thinking about that just reminded him that he couldn’t even get a six-pack right now. Let alone a cold one. It was too risky to go to a store. Despite the cooling rain, it was still so hot out here. Maybe the fridge in this house. No. It was too much to ask. Maybe they had something. Even J&B on ice was okay. Ice. Yeah, grow up to be like me. Like his dad’s best friend. He felt pride, no reason to not want the kid to be like him. Yeah, what are best friends for anyway?

So…he was being a little hypocritical. But, you know, Kinsey was always going too far. He would have emphasized the ‘little’ before the hypocritical and thrown that back in his face. No, he didn’t miss him. Good old Kinsey. A little too good. He wondered, though, with just a small pang of homesickness, if Kinsey would really try and make it back to their home town. For a second, he felt a surge of weakness and wished that he was going with him.

He shook himself out of that mood. It was a useless thought now. He would not turn back. He shook his head and a few dry twigs fell to the ground. He looked at the lighted dial on his watch. Time to move in this smooth darkness. No street lights up here. No lights on in the house or around it.

Talbot heard a long, low growl. He froze. It sounded like a bear. “Oh, shit,” he thought. “Not now.” He crawled forward and heard it again. He took a chance and stood up, opening his windbreaker to make his chest look larger. At least he didn’t have to look like small prey crawling around in the underbrush. He saw a large (but not large like a bear) figure walking away. Actually, it was just a dark form, like a shadow moving against the forested background. What the hell was it?

His ploy had worked, so he ran to the back door. “This will be easy,” he thought as he jimmied the door with a lock picking tool. The door snapped open. He walked into the kitchen and shut the door, peering out the window into the back yard. Nothing. Good. He paused and listened. There was no sound. He made his way silently to the staircase, opening the fridge slightly as he passed it. There was a single Heineken in the door. He closed the door with a quiet snap and a smile. He patted the cool door and said to himself, “Later. I’ll drink to myself when I’m done.”

He snuck up the carpeted stairs to the second floor on the edges of each step. He couldn’t hear any breathing or noises of any kind, and got out his bone-handled fish-cleaning knife. It glinted reassuringly in his hand. He reached the top landing. All the doors to the rooms off the hall were standing open. Empty. He was starting to sweat.

Then, he heard a lot of noise at the front door. He heard it open and ducked into the last room. Empty, too. He pulled his 9mm out and took the safety off, sliding his bone-handled knife into a side sheath.

The lights went on downstairs. Talbot hid behind the door, breathing hard, sweat dripping off his eyelashes and blinding him occasionally. He heard loud snuffling noises. There was a loud bark that seemed to shake the entire house. He peeked into the hallway and came face to face with the largest gdamned dog he had ever seen! Je-sus! The thing was as big as a Shetland pony. He shut the door to the room quietly and braced his back against it, feeling safer for the moment.

“Big Boy, what did you find?” came a loud voice from downstairs. A crashing set of boots clamored up the stairs. “Police!” yelled the voice. “Come out into the hall with your hands up!”

Talbot froze again and eyed the window behind him. The back porch was right under this room. He walked quickly to the window and climbed out onto the porch roof, shimmying all the way down to the grass on a four-by-four. “Forget the beer,” was the last thought he had when a huge, black horse backed into him and knocked him flat, whinnying loudly. The lights in the yard came on.

The horse turned around and tried to bite him. In his confusion to get away from the beast, Talbot drew his gun and tried to run under the porch shade and hide behind a post and some lawn furniture. His head hit the bottom of an enormous hanging plant and he knocked himself out.

When he came to, he heard a woman saying, “Well, well, well. Got you now, Talbot Patterson.” He looked up and saw an angel in a cop’s uniform, leveling a large hand gun at him.

He smiled and noticed his own gun had been thrown (or kicked) at least three yards away. He grinned at the pretty cop and said, “Aw, honey…” He felt a painful thump on his chest and coughed. She had kicked him!

“Turn over on your stomach and put your hands behind your back. Don’t try anything foolish.”

“I already just did,” thought Talbot, ruefully imagining the dinner Kinsey might be having with his family right now. He felt a set of handcuffs encircle his wrists. The snuffling noises started again. He could hear dog paws clicking on the cement patio tiles.

With a flash of anger, he got up and started running. That was exactly the wrong thing do. He felt a pounding vibration running through the ground. The horse was after him again, followed by two unbelievably over-sized dogs. One reminded him of Roy Roger’s Bullet, and the other was a vicious-looking husky with her teeth bared in a snarl.

Talbot screamed. He instinctively hid behind a wide oak tree. He was pelted by acorns as two large squirrels were frightened into jumping at the higher branches of the tree. He lay face up on the ground and brought his bound arms down to his feet, pulling his legs through his arms, bringing the cuffs up in front of him. He pulled another 9mm out of his side holster and aimed at the largest dog. He shot and missed. That got the big black stallion right in front of him again, unafraid. He unconsciously yelled, “Help!” and was greeted with laughter up by the house. There were a couple of echoing shots scattered at the tree and a man’s voice shouted, “Drop your gun! You are under arrest!”

The two cops started working their way around the back of the outbuildings so they could come up behind Talbot who was busy with the three over-sized animals in front of him.

The husky lunged at him, teeth still bared. He shot and missed her. She knocked him down and tore his windbreaker, ripping the outer lining on his Kevlar.

While he was still prone, face down in the dirt, the big, black stallion stepped heavily on his ankle just as a big, bright summer moon came up over the dark, blank horizon. The appearance of the moon made the horse look like some Apocalyptic animal described in the Book of Revelations. It looked like the mount of the Grim Reaper. Talbot screamed again and rolled around in the dirt at the base of the tree in agony.

When he screamed, the horse looked down at him and moved off his ankle. The husky dug her teeth into his hand and he dropped the gun. He screamed, “Get off me, you sh!” But she held on. He was sure his ankle was broken. He kicked out at the dog with his good leg and she finally released his hand with a grunt. He managed to squirrel over to retrieve his gun and open the cuffs with a small lock picking tool he had under the front of his vest.

Hearing footsteps behind him, he rolled over and shot wildly at the policewoman coming up on him and hit her in the upper arm. She dropped her gun. He took aim more carefully as she bent over to pick it up and the large male dog hit him like a stack of cement blocks, stepping on his injured ankle in the process. He passed out peacefully for a couple of minutes.

When he awoke, he saw another cop trying to circle behind him. Always one for taking chances, he began to wriggle painfully towards the house. The cop bent over the injured policewoman, picked her up, and carried her to a storage building. He noticed that the male cop was more interested in helping his partner than watching him. He pulled himself up on his good leg and hopped inside the house. His mind shrieking with every hop.

Patterson spotted a patrol car out the front window, there didn’t seem to be anyone in it. He hobbled outside carefully to take a closer look at it, picking up a nicely carved walking stick on his way out through the front porch. He could hot wire the cop car, and drive into the woods at the edge of Mingo, wiring the same flat-bottomed boat he had hot-wired this morning to get back to his cabin. He could really use Kinsey right now, dang it. His luck was improving, though. He looked into the patrol car window – the keys were in the ignition. He started the black and white and drove away in a volley of bullets fired by the male cop from the front door. He raised his middle finger in a salute.

Chico called in immediately when Patterson had driven away in his patrol car, but the area was too large and too rural to block off all of the exits. There were dirt roads leading everywhere. Talbot Patterson got clean away.

Kinsey Nesbitt’s voice on the radio greeted Talbot Patterson as he sat down, finally, after his long, excruciating return from town. He listened, biting his lip and then switched the thing off. He was sweating and shaking, probably fighting shock. His whole leg was numb. He limped to the bed and stretched out, pulling a heavy wool Army blanket over himself. He had read some place that keeping warm was good for shock. It seemed to help. He got up later and put a few sticks of wood on the fire. He turned the radio on to get anything new on his manhunt.

There was a broadcast update on him and Kinsey. Nesbitt had made it back to Vandalia on the Greyhound. No one had recognized him. Maybe because he had shaved his rather full beard off. His lawyer was already in negotiation for a reduced sentence, an ankle bracelet, house arrest and a plea bargain. Damn, Kinsey sounded happy! His son was interviewed with him. He sounded positively cheerful. Patterson started to cry. He needed a doctor – bad. He thought about St. Louis. He could drive the patrol car down the back roads to the Mississippi and hijack another boat to get down the Mississippi to Metropolis. They might not recognize him without his beard, either. He might just get away with it. Both he and Nesbitt had cash for the seed they had originally planned to buy. Since the local church in Vandalia was buying and planting their seed for them, Patterson felt like he could spend anything he wanted to. He could pay cash for medical care or anything else. His ankle was stuck in one position and was very swollen. The bus ride to St. Louis was only a few hours from Metropolis. He got up and began to pack a small day pack. He hit his ankle on a bed post and passed out cold on the floor for about half an hour. It made up for the sleep he had lost last night.

Buses from Metropolis to St. Louis left every Tuesday night at 10:30 pm. He had taken that bus before, so he knew the schedule. Tomorrow was Tuesday. He could go right to a hotel in Metropolis and shave his beard off. He would need to use his electric clippers and there was no electricity here in the cabin. No one but the desk clerk would notice, and if he didn’t recognize him…

If he gave himself up after he got a cast put on his foot, he could spend months with his leg up on satin pillows watching the NFL on wide-screen, drinking beer on Disability. Or he could go cheap and watch from jail.

He didn’t think anyone would recognize him without his beard. He started hacking his full beard down with his sharpened hunting knife. He had to get out of here quickly and didn’t want to try and shave without electric clippers. It would take too long – and hurt. He and Nesbitt had worn beards since before the Villalobos benefit. The feds and cops would have to get high school yearbook photos to come anywhere near what he would look like in a couple days after he got to Metropolis. He really didn’t think anyone would recognize him or care when he got to the hospital in St. Louis. He didn’t think he had made the “Most Wanted” on the reality shows yet. He didn’t think cable would flash his face on the screen in Kentucky – or as far north as St. Louis. He was not important enough.

It was dangerous to run a motor skiff on the Mississippi in the dark. There were logs (especially since the heavy rains) and surfacing giant catfish that could capsize someone in a small craft in the snake-infested waters. But, boating was the safest way to sneak over to another town or state. He finished packing his weapons and cash, adding a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches and a still warm can of cherry coke from his cooler. He could buy a cheap cell phone when he got to Metropolis. That would make his getaway easier. He knew his way around Metropolis, the fictional home of Superman (which he egotistically thought was entirely appropriate). He limped to his recently jacked boat with his new cane, since the first stolen boat was still missing, and sat on the dock. He pulled the boat up next to him and put his weight on his arms and good leg.

He hoped no one saw him stealing the boat. There would probably not be anyone here until the next weekend. The folks that owned these cabins and boats were weekend warriors. They were urban refugees from Chicago, St. Louis and other large local cities. He could claim his broken ankle made him misrecognize the dock and the boat. Potentially, he could add that he had dropped his key into the water. It was a good excuse for what someone might think he was doing. An emergency.

He threw his leg into the skiff and leaned over to the wooden plank seat, crawling onto it clumsily. He used the cane to keep the boat steady. Barely making it onto the seat, he landed on his chest. It wasn’t easy, but he made it without too much pain. He hot-wired the motor and pulled the cord, pushing away from the dock, accelerating as he bit into a sandwich. He hadn’t eaten in over two days. The sun was at two o’clock and right in his eyes. He pulled his copper-colored shades down from the band of his floppy-brimmed hat. He smiled as he realized that he had gotten away. No one had seen him. Damn lucky.

The water was placid, pooling like a serene mirror. Not much of an opposing current. Lucky again after the heavy rains and currents from the flooding. The rain had paused this morning, as well. Double lucky. He guided the boat between lily pads and saw a perch or two underneath them. He finished his sandwich as he docked the boat near the stolen patrol car and pulled the tab on his coke. He lit a Marlboro and took a deep drag. He drove the police car to a southern shore of the Mississippi, parked and hot-wired another skiff. Although he was from Vandalia, his dad had been taking him fishing here since he was five years old.

He had a good six hours or more until sunset. He should be in Metropolis by about seven or eight o’clock. He should just about make it before sundown. He could tie up at a public dock he knew there. His ankle didn’t hurt right now as long as he didn’t move too much. That cane he had found in Asia Reynolds’ house had saved his life – so far, anyway. Good thing hippies like handicrafted walking sticks. Ha! He laughed to himself.

He quietly motored past four giant blue heron sharing a large fish.

Metropolis, Illinois was at the confluence of the Wabash, Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the Mississippi river valley. Normally, they would be flooded too, but something had spared them this time. They were right next to Paducah, Kentucky and one and a half hours by car from Tennessee – actually close to the beginning of the Tennessee river valley. That gave Patterson a choice of states to run to if he had to, but he had his heart set on going out west.

He knew a cheap hotel two blocks from the public dock. It usually only cost thirty dollars per night. At least it did five years ago when he was last there on a fishing trip with Kinsey. The county hospital was one block from the Greyhound in St. Louis. There was another cheap hotel an equal distance from the hospital. He could re-check his information using a new cell phone.

Just as the sun began to reflect orange into the water, he spotted a few tall buildings. In about ten minutes he was able to pull up to the public dock in the downtown area of Metropolis. He put his day pack on the dock and threw himself, face down, next to it, pulling his tired body up on top of the wooden platform. He used his cane to stand up. Limping to the concrete joiner, Talbot started making his way towards a large sign that said “The Metropolis Hotel” Well, here it was, the earthly home of Superman! He had made it! He could pay for his Greyhound ticket after he ate dinner. As soon as he spotted a cheap diner, he limped in. He ordered steak with mushroom gravy and asparagus with mashed potatoes. He got a tall Coke with ice. The day had been over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Sweat stained his T-shirt. He needed a shower. He ordered two scoops of chocolate ice cream with fudge sauce for dessert. He finished, paid at the register and left. His broken ankle really made him hungry. Also, it had been days since he had had any hot food.

He limped into The Metropolis, checked in, got his room key and walked out to the busy main street. He hailed a taxi and rode over to the Greyhound station. The cab driver made him nervous by staring into the mirror a little too much, but kept his mouth shut.

The Greyhound station was crowded and the ticket counter line started at the entrance way. Talbot groaned. A man further up in the line looked at his leg with sympathy and motioned to him to come on over. He did. The guy gave him his place in line. That cut a good hour off his wait. A woman already at the counter did the same thing, and he got his ticket to St. Louis for the bus leaving the next day. He limped out again and hailed another cab. Leaning back in the soft seat, he rode past downtown to the warehouse district where The Metropolis was. The hotel was old and sleazy, but clean and quiet. The two cab rides were slightly over ten bucks – not bad. His ankle began to ache.

He went into a pharmacy near the hotel and bought two chemical ice packs, along with two packets of over-the-counter pain pills, Tylenol, Lidocaine cream, several packs of Marlboro regulars, a fifth of cheap Scotch, a bag of ice, a styrofoam cooler, plastic cold cups and a package of light brown hair dye to cover his natural black and gray hair. He walked back to The Metropolis, checked in, gave the ice packs to the desk clerk to freeze for him, and took the ancient elevator to the second floor. He was in room 24.

He opened the door. The room was stuffy, so he opened a window. He unpacked his alarm clock and shower things. He had taken two sets of sweat pants, underwear, T-shirts and hoodies. He took out one set and laid it on the bed. He got up and started the shower, using an electric hair trimmer to cut the thicker sections of his beard, he gave himself a buzz cut, and cut the elastic bottom off one leg of the sweat pants.

Since his bus did not leave until tomorrow night, he had plenty of time to work on his disguise. He planned on purchasing a pair of reading glasses He had time to look for a dollar store. He could ask a cab driver where the nearest one was. He did not plan on walking anywhere he did not have to. Taking a shower was difficult enough. He thought about using the desk chair in the room, so that he could sit in the shower booth. Luckily, there was no tub. Just a drain and shower pad level with the floor. His ankle was swollen to twice its normal size and pounded in agony from time to time. He filled a plastic cold cup with ice and Scotch and washed down two pain pills with that before he tried to shower.

He undressed on the edge of the bed and hobbled into the bathroom, using the mirror in the hotel room to admire his haircut. Nice job. It would look good with that color of hair dye. Like his natural hair color. Almost, but lighter, more chestnut.

He hadn’t had a decent bath for weeks. He dragged the desk chair behind him, and placed it in the shower booth. He turned the shower on from outside the booth and got the temperature to his liking. He got in the water, trying to leave his bad leg and ankle outside of the water, resting it on a thickly folded towel. That seemed to work all right. Ahh, better! He leaned his weight on his good leg and the cane he had taken from Asia Reynolds’ house and sat down on the chair. His ankle was badly lacerated. The horse that had stepped on him had horse shoes on.

He leaned his weight on his good leg and the cane he had taken from Asia Reynolds’ house and sat down on the chair. It was okay and he finished washing quickly, washing the dye into his hair with one hand. His ankle didn’t even get wet.

He dried off and hobbled to his bed, exhausted. He turned his transistor radio on and began to look at a local newspaper he had bought at the Greyhound station. There seemed to be nothing in either media that mentioned the manhunt in Silver Lake. Relieved, he drank a Coca Cola (over ice) and lay back on his pillow, falling into a deep and dreamless sleep – the neon sign of the Metropolis Hotel shining above the noise of the evening traffic underneath his open window. The neon outline of Superman’s cape flickered underneath the sign, lighting Patterson’s face with a red glow once in a while.

The advent of sunrise the next morning made him stretch and smile to himself. The fact that he was wanted by the police made him treasure the peaceful moments in such ordinary things. He got up, brushed his buzz cut, washed and shaved – admiring his now dry hair and smooth, hairless face. His hair was now a pretty chestnut color and shone in the bathroom light. He dressed and packed his small backpack, drinking another Coke on ice with a shot of the whiskey, musing over another Marlboro, as well.

He took the elevator down to the first floor. He limped to the front desk and paid for another night, even though he was leaving around nine pm. He did not relish having to be outside in the public all day. He figured he would want another nap before he went to the bus. He had left his things in the room. The desk clerk was a different guy, much to his relief. He walked outside and hailed a cab. He rode in comfort to a local Dollar Tree where he purchased more clothing, toiletries, several Hershey’s candy bars, some more Advil and a pair of large horn-rimmed glasses with lenses that were slightly tinted blue. He also got a different pair of dark sunglasses, a baseball hat, a cell phone and a cheap watch.

He hobbled to McDonald’s and bought two hamburgers, a large fries and a chocolate milkshake. His new haircut and dye job got him a few admiring glances from the ladies, which made his old married (and faithful) self chuckle. He bought the morning paper and took a cab back to The Metropolis where he saw the desk clerk from the day before who, to his joy, didn’t give him any quizzical looks.

He went up to his room, brushed his teeth, smoked a cigarette and fell asleep, setting his alarm clock for eight. His ankle seemed to be setting at the wrong angle. He hoped that the doctors would not have to re-break it to set it properly.

Waking with the alarm that night, he felt a flurry of nervousness as he put on a clean set of clothing, using a hoodie to hide behind. He cleaned his things out of the room, picked up his day pack and took the elevator to the front desk. He checked out of the hotel and called a cab from the phone in the lobby. He got out of the cab a block before the bus station and hobbled over to a fish fry place, ordering take out for dinner and snacks for the long bus ride. Just making the liquor store next door, he got another six pack of Cherry Coke, a fifth of Johnny Walker Black whiskey, and stuck the whiskey, a Coke or two and the cigarette packs in his day pack.

It was only another 100 yards to the station, so he walked there, having an hour or so to spare. He read the paper and got up to buy a novel from the newsstand. He was a fan of David Baldacci and The Hit was new, he hadn’t read it, and it looked good, so he bought it for any waiting rooms he would need to endure. He had a rush of home sickness, but so far – so good. If he aced the hospital in St. Louis, he had plans to contact his wife and buy some land out west, ignoring Nesbitt’s advice to give himself up – screw the Dems, the hippies, Asia Reynolds and Kinsey Nesbitt – he had God on his side, and his church in Vandalia knew it. Didn’t they? He could be a rancher and raise beef cattle or better, a chicken farmer. Chickens didn’t need as much water as cows. They ate feed, not grass. Who knows? He might even get lucky and find a place where he could raise corn and oats enough to feed his own stock. He knew that the national drought and flooding cycle had to end at some point. No one would know anything about the events at Silver Lake, Illinois all the way out west. If no one knew about him here in Metropolis, it was not likely the story would follow him there, or even to St. Louis.

When Nesbitt got out of jail, he could help him and his family settle out west, too. Feeling smug, he dug into his book and munched on his now cold breaded catfish, washing it down with Coke. Following it with a slightly melted chocolate Hershey bar and a quick nip of medicinal Johnny Walker still in its paper bag from the liquor store.

Around 10:15, the line for his bus began to form and he pushed his aching body up out of the uncomfortable plastic bench seat and took a place at the end. A large man in a Greyhound uniform grabbed his elbow, frightened him, but only hoisted him up the bus stairs and took his ticket. Man, that soft bus seat felt good! He had refused to sit in one of the disabled seats in the front. The thought of the driver looking at him in the mirror for three hours freaked him out, regardless of his luck so far.

Almost on the dot of 10:30, the Greyhound bound for St. Louis left the earthly home of Superman (i.e., Metropolis) and headed onward. “To Krypton,” mumbled Talbot Patterson to himself. The lady next to him giggled quietly and sort of stared too hard at his profile. It made him feel uncomfortable. He sure hoped the news of his exploits in Silver Lake had not gotten to St. Louis. No one in Metropolis had seemed to be aware of anything. He had been free to roam the streets and go wherever he pleased. He put his arms in the “safe” position above his head and whispered, “Oh, ho, Superman!” and hit his chest with his fist like an Alpha male gorilla. “You go, Talbot!” he whispered to himself as he bent over his knees to place a folded towel from the Metropolis underneath his wounded ankle. He angled the reading light at his head and leaned back to enjoy his paperback. Baldacci could really spin a tale. It took his mind off his injured ankle. He felt no pain. It was his experience on the Greyhound to read early in the ride, so that any other passengers wouldn’t complain that the light disturbed any smatterings of sleep they could eke out in their cramped seat. Talbot was well-known for being able to sleep almost anywhere. He wished though, that he was home in his own bed. He closed his eyes and had a flash of Judy Garland tapping her red glittered shoes together and saying to her dog, “I want to go home to Auntie Em.” He did too, and took out his last piece of cold, breaded fish and ate it along with the other candy bar he had gotten at the dollar store.

Someone woke him up around midnight and told him he was snoring. The bus had stopped at a pancake house for a rest stop. He got off and smoked a Marlboro outside. The bus was scheduled to arrive at St. Louis at about 1:30 in the morning. He would take a cab to his new hotel, check in, and then go immediately to the emergency room at the county hospital to have his ankle treated. And not one minute later. He sipped another Coke and inadvertently belched really loudly, gaining a deep frown from an elderly, bespectacled lady in front of him, and a comment of , “Excuse you!!” from two teenagers behind him. He grumbled, but smiled an apology to his fellow passengers.

He took two Ibuprofen with his Coke and ate a Bar-B-Que chicken sandwich he had gotten at the fish fry place with some cold French fries. He figured that this was an early breakfast. He might need it, thinking about how skimpy hospital food was. He wiped his fingers and mouth on a Handi-Wipe and put his novel into his day pack, which he used as a pillow. He had his loaded 9mm and a hunting knife in the pack, so he didn’t want some curious child grabbing his bag on the floor of the bus and looking around in it. He flicked his reading light off again (although he did not read Baldacci while eating sloppy on-the-Greyhound Bar-B-Que with a Coke. He just needed the light to see his food.) Another hour, and he would be in St. Louis.

 

Chapter Sixteen

Chico carried Sheila, moaning, around to the back of Asia’s barn. He radioed for back up when he saw his patrol car drive away. Chico had found a soft, square pile of hay bales and put a saddle blanket on that before he gently laid his girlfriend down. He placed a tourniquet on Sheila’s wounded arm. They both assumed that that slippery Talbot Patterson had gotten away again. But, of course, to be sure, he had to call and warn his fellow police officers that he might still be lurking, armed, around Asia Reynolds’ house and Silver Lake. The SLPD said they were sending an ambulance for Sheila.

Chico’s backup (Timmons and O’Brien) showed up about ten minutes before the ambulance appeared confirming that his patrol car had not shown up anywhere around town. Chico told his colleagues that there seemed to be no one in or around Asia’s house. But they agreed to do an armed search as a team. He told them that Talbot Patterson had been there. And they both said that they knew when he added that Patterson had taken the car. Both Timmons and O’Brien looked at Chico a little funny. Timmons said that he had tied Niño up when he found him still wandering around the grounds.

Chico got angry at their attitude, implying that he had been lax, and said, “I was busy trying to back Sgt. Rodriguez. I got off a couple of shots myself, but Patterson knocked himself out with Asia’s Boston Fern. Whomped himself right on the head.” All three officers laughed as they pulled out their service weapons and began to look in every room, closet and cul de sac in the old Victorian. Big Boy and Zucchini had settled down on the cool ceramic floor tiles of Asia’s kitchen.

__________

Sheila’s wound seemed to be pretty clean. The hospital found no bullet. It had gone clear through her upper arm, missing her arteries. Chico’s quick tourniquet staunched any other problems Sheila might have had with bleeding.

The last thing she said in the ER before she passed out was, “Get Talbot Patterson’s photo on the media and put the news out every fifteen minutes if you have to. I want that damn man in custody! Make sure you send a press kit to the St. Louis and Chicago newspapers and cable stations. Get a high school yearbook photo in case he shaves his beard off.”

The next day at the station, Chico noticed that a hotel desk clerk from Metropolis claimed to have seen Patterson at his hotel. Frankie Franklin called him and excitedly told him that she and her dogs had picked up a scent from Chico’s abandoned patrol car through the local woods to a dock south of Silver Lake, on the Mississippi. She wanted someone to recon the empty cabins around that area. She didn’t have a skiff and, also, getting that close to a hideout could be dangerous. Patterson was now known to be armed. Chico assured Frankie that he would send a team around the shoreline to take a look.

The SLPD sent two cops riding in a Forest Service boat around the area where Chico’s patrol car was found that afternoon and they found several empty cabins – one of which had remnants of a hasty departure and had been occupied very recently by someone who had left blood stains on the bed, floor and dock. The police team saved samples of the blood for evidence and later analysis. The SLPD investigation in Metropolis turned up several sightings of Patterson in McDonald’s, a Bar-B-Que and fish fry place, and, more telling, a ticket seller at the Greyhound Station who didn’t remember what city the man she had recognized had bought a ticket for.

There was no way that Sheila was going to try and ride her motorcycle. She couldn’t imagine bumping around on dirt roads with a damaged arm and nose. She was technically re-assigned to a patrol car, but was on a desk job while the SLPD looked for a partner for her to do the driving. They couldn’t spare Chico and couldn’t let her drive with only one good arm. Chico’s patrols were too valuable. He was the cop shop’s tracker and liaison to the children and elderly of Silver Lake – the Official Community Liaison Officer. He also patrolled the carnival area on horseback. He could see into the rides since he sat so high.

Rodriguez didn’t mind working inside the station. Her upper right arm was bandaged. The bullet had gone right through, but it hurt like anything to flex her injured muscles. She also didn’t mind helping the office try and find Talbot Patterson – to say the least. She had a vendetta for that guy. She was out to get him and was glued to most of the media search on her laptop. All the tips on sightings of Talbot Patterson went right into her personal computer.

While Sheila was on her paperwork sabbatical, Gloria Smithers brought in proof positive (on date and time-stamped video) that she was talking with the stars of the Villalobos’ benefit at the time of her husband’s drowning. It was clear that she could not have been at the new California Spa pool at the same time. And, there were several still photos that corroborated that, as well. That investigation was brought to a quiet halt.

Sheila and Chico both thought that Tobias Smart needed to take a closer look at their video and the SLPD needed to have him re-direct their attention elsewhere – something she did not relish. He seemed to have a prejudice against the ex-Mrs. Smithers – Sheila wanted to know why. It seemed she couldn’t get away from having to listen to one person’s opinion about another, even at the station, i.e., gossip. But, she really felt that she needed to hear him out, and find out exactly why Smart didn’t like her. His complaints might lead them to the real killer.

Sheila called Tobias Smart and made an appointment for him to come in and be re-examined that afternoon. She felt that there might be something in his observations that might help re-direct the police investigation. Smart showed up for his one o’clock interrogation early.

Sheila ushered him into the conference room and turned the video camera on. She sat in a cushioned chair facing him, supporting her sore arm on a small pillow.

“Well, Mr. Smart,” began Rodriguez. “We have quite a bit of evidence that Gloria Smithers could not have possibly drowned her husband. We have solid video and still media that puts her in the Silver Lake Civic Center at the time her husband was attacked.

“Is there anyone else you can think of that could have been following Mr. Smithers and yourself around and disliked Smithers or you enough to kill him? Someone who might have stalked you, or was capable of it?

Tobias Smart covered his mouth with his fingers and looked up at a light fixture. He was the picture of a man in deep thought.

“Um. Vance was a very sweet man with a multitude of talents. His wife was horrid to him and nagged him about business meetings and our construction schedule. She made him more than miserable. She, in my opinion, made him physically sick. Both Vance and I had business and political rivals intense enough to follow us around and try to break apart my managerial team. But, no one local. No one knew us here. Maybe in Las Vegas or California. Vance was a kind, hardworking, honey of a guy.” A small tear worked its way down Tobias Smart’s smooth, round, lineless cheek. Sheila pushed a box of Kleenex across the table to Smart.

Rodriguez commented, “So you and he got along well?”

“Better than him and his awful wife. If he hadn’t been so straight and so loyal to his wife, I would have been tempted to make him my own.”

Sheila looked up at Smart sharply, and said, “I thought you had a partner.”

Toby Smart laughed and flipped his hand. “Of course! And he is wonderful! Doesn’t hurt a man to look, though.” He leaned across the table towards Sheila. He lowered his voice conspiratorially, “You know, his wife even filched money from his own bank accounts? I had to re-examine our books after his passing to make sure Gloria hadn’t gotten into those as well.” Smart paused. “She hadn’t, thank God.”

“Vance worked so hard to be a success and his wife hassled him at every turn, except when she wanted money or, like, a new car, or a new house.”

“Was your boyfriend ever jealous?” asked Sheila.

Tobias laughed to himself. “Samuel?! No, of course not. He doesn’t have a jealous bone in his body. He didn’t like Vance very much. Uh, he doesn’t tend to like heterosexuals. The fact that Vance’s conflicts with his wife bothered me – bothered him, too.”

“I see,” responded Sheila, taking notes to emphasize her audio recording of the interview. “Well, stay in the Silver Lake area. We might want to talk to you again.”

Smart rose to leave and Sheila stretched. After her interrogation of Tobias Smart, Sheila leaned back in her fabric chair and rubbed her injured arm. Chico walked in. He said, “Check your laptop. We have news about our media coverage in Chicago, St. Louis and K City – all the way into Texas and further west.”

Sheila answered, looking up at Chico with resolve, “We’ve got him again. I know it. I feel it in my bones. I should. We’re right up his ass.”

Chico looked up, startled at his girlfriend’s crude attitude. “Vengeance is only a technique, Sheila. We have a net around him. Our media is hot – KANU and Elise have done some fine journalism. Her timely mini-serializations can’t but help. She has been selling some film and audio to the Associated Press.”

“You need to teach, Chico,” said Sheila with a open, warm smile.

“I’ve thought about it,” answered Chico, getting up to go out and get their late lunch, by habit. “Niño likes kids.”

“I need a salad,” called Sheila after him. “Something with shrimp in it.”

“‘Kay, sweetheart,” called Chico over his shoulder.

__________

Talbot J. Patterson walked down the stairs of his bus and entered the waiting room of the St. Louis Greyhound Station at approximately 1:30 am on Wednesday. He carried his day pack into the station’s restaurant and ordered the breakfast special for five dollars: two of everything – two eggs (fried or scrambled), two slices of toast (white or whole wheat), two sausages (or strips of bacon) and an endless cup of coffee. Big man, big appetite. As he waited for his food, he sauntered over to the newsstand and bought a local paper.

Landing heavily on his chair, he dug into his breakfast. The endless coffee would give him an excuse to stay in this padded chair for a while. He paged through the paper. No surprise that his face was not on the front page. He saw an article about himself and Kinsey on page two with no photographs. His hand began to shake, but there was no way to identify him from just that article. He would have to get medical care and hightail it out of town. Keep one step ahead of his pursuers. And he felt like he could do just that.

He called a taxi and took it to the St. Louis City Hospital Emergency Room. He was anxious to get some antibiotics such as a Tetanus shot. He was lucky again, because the ER was almost empty. As soon as he lay down on a gurney, he passed out cold. When he finally came to, he had been through surgery, his ankle was set in a cast, and he had been checked into the hospital for three days. As he looked up at the ceiling, a pretty nurse smiled down at him. He smiled back and groaned.

“Well, Mr. Thompson,” she said. “I guess you must feel a lot better now.”

“Oh, yeah,” he answered to his alias. “When do we eat? I’m starving.”

“Soon. We will serve a meal in about an hour.”

“No jello for me.”

The nurse looked at Talbot and laughed, saying, “Sure. Not sure if we’re having any tonight.”

“Do you have a community room with a television in it?”

“Yes, but you should not attempt to get up for another day or so. When your cast is hardened, you can choose between crutches, a wheelchair or your old cane. Then you can leave and go home, and you can watch all the TV that you want.”

Talbot’s mind caught on the word “home” and, once again, he thought of Nesbitt. Maybe he could call him on his cell phone. He had paid for the phone in cash, there was no way to trace it to him. Except the cops would probably have Kinsey’s home phone bugged and be waiting for him to call, so that was not a good idea as much as he wanted to talk to Kinsey. No community room or wheel chair meant no cigarette smoking either. He felt much better now. The pain killers the doctors gave him really did the job. He slept a lot, but he longed to go out and get a burger.

The next day, he got the pretty nurse to go and get him a Coke from one of the hospital vending machines. Relief. By the weekend, he would need a hotel room or a bus ticket.

On Saturday, Talbot was released by the hospital and he called a taxi. He decided to use his old cane. He trusted its flexibility and didn’t want to try and run in a wheelchair, no matter how comfortable it looked. And the crutches were clumsy. When he got his release papers, he picked up his day pack, stretched, smiled to himself and hobbled into the hospital corridor.

__________

Two large St. Louis cops practically filled the hallway in front of the elevator. Talbot’s mind was filled with thoughts of fried fish and a cigarette. He needed a Marlboro moment outside in the fresh summer air so badly that he barely noticed the cops, except that he felt uncomfortable trying to take the elevator. There had been no television in his room and his ankle was too sore to move around before this morning. Now it was painless and healing nicely. He could have the cast removed in about a month or so somewhere else – probably in Texas – where he was planning on going next. After his non-smoking stay in the hospital, he did not want to have to suck air on the Greyhound all the way to California. Texas had a lot of cheap agricultural land and was much closer.

The cops moved towards him quietly as soon as they noticed that he was not taking the elevator. He had thought that they might have been waiting for the elevator for themselves. He had no intention of sharing an elevator with them, so he really didn’t care why they were there, except that they might want him.

He started to panic intuitively as soon as they turned towards him and got closer. At about three feet from him, one of the cops pulled out his service weapon, Talbot turned his back towards them and ran as best he could to the door marked Stairs. He was pretty sure the cops would not risk shooting a gun in a hospital. He was right.

He hopped down the stairs to the lobby just as one of the officers called down the stairwell, “Talbot Patterson, you are under arrest. Stop, now!” The same cop started to run down the stairs after Talbot and mumbled to himself, “Damn. That guy runs like anything in that cast.” Of course, Talbot kept on going until he was out the door. His new cast worked really well, like Robo-Fugitive. The doctors had put a latex tread on the bottom of the cast, which made running much easier – like having a Nike on the bottom of his cast. He jumped into a cab and told the cabby to take him to the Greyhound station. Any place in Texas near a major city would be fine for him right now. He had seen a cop burst out of the hospital’s main entrance, but didn’t know if the guy had seen him get into a taxi from the side exit.

Someone in the hospital must have recognized him, but he didn’t know how. He couldn’t risk an airport because the security would require him to give up his 9mm and he thought this was unwise. If he paid for his bus ticket in cash, no one would have his name. He heard police sirens following behind him. He turned around in his seat and saw flashing red and blue Mars lights. Looked like those cops were right behind him.

He leaned over towards the driver and said, “Can you make a right here and go around the block? Come up behind the station? I’m late and want to walk right into the loading area. It’s easier with my injured leg. There’s a hundred dollars in it for you.”

The cabby said, “Sure.” and took a tight turn at the corner, losing the patrol car. Talbot chuckled to himself. The cabby chuckled to himself at not having to waste time pulling over to the curb to get out of the way of the patrol car, since turning the corner did the same thing – smart fare. He liked big tippers and good directions.

The cabby pulled up at the entrance to the Greyhound docking area. Talbot paid him, giving him a hundred dollar bill, and hopped out of the cab and into the waiting room. Within ten minutes, he had a ticket to Dallas and was sitting on the bus. He had outwitted the cops again. He pulled a tab on a Coca Cola, looked out the window at the line into the bus, decided that it was safe and took his Coke, walking off the bus to light a cigarette on the loading dock. Within another ten minutes, the bus to Dallas pulled out of the station with Talbot J. Patterson dozing in his seat, happily unaware of the two large St. Louis policemen running around the St. Louis Greyhound station, frantically looking for their lost prey.

__________

Sgt. Sheila Rodriguez watched a new Talbot Patterson Fugitive Update on her laptop. She groaned when she read that St. Louis had caught him at a city hospital and then lost him. That Talbot had outrun two cops while wearing an ankle cast.

Sheila banged the flat of her hand on her desk and commented to Chico, “That guy is greased. He slips out of everything.”

Chico responded, “We’re so close now. Just have patience. We’ll get him.”

“Okay,” said Sheila in a smaller voice.

The Greyhound from St. Louis was greeted at the Dallas station by two plain clothes detectives. Talbot Patterson was knocked flat on his face and cuffed. He was carried bodily and locked in a waiting police prisoner transport van. The cops were taking no chances this time, especially with an armed guy that had already shot a policewoman.

Kinsey Nesbitt was still at home, wearing an ankle bracelet, awaiting an appeal. Something the now rueful Talbot Patterson felt he should have done. Instead, he was elevating his ankle in a jail cell. In a “no smoking” jail. Hell on earth. But the air conditioning was good. When his family sent money, he could get a cold Coca Cola Classic.

His wife and friends were trying to hire a defense attorney. He found out that his photo and story had reached the west coast – much to his surprise. The media that identified him consisted mostly of op. eds. on cable. “[_ F****** KANU, damn it! _] Who would have thought that they were even computer literate and could even send a file like that?!” thought Talbot, vituperatively. He crushed an empty Coke can in his left hand and thought of the huge Superman statue in Metropolis and chuckled.

Kinsey Nesbitt was making statements to the press. The SLPD was accusing both of them of the murder of Congressman Harrison and possibly that of Vance Smithers, as well. Nesbitt had said clearly that they had killed no one. And, in fact, they didn’t even know who Vance Smithers was.

He also said that they were supporters of Harrison and if they had wanted a shot at Juan Villalobos, they would have been on the other side of Silver Lake Boulevard. It was Harrison’s murder, though, that had set Talbot and himself off. “Especially,” Nesbitt said, “Talbot.” He, himself, got ridiculed by Patterson for not wanting to use their seed money to hang out and bother people. This was printed in the Dallas newspapers which Talbot got to read every day. They had a cable connection for the entire cell block, so they could view television through their barred doors. Almost everyone wanted to watch the news.

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

We got him! We got him! We did it!” yelled Sheila Rodriguez out the front door of the police station as Chico rode up on Niño, just getting back from his shift. Chico smiled broadly at her and swung off his horse with a bounce. Sheila ran over to him and threw her good arm around his waist, laughing.

“Told you,” said Chico with fake smugness. Niño stamped his hooves and moved towards his stall where his daily ration of oats, fresh hay and water was usually waiting for him. “Whoa, boy,” said Chico, kissing Sheila lightly on the cheek and grabbing his stallion’s reins, leading him into the shelter. “Who nabbed him?” called Chico over his shoulder.

“Dallas,” answered Sheila.

“Plain clothes?” questioned Chico.

“Yeah…,” said Sheila, hesitating. “How did you know?”

“I put out the word not to use uniforms on him again when I found out how he slipped out of the hospital.”

“Well, it worked. They got him down on the floor before he could run in that damned cast.”

“Good. ‘Bout time.”

“You know that.”

__________

Asia was “home”, still at the Almontes, going through long lists of airline passengers for the weeks before and after the Villalobos benefit.

She was also hoping that the SLPD would let her go home and maybe even use her own truck again since Patterson and Nesbitt were both in custody. She had heard about it on the cable news. Neither she nor Sheila thought that the two farmers were involved with the two unsolved murders. Harrison’s murder didn’t fit their political ideologies and the film of Vance’s murder didn’t fit their gender or look anything like them. But, she would just have to wait for Chico and the Sergeant to get home. She gazed out the newly repaired living room window longingly. A name had caught her eye on the United Airlines incoming flight list for the day before the motorcade. It was a Swedish M. D. she remembered from a European documentary that she had done quite a few years ago. She would have to sleep on it – but it had clicked. She would need to Google her name.

Asia heard a loud whistle and some fireworks from the back of the house. At first, she was startled because she thought the banging was from gunshots. But then she heard Sheila whoop, “We got the suck-ah! We got him!!” and relaxed with a laugh.

“You ready to go?” called Sheila as she let an excited Zucchini out the door as she came in.

“I was thinking about leaving this afternoon,” replied Asia with a smile.

“I know you miss your home, as much as you love us.”

“That’s the truth. It’s up to you and the police department,” said Asia, still with a little resignation in her voice. “I’m glad I wasn’t there when Talbot came back. That dude doesn’t consider his family very much.”

 

“Or the number of years he will have to spend in prison. I’ll check with the Chief, but you can probably plan on going home tomorrow some time. Talbot’s in a Dallas jail awaiting extradition to Illinois right now. He’s been talking to Nesbitt through his lawyer and – believe this – wants a plea bargain and house arrest. He just can’t face being realistic. He regrets not turning himself in. All of a sudden he’s trying to prove that he’s as trustworthy as a boy scout.”

“Sneaky and unreliable is more like it.”

“Sure is. Regret doesn’t work well with me – after shooting me.”

“Miss your motorcycle?”

“Dang, you know, definitely. But I need some desk time in order to unravel our unsolved cases. And my arm hurts. I can’t ride any bumpy country roads like this. It’ll be weeks before my wounds heal. I’ll use the down time to maintenance my bike.”

“There’s a pot of beans on the stove and some cornbread in the oven if you’re hungry. Cisco made a pot of seasoned meat to add to the frijoles.”

“Thanks. I actually ate lunch today. The first time in two weeks. But I could use a bowl of chili,” Sheila said, patting her now slender stomach. Before the trouble, she had been getting a tummy. Not now. She must have lost about fifteen pounds.

“I might have a lead on the Harrison shooting from the flight lists,” commented Asia as she heated water for tea. “I’m going on the theory that his shooter had political motivation. I think that is the best guess for our investigation.”

Our investigation?” commented Sheila with a mildly sarcastic laugh. “Well, I suppose we are all working on this together. Elise gave us the information that might lead to one of the killers of Congressman Harrison – the possible identification of Harry’s sketch – Edmundo Alcosta. Frankie Franklin’s dogs found Chico’s patrol car.

“I would love to solve the Harrison and Smithers murders. We’ll have a patrol car in front of your house 24/7. Timmons and O’Brien will continue to escort you when you use your own vehicle – or request it. I still feel better having bodyguards around you. Your work is too politically sensitive. I want to have everything cleared up before we stop the surveillance around you.

“Frankie Franklin and her dogs also pulled up a lot of evidence in the Nesbitt and Patterson cases. She found you and led the police find to their newest hide out, as old as she is. She’s got to be in her early eighties. Then the desk clerk at The Metropolis hotel recognized Patterson, which eventually led us to Dallas.”

Asia said, “Yeah. That sounds about right. Frankie must have been born in the late thirties. I like her dog Big Boy. He’s been a big help, too. When he comes to visit Zucchini, he’s well-behaved and makes me feel protected. He’s lucky he didn’t get wounded or killed when Talbot broke into my home the second time. That would have been sad. I love that guy.

“When Zookie and Big Boy lay side-by-side, it’s one solid wall of dog. I would like to give him a bath, though. He smells like raw, drying, dead forest critter. I’m not even sure if a bath would do it. Whew! He smells a lot like the great outdoors.”

Sheila sat down to eat and went on with the household gossip, “Elise just got a raise for her Nesbitt and Patterson video editorials. She’s just an inch or two closer to that anchor job. Alphonsine has pretty much been reduced to reading headlines and other people’s copy. Elise said the KANU Board feels LaDuque’s reporting is unreliable. She had no permission to publish anything about that stolen SUV which resulted in my nose being broken. The Board has a direct complaint from the SLPD for that story.

“She was developing into a clumsy and dangerous jinx.” Sheila reached up and felt her still bandaged nose. “She has been officially accused of using poor judgment and could have gotten a camera person killed during that stupid balloon stunt.”

Asia sat down and joined Sheila with her own bowl of meatless cashew chili and a square of buttered, hot cornbread. She commented, “No point in being afraid of your own news service. Alphonsine is no longer allowed to take a camera crew out with her without the express permission of the KANU Board. Elise has much more sensitivity and commitment than Alphonsine – between the two of us.”

Sheila nodded in agreement. “Elise will be up for days if she gets that anchor job.”

Asia got up and put a tea ball in her hot water. The steamy smell of peppermint floated into the kitchen. She answered Sheila, “Yeah. She turned down a position last week. She said she won’t co-anchor with Alphonsine.”

“Don’t blame her. LaDuque has gotten rather close to attracting a libel suit. I mean, I know Alphonsine is good looking and that’s important in film media, but…”

“But the package is not more important than the content,” sniped Sheila.

“Truly…”

Both women heard the rhythmic, staccato beat of a horse’s hooves stamping the dust in front of the barn. Sheila looked out a kitchen window and sighed. More and more, Chico’s presence was a comfort to her these days. Her thoughts drifted towards a fantasy marriage celebration she designed and re-designed from time to time. She and Chico did not want children until their pensions and savings reflected the kind of future they dreamed of for their second generation. Maybe Chico would eventually become an elementary school teacher which would be safer than having two cops for parents.

The Almonte and Rodriguez families were both from farms in Michoacán, Mexico. Both Chico and Sheila had to learn English in the American public schools – which was difficult. They had relied on each other since then. Both had to use these skills to translate from English to Spanish for their parents and grandparents. They had both picked strawberries with their parents in the beginning. Their children would not have to do any of this, and they spent a lot of time planning the kinds of advantages they wanted for them.

They wanted much more for their children than they had had. Sheila was ready to take a few years off police work to raise a couple of kids – but her bank account wasn’t. She sighed again as Chico walked into the kitchen. Zucchini went over to him, wagging her tail. He gave her a horse cookie. He usually had giant-sized Milk Bone for her, but one horse cookie wouldn’t hurt.

“Mmm…smells like chili in here,” said Chico, rubbing his shoulder in tiredness. “I’m so glad I don’t have to cook tonight. I was riding around on Niño all day long. I need to sit in a soft chair. He tends to sway until my legs are sore.”

Asia responded, “Besides the bean pot, the larger pot is for carnivores. The small one is all vegetarian with cashews, hazelnuts and raisins.”

“I like to mix the two together. You veggies eat rather well. I’m going to fry a few of your homemade whole wheat tortillas instead of cornbread.”

“They’re in the basement freezer.”

“Ah, no wonder I couldn’t find them yesterday. I looked up here.”

“The more you have, the harder it is to find anything.”

“Gratitude makes up for frustration. I can still remember when, with all my brothers, there were never enough tortillas.”

“Or enough beans,” echoed Cisco, walking into the kitchen and filling a ceramic bowl for himself, sitting down at the table.

“Somebody say they need some bees?” said Elise as she followed Cisco into the kitchen.

Beans,” repeated Cisco, quietly as he ate. “I said beans.” He paused as he chewed. “I heard you were harvesting,” he continued.

 

“Yeah,” answered Elise. “The frames where the bees live are full of honey. The bees need room to make more. I harvest several times in the summer. I’m waiting for Asia. She said she would help this time. You can come over, too. I’ll trade you some jars of honey for labor and Almonte cheddar or mozzarella.

“I’m moving back into my house tomorrow,” said Asia. “But after I get settled in again, I’ll be right over.”

“You’re off work early,” commented Asia to Elise as she put a tray of mugs on the table next to a trivet underneath the pot of peppermint tea.

“May I have some of that?” asked Elise.

“Of course, Elise. You live here too. Chili, tortillas or cornbread?” asked Asia.

“Veggie chili and cornbread,” responded Elise. “My work hours are more flexible now – since my video work is in demand at the station.”

“Veggie chili?”

“Yeah, Asia. It’s never too early to watch your cholesterol. Besides all those vegetables are good for your skin. Got to think cosmetically now that I have a place at the on-camera news desk.”

Asia smiled as she placed another bowl of chili on the table. “By the way, congratulations. I saw you on KANU this afternoon. It was the piece on your nomination for a community service award for your Nesbitt and Patterson mini-serializations.”

“Thank you. I can’t say ‘I told you so…’ enough.”

Asia laughed.

Cisco looked up as he finished eating and said, “I’ll be over to help with the honey harvesting, too.”

“Oh, good,” said Elise. “I can always use another man to help Elton lift the wooden beehive frames. They can get heavy by the end of the day. Have you ever seen a honey centrifuge?”

“No,” answered Cisco.

“Well. It spins the wax from the frames around a stainless steel cylinder and spins the honey out so that it comes out a spout at the bottom and fills my Snuggles jars.”

“Fascinating,” said Cisco.

“It is,” answered Elise. “You have any ice cream left?” Elise said as she turned to Chico. “I saved my favorite cholesterol for last.”

“Yeah, Elise. Go look in the freezer in the basement. There is whipping cream and maple syrup up here.”

“Okay,” responded Elise, clomping loudly down the basement stairs in her new Dr. Scholls’ wooden sandals which she had bought with her raise, making everyone laugh at the unbelievable noise they made.

__________

Deep underground, Bill, Tom and Jimmy were busy making the hidden cavern more comfortable after the heavy rains. They had used squeegees and large propane heaters that looked like small canons to dry the walls and floor. The rock and wood cairn Bill had stuffed the entrance hole with had stopped most of the flooding. Everybody was being welcomed back in now, though.

Even though just about everyone had heard that the two suspects allegedly involved in the attacks on them had been locked up – no one wanted to leave and stay in the shelters up in town. The children loved the cavern and the intimate nightly music jam sessions were also a big attraction. The musicians were selling CDs of their echoing cavern sessions up near the carnival area during the day. The food was good and their donated cots and big cotton sleeping bags were very comfortable.

Bill certainly didn’t mind living there. Tom was talking about moving in to save on rent, after everyone left. And Jim was usually rather jolly about being the nightly cook.

Patrolman Chico Almonte had seen several people disappear into the entrance to the cavern when he was checking the formerly flooded field because of the other sinkholes. Tom and Bill were afraid he would call the Forest Service and they would shut them down as a safety precaution. There was really no law against spelunking in the area, and that was all they were doing, technically. The presence of children might be a problem, but the adults should be okay. Bill was a certified caving instructor, so that might help.

A week had passed since anyone had seen the cop on the big, black stallion. Most folks didn’t talk much about it anymore. Maybe the cop (who was known to be rather kindly) thought it was better for the hippies to hide out, than be the targets of a couple of crazy antagonistic guys. This was pretty close to Chico Almonte’s reasoning, actually. He put the field on his regular patrol route with the Chief’s permission and figured that if there were any problems, he would personally like to know about it. He would like to be the first to know, actually. He had some confidence in this group.

That night at the Almonte ranch, Asia Reynolds Googled Dr. Elin Almquist and confirmed her suspicions that the Swedish MD was the same woman that she had interviewed for her documentary about European viewpoints on abortion. Dr. Almquist had been instrumental in legalizing abortion on demand in Sweden in 1969 and had continued her political advocacy on women’s rights since then. Asia had gotten her video work back when Chico had found her DVDs and her laptop (still in its waterproof case) scattered in the woods near her house.

Asia looked through the video copies she had of her work and found the interview.

Sipping some hot ginger tea, she called downstairs. “Sheila! I want you to see this. I think I found something connecting to a possible Harrison murder suspect. Come on up.”

Instead, Zucchini walked into the attic room and spread out on the floor.

“All right,” answered Sheila. “Just a minute. Let me put on my robe. Chico has to help me get it over my arm.”

Asia walked over to her dog and ruffled the fur on her back.

Sheila knocked on Asia’s door frame and asked, “Can Chico come in too?”

“Um. Sure. I’m dressed. It’s probably better if you both see this. I know there were two sets of prints on the assault rifle connected with the bullet that hit Congressman Harrison: probably a man’s and a woman’s or another small man – looking for a female makes some sense right now.

“This possible shooter was here during the motorcade and left the next day. Maybe we can get some prints from her and question her. She is known for her radical feminist politics.”

“Let’s see,” said Sheila, sitting down with Chico at the foot of Asia’s bed.

“Here’s her interview,” said Asia, pointing the clicker at the TV screen and rolling the video back to the beginning of the discussion between her and the doctor.

Sheila and Chico viewed the interview. Sheila commented after the film clip was over, “Asia, any ideas on how we can confirm her fingerprints? Sounds like she would have had some political motivation.”

After some consideration, Asia answered, “Possibly. According to my previous research for the interview, Dr. Almquist was arrested in England in the 1960’s. Interpol might give the SLPD access to her arrest record which should have her fingerprints.”

Sheila smiled warmly at Asia. “That sounds great. You really did a nice piece of investigation on this. We never would have thought of an international angle on the Harrison shooting.”

“I figured I might as well take a look since our town is so popular with the international set.”

“Obviously, that was a good guess. What was Dr. Almquist arrested for?”

“She was in a pro-abortion demonstration that turned into a rather destructive riot in downtown London and was arrested with a group of about twenty other protesters.”

“Whoa…”

“If the fingerprints match, we can notify the Department of Homeland Security to pull her passport for probable cause.”

“Well, at least our conservative politicians will be safer for a while.”

“Whoopee…” commented Asia, sardonically.

“We are a democracy.”

“Oh, right, Sheila. We should always protect those that could hurt us.”

“That’s what the police department has to do sometimes.”

“Ah, damn, that’s true. It’s part of the job. If we start discriminating – how can we expect any humane consideration from anyone else?”

“Yeah. Harrison does have a family.”

“True. Everyone has a mother.”

“It’s the heart of negotiation.”

“That’s one way to put it.”

Chico cleared his throat and both women looked at him. “We still have to figure out who Edmundo is and where he is.”

Sheila said, “There is Ralph Wilson.”

“And?” asked Asia.

Sheila commented, “The fingerprints closest to the trigger were a possibly a woman’s – or an extremely small man, but the larger prints were all over the rest of the gun.”

“The man could have helped her plan it as an accomplice.”

“Perhaps Dr. Almquist can give us a clue.”

“Assuming she’ll talk to us.”

“We can offer her a plea deal in exchange for information,” said Chico.

“I’m so tired. I need to get some sleep,” said Sheila, yawning. “Chico has to set up a few pillows so I don’t turn over on my arm.” Sheila paused, then added, “…or my nose.”

 

Chico got up and went downstairs.

“Thanks again, Asia. Ever consider police work?”

Asia laughed and said, “Ah, no, Sheila. I’m happy in the arts. The only point and shoot that I want to do is behind a camera.”

“Good night, my friend,” said Sheila and followed Chico down the stairs.

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

The next day, Patrolman Chico Almonte rode Niño over to the sinkhole field at the end of his beat, getting ready to ride back into town. He jumped down off his horse and tied him up, walking over to the hole that was the place he saw so many hippies disappear into. He took out his mag light and sat down on the edge of the hole, dangling his feet into the abyss, feeling around with the edge of his boots. They hit a hard ledge. He laid on his stomach and flashed his light into the hole. He spotted a rock ledge leading downwards. He figured that this was the passageway that the folks who climbed down into the hole used. He heard some noise reaching upwards and backed out of the space. A man and a woman showed their frightened faces and climbed out of the opening.

Chico reassured them that he was just curious about what they were doing down there and he would not arrest them. He introduced himself and let them know he was not there to hurt anyone. They all got into a conversation about how they climb in and out and how nice it was in the cavern below their feet.

The young man said, “Come on down, Officer Almonte, you’ll like it. It is peaceful, safe and fun.” He leaned closer and whispered, “You won’t bust us for weed, will you?” Chico laughed and said, “Naw. This is unofficial. I would like to go down and check it out. I’m your resource. If you need anything I can help you with, call 911 and leave a message for me. I am an official Community Liaison Officer.”

The boy said, “Cool.” And the girl smiled at him and said, “Come on Officer Almonte, we’ll show you how to get down. It’s really easy. I’ll tell everyone you’re coming so they don’t freak out.” She moved over to the sinkhole and hung her feet over the edge, slipping onto the rock ledge and starting to crawl downward. Chico went into the sinkhole behind her.

“You don’t have to be so formal, or call me Officer Almonte. You can call me Chico,” said Chico to the young people.

“Put your weight on your hands, otherwise the ledge will hurt your knees,” said the young boy.

Chico said, “Okay.” The boy watched him crawl into the cavern entrance.

“I’ll follow you and tell you where we are. There is a drop off at the end of the passageway, but there is a rope ladder attached to it. Just shine your flashlight ahead of you and downward. Chico crawled forward and the boy followed him.

 

“About how long is this ledge?” Chico asked, looking at the grey walls ahead of him.

“Oh, I’d say about a hundred feet or so before the ladder.”

“Ow! My knee!” exclaimed Chico in pain.

“Yeah. I have calluses on my knees and hands. It doesn’t hurt as much anymore.”

“How long have you been down here?”

 

“Since those guys shot at the Reclaim the Earth balloon. About a month and a half. It’s spooky and great. We play music and cook dinner down there. The air is so fresh and cool after a hot summer day – it’s like natural air conditioning.”

“Nice,” said Chico, starting to see some flickering light further ahead.

 

“We use kerosene lanterns and candles. There seems to be pretty good air circulation in the cavern area. We have a professional spelunker with us and he thinks we are getting our fresh air from a few holes in the rock face. He says that’s not unusual.”

Ahead of them, a wider section of light kept expanding. Chico could smell a variety of incense and food aromas.

“Turn around to face me and crawl backwards on your stomach, feel with your feet for about five feet. You will feel the drop off. There are metal handles driven into the rock wall on your right that should start soon. Hold onto them until your feet find the ladder. Hang onto the knotted rope tied to the last handle. That will continue until you reach the ladder. The passageway is not angled too sharply there. It is just right. Even our older children swing down pretty easily. Just like little monkeys.”

Chico grabbed the metal handle with a loud grunt and swung down the rope like it was a playground ladder. “This is fun!” he thought to himself with another grunt and jumped to the floor of a huge cavern filled with the different colors of blue, pink and yellow stalactites enhanced by a few crystal pendants someone had hung to project the shimmering colors around the walls. The sound of rushing water greeted his ears.

Jimmy was cleaning up, re-arranging sleeping areas so that there were clear spaces and aisles between neatened rows of belongings and cots. Someone was playing a very enthusiastic banjo. Cooking smells rose tantalizingly in the air.

The boy dropped down right behind Chico and led him to a circle of camp chairs. “Have a seat,” he said. “We are not usually this active this early. But, today is a holiday. The tourists in the cavern next to us are not there due to the tours being canceled for the company’s regular maintenance. Especially to clean up flood damage.” He looked up at Chico sheepishly. “We are not usually allowed to make noise, burn incense or cook until the tourists are gone for the day.”

“Makes sense,” said Chico good-naturedly with a conspiratorial grin.

“No children under a certain size (say about age ten) are allowed down the passage, either.”

“You sound really well organized.”

“Yeah, we are. Our leaders are experienced cavers and woodsmen. One actually worked on a Green Peace boat. It takes a hefty science background or something like that to get chosen as a crew member.”

“I’d love to meet them.”

“Bill is here today. I’ll bring him over to meet you. Are you hungry? We have some really good steamed raisin bread pudding with organic Almonte cream for a sauce. Say…” the boy paused and smiled shyly at Chico. “You aren’t…?

“The same,” said Chico and laughed. “My family runs the dairy. Sure, I’ll try some. I’ll be off duty soon and I’m up for a snack.”

The boy got up and went over to a camp stove, getting a stainless bowl and filling it with brown bread pudding. He reached into a cooler tethered into the stream and got a bottle of cream out, pouring some over the contents of the bowl. He hesitated a moment and put some sorghum molasses over that and a few walnuts on top of that.

An older man walked over to him and they went over to the camp chair circle together.

“Hi, Officer Almonte, my name is Bill. I’m the daddy here. Richard, here, said you wanted to meet me.”

“Yes, sir. This is an unofficial visit. Just wanted to make sure your camp is safe and offer my liaison services. Everything looks just fine so far.”

“I see,” said Bill, biting his lip. “Thanks.”

“I’ll give you my cell phone number.” Chico handed him a card with his cell number scribbled on the back.

Bill put it in a breast pocket and said, “Thanks. We can always use another advocate.”

“So, are you the professional caver Rick told me about?”

Bill answered, “Yeah. I sometimes lead spelunking expeditions. I found this cavern a few years ago and I know the local cave systems rather well.”

“Wow,” said Chico. “I guess these folks are in good hands. I don’t blame you for seeking shelter down here. We think we have the men that were shooting at you in custody.”

“We’ve heard. It’s nice down here and most of the shelters in Silver Lake are kind of full. No one really wants to camp in the woods right now.”

“So, no reason to leave.”

“Not yet. We use the free shower and laundry facilities at the California Spa and spend our work days selling handicrafts.”

“Yeah. I heard about the free showers and laundry for artisans. That’s great.”

“Sure is. Most of the townspeople have been very giving and protective. We’ll all be gone by the end of the summer season in August.”

“Well, you can count on me, as well.”

“Thanks. We know you and your horse have a good reputation around town – especially with children. That means something to all of us.”

Chico ate more of the camping confection, smacking his lips. “This raisin-nut bread pudding is scrumptious. I need your recipe. I do a lot of cooking at home.”

Bill chuckled and said, “I’ll ask our cook, Jimmy, to write it down. I know it is an easy and quick recipe. It is a one pan dish, since we try and conserve our usage of washable items.”

“Okay,” said Chico, getting up and handing his empty bowl to Rick. “I have to get going. My horse needs some water and hay at the end of his day. The station will want me in on time.”

The three men walked over to the bamboo bridge, which Chico thought was really clever, then he grabbed the rope ladder and swung himself up to the rock ledge, crawling away with the help of his mag light.

“Bye, now,” his voice echoed back into the cavern.

“Good bye,” called the men in refrain.

When Chico got home, Sheila curled her nose after she gave him a hug and said, “You smell like incense. Have you been smoking reefer somewhere?”

Chico startled at her question and had no intention of telling her about his visit to the cavern. He answered, “I burned a large stick of musk in the stall at the station. I don’t like the smell of disinfectant around Niño. They must have washed the cement around his stall. He doesn’t mind incense. It tends to calm him”

Sheila frowned but laughed anyway. “No new girlfriends?” she asked.

“God, no, honey. You were always the only one, and will be forever.”

“Forever and ever?” she asked quietly.

“Oh, honey. Really…” Chico said as he held her close and kissed her.

“Asia packed up and went to her own house today.”

“Ah,” said Chico, sighing. “We’re alone again.”

“Yeah, for a little while anyway. Want to watch a movie tonight?”

“Definitely. In the living room. I’ll move the large TV screen that was in the attic downstairs.”

“We can have the house all to ourselves. Until your brothers and dad come home anyway. And Harold Skylar.”

“Sounds good,” said Chico, giving her another squeeze. “Harold Skylar?”

“Harry the Hippie. More police department updates…Harry Skylar was released from jail today. He was in court this morning. The judge dismissed his marijuana charge and put him on two years supervised probation. Until we find out how that gun got in his tent, she decided not to charge him with possession of an unregistered firearm. She agreed with his attorney that his tent was not on his own land and had open access to the public. So, with all the attacks on our hippie population, he could be innocent of any wrongdoing. He has no previous record.”

“Not even marijuana misdemeanors?”

“Nope, nothing.”

“Hmm. He’s a very lucky young man. No bail?”

“No. His parents haven’t got very much. Neither does he. If it turns out he has some involvement with that assault rifle, that will be a different story. He cannot leave Silver Lake without the knowledge of his probation officer, anyway.”

“Who is…?”

“Me.”

“Of course. His parents must be pretty happy.”

“They are. Very. By the way, Harry will be over here to eat until he makes enough money to buy his own food. He got a late start for his street music this year.”

“Well, so much for being alone. That’s fine, though. He can stay here any time he wants. Tell him to bring his guitar over.”

“I did. I think he would really enjoy playing with you. You know he’s a vegetarian.”

“No problem. I’m used to cooking for Asia. Talk about spoiling our alone time, my mother is coming to visit this weekend.”

“Really?! Does your dad know yet?”

“Yeah. He’s the one that invited her. She left her most recent boyfriend and is depressed.”

“Hmm. Lose one roomer and gain two more. I thought your dad doesn’t get along with her.”

“He doesn’t, but he has the heart of an Almonte. Can’t stand to see an old friend suffer.”

“An old friend?

“Ex-wife, then.”

“How’s her left hook? Good as ever?”

“Really, Sheila. He has three sons and is in great shape himself.”

“Think we should warn Harry?”

“Naw. Only if we have to. There is such a thing as change.”

“Oh, sure. Maria Luisa is one hundred percent firebrand. Maybe we should slip her sedatives once in a while. That might be a change.”

“I talked to her myself. She seemed pretty calm.”

“Talking to you, her baby. Good thing your dad is not dating right now.”

“True. Mom is not good at seeing pop kissing on anyone else.”

Not good is an understatement. Remember, she once broke every window in the kitchen a full year after the divorce was final, just because he had a nice little girlfriend that was sitting in the other room when she came over to snoop.”

Chico laughed so hard he started to cough had to sit down.

There was a timid knock on the back door. Both cops looked at their split screen surveillance television. It was Harry Skylar followed by Cisco. Sheila opened the back door and let them in.

“Congratulations on your release, Harry. Ready for dinner and a little celebration?”

“Thanks so much, Sheila,” said Harry with a shy grin.

“We have some veggie chili from the other day you can have.”

“Oh, sweet. Yeah, I’ll give it a try. Who would have thought you could cook vegetarian?”

“What’s to it? Just leave the meat out. Mostly, though, Chico does the cooking. He’s so much better than me. Cisco is pretty good, too.”

“I’ve heard that Chico makes sugarless organic ice cream, as well.”

“There’s some in the freezer in the basement. You are welcome to have some for dessert.”

“The Almonte Organic Creamery is super popular with the artisans. It has a lot of New Age social status, practically on the level of Dr. Bronner’s soap and Tom’s of Maine.”

Chico chuckled and said, “Nothing like comparing our dairy to soap, toothpaste and deodorant.”

Harry took his guitar and notebook out of his guitar case. “I’m working on a new song to celebrate getting out of jail…feels real good.” He strummed a G major chord and switched rhythmically back and forth to C major.

Chico ran upstairs to grab his tenor, twelve string, Mariachi guitar. He put on his heavy, embroidered shoulder strap and started strumming a counter rhythm as he walked down the stairs again.

Harry said, “The song’s not done yet. The title is Song to the Sun since I really missed sitting in the sun while I was locked up. I usually sit in it all day long. Here is what I have done so far. He began to sing:

If the sun moves in circles,

then how do our feelings move?

Our history moves in circles.

Be careful brothers and sisters.

How do you move a circle?

Just see one point and the entire circle

could change.

Create peace, brothers and sisters, and

the circle will be perfect.

Create peace, brothers and sisters, and

the circle will be perfect…

Chico picked up harmony at the refrain. Harry stopped singing and laughed loudly, saying, “Is there anything you can’t do, Chico, my man?”

Chico grinned and said, coming into the kitchen, “Not much.”

Sheila snorted and the two men began to sing again. Chico read the chord notations and lyrics in Harry’s notebook over his shoulder. Cisco clicked the heels of his cowboy boots in rhythm as he heated up yesterday’s leftovers and toasted a large stack of flour tortillas. He made bowls of Guacamole, chopped tomatoes, onions and lettuce, frying triangular pieces of tortillas into hard chips for the dip.

“Ah like mah chili in a bowl with toppings. Harry, you can have the veggie version here in the small pot.”

Harry said, “Thanks. The toppings look delicious, too.”

Cisco and Chico started to sing a song in Spanish. Chico hit a rough beat augmented by hitting the face of his guitar like a drum. Harry smiled and kept time on the table with his hand and nodded his head.

Julio went into the living room and began to play the upright piano.

Harry said, “Gee, this is the best!” and tried to follow along with his guitar.

The landline phone rang. Chico put his guitar down. Cisco grew quiet and Julio stopped playing.

Chico answered the phone and covered the mouthpiece with his hand, saying, “It’s my mother.”

Cisco swore. Julio bit his lip.

Sheila came into the kitchen and said, “Hey, what’s up?”

“My ma’s on the phone.”

“Oh, dear…” she turned to Harry. “Cisco doesn’t like his mother. She broke up a relationship he had in high school and he never forgave her for it. She has a reputation.”

“Oh,” said Harry, turning red-faced.

Cisco banged some pots around and managed to set dinner out anyway.

Sheila commented, “Same as yesterday?”

“Yeah,” said Cisco. “Except for the toppings and chips. Got in late today. Sorry.”

“Hey, no problem. I think a good pot of chili is better the next day anyway.”

“Probably,” said Cisco, cracking his sour expression with a smile and calming down a little as he indicated to Chico that he didn’t want to speak to his mother. “You take it,” he said. “Ah’d much rather sit down to mah dinner. She upsets my stomach.”

Chico said into the phone, “Hi, mama. How are you? Still coming Saturday?”

“Hola, mi cara,” said Maria Luisa. “Of course. My plane gets in at ten in the morning.”

“I’ll be there to pick you up,” answered Chico.

“Are any of your brothers around?”

Chico held his finger to his lips, looking warningly at Cisco and Sheila, and answered, “No. I’m the only one here right now. The others will be here soon.”

Maria Luisa continued, “I would like to get some riding in this weekend.”

Chico answered, “Sure. I’ll get your saddle oiled. You can ride Chica or Niño.”

“You know, I prefer the stallion. You can follow us on Chica.”

“Okay, I’m off work this weekend. We can canter around the Boulevard, see all the new things and pick up lunch some place downtown.”

“Sounds good. I’ll see you Saturday.”

“Okay. Bye, mama.” Chico hung up the phone and groaned. “She always wants to ride Niño. I think she likes to show off on him because he is so handsome. You know, wear her most impressive riding outfits. She tends to make Niño nervous, though. He won’t take her off on the trails, but we can just walk my beat – which he can do even without a rider. I think I can convince her to do that.”

Chico looked at Harry and said, “My mother sings really nice Flamenco as well as some Mariachi. We’ll probably want her to sing rather than talk. It’s much more pleasant.”

Cisco laughed and said to Harry, “You can go downstairs and get the ice cream out of the freezer.”

Harry answered, “Okay,” and went down to the basement. When Harry came upstairs again, Chico took out the ice cream toppings and began to explain Maria Luisa’s position in the family which was a little complicated.

Chico said, “You will probably be here when my mother gets in, so you might want to know who likes her and who does not. Keeps the peace, like your song. Like I said, mom broke Cisco and his girlfriend up when he was in high school. He never forgave her for it. When my folks divorced, we did not have this ranch. He had to go to Texas to work to help support me and Julio. He resented that, too. Cisco helped dad buy this ranch. If my mother hadn’t argued so incessantly with my dad, they might not have divorced. We usually have to keep mom and Cisco from arguing. Julio usually goes up to his room to hide when she is here. My dad will be unusually quiet, since if he says anything, mom and him could get into some disagreement, as well.

We’ll keep her from interrogating you too much, because she will want to know everything she can find out about you.”

Harry laughed and turned red again.

__________

When Asia Reynolds got home the same day, she felt really good as she entered her front door. The familiar smell and look of her home was like a warm, hand-knit Afghan. She sighed. Zucchini went around each room sniffing loudly.

Asia looked around for anything missing or out of place. She didn’t see anything until she looked at her plants and the glass doors leading to her patio. Some of her indoor plants had been over-watered. Her fault, she knew. She was so worried that Chico and Sheila would forget to water everything that they had drowned most of the plants even when the rains had darkened the sun for a week. As a result, half of her plants were turning yellow with many of the leaves breaking off onto the floor.

Her “security” plant was still hanging sideways from when Talbot Patterson had hit his head on it. She straightened it, talking gently to the giant Boston fern. It needed water, so she put some on it. She also began to move all her over-watered plants outside to sun on the patio.

She brought her suitcase and the bag containing her laptop and DVD collection upstairs to her bedroom and office.

Sheila was going to contact Interpol, see about Dr. Almquist’s fingerprint copy from her English arrest record and check with the Swedish government about extradition to the U.S. if her fingerprints matched with those on the gun.

Asia looked out the window of her office into the back yard. She noticed that there was a body-sized dent in the laminated metal roof over the porch underneath her window. There were also hoof marks all around the back yard and signs of a scuffle under the big oak tree in the back by her barn. She felt a little shiver of apprehension, glad she hadn’t been at home at the time.

Her cell phone rang. She ran out of her office and into her bedroom where she had begun unpacking. Her cell was on the bed. She clicked it on. It was Sheila.

Sheila said, “Hi. Bet you’re glad to be back home. Listen. I just contacted Interpol. They don’t have any records for a Dr. Almquist from Sweden. Are you sure you got the name correctly?”

Asia sighed and answered, “Positive. Maybe there is some reason that the name is not correct. Let me do some internet research and I’ll call you back.”

Sheila responded, “Okay. Oh, by the way, my future mother-in-law is coming for a visit tomorrow. Just to warn you.”

“Never a moment’s peace. How is she? José is too soft-hearted to turn her away, I presume.”

“Yeah, as usual. You will probably see her parading around downtown in her riding finest if you are there. She has to ride Niño as usual, regardless of the fact that the horse does not like her and won’t listen to her. Chico will be on Chica following along behind just in case his stallion gets out of hand, which Maria Luisa cannot handle.”

“Well, I’ll get started on the surfing for Dr. Almquist.”

“Good luck.”

“Talk to you later.”

“Bye,” said Sheila.

The two women clicked off their phones and Asia went back into her office, sitting down in front of her laptop and looking for clues as to any alternative identities for Elin Almquist. It didn’t take her long to look up marriage records. She found out that Dr. Almquist’s maiden name was Borg and her legal married name was Borg-Almquist.

She dialed Sheila at the police department

“Sergeant Rodriguez. May I help you?”

“It’s me. Dr. Almquist’s name is Borg-Almquist. You can try under her maiden name, Borg, as well. That should provide better results.”

“That was quick. Good. I’ll check it out and let you know what happens.”

“It wasn’t difficult to find her marriage and birth records.”

The two friends clicked off their cells and Asia went back to surfing the Net. She found Dr. Almquist’s early newspaper records under the new name and read them. The Guardian had a few articles from the early sixties that she emailed to Sheila.

Asia stretched and yawned. She closed her Net connection as Zucchini walked up to her and pushed her left hand onto the top of her head. She stroked her dog and got up, heading downstairs to the kitchen. “Ahh, real food,” she thought to herself, looking through the cabinets for something quick to cook. She decided on fried Tempeh and stir-fried fresh vegetables. As an afterthought, she put some brown rice in her slow cooker.

She put some kibble in Zookie’s bowl since the dog usually started begging for food treats as soon as Asia started cooking. She went outside to her garden which was getting over-loaded with ripe vegetables. To her dismay, she noticed that Niño’s big hoof prints were all over the soft soil of her garden and he had trampled some of her corn and tomato vines. She cut a bunch of fresh kale to steam for her meal.

She saw Talbot Patterson’s footprints followed by the stallion’s hooves and visualized him being chased by the large horse and chuckled to herself, feeling relieved again that she hadn’t been here at the time. Going back into the kitchen, she locked all her doors and windows on the first floor and took out some bottled curry sauce for her rice – and a new pair of wooden chopsticks to eat with.

Asia’s cell phone rang in her pocket. It was Sheila again. She sounded upset.

“What’s wrong?” asked Asia, concerned.

“What isn’t?” asked Sheila, sounding cynical. “I spoke to Interpol and we are closer to our perp. The prints match those on the rifle.”

Asia interrupted her friend, and said, “But, Sheila, that’s great! What’s wrong with that?”

“Well, I’ll tell you. There’s more to the story. I called Dr. Borg-Almquist and she refused to speak to me. She gave me the number for her lawyer. I spoke to him and he said he doubted that Sweden would permit extradition. The good doctor is a historical persona in Sweden. She is a national heroine.”

“A historical persona?”

“Yeah. Like you told me, her lawyer corroborated that she’s an abortionist and helped legalize abortion on demand in Sweden and liberalize many of the abortion laws in a few other European countries. She’s so famous, we were lucky to get England to release their copies of her prints.

We’re going to have to get most of our supporting information from the Department of Homeland Security and the airlines – as well as local rental and hotel records and go with that.”

“What if we cannot extradite her for trial?”

“Ah, hell – we’ll just have to look for her accomplice. It’s possible that the Harrison family and the congressman’s colleagues can help with extradition. Maybe our federal government will put some pressure on Sweden to agree to extradition.”

“Hopefully,” said Asia. “I mean, despite her politics, this looks like a murder one charge. If she came all the way from Sweden to shoot someone, that’s clear premeditation.”

“Looks that way,” Sheila responded, tiredly. “I’ll keep you updated.”

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

Maria Luisa had come in Saturday on a cloud of her favorite perfume, Poison. Her heavy use of perfume usually made Chico sneeze repeatedly. This was no exception. He had grabbed her two over-stuffed suitcases at the airport and watched her frown at his highly-polished patrol car, saying, “Chico, my son, did you have to pick me up in a police vehicle? I look like I’m being arrested. It’s embarrassing.”

 

Chico just swallowed his reply and put his mother’s luggage in the trunk with a slap.

Maria Louis went on, “You could have, at least, taken one of the ranch’s trucks.” Then she surprised her son by asking, “How is Sheila?”

Chico put the car in gear and pulled out of the airport parking lot. “Uh. She’s getting better. You know someone broke her nose and she was shot in the arm. The arm hurts her the most, but she’s getting better. She misses her motorcycle. She’s on desk work right now.”

“Oh. Well, I’m glad she’s feeling better. Doesn’t she feel police work is a bit rough for a lady?”

“No,” replied Chico. “She’s a power-oriented woman and likes her job. You know her specialty is counseling teenagers.”

“I see,” said Maria Luisa, making it obvious by her voice and facial expression that she didn’t at all and it might be her son’s fault that his girlfriend had to help run a police department. Like he didn’t make enough money to satisfy Sheila’s vision of her future.

This was not Chico’s favorite argument, and he cut his mother off by asking, “ Would you mind if we stopped at The Mexican Hat Restaurant and get some of the town’s best tamales for lunch?”

“See. That’s what I mean,” commented Maria Luisa. “She should be at home making the tamales and not at work sending you for take-out.”

Chico couldn’t help grunting, for which he got a sharp look from his mother.

“And what about children? Aren’t you ever going to have any?”

This was Chico’s second most-hated question. “We’re planning on it, mother. The time is not right now. When it is, you will know.”

Maria Luisa was used to this answer and looked satisfied, making a small “harrumph…” sound.

Chico laughed a little. They pulled into the Mexican restaurant. A short time later, he exited with a large foil bag filled with tamales. His stomach grumbled. He had already worked half a day with no breakfast. The Almontes and Sheila frequently skipped meals due to their intensive work schedules. He was tempted to grab a tamale and shove it into his mouth, but not where his mother could see him. Food was eaten at a table, not out of a bag in a parking lot according to Maria Luisa. “Oy vay,” thought Chico, miserably.

“Smells good, my little one,” said his mother as he put the greasy bag in an old coffee take out box in the front seat between them. He revved his engine and put on the Mars lights and siren, ramming out of the parking lot, speeding down Silver Lake Boulevard towards home.

His mother just kept shaking her head, “No, no, no…” He laughed quietly and felt devilish.

“Can you get a liter of Seven-Up?” his mother asked.

Chico turned into a Citgo station, started gassing up his car and went into the store.

A short time later, they pulled behind the Almonte house. Niño and Chica were loose and grazing benignly in their paddock.

Maria Luisa gave a small cowgirl yell and leaped out of the car, saying, “Oh, my beautiful

Niño, come here!” The horse looked at her sideways and actually backed away, but came over when Chico indicated that he had a horse cookie. “Bribery,” he thought, “will get you everywhere.”

Niño went directly over to him, as Maria Luisa tried to grab at the horse. Chico gave her a cookie to entice him. Niño still seemed recalcitrant. “Well, not everywhere…,” thought Chico with an internal laugh.

Niño finally tried to bite the cookie out of Maria Luisa’s hand and nicked her palm. She let out a yelp as her son said, “Be careful, he can bite. Best to drop it on a fence post.” Maria did just that and got to pet a beautiful, glassine forelock as the horse munched the treat. Then, shook his head from side to side at her. She murmured endearments as she rubbed the side of her bitten hand.

The two went into the house. Julio, who had just gotten home from the auctions in Texas the night before, shouted out, “Mama!” opening his arms wide as she entered the kitchen. Chico put the bag with the tamales in it on an already set table replete with corn tortillas, enchilada toppings and filling. The kitchen was steamy and filled with the scent of fresh Raven’s Brew.

Maria Luisa sat down at the head of the table and told Chico he could bring her bags up to her room.

“Sí mama,” Chico said.

The dinner went amazingly peacefully, even with the entire family assembled at the table – which included José Almonte. They all watched X-Men after dinner, then Maria Luisa went to bed early.

The next morning, early, Maria Luisa put on her finest riding garb which consisted of a thick cotton gold embroidered Western-style shirt with pink shell snaps and a string tie gathered with a large green garnet. She had a pair of beautiful, handmade, deer leather riding pants and ostrich cowgirl boots and hat. After getting on board a very nervous stallion and walking him to the dirt road in front of the farm house, Maria Luisa tried to smile. Niño cantered awkwardly – a little bit sideways and a little bit forward, Maria Luisa tried to correct him when he walked sideways using the heels of her boots and the horse’s bit, which Niño had always hated unless it was Chico that did it. So, when he whinnied in complaint, Chico pulled up beside his mother and let Chica, his horse, pacify the stallion, which she did well. And he straightened his stride.

Although Maria Luisa was looking a little foolish on the recalcitrant horse, she was a strikingly beautiful woman. Chico got all his good looks from her. They were twins in differing genders. They both had the same caramel/golden skin color with raven black hair. Even his dimples were hers. For a woman in her fifties, she had very little gray hair, no wrinkles, and was shapely and physically fit. She swam, played Jai Lai, tennis and ran frequently. She had rock hard abs and fine muscle tone in general.

She said, as Chico pulled up on Chica, “This horse just doesn’t know how to canter properly.”

“Sorry, mom,” answered Chico, swallowing the insult to his beloved horse. “I would have suggested you ride Chica, because Niño is used to me, and it probably confuses him that I am riding another horse. He is just not used to that.”

As soon as Sheila came in and sat down to eat breakfast, her cell phone rang. She swore and took a bite of muffin and a delicate sip of coffee before answering. She listened for a moment and got up from the table and ran to the front of the farm house, calling to Chico out the front door. Maria Luisa frowned when Chico hopped down from his horse.

“Sorry,” said Sheila to Chico’s mother. “He has police business. He can’t go riding right now.” Sheila turned to Chico, ignoring Maria’s objections. She said, “Someone’s over at Asia’s house again. It’s Talbot Patterson’s eldest son, Mike. He called the police department and said he would kill her if we didn’t drop the case against his father and let him go.

“Let’s go…I think they’ll need us to help negotiate him out of the house.”

__________

Asia Reynolds was crying. Long trails of tears ran from her eyes, down her cheeks and off her chin. Mike Patterson swore at her and tightened the plastic rope that secured her to a chair. He took a swipe at her with the butt of his gun. He wiped her face with a Kleenex and said, “Stop crying. Don’t act like a sissy. I’ll never get out of here alive. We are surrounded by cops. Your life depends on what they say.”

Zucchini barked ferociously from the kitchen where she was locked in. She scratched viciously at the door.

As soon as Asia had realized that someone had broken into her home, she had dialed 911.

She felt defeated. Again? Would she ever be safe again in her own home?

Sheila’s voice sounded on a bullhorn in front of the house. She could barely hear her over Zookie’s insistent barking. She willed her dog to be quiet.

 

Sheila was saying, “This is Sergeant Sheila Rodriguez of the Silver Lake Police Department. Michael Patterson, don’t make things worse. Your family needs you. Your dad wants you to give up now.

“Who will run the farm when you are both gone? I am from a large farming family, too, and we need all the hands we can get during planting, birthing and harvesting season. If you give up now, we can plea bargain for you – something your dad regrets he didn’t do. Call 911 on Asia’s cell phone, we’ll patch you in. Your father wants to speak to you.”

The boy swore but picked up the cell phone. He dialed and heard his father’s voice patched in after the desk cop answered.

“Mike, you are lucky that you are under eighteen. Did you hurt her?”

The boy said, “No, pop.”

“Good. Be smart. The cops won’t shoot you. You might get some time at Juvie and a felony record, but nothing too serious. Your mom and your brothers and sisters need you. What I did was stupid and selfish. I don’t want you to do this. It doesn’t help me at all.”

“But, dad,” the boy interrupted. “I can force them to let you go.”

“With the entire neighborhood flooded with cops? Not likely. Your odds are poor. You hurt that lady and your odds are dead. You hear me, son?”

“Yes, daddy. What should I do?”

“I’ll talk to Sergeant Rodriguez. She will give you directions on the bullhorn.”

“You sure, dad?”

“Positive. I wish I had done what Kinsey did. I am facing thirty years in prison. He’s only getting fifteen, plus the possibility of probation…half of what I have to do. At this point, he can even live at his house with a bracelet.”

“No lie?”

“No lie.”

Mike swore and clicked off the phone. He paced back and forth behind Asia, clicking the safety on his gun off and on and pointing the gun at the back of Asia’s head, saying, “Bang” in frustration. She jumped in her chair and started to shake. He eyed the window of the office, looking down at the metal roof underneath it. He wondered how it had gotten that big dent in it. There were only two or three cops in the back of the house. He could use his old high school quarterback moves on them and maybe get away. Like father, like son. He hoped his dad might forgive him.

The sound of the bullhorn crackled at the front of the house.

Michael. Come out the front door with your hands up. Throw your weapons out the door first. We won’t harm you.”

Mike raised the window in the room and stuck his head out. He put his .45 in the zipper pocket of his jean jacket. He took out a roll of duct tape, tore a piece off and pasted it across Asia’s mouth. He said a short prayer and crossed himself like he did before each football game and slid out the window as quietly as he could.

The cops seemed to be concentrating on the ground floor of the house and didn’t see him until he dropped to the dirt behind the house.

Hey!” called a cop at the boy as he ran his best play towards the woods. A shot rang out and he was hit in the back of his left leg. He fell and crawled towards the nearest underbrush. His arms stretched and took the weight of his body as his chest scraped the forest floor. He grabbed a slender tree and a shoulder-length stick. He stood, wincing in pain and shot behind himself wildly. He ran, hopping on one leg and using the stick as a staff to keep himself from falling.

His sense of direction was poor. This was his first time in Silver Lake.

The police crashed into the woods and spread out. He could hear them on his sides. He fell to the ground, crawled under a bush and passed out.

When he awoke, he was cuffed and riding in an ambulance on his way to the hospital.

“You’re in a lot of trouble, young man,” said the policeman at his side. “Your dad is very upset with you. For sixteen, you could have ruined your entire adult life. You will have a felony record now. Your dad blames himself for what you did.”

Mike swore softly under his breath.

“Watch your language there, son. You’re in our world now. Don’t try and struggle. You will be lucky to get a short sentence. You shot at us. Before that, you did not attempt to harm anyone. This is serious.”

Michael pulled at his bonds. His injured leg ached. He started to cry from the pain. The EMT asked him if he was in pain. Michael said, “Yes” and got a shot of pain killer. Feeling better, he fell asleep.

__________

Asia ruefully returned to the Almonte ranch as soon as the police were finished with examining the crime scene, noting that between the Silver Lake police and Michael Patterson, the rest of her surviving tomato vines had been badly trampled and ruined. Except for a few large tomatoes resting on the ground, there was nothing left.

Elise gave her an excited call on her cell and told her that she had earned her yellow belt in Judo, which was a grade above her beginning white belt.

Asia said, “Congratulations. I hope you don’t need me to practice on again.”

Elise responded, “Oh, don’t worry. That move at your house was just a sample. You could call it a treat in a way, since my moves are top secret and I trust you.”

“It’s always nice to know that being thrown flat on my back was a treat and a sign of trust.”

“Ha, ha,” said Elise. “I’m going over to Steele’s this afternoon to pick up my new belt.”

“Amy Steele’s? Elton’s ex?”

“Is there any other? Don’t worry. Ms. Steele and I are friendly. I love Elton. I want to earn his respect. Amy is a kind person, so she gets kindness back.”

“Good of you. No jealousy?” Asia inquired, slightly amazed at Elise’s forgiving attitude.

“Really, Asia. I can be a sister, you know.”

“Yeah, actually. I do know that. You’re my girl. I should know.”

“All right. I’ll come over later and show you the new outfit.”

“No demonstrations?”

“Probably not. It’ll be too dark. This stuff is dangerous. We practice enough in class.”

“Phew,” exclaimed Asia in relief.

“You can see the yellow belt qualifying moves online if you like.”

“Safer that way.”

“True.”

For her lunch hour, Elise went over to Steele’s Athletic Equipment to pick up her new belt.

Amy Steele was surprised and happy to see her, but there was a hint of sadness in her voice. Elise looked down occasionally, feeling bad for her. Because Amy’s break-up with Elton was really just one of those things and not a personality conflict – Elise felt she could afford to be expansive with her. Besides, as usual, Ms. Steele was all business and very cordial.

It wasn’t as if she would want to invite her over for the evening. She felt their sensitivities that way were mutual. Neither woman wanted to hurt the other, but they were not anywhere near close at this point in time. They might become friends later. It would have to grow.

A man walked into the store and began looking at caving equipment. Ms. Steele rang up Elise’s new belt and went over to help him.

Elise turned to leave and gasped when she saw the other customer. It was the past employee from Cape Camera. The man they knew as Edmundo. She walked outside and dialed Sheila’s cell. Sheila sent a patrol car over, but had warned them not to use their siren or lights.

As soon as Edmundo saw the patrol car pull up in front of the store, he ran out the back door, not even waiting to see if they would enter the store. The police gave chase, but Edmundo disappeared into the noon-time crowd on Silver Lake Boulevard. It was about as packed as Fifth Avenue in Manhattan at lunch time. In other words, wall-to-wall people.

Elise returned to the store and asked Amy Steele if she knew that customer. Ms. Steele said, “Yes, he has been in here before buying rain gear and is a regular customer, but he usually buys caving equipment. He usually bought equipment for a group and paid in cash.” She did not know his full name, although she said that the name he gave her was Bill – not Edmundo.

Elise told her what he was wanted for and that Amy should call the police if he came in again. Ms. Steele asked if he was dangerous and Elise answered, “Maybe. But, possibly not. I wouldn’t let him know you were calling.”

That evening at the Almonte ranch, Asia was busy unpacking again, leaning on her dog emotionally. It was confusing. She wanted to be at her own house – but was afraid of it, too.

Sheila came home early, took a shower and changed her clothes. When Chico came in, she started to tell him about the sighting of Edmundo at Steele’s.

“Sit down, Chico. Elise identified Edmundo at Steele’s Athletic this afternoon. He was buying spelunking equipment. Ms. Steele said the name he gave her was Bill, not Edmundo.”

Chico looked startled and concerned. “He’s a caver?” he asked in a choking voice.

“Most probably. She said he tends to buy in quantity, as well. So he probably leads caving expeditions.”

Chico looked down at his feet and shifted in his chair uncomfortably.

“What’s wrong, honey? Do you know him?”

“It’s possible. I know a professional caver named Bill.”

“Really?!” said Sheila, excitedly. “Where do you know him from? Is he still in town?”

Chico cleared his throat as if he did not want to speak.

“What’s the matter?” asked Sheila, leaning closer to him.

“Um, Sheila. I know where we might be able to find him. I’ll go right now and take a look. Maybe I can get a photograph so we can ID him properly.”

“You better bring back-up.”

“I will, but they have to stay on the street. I’ll go change my clothes. I’m sorry, honey…”

“Why?”

“I went against police procedure and discovered a large group of hippies living underground in a cavern.”

“On your beat?”

“Somewhat, yes.”

Somewhat?! And you didn’t report it?”

“Sorry. I took it on myself to ensure their safety.”

 

“You know you should have at least reported that to the Park Service. You cannot be there all day. What if they needed help and you weren’t there? Really, Chico. I understand that you are as protective as a mother hen, but you could lose your job over something like that, “ said Sheila with irritation. “You couldn’t even tell me?” she said, practically stamping her foot.

“I should have,” replied Chico, miserably, still not able to lift his eyes to his girlfriend’s.

“Well, go ahead and change. I’ll call your back-up. Where are the cave dwellers located?”

“Okay. The cave entrance is in Stimson’s old abandoned hay field on the edge of town.”

“Take your automatic.”

“That would be dangerous around so much rock. Also, I don’t think I will have to use a gun just to take a photo.”

“Hmm. Okay, but be careful, anyway.”

Chico went upstairs and changed into jeans, a watch cap and his sweatshirt with SLPD lettered on it. He also took his canvas gloves and a pair of knee pads. He did take his 9mm, though. He looked into his mother’s room and saw her watching soap operas and infomercials. She turned and looked at him. “Still on police business?” she asked.

“Gotta work, mama,” he answered. “It’s an investigation that I have to handle myself.”

 

“Okay, honey. I’ll just keep up on my soaps.” retorted Maria Luisa in a critical voice only Chico’s magnificent black stallion and American soap operas could mollify. The soothing theme music to The Young and the Restless interrupted their conversation. She turned back to the TV.

Chico heard a car pull up in the back of the house and saw that it was a Silver Lake Police Department patrol car. He ran down the stairs to the first floor as he strapped his side holster across his chest and went outside.

The three cops drove to the field bordering the town area and Chico led them over to the cave entrance. He said, “You guys stay here. I’ll get the photo and come right back up.”

“Okay,” said the driver of the patrol car.

“Be careful,” said the other cop.

Chico smiled sadly and said, “This guy is not an ordinary criminal. If it’s him, he is not violent. He is down there with the group as a caring individual.”

Chico threw his long legs into the sinkhole and slid down onto the rock shelf.

By the time he landed on the cavern floor, everyone was lining up for dinner. He called Bill and Tom over and asked them politely if he could take a few pictures. They looked concerned and asked why.

Chico said, ”Oh, mostly just for myself. But, if anyone asks at my department, I can prove that you folks are clean, safe and well-organized. By the way, Bill, what is your last name?

Bill looked wary, but answered, “Tuttle.”

“I will use you as a temporary adult representative of your camping group, if I have to. Is that okay?”

Bill looked proud, smiled and said, “Sure.”

Chico took his digital camera out and took some photos of the dinner line (making sure to get a clear shot of Bill’s face as he filled a plate with rice and vegetables.) He also took a picture of his favorite wall – the one painted with the SAFE HAVEN sign and got a shot of the neat lines of cots. He gave his excuses for not eating there, swung back up the rope ladder and was on the ground outside in a few minutes.

His back-up walked over. The driver asked, “Everything all right?”

Chico answered, “Oh, yeah. They even invited me for dinner.”

“Whoa. They must really trust you.”

Chico looked embarrassed and said, “They do.”

Back at the police department that afternoon after lunch, Sheila reviewed the Smithers’ murder video for about the tenth time. There was something she wasn’t seeing. She knew there was something she was missing. She looked closer. She inadvertently noticed that the Smithers’ attacker was wearing an unusual triangular cotton tie-back scarf pulled low over her face so that her face was usually in shadow, which she had noticed before. But, she hadn’t noticed that the label was visible. Sheila zoomed in on it. As the tiny label got clearer, she could see that it was an L.L. Bean scarf. The woman in the video had on a black CIU hoodie and tight, expensive-looking black garden gloves. She got the close-up on the label showing on the gloves, as well.

It had to be a stalker. That was an awfully hot outfit for the local Illinois summer weather, so it must have been planned to be a disguise. It was also a rather expensive disguise.

Gloria Smithers had said she did not own anything like the scarf or CIU university logo wear. Her home had been thoroughly searched early in the investigation and nothing like that was found, nor was there any discarded clothing in her trash.

Sheila decided to phone Tobias Smart and go over the clothing labels with him. He had repeatedly denied the possibility of a stalker other than Gloria Smithers.

“Stalking whom?” he had said, dismissively. Smart’s condo had round the clock security and no one had caused any breach of that protection. At the mention of a stalker, Smart had reacted in an alarmed way about his own safety and vulnerability. He was a well-known supporter and fund-raiser for Senator Villalobos, so that made him a potential target for conservative political ire. He was also well-known to be a little on the paranoid side, personality-wise.

Smart answered his phone, “Hello! Tobias Smart.”

“Hello, Mr. Smart, it’s Sgt. Rodriguez. I wanted to have you view the video of Vance Smithers’ attacker with me once again. I have a few more questions for you.”

“Oh, my God. I am so distressed about that whole thing. Can’t you just ask me what you want to know over the phone? That video is macabre.”

“Maybe. You probably don’t realize that the clothing the killer was wearing was never found in Mrs. Smithers’ home.”

There was an explosion of anger over the phone line. Smart answered, “Well, of course, she must have thrown those things away! Wouldn’t you?”

“I just want to ask you if you know anyone that wears a black L.L. Bean tie-back scarf and might have a black CIU hoodie, and what looks like real, black Gucci vinyl garden gloves. It might be a stretch, but you would be surprised at how many people fail to recognize an assailant until they see a birth mark or a familiar piece of clothing and then pull it all together.”

Tobias Smart let his breath out sharply, and said, “Sort of like how one sees the same fence every day on the way to work and doesn’t really become aware that there is a rose bush behind it until you think back over it.”

“Yeah! That’s what I mean. You could call it sudden peripheral memory.”

Smart paused and said, “Hmm, let me think a minute.”

Sheila heard him gasp again. Then Smart said, “Oh, Sgt. Rodriguez. There is someone at my door, can I call you right back?”

Sheila said, “Of course. Talk to you later. I will send an mp3 copy of the video to your email just in case you would like to see it for yourself again with our jpegs of the glove and scarf labels.”

Smart clicked his cell phone off and called to the back of his condominium, “Samuel, can I see you a minute?”

 

 

Chapter Twenty

Sam answered in a light, musical voice, “Yes, dear. Give me a moment. I’ll be right there. It’s my hair. I need to go to the hairdresser’s again.” Sounding fussy, he continued, “I just find it so annoying when my hair gets caught in my collar.”

Samuel walked into their large living room and sat down right next to Tobias, giving him a kiss. “Now, honey. What’s on your mind?”

“Oh, that cheeky Sgt. Rodriguez just won’t leave me alone. She keeps thinking that I can come up with the person that drowned Vance Smithers.”

“You can’t?” answered Samuel with a slightly amused twinkle in his eyes.

Tobias slapped his Scotch glass down emphatically, clanking the ice in the glass as it hit the table.

“Let me refresh that for you,” said Sam gently, rising to his feet.

“No…no, sit down, Sammy. I need you right now.”

“Oh, poor baby…” said Sam, putting his thin, shapely arm around Toby’s large, round shoulders.

Tobias leaned back into Sam’s embrace with a sigh.

“Oh, Sammy,” exclaimed Tobias as a tear rolled down his cheek.

“Whatever is the matter, sweetheart?”

“Oh, that Sgt. Rodriguez wants me to identify some god-awful clothing that Vance’s killer wore in the video.”

“That’s weird. Everyone wears everything. How can you even begin to figure that out?” But, Samuel began to tense a little.

Tobias looked deeply into Sam’s eyes. “Actually, she wants her description of the killer’s clothing to ring a bell in my mind.”

“It doesn’t?”

“Of course not. Why would a woman’s clothing be of interest to me? Really…”

Sam relaxed and gave a little giggle, getting up again and walking to the room’s polished, marble wet bar. He grabbed a nice bottle of Scotch with a switch of his hips. Leaning over to the small refrigerator, he got the bucket of ice, as well. Using an extra finger, he got a glass for himself.

Putting all these things down on the glass and chrome coffee table, he sat himself down on Toby’s lap. With an elegant movement of his arm, he filled Tobias’s glass with ice and liquor and poured himself a straight.

“You’re drinking?” asked Tobias.

“The wrinkles can wait. I need this right now. You know how much I dislike women even calling here. This is our refuge from the outside world.”

“Ah, Sammy! What would I do without you? You are so beautiful.”

Sam giggled again and kissed Tobias hard on the ear, following that with, “Feel better now?”

“Yeah,” answered Tobias, swallowing another sob. “Much…”

“So what kind of clothing is Rodriguez looking for?”

Tobias threw his arm out to his side in exasperation. “Jeez. This is soo ridiculous. Like a scavenger hunt. She thinks I – or someone – can identify some sort of sport’s wear.”

“No clue, hunh?”

“No,” answered Tobias with a snort of distaste. “I have to call her back and tell her I haven’t got any more information for her.”

“Oh, Tobias. I love you so much.”

“I love you too, Sammy.”

The two men embraced each other and kissed passionately.

Tobias pulled away and took a sip of his freshened drink. “Oh, by the way, I think I found a new Spa manager.”

Sam tensed again and moved over onto the couch. “Oh, really? I thought I was going to be the manager!”

“This time it’s someone I think you can be more comfortable with. It is a gay guy from Hollywood. He has a fine resumé that includes quite a few big productions in the film business… Not a straight man.”

Sam bit his lower lip a little and mumbled, “Anyone I would know?”

“I kind of doubt it. I invited him to dinner for Friday – so you can meet each other.”

Sam frowned and then brightened. “Oh, good. I can impress him with my gourmet cooking.”

“Sammy, we are not that close, yet. We are going out to La Bohéme. There is no need to prepare a specialty for him just yet.”

Samuel looked disappointed, but said, “Okay. Can we meet here first for drinks and appetizers? I can make sushi rolls.”

“Sure. Maybe you can make something less exotic – without the seaweed.”

Sam laughed. “Of course. Perhaps a tamer sweet or something. “

“Sounds good.”

__________

Sheila Rodriguez received Tobias Smart’s return call with disappointment. Tobias seemed upset and she couldn’t say that she blamed him. He told her he could not recall anyone that owned the apparel that she was looking for.

She ended her work day with a call to Chico and he came over in Cisco’s truck to pick her up. He was riding with Maria Luisa. With a little irritation, Sheila noticed that Chico’s mom wasn’t going to move so that she could sit next to her boyfriend. She climbed into the back of the extended cab and buckled her seat belt.

Chico smiled at Sheila over his shoulder and said, “Hi, honey. Before I ask about your day, I have to tell you that I got several photos of Bill Tuttle today. Asia has already identified him as that guy, Edmundo, that worked at Cape Camera.

“I emailed the shots to Ralph Wilson and I will talk to him later.”

“So we have one local suspect in the murder of Congressman Harrison,” commented Sheila.

“Looks that way.”

Maria Luisa broke in with “Okay. Can you talk shop later? I’m getting hungry. Chico, you are driving too slow.”

Chico chuckled and pressed the truck’s accelerator a little more so that his mother adjusted her set back with a contented and slightly manipulative smile. “José will be home tonight?” she asked.

Chico answered, “Yes, mama. He should be on time for dinner. He just bought six new calves.”

“I hope he doesn’t smell like cow dung.”

“Hazard of the ranching trade. I guess we could give him time to take a shower and change his clothes before we eat. Cisco is cooking tonight.”

Maria Luisa looked straight into the truck mirror at Sheila and said, “Can you cook at all, Sheila? I can remember you made some fine brownies in fourth grade.”

Sheila laughed and answered facetiously, “Well, I haven’t done much cooking since then. But, of course, I can – when I have the time.”

Maria Luisa frowned and shook her head.

Chico added, “She has a career, mother.”

“A woman needs to give her talents to her home, “ said Maria Luisa smugly, still looking in the truck’s mirror at Sheila.

Sheila took a hard pack of Marlboro red from her breast pocket and lit one, looking intently into Chico’s mirror right back at Maria Luisa.

Maria Luisa practically jumped out of the truck seat and said pointedly, “I didn’t know you smoked.”

“I don’t…usually,” answered Sheila behind a large puff of cigarette smoke.

Chico turned and pulled in front of the Almonte barn just in time to see his dad herding a string of calves inside of the building. One of the calves bellowed plaintively in protest. José Almonte patted her on the behind. She fell into step with the others and went inside the barn without further protest.

__________

On Monday, Chico rode his stallion over to Stimson’s old field, tied him up and walked over to the entrance of the cavern. He knew that his gun was useless inside the cave due to the danger of ricochet and the possibility of a stray bullet hitting an innocent person. Also, he did not think he would need to use a gun. He also knew that handcuffs would make any exiting along the tunnel difficult or impossible. He did not think that Bill would come with him voluntarily, though. Although, it was possible.

Strategically, he felt that maybe he could require all the residents of the cavern to leave and then grab Bill Tuttle above ground as he left with the others. That was why the plan was to try and capture him today. It was a work day and at this time of day, in the late morning, there might not be very many people in the cavern since most of the folks living there were at their craft tables selling handicrafts to tourists.

This, he had decided, was the best idea. A Forest Service van pulled up to the field and four rangers got out and walked over to Chico. An SLPD prisoner escort van parked behind the ranger van and four policemen got out and joined the Forest Service and Chico. Two forest rangers followed Chico into the tunnel. Chico had preferred to go down to the cavern alone, but the Forest Service and police department had nixed this.

Sure enough, Jimmy, Tom and Bill were the only residents in the cave at this time. They looked at the men in shock and dismay as Chico and the rangers swung down the rope ladder. They walked over towards Bill who jumped like a jack rabbit caught in a trap and ran to the alternative exit that led out through the tourist area before he even knew why Chico had brought anyone else with him. This was what Chico had warned the Forest Service and police department about. Now, he was being proved correct.

Bill climbed quickly up the knotted rope to the other rock ledge, pulling the rope up after him and securing it on the ledge. The three officers shouted, “Hey!” simultaneously, staring helplessly as Bill Tuttle’s feet disappeared into that exit tunnel.

One ranger said to the other, “Do you know where that tunnel might lead to?”

The other ranger said, “It might possibly come out into the underground lake area in the tourist cavern.” Chico voiced his agreement and answered, “Let’s go up and see if the other officers can get around over there and catch him.”

The first ranger tried his radio and shook his head. “My radio won’t work down here. Come on. Let’s go back up.”

“Okay. Hurry,” said Chico.

Chico walked over to Tom and Jimmy and explained what was happening. The two men agreed that the alternative exit led to the tourist area, and asked if Bill would get shot. Chico said, “Probably not.” And then asked, “Does he have a hand gun with him?” Tom and Jimmy looked shocked and both of them nodded “no.”

The two forest rangers exited the entrance tunnel as quickly as they could and sent the police van over to the tourist entrance, leaving the ranger van parked by Stimson’s field.

Meanwhile, Bill, sweating and struggling to remain as quiet as he could, dropped down behind an exiting tour group. Deciding it was safer to remain behind and hide rather than follow them into a boat and possibly run into any trouble at the tourist entrance, he slid behind a large row of stalactites set like a row of organ pipes a few feet from the cave wall. He sat down, breathing hard, thinking twice as hard. As soon as he got above ground, he knew he had to call Dr. Almquist on his cell phone. He knew any contact with her was taking a chance. But, he figured she could get him safely out of the country. He figured that the American media could quite possibly find him anywhere within the United States. And, he didn’t think that anyone, at this point, would know he was working with an international.

Above ground, the police van rushed to the tourist entrance and all four SLPD officers entered the underground area and closed the tours down. They took a tour boat with a tour guide across the lake sweeping the area with the tour’s emergency flood lights.

Bill trembled as he heard the smaller boat land on the shore of the underground lake near where he sat. He peeked out between two stalactites watching the officers examine an area near his hiding place. He laid flat on his stomach. They walked right past him.The flood light swept right over his prone body as he quieted his breath.

The officers looked frustrated at the number of tunnels and cul de sacs they had to examine for their fugitive. The tour guide aimed the flood light at the ceiling revealing even more rough areas that were large enough for a man to hide.

“You see?” he said to the officers. “These caves have so many connections, you might never find anyone hiding down here.”

One officer replied, in a slightly defeated voice, “Yeah. I see. Well, he can’t stay down here forever. We’ll try and catch him on his way out.”

“Which way out?” asked the tour guide. “There could be a hundred exits from this cavern.”

The officer sighed resignedly and answered, “Don’t know. But we’ll post a few officers around the area until nightfall and see if we can catch him.”

“Good luck. You’ll need it. Is this guy a professional caver? If he is, he could know these caves better than we do. Better than anyone else.”

“Yeah, actually, he is a professional – or so our information seems to indicate. Come on, let’s go,” said the officer. “This is a maze.”

“That’s exactly what this place is,” answered the guide, starting the boat engine as everyone climbed back in.

Bill breathed out audibly in relief and sat up slowly as the boat puttered away. He pulled his tool belt around to the front and looked over his head, pulling his cell phone out and checking the time. It was one o’clock. He felt he would have a better chance after dark. Maybe his only chance, other than starving to death down here. He did not want to try and call Dr. Almquist down here – not that he could get a signal anyway.

Dr. Almquist had many wealthy international supporters – billionaire liberals willing to help her causes. He wondered how she was. If the police had put her and himself together as accomplices. He hoped not. He knew she would help him.

He ate a granola bar and lay down again, putting his arms under his head, falling asleep. When he awoke, he would look for another exit. He had a spelunking ax, cramp-ons and a rope on his belt. If there was another exit to a sinkhole above him – he would find it.

Bill awoke around 8pm to the noises of his friends entering the cavern on the other side of the wall. Cooking smells and incense hit his nose. He felt lonely.

It was time to check for exits, especially with all the other campers coming in. He could use them as cover.

He got his candle out and lit it, lighting a cigar as well. He held the lit candle above his head and watched with eagerness as the flame began to bend to his right. He held the smoking cigar in the same direction and watched the smoke snake upwards towards a breach above him.

He put the cramp-ons on his boots and tied a rope to his ax. He began a slow climb straight up towards the crack in the cave wall. Reaching the V shaped breach, he felt inside. It was solid. He put the cigar into the opening and to his delight, the smoke flowed forward and then upwards after about ten feet. He entered the passageway, feeling the floor as he crawled forward mostly on his stomach. When he reached a certain point, he could feel what he knew could be fresh, cold night air.

He re-lit the cigar and watched the smoke travel upwards and hopefully out. He folded the ax back into his tool belt and took out a head lamp. Using his cramp-ons again, he grabbed a rock above his head and balanced on his toes climbing upwards. After about twenty feet, he felt over his head and was pretty sure he could feel grass and solid ground. He had done it!

He could hear the voices and laughter of the other campers, so he knew he was close to the other entrance. Using his tensile strength, he exited the hole flat on his stomach and crawled through some bushes and tall grass hoping to not attract any attention.

He spotted a large boulder and crawled behind it. He panted in exertion and leaned against the rock. He laughed softly as he heard a camper say, “You smell cigar smoke?”

Peeking around his cover, he noticed that the Forest Service van was still there. He would have to wait until all the campers were in and the van was gone. He ate another granola bar. He checked the clock on his phone – it was 10pm. Although the night was cool, he wiped sweat off his face with his red paisley kerchief.

Around midnight, the campers entering the cavern had ceased and the Forest Service van had left. He stood and stretched his cramped muscles. He dialed Dr. Almquist’s number. She answered, “Hallä?”

He explained his situation and found out with joy that her extradition to America had been denied and asked if he could qualify for the same protection. She said she did not know, but she felt that it was worth a try. She asked if he could make it to the airport.

He said, “Yes.”

Elin answered, “I want you to go to hanger 135. I will send you a pilot. This going to be complicated. Do you have your Eduardo Alcosta passport with you?”

Bill said, “Yes, but my photo and alias are probably known. I will have to enter Europe and Sweden another way.”

The phone grew silent. His hand shook. “Elin?”

She answered, “Okay. This is more difficult, but I think it can be done. I will give you instructions through the pilot as I make the arrangements.”

“That sounds great. It will take me about an hour to walk to the hanger.”

“Good luck, Bill. May the Force be with you.”

“Hope I see you soon, Dr. Almquist. Thank you.”

“Bye, Bill. We will keep in touch.”

“Of course. Bye, Elin.”

Bill flicked his large mag light on and ate another granola bar as he alternately walked and jogged towards the lights of the Silver Lake airport.

It was a good thing he was in shape and liked running. He made the airport before 1 am and switched his mag light off. He walked in the shadows of the private hanger area with his head down until he got to number 135. As he pushed through an open door, a large blonde man in a dark blue uniform with a matching visored cap smiled down at him and said, “Bill Tuttle?”

Bill nodded and answered, “Dr. Almquist sent me.”

“Ah, yes. I assumed so. Are you hungry? By the way, my name is Gunnar Ahlgren. I am your pilot for the first leg of your journey.”

“Yeah,” said Bill. “I am very hungry. I haven’t eaten anything except granola bars since yesterday.”

“You can heat some food in our microwave when we are in the air. We have a tight schedule. We have to fly to Los Angeles and switch you to a barge. The captain of the boat will clue you in on where you are going from there. We are going to the west coast even though the Atlantic is closer to Europe. We are doing this because it will throw the cops off our trail. They expect you to leave from the east coast – not the west.

“How do soy meatballs and whole wheat spaghetti sound? I was told you are a vegetarian.”

“That sounds wonderful. I have been living on granola bars, like I said.”

The two men embraced and clapped each other on the back. Bill mounted the stairs to the jet and was amazed at the luxurious interior of the private jet as he entered. Gunnar started the warming up the engine of the plane and showed Bill to his window seat, telling him, “When we are in flight, I will tell you when you can take your seat belt off and use the kitchen. Your meal is in the small refrigerator over in the kitchenette area.

“Now…we must go.”

Gunnar returned to the cockpit and Bill strapped himself in. His stomach growled in anticipation of a meal. He watched the moving tarmac roll away as Gunnar expertly maneuvered the plane down the runway. He felt tired, exhausted, in fact. His whole body ached from the exertion of climbing and running and fear. As the plane angled upward into the air, he saw the clear, dark sky speed past his window. A few stars were visible, twinkling through several moonlit clouds.

Gunnar’s loud voice came over the intercom. “Bill, you can take your seat belt off now and eat.

There is a stack of blankets and pillows on a chair in your cabin. If you want to lie down, you can use the bedroom in the back. There is a bathroom back there too – with a shower. Sorry, I would have to sort through our clothing to find something clean that fits you. You can give me your sizes later and I will have the captain of the barge we are bringing you to get you some more clean clothes. Dr. Almquist is paying for everything. Since I’m not leaving this country and you are going by boat – you can board your next conveyance without having to go through customs. In other words, we will smuggle you on board. You will arrive in Scotland in about a month.”

Scotland?” thought Bill, trying to connect Scotland to his destination in Sweden.

“We should reach Los Angeles in a few hours. Rest, relax…sleep. I will awaken you when we land.”

Bill got up and stretched, walking over to the kitchenette and warming his food. After he was finished eating, he went into the bedroom and lay down on the bed, falling asleep – not even bothering to get under the covers. His clothing was pretty dirty anyway. He had grass stains, dirt and rubble from crawling around on the ground and lying down in the cave all over his clothes. He couldn’t even stay awake long enough to remove his T-shirt, jeans and socks.

After a few hours of deep, peaceful sleep, Gunnar’s voice came over the intercom in the bedroom. “Time to awaken, Bill, we’re here. Fasten your seat belt, we’re landing in fifteen minutes.” Gunnar checked the cameras in each room to make sure that Bill had taken his seat again.

Bill yawned and stretched. He got off the bed and brushed the bed spread off with his hand. He went over to his window seat and buckled himself in.

Gunnar’s voice came over the intercom again and said, “Thanks. We will begin our descent. We are landing on a private airstrip just outside of Los Angeles. You will be driven to a docked boat that will take you to the barge later tonight. You can shower, change your clothes and have breakfast in our private hanger.”

The plane began to pitch downward, its engine straining. Soon, the sound and jolt of the landing gear touching down vibrated throughout the vehicle. Gunnar drove the plane over to a large hanger. The sun was just beginning to rise in a brilliant, oceanic blue sky. Bill sighed, letting the comfort of the plane encompass him for a few more minutes.

The plane parked and Gunnar appeared in the doorway of the cockpit with a smile. “Good morning, Bill come with me. I’ll get you some clean clothing.

“They are serving breakfast in the hanger. You might like it: multi-grain organic pancakes with maple syrup and chicory tea. And of course, LA’s specialty – freshly squeezed orange juice.”

Bill unbuckled his seat belt, got up and followed Gunnar to a clothing closet. He picked out a set of black sweat pants and a matching hoodie. Gunnar put the clothing in a black gym bag and the two men walked down the stairs of the private jet into the huge space of the hanger.

The hanger office was more like the living room of a condominium – or a condo, itself, furnished with a bedroom, bath and kitchen. The sign on the hanger identified the place as “The Los Angeles International Private Transport System.”

A man greeted them at the door of the office with his hand outstretched. “Hi, my name is Carlos Rivera. This is my transport company. Make yourself at home. You will be picked up at midnight tonight and driven to your next point of departure which is a private yacht that will ferry you to a barge anchored off Catalina Island. Too bad you won’t see the island during the day. It is quite beautiful.

“Go ahead and bathe. I understand you must have been exhausted last night. Come into the front office and I will show you where your breakfast is.”

Bill accepted a bath towel, small bottles of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint soap and Rainforest Wildcrafted Vanilla Bean Shampoo from Carlos, went into the hanger’s bathroom and ran some very hot water. He shaved with the electric razor he found in front of the sink’s mirror. As the steam rose in the room, he undressed and stepped into the shower in total relief. Some salsa music began to boom over the luxurious hanger’s rather excellent sound system. Bill put in a little hip in the shower.

Refreshed, Bill dressed in his new sweats and entered the living room area and walked over to the office. He sat down with Carlos and went over tonight’s plans. Bill would have a state room on the barge for his month at sea.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One

The night Maria Luisa left the Almonte ranch to fly to Mexico to visit her relatives there, she decided to make a huge Mexican dinner (her way) for everyone. She was an excellent cook and the dishes she made were not just the quick meals that the Almontes preferred due to their heavy work schedules.

 

Maria Luisa made ranch chiles relleňos with ancho chile salsa, stuffed poblanos, chicken mole, corn on the cob with lime, ancho and Almonte rennetless queso fresco. For an appetizer she made pozole and Yucatàn lime soup. Instead of chicken, Maria used wheat gluten for the vegetarian version of the mole.

Sheila felt a little intimidated – as if the whole meal was some sort of demonstration as to what she should be doing instead of police work. But, she corrected her attitude since the meal was really wonderful. Even Cisco did not usually take the time to make a six course meal. Maria Luisa was a rather sharp critic, but she could cook.

Sheila washed and curled her hair and put on make-up and a flowered dress. It was more as a joke, than anything – but Chico loved it and Maria Luisa felt complimented and laid off the cynicism throughout the entire dinner.

Cisco put on a stack of Mariachi CDs and played them throughout the entire dinner. It was, actually, a very special time. Harry Skylar showed up at around seven and was awed. He loved the wheat gluten mole. Of course, Maria Luisa had to gripe about, “Who on earth would be a vegetarian? No cheese with rennet, no meat, no fish, no eggs. You all should be dead!” Everybody laughed, except Asia, who gave a little “ha, ha…” Maria was not swayed by the health benefits, saying that her people really enjoyed their meats when they were lucky enough to afford them. Leaving the meat out was not something she was used to – except from her deprived childhood and early days as a farm worker. Of course, as you can see, Maria could not keep all this to herself for quite that long a time. She couldn’t quite make her silence last all the way through the meal.

Maria Luisa’s plane left at ten pm. She filled their ears with compliments about her short stay (surprising and pleasing everyone) and promised to write and send photos of their Mexican relations, and postcards of the area she was staying in. They all hugged and kissed each other on the cheek as they bid her farewell.

Sheila puffed her cheeks out in a sigh of relief as Maria’s plane lofted overhead and lit her last Marlboro. She had to work the desk on Monday coordinating the capture of Bill Tuttle with the FBI and Interpol.

Tuesday, at midnight, as scheduled, Bill Tuttle was on his way to Catalina Island and a barge on its way to Scotland. After a quick ride in a black SUV with tinted windows to the Santa Monica dock, another quick ride in the small cabin of a yacht to the shores of Catalina, he met the captain of the Lorna Doone – a huge 3,000 foot hydro-kinetically powered barge carrying electrical equipment to Edinburgh, Scotland. As per the invitation of Captain James Masters, he stowed his gym bag in his new state room and met him in the wheelhouse to watch the departure of the boat – which was well worth watching.

The boat pulled out of Catalina at about three in the morning. An early sunrise greeted the two men as the barge cut through a few rough, small waves. Seagulls chattered over the water, diving for fish and waving their wings in farewell as the big boat headed towards Europe via a Central American route. A large blue whale surfaced next to them and amazed Bill by following them for about a half hour, leaving with a quick flip of its huge tail. A line of brown pelicans trailing about ten dolphin followed the barge for a while after that.

The ship owned a fine paperback and DVD library which Bill was free to use – along with the rest of the crew. The crew was Indonesian and Filipino, with a few West Indians. They were all very friendly. For the first part of his day, Bill would chat with the crew over his breakfast. They were curious about his vegetarian fare and usually sampled his food a little. Then, he would go to the library and choose a few films and peruse the books. He had found a vegetarian cookbook and had given it to the ship’s cook, marking his choices in pencil. Whatever this cook cast his magic spell on, came out beautifully – so Bill was enthused about his future dishes. The cook did whole grain and vegetable casseroles as a specialty and even Captain Masters asked to have a portion from time to time. He even decided he could add some of the vegetarian dishes to the ship’s diet. Good for cholesterol counts and a fine addition to lower carbs and promote a heart-healthy dish on board.

A few kilometers out from Edinburgh, the ship mysteriously put down anchor in a pool of rather mild sea. The crew began to fish with their poles off the lowest deck and seemed unperturbed about the stop. They were given a short vacation. Bill was curious.

Bill was called to the wheelhouse to meet with Captain Masters. He said, “Sit down, Mr. Tuttle. We are entering one of the last legs of your trip to Malmo. Unfortunately, Edinburgh is being closely watched for smugglers right now, so we cannot dock with you on board, as you might understand. Also, you have no passport – so we have to slip you in and out of everywhere. Nothing with an official checkpoint.”

Concerned, Bill nodded.

“So, my good friend, we have contracted a float plane service to fly you over this part of the North Sea to a floating dock outside of Goteborg, Sweden.”

“You should go and pack right now. The plane will be here within the hour,”

Captain Masters rose and extended his hand. Bill grabbed it and shook it. He went down and packed his gym bag. A crew member knocked on his door and handed him a wet suit and water-proof bag with instructions for him to change into the suit and pack his things in the water-proof bag. Bill frowned in confusion, but did as he was instructed.

The plane set down next to the barge noisily during lunch. A folding staircase was hung from the barge to the plane’s pontoons. The plane would take him and land next to a dock near Goteborg. He had to swim from a floating dock to the mainland. They would then be in Swedish waters, but since the plane was not tying up, it would not be an immediate Customs issue – as long as the Swedish Coast Guard did not see them. He would then be picked up by car which would drive him to Dr. Almquist’s home in Malmo.

Each conveyance was registered within the nations they flew or sailed within. But, not with an unregistered passenger. It was up to Bill to safely swim from the float plane a short distance to the dock that connected to the mainland. He was told that the water outside of Sweden on their side of the North Sea was very cold, but his wet suit was designed to withstand the colder temperatures. Bill gave an involuntary shiver – more from the 007-style trip plans than anything else.

This was the first time Bill had flown in a float plane. The ocean spread out before them as if encased and rounded in the Plexiglas globe of the small plane’s cockpit.

The trip across the North Sea was short and exciting. Bill could see quite a few large fish from the height of the plane. Now, he understood why the barge was so close to Scotland. They were also on the North Sea and Edinburgh was a big transportation center, so they were accustomed to a lot of barge traffic. When they started to approach the Swedish mainland, the plane began to lower in altitude. After a few minutes, the pilot landed, skidding over a few small swells and opening a sliding door, beckoning Bill to come over. A floating dock bobbed below them. Bill was to climb down a plastic rope ladder with the wet bag strapped to his back, land on the dock, drop into the icy arctic water and swim to the next dock where the driver of the his vehicle would help him dry off and warm up.

The plan went smoothly and his plane took off and landed within an hour outside a dock in Goteborg. Dripping wet and cold, Bill climbed up onto the wooden mainland dock and was greeted with a thick towel and bathrobe by the chauffeur of a large limousine who packed him and his things into the exotic car. The driver handed Bill a note from Dr. Almquist in English explaining that the driver spoke no English and his next stop was her home in Malmo, a beautiful resort town in southern Sweden.

The sun was now beginning to set on the Swedish seashore and Bill was just starting to warm up from his very cold plunge into the North Sea. The driver offered him a hot veggie burger and a carton of milk. Bill took the food gratefully. Of course, the limo had microwaves in the front and back seating areas of the vehicle.

A siren broke through the peace of the Swedish mainland – screaming above the thrum of the limousine. The driver looked in his mirror anxiously and increased his speed. The limo streaked ahead. It must have been going over 100 mph. Despite their speed, there was a plain black car speeding closer and closer behind them. The concerned driver got on the car’s telephone and spoke in low tones in Swedish. A voice speaking in Swedish came over a loudspeaker from the car that was chasing them and the limo pulled over onto the shoulder of the road. The driver spoke to him in low urgent tones in Swedish. Somehow, Bill knew what he meant regardless of the fact that he did not know the language.

Two men approached their parked vehicle and yanked open Bill’s door, roughly motioning him to come out. One of the men said in English, “Bill Tuttle?”

Bill nodded in assent.

The man said, “Put your hands up. We are Interpol officers and have been tracking your escape from the United States. You and your driver are under arrest for your complicity in the murder of US Congressman Robert Harrison.”

Bill hung his head and was cuffed. Both him and the limo driver were led away to the sedan behind them.

Bill’s long, hopeful and comfortable escape was over. He was accompanied by the two Interpol officers onto a plane headed back to the Silver Lake international airport. Despite Dr. Almquist’s intervention, Sweden had refused not to extradite her American accomplice.

Sgt. Sheila Rodriguez and Chico Almonte met Bill Tuttle’s plane.

It was explained that barge traffic in the North Sea was watched rather closely because of the proximity of Sweden and the UK to eastern Europe. Interpol and the Scottish police had noticed the landing of the float plane that had tied up to the barge and they had traced the rest of his journey across international lines. Sure that Sweden would not protect an American, they had waited until he was solidly on the mainland to make their move.

Bill was hustled into the Silver Lake jail. Sheila grinned at Chico and said, “Well, our fine compadre Asia was right again! She is a genius, although I didn’t believe her. She predicted that Bill would try and make it to Dr. Almquist’s.”

“Yeah,” said Chico. “I didn’t think he could avoid showing a passport. Even a false one. But, Asia said he could take a popular illegal immigration route over the Pacific, through the Panama Canal – although backwards – going to Europe rather than Los Angeles.”

“Which he did.”

“She said it was nearly impossible to watch barge entrances and exits due to their ability to anchor just about anywhere.”

“If they had not used a float plane, they might have made it.”

“Dr. Almquist has access to so much money, she forgot that being less obvious was more important than speed.”

“She was clever enough to not try and send the barge from the Atlantic side of the United States. Due to the large military shipbuilding enterprises there, they would have been spotted right away.”

“Well, it’s possible that Bill has a lesser charge as an accomplice than Dr. Almquist’s murder one charge as the probable shooter.”

“We still have to interview Tuttle, but his and Dr. Almquist’s fingerprints on the rifle indicate that we are close to the real story of what happened.”

“An accomplice to murder one is still a hefty jail sentence.”

“Ten years at the very least.”

The next day, the local paper carried the news of Bill Tuttle’s arrest, amazing international journey and a letter to the editor from Dr. Elin Almquist apologizing to the local artisan community and Asia Reynolds for the disturbance she had caused to them by angering Patterson and Nesbitt. She explained that she had not predicted such a violent backlash.

She also sent an email message through the SLPD telling Bill Tuttle that she would be in touch with him and would pay for his attorney, giving him the very best defense possible.

Everyone in the artisan community was shocked and surprised at Bill’s alleged guilt. They were also ordered to stay out of the cavern and more shelters were made available to them.

Harry Skylar knew Bill from his former connection to the Silver Lake hippie community. He asked permission to bring Bill some food and visit him in jail to help him any way he could, and be of emotional support.

Sheila told Harry that he was welcome to come over and see Bill.

Harry went over the next day, bringing Bill some organic rice and bean dishes purchased by the Almontes since Skylar still had no money. Harry embraced Bill as he was let into the cell. He began to cry as he sat down on Bill’s bunk.

He said in a whisper, “Bill, I am so sorry. This is all my fault.”

Bill looked down at him in surprise and took a seat next to him, throwing his arm over Harry’s shoulders. “What’s wrong, Harry? What do you mean? I should have known better than to plan this in the middle of our community. The disturbances were my fault.” He shook his head and hugged Harry tighter. “I should have known better. Violence just begets more violence.” A tear worked its way down Bill’s cheek. “It’s my fault. We were just lucky that Sweden refused to extradite Dr. Almquist, or her defense of a woman’s right to choose might have been jeopardized and her fine work interrupted perhaps for the rest of her life.”

“You don’t understand,” said Harry almost imperceptibly.

“Hunh?” asked Bill, not understanding.

“I stole the weapon they got your fingerprints from. I took it from your pickup truck.”

You did? Harry…why?

“I was hungry. So hungry. I wanted to sell it and buy some food. I didn’t have anything to eat – at that time – for five days. Nothing.

“The beginning of the summer season is so hard on me. My folks cannot afford to give me anything. Not even five dollars.” Harry began to weep loudly and buried his face in Bill’s chest.

A policeman appeared at the cell door and asked, “Everything okay in here?”

Bill answered, “It’s okay, officer. We are old friends. Harry is upset about my arrest over the Harrison shooting.”

“All right, Mr. Tuttle. Call us if you need any help.”

“Yes, sir. I will.”

Harry grabbed Bill’s shirt and put his mouth close to Bill’s ear, saying urgently, “Don’t tell anybody, Bill. I don’t want to go to jail! They think someone else put the rifle in my tent.”

Bill hugged Harry again and said, “Don’t worry, Harry. I won’t tell a soul. There is no need to involve you in this. I planned this whole thing and trained Dr. Almquist so that she could shoot an automatic. She figured, correctly, that she was safer pulling the trigger than I would be. I bought the thing in St. Louis and brought it down here.

“It is true that the idea to kill Harrison was Dr. Almquist’s. She got in touch with me because she knew about my work for Green Peace around Norway’s whaling industry. But, I agreed to plan the whole thing out. I didn’t need to do that.

“That is why she insisted on pulling the trigger – so I would not be charged with being the actual shooter. She, I think, predicted that if she could get back to the safety of her home country – Sweden, itself, would protect her. Thank God, she was right.

“It was stupid of us to just leave the weapon in the back of the truck under a blanket. I was so anxious to get Dr. Almquist out of the country, that I didn’t want to take the time to bury it or even think about it until she was safely on her way to Europe. I still can’t figure out how the cops identified her.”

Harry looked up at Bill, his eyes still wet from crying. “It was Asia Reynolds. You forgot that she makes documentaries. I heard this over at the Almontes. She had interviewed Dr. Almquist many years ago in a documentary about the legalization of abortion in Europe.”

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah, Bill. By the way, I will help you get vegetarian food in jail if you are indicted. In Illinois, they will serve specialty foods for medical, religious or other important reasons in most institutions. Muslims can get Hallal and Jews can get Kosher, as well. This is especially true if you have a good lawyer, and it looks like you will have the best.”

“Thanks, Harry. I’m afraid my guilt is pretty certain right now.”

“Don’t worry, Bill. I’m on your side and I will help any way I can.”

“I won’t give you away, Harry.”

“I know. I love you, Bill, my brother.” Harry stood up and the two men embraced.

Officer!” called Harry through the bars in Bill’s jail cell.

Sgt. Rodriguez appeared and let Harry out of the cell. “What was all that about?” she asked Harry with a frown of concern. “I didn’t know you two even knew each other.”

Harry startled, but kept his cool and answered, “By the end of the summer, most of us know each other…all the hippies and artisans.”

“That makes sense,” said Sheila. “You were pretty broken up in there.”

“I was just shocked that Bill would do something like that. He is an older guy, and we all look up to him.”

“Considering that you were almost accused of doing what he did, you were rather forgiving.”

Harry trembled, reminded of his complicity in the stealing of the murder weapon. “That had nothing to do with him. That was accidental. Someone tried to implicate me. I was innocent. That was not Bill’s fault.”

“You’re just plain lucky that your prints were not on that weapon.”

Harry shook again, remembering how lucky it was that he remembered to wrap his T shirt around his hands and hid the rifle under the cover of the blanket he found over it. He replied, “Yeah.”

Sheila added, cryptically, “You know never to touch a weapon. Right, Harry? Remember, I am your probation officer. I don’t even want to see you with a hunting weapon.”

“Don’t worry, Sergeant. I don’t hunt.”

“Good, Harry. Stick to your music.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Sgt. Rodriguez rubbed her upper arm, which had just begun to throb. She frowned. By now, she thought, her arm should be healing. It seemed her emotions could create pain in the old wound. “Harry,” she said. “Go call Chico and have him drive you over to our house. Tell him to come back and pick me up at five. Just have him let you right in, fix yourself something to eat. You will never be hungry again if you are around us.”

The pain in her muscles made her thoughts center on exactly why Harry needed so badly (and emotionally) to speak to Bill. “Why?” kept echoing and re-echoing in her mind.

“Ah, well,” she thought to herself. “I think a little consistent food and friendship will solve the problem.” Not knowing how close she had gotten to the truth. “It’s just nerves,” she thought to herself again, continuing to rub her arm impatiently. A tear of pain rolled down her cheek.

Chico drove Harry (and his guitar) over to the ranch and dropped him off, unlocking the back door and letting him in.

Harry made himself a tofu salad. Hearing some noise at the back door and not knowing how to turn on the split screen surveillance monitor, he jumped and let out an inadvertent shriek. He was not a sneaky type of person, and, although he knew Asia was probably home, she was two stories up, so being alone in the kitchen made him nervous.

He heard Chico laugh and shout out, “Harry! It’s only me – the big brown teddy bear from the Silver Lake Police Department. Let me in. Or hand me a cold Seven-Up.

Harry hugged himself and went to the fridge, getting Chico a cold soda. He smiled as he opened the door.

Chico smiled back and said, “Thanks, dude.” He ran and jumped back into his patrol car.

Asia came downstairs when Harry was finished eating and began practicing his new Mariachi repertoire. She saw the tofu salad and made herself a sandwich on some freshly baked whole wheat bread, slicing it thickly. Cisco really did some nice baking. Harry nodded and smiled as he kept on playing. Asia hummed along as she went into the living room and flicked the television on. KANU was showing video footage of the arrest of Bill Tuttle in Sweden.

Elise Snuggles came on the camera and narrated the events of his capture. Asia, of course, also knew Bill as the mild-mannered Eduardo Alcosta from Cape Camera. Elise went on to say how close everyone was to recognizing him in Silver Lake and how ironic it was that he had traveled halfway around the globe undetected.

She also mentioned the unsolved murder of Vance Smithers and requested that anyone who had info leading to the arrest of his murderer would receive a reward of half a million dollars from Tobias Smart, his former partner in the California Spa and Laundromat.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

Tobias Smart and Samuel Fuller were at home in their condominium watching the same broadcast. Sam turned to Tobias and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me that you are offering a reward? And such a large one?”

Tobias answered, “It was the suggestion of Asia Reynolds who, justifiably felt that there was someone who might recognize the person who was in the video at the pool.”

Sam commented, slightly upset, “You know you didn’t even tell me that there were active cameras in the pool area. You never tell me anything. You should have told me about the reward, too. That’s a lot of money. Too much money.”

“What difference does it make? Why would you need to know any of that? You didn’t even like the man. Why, Samuel? Do you have any idea who did this?”

“Of course not. I would have said something.”

“That’s what I thought. I can well afford the reward.”

“Oh, Toby. I know that.” Samuel got up and went into the kitchen, returning with a tray of thinly sliced chocolate torte.

“Oh, my God. Samuel, you are such a talented cook.” Toby popped a slice of the homemade tort into his mouth.

“Love you, Toby. Thanks.”

Their doorbell rang and Tobias picked up his portable wireless intercom, saying, “Who is it?” as he observed the camera shot of his new Spa manager, Michael Diamond, at his streetside door.

“It’s me…Michael,” said the man.

 

“Come on up,” replied Tobias into his portable, pressing the unlock button on the hand-held device. Sam got up and opened the front door of their condo. Michael Diamond was dressed in a heavy peach silk suit with a matching tie. His hair was perfectly done in a Fifties pompadour sprayed with peach glitter. He wore eye-liner and mascara. He held out both hands to Tobias and smiled at Sam as he glided past them with swishing hips. He kissed Tobias on both cheeks with a musical giggle.

Michael walked over to the couch and sat down, flipping off his matching peach suede loafers and stretching his feet out at a plainly disapproving Samuel who sat down opposite both Michael and Tobias.

Tobias said, “Samuel, meet Michael Diamond, our new Spa manager.” He turned to Michael and said, “Samuel does not like hippies and will be relieved to not have to handle the Spa’s many technical aspects – especially the machinery.”

“Tort?” replied Samuel pushing his creation at Michael and Tobias, giving Michael a open-mouthed, gaping smile.

My, my…” said Michael, daintily taking a china plate and a few slices of the delicacy.

“Drink?” asked Sam.

“Yes,” answered both men.

Michael said, “I’ll take a Seven and Seven, please.”

“The same,” answered Tobias. “On the rocks.”

“Bread and butter,” added Mike with a dazzlingly brilliant capped-tooth smile.

Hmm?” asked Samuel, quizzically.

Tobias laughed and explained that “bread and butter” was an expression that indicated he and Michael had said the same thing at the same time. As per two things that go together like bread and butter.

“Oh, shit, I knew that,” answered Sam with a frown.

“My, my,” said Mike, again.

“You, you,” said Tobias with a laugh.

Samuel put their drinks on the glass and chrome coffee table, saying, “Our reservations at La Bohème are for 7 pm. We need to be there a little early, though.”

Tobias looked at his watch and said, “We don’t have much time. Want to bring the Mercedes around front, Samuel? This restaurant is too classy for the SUV.”

“Sure,” answered Sam, going out the back of the condo to the downstairs parking garage.

Michael put his beautifully manicured, scented hand on Tobias’s arm and leaned towards him “I must tell you that I need to take my car and follow you there. I have to meet my new landlord after dinner. It is just sooo important.”

Tobias smiled deeply at Michael and responded, “Oh, of course. That would be fine. We can get together tomorrow in my office at the Spa and go over your new duties.”

“That would be excellent,” said Mike. “You know my talents and interests are mostly in financial and managerial areas. I have been in many Hollywood films – mostly as an extra, but also in some small speaking roles. Despite the glitz, I just had to realize my strengths were elsewhere.”

“Well, I’m glad you came to us. Samuel is just not happy or,” said Tobias, confidentially, leaning closer to Michael, “qualified to manage the Spa. We need someone who can bring vision, class, expertise and friendliness to our enterprise. Do you like artisans? Hippies? College students?”

“Oh, yes,” answered Michael, enthusiastically. “I was a poor boy once. I can work to please anyone. I don’t expect everyone to live the way I do. As if they could. I actually started life as a garage mechanic.”

No!!” squeaked Tobias, shocked that such a shiningly outfitted, clean and polished gentleman could have had engine grease under his fingernails, or on his hands and clothes. Of course, he had seen that Michael had mechanical skills on his resume, but he had not seen Michael, yet. That made a visual difference. A big one.

“Oh, yes. There were no manicures back in those days. That came later, mostly as a result of my training as a hairdresser.”

Tobias laughed as the two men exited his condo. “No wonder. It must have been a miracle to get your hands clean again.”

Oh, yes! It was. Although, my skills as a mechanic got me my Master’s in Business.”

“UCLA. Nice school.”

“It was beautiful.”

Michael Diamond unlocked his lipstick red Ferrari as Samuel Fuller pulled up in Tobias Smart’s Silver Mercedes. “Follow us, Mike. You will love this restaurant. It is the closest thing to the Ritz Carlton in Silver Lake. And it is pretty damn close.”

Samuel and Tobias drove along the shores of the Mississippi until they went up a large hill outside of town. The smell of freshly mown lawn mixed with the sweet scent of honeysuckle and lilac bushes planted along the road up to the La Bohème French Restaurant which rose like a fairy castle above the sylvan glades of Silver Lake. Michael parked next to Toby’s Silver Mercedes. He unfolded his large, tall frame from Ferrari and stretched.

Tobias threw his arm out towards Mike and caught his elbow. Samuel linked Toby’s arm on the other side. The heavy, evening scent of more lilac, magnolia and trellises filled with more multi-colored honeysuckle penetrated the noses of the three men as they followed a winding garden path up to the heavy oak and brass doors of the culinary palace.

As they entered, they were greeted by a hostess in the parlor-like lobby and led into a polished brass and Plexiglas elevator which was inside a Plexiglas tube overlooking the elaborate floors of the eatery. All the walls were covered with fine prints of the impressionist painters. The floors were polished granite covered with large oriental rugs topped with golden plush couches and easy chairs. The entire restaurant was separated into small, intimate rooms rather than just one large serving area. The three men were starting at the wine and cheese room where they would sample the finest French wines and imported cheeses while enjoying live harp music surrounded by windows overlooking the beauties of Silver Lake’s forests and waters.

They were seated at a small, round table and given menus for this pre-dinner area. They would also order their main meals here and would descend to the dining area only when their entrees were ready to be served.

Michael was very much at home in this elegant place. He spoke fluent French. He had attended the Sorbonne after receiving a full scholarship upon graduating with honors from UCLA business school. He was still a fine oil painter and had brought many of his works with him.

He spoke to the waiter in French at their table when it was obvious that the waiter was a Frenchman. This was a picture of three highly polished Silver Lake Renaissance men.

Michael said in perfectly accented French, “Nous aimerions une bouteille de mousseux blanc de Bordeaux avec trois verres, une petite roue de Camembert et le Brie de Meaux avec un panier de pommes MacIntosh locales – oh – et trois couteaux. Nous allons commander le dîner plus tard.” (Which means in English: “We would like a bottle of sparkling white Bordeaux with three glasses, a small wheel of Camembert and Brie de Meaux with a basket of local MacIntosh apples…oh – and three sharp knives. We will order dinner later.”)

To which the duly impressed waiter replied, “Très bon. Très bon.”

Their waiter brought the Bordeaux in a bucket of crushed ice as the ethereal arpeggios of Debussy lofted upwards to the gilded, sculptured ceiling. Michael cut the apples and cheeses into small cubes and slices and served them himself with what was becoming his characteristic economy and delicacy. Samuel popped the cork on the sparkling dry wine.

Michael commented, “I just love the body of a fine Bordeaux. But, I need a dry wine to accompany the sweetness of Brie and Camembert – especially with apple slices.”

Instead of toothpicks, the men ate with small Sterling silver tridents.

Samuel seemed to grunt as Tobias gave Michael a wide, twinkling smile. “I told you that you would love this place. Their prices are high – but this is a business expense. It is your introductory Spa meeting.”

“Marvelous,” answered Michael.

At the last crumb of cheese disappeared and the bottle of wine began to empty, the waiter returned with dinner menus.

Michael ordered Salade Nicoise or Yellow Fin tuna with tomatoes, fresh, local Basil, eggs, potato and anchovies.

Samuel and Tobias both ordered Escargots and Mediterranean oysters with garlic butter. The Soupe de Jour was Soupe a l’Ognion or onion/cheese soup with freshly baked whole wheat baguettes. As the harp played a lively piece by Ibert, they entered the silent clear tube of the elevator to the main floor.

They were greeted by a new waiter and led to a larger, round linen-covered window table decorated by a large soup tureen and a large fresh flower arrangement of carnations and baby’s breath.

Their soup was served at the table by the waiter who also sliced the steaming baguettes and placed them with pat of unsalted butter on small china plates. Samuel was eating rather slowly, Michael hungrily and enthusiastically as Tobias peppered the conversation with comments about the expanding landscaping surrounding the new Spa.

Michael Diamond’s pleasure was very evident, just as Samuel Fuller seemed distant and a touch discomfited. His obvious discomfiture increased as Tobias explained Vance Smithers’ former work with the Spa and his unfortunate demise.

Samuel interrupted with, “Oh, Jesus, Tobias, can’t we just give Mr. Diamond a chance to settle into his new home before we surround him with our recent troubles?”

Tobias replied patiently, “Samuel, he asked and he has the right to know the truth of his situation. You know,” continued Toby, turning to Michael. “They haven’t caught Vance’s murderer, yet. His murder might have been personal – a crime of passion. Or, it might have been because of his position working for me.” With a strange mixture of pride and strength, Toby went on, “You know, because of my long history of success – I have a few enemies. Especially because of my long association with liberal Democratic politics and ecology. Because of that, you will be given state-of the-art home security. The Spa has been augmented recently with new surveillance. As soon as you take your new office, I will supply you with a round-the-clock body guard.”

Michael’s usually bright smile faded a little.

Sam said, “You see, it is not all roses.”

“I never expected a complete haven of delight. But, I appreciate your competence and concern.” Michael seemed suddenly deflated and tired.

Samuel excused himself to go to the men’s room before dessert was to be served. All the diners had ordered pear crémè broulée. Pears and MacIntosh apples were fine, local orchard specialties. In fact, La Bohème had its own organic vegetable garden and orchards. Almost all the fruits and vegetables served in the restaurant were from their own gardens. All these fruits and vegetables were same-day fresh, giving their dishes a wonderful, fresh, unique taste.

Sam reappeared just as dessert was served with a fine champagne (Pernod Ricard Perrier Jouet) ordered with joy by a more and more magnanimous Tobias who offered a toast to his two companions. Samuel laconically offered his glass. Michael rose and bowed to his two new friends in gratitude after the toast. As the check was brought by a new waiter (inserted in a clean, linen napkin on another silver tray) and given to Tobias who asked that the two unfinished bottles of alcohol be put in a bag (along with a box of Fritz Knipschildt Chocolatier chocolates) as a gift to Michael Diamond. Michael bowed again and begged to leave in order to go to his new home and get some rest.

Tobias answered, “Of course. Of course.” Michael left.

In about ten minutes, he reappeared, distraught and nervous. Tobias frowned.

Michael said, “Oh, my God. Someone has given me a flat tire. I am sure I did not have a slow leak or anything like that. I suspect the tire was knifed. Perhaps because we are so obviously gay. May I entreat you to give me a ride home? I am so very sorry to disturb your dessert.”

Samuel slapped his napkin down on the table in irritation and looked at Tobias with thin-lipped anger.

Tobias said, “Of course. I will accompany you, too. Samuel works for me, so he will drive. Ready, Sam? Here is my credit card. Pay the bill, will you?”

Samuel took the card and stalked away. Tobias and Michael walked towards the parking lot. Toby sighed with resignation when he saw the new, polished Ferrari listing to one side. “I will have your car towed and fixed. Sam will drive it over to your apartment in time for work tomorrow.”

Michael embraced Tobias, saying, “Oh, thank you very much.”

Samuel shuffled over, looking at his feet and kicking up some gravel as he did so. He looked at the Ferrari and leaned over to examine the dashboard and underside of the small car.

“No clue, eh, Samuel?” stated Tobias cryptically, well aware that Sam had not been his usual honey-sweet self this fine evening. Tobias felt a looming distrust and anger. It was not in his nature to doubt his boyfriend of so many years. But, Tobias was a lifetime survivor of industrial intrigue. His successes were not a result of laxity, lack of intelligence or wariness.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Asia stretched her legs out as she settled in for the evening to catch the news on the living room TV. She drifted off into a doze as her cell phone rang. She swore and heard her knees crack as she automatically got up to go to the kitchen and get her phone off the counter.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Asia? It’s Gloria Smithers. I really need to talk to someone close to Sergeant Rodriguez. I know she won’t listen to me. I just saw Sam and Tobias with another gay guy down the block from my house and I’m really worried.

“I told Sheila that I had a good idea who killed my husband, but she and the police department were so sure that it was me, that they tore my house apart looking for evidence that I committed the crime.”

“That’s what police departments do, Gloria. Sheila is here right now. Do you want to speak to her?”

“No. I’m tired of trying to convince her that I know what I’m talking about, that’s why I want to talk to you. Don’t you jump on me too. I tried to tell the Silver Lake Police Department what I know, but the best I could do was go through hundreds of photos and videos proving I was where I said I was on the night of the murder.”

“And they believed you.”

“Yeah. Well, it’s starting all over again.”

“What is?”

“Okay. Listen. Tobias Smart’s boyfriend dresses like a woman sometimes. I’ve seen him do it. He looks so much like a lady, it’s hard to even recognize him.”

“Are you sure?”

“Definitely. You need to tell Sheila. I think he is a jealous nut. He looked angry when I saw him this evening. I don’t blame him. The gay guy they were with was even leaning on his boyfriend, Tobias. My husband said he was not into the cross-over thing. We had problems, but I don’t think he cheated on me with Tobias or anyone. But his boyfriend might have felt threatened anyway. This new guy and Tobias were getting very touchy right in front of Samuel. I heard them say someone had just flatted the tire on the new guy’s car. I’ll bet it was Smart’s boyfriend. You need to arrest him. He is dangerous.”

“I can’t do anything like that.”

“You can tell Sheila.”

“Yeah, I will. That sounds like it would make a difference. You’re sure he cross-dresses?”

“Positive. I’ll get a photo of it if I can, but I can’t promise. I’ve only seen him in women’s clothing once or twice.”

“That’s okay. Be careful.”

“So, you think you can talk to Sheila tonight?”

“No, she was not feeling well. I think she is asleep right now. I’ll have to tell her in the morning.”

“What about Chico?”

“He’s not here right now.”

“You have to help me. He could do it again.”

“Okay, okay, Gloria. I’ll talk to her as soon as I can.”

“Call me back when you do and tell me what she said.”

“Okay.”

“You sure you’ll help me?”

Asia yawned and said, “No problem, Gloria.”

“Bye, then. Be sure and call me back.”

“Why don’t you just call the police department?”

“They just treat me like I’m crazy. There’s no law against cross-dressing. They’ll just think I’m prejudiced against gays, like they did before. You know the thing with Tobias and my husband.”

“I get it. I’ll call you later.”

“Thanks, Asia. Bye…”

“Bye.”

Asia swore again, clicked off and slammed her phone back down on the kitchen counter.

____________

Early the next morning, Samuel Fuller picked up Michael Diamond’s Ferrari from a local repair garage. Tobias insisted on following him in the SUV.

Toby went upstairs and got Michael who embraced him. They shared a deep look and took the stairs to the street.

Michael followed Sam and Toby over to the Spa in his Ferrari.

As soon as the three men were seated in Michael’s new office, Mike began to complain that one of his brake lines seemed to be leaking fluid and his brakes were weak. He would have to have the car towed again and have it checked and possibly repaired.

Tobias got up and motioned to Sam to follow them out to the car, saying, “I want you to see this. Come with us, Samuel. I want you to look at this, too.”

Sam looked at Toby and started to complain. Tobias’s voice thundered throughout the first floor of the Spa, frightening a few early bird workout room occupants. “No, Samuel!! Now! You come with us, now!

Sam slunk behind Michael and Tobias quietly.

__________

When they reached the parking lot, there was a large puddle of what might have been brake fluid underneath the Ferrari.

Tobias motioned to Samuel and pointed to the puddle asking, “Know anything about this?”

Sam laughed and shrugged. “How would I know? I’m not a mechanic.”

Tobias grabbed Sam and swung him against his SUV, crushing his small body against the car with his huge bulk. Tobias started to cry and said to Samuel, “You lying scum! I knew that was you in that video. I just didn’t want to believe it. Now, you are trying to do it again.

“Michael, can I use your phone?”

Michael, looking shocked, handed his cell to Tobias, throwing his arm around him.

“Tobias, what’s wrong? Why are you crying? Oh, Toby – don’t cry!”

Tobias went on sobbing, continued crushing Sam against his SUV and dialed 911. Samuel started to gasp and began to push back at Tobias.

“Tobias!” cried out Michael. “You are hurting Samuel. He can’t breathe! Let him go!

“No!” shouted Tobias. Tobias said into the phone, “I caught the person that killed Vance Smithers. It was my boyfriend dressed as a woman. Don’t ask me why I didn’t know it before. Maybe I didn’t want to believe it. But he’s up to it again. He tried to kill my new manager by wrecking his car. You must come right away. He needs to be restrained.”

Michael took his phone away from Tobias and spoke into it, “You must come right away. Tobias Smart is hurting his boyfriend. He might kill him! Hurry!! He can’t breathe. Tobias is crushing him!

Tobias! STOP!!” shrieked a nearly hysterical Michael Diamond.

The sound of sirens approached the Spa parking lot. A patrol car with flashing red and blue lights screeched to a halt next to the two struggling men. Two policemen jumped out of the car. They arrested and cuffed Tobias Smart and Samuel Fuller. Tobias, restrained, still sobbing, said, “No, no! It’s not me – it’s Sam!”

The sound of a galloping horse came from behind the altercation, heading directly at Tobias Smart’s SUV. Patrolman Chico Almonte jumped down from Niño and pulled out his service revolver, running over to the two cops, Tobias and Samuel. He said, “Samuel Fuller, you are under arrest for the murder of Vance Smithers.”

The two cops looked in question at Chico, who explained, “Sergeant Rodriguez wrote the warrant for Samuel Fuller’s arrest this morning with the Chief’s permission. There is enough evidence to bring him in for questioning.”

One of the cops said, “Tobias Smart is under arrest for assaulting your suspect.”

“That’s okay. Bring him in too. We need to talk to him as well.”

Tobias, cuffed, was sitting on the asphalt with his head in his hands, still sobbing.

Chico turned to Michael and asked, “Who are you?”

Michael said, “I’m the new manager of the Spa, Michael Diamond. Officer, what is going on here?”

Chico said, “Maybe you should come with us too. Then we can fill you in on what is happening and you can give us your own version of what happened here.”

Chico looked at the Ferrari and the large pool of brake fluid on the ground, as Michael said, “I can’t drive my car like this. The brake line is broken. Tobias thinks Samuel cut it on purpose.”

“Really?” Chico said.

“That’s why he attacked Samuel and called the police. The rest of it I don’t know anything about. Someone flatted my left front tire yesterday when we were all at the La Bohème restaurant. I believe Toby thinks that Samuel did that also.”

Chico said, “You can ride in the patrol car with your two friends or you can ride behind with me on my horse. Your choice.”

“I think I’ll ride in the car,” responded Michael flatly. “Am I under arrest too?”

“No. But, I’m sure the department will want to talk to you, especially since you say your car might have been tampered with.”

“Yes. It must have been. I am a mechanic. That is a brand new car. There is no way my car would have had these problems on its own. I check it quite often – and I know what I am doing.”

__________

Sheila Rodriguez sat at home popping pain pills with her arm resting on a pillow in a sling listening to a police scanner. When she heard the call from Tobias Smart, she called the station and had them write the warrant for Sam Fuller.

The department would not even let her sit at a desk with her blood filled with Valium. She got the info that Gloria Smithers gave Asia the night before, but just as Gloria had predicted, she did not do much more than take the new testimony under consideration.

When the emergency call from Tobias Smart came through, though, she changed her mind rather rapidly. She felt the Chief would be able to hold both men through the weekend and question them, possibly including the testimony of Gloria Smithers as well. Intuitively, she felt that everything was now falling into place in terms of wrapping up the murder investigation of Vance Smithers.

It was hard to believe a man could pass so completely for a female. But Sheila had to admit it was possible. This might be especially true if the possible killer was known for his jealous rages and suspicions. Evidence seemed to be mounting in just that direction against Samuel Fuller, whether or not there had ever been anything to be jealous of or not.

According to the scanner, there was another possible accusation against Fuller for another attempted assault or murder attempt involving Michael Diamond.

__________

 Elise Snuggles and Cisco Almonte followed each other into the Almonte kitchen with box after box of bottled Snuggles Honey. Working with Elton Jamison, after Asia had begged off the honey harvest in order to stay at home, they had brought in the largest honey harvest of the year. Over one hundred jars of Snuggles Honey had been bottled. The bees now had completely open frames to move around and reproduce in. Before the harvest, the frames had been almost completely filled with honey and wax.

           

Elton and Cisco had agreed to come over to Elise’s house in the Fall to measure the temperature inside the wooden frame hives – making sure the bees survived the winter outside. They usually did. Summer bees produce winter bees and the hive-keeper must make sure they have extra honey, ventilation and wind protection to survive the winter with. This was a late harvest, but it was the last harvest of the year. Elise always brushed away the dead bees and snow from the entrance of the hive. If a hive died, Elise could buy new bees in the Spring.

One of the jars went to Asia to take to her house. Again, she was packing to leave. Possibly tomorrow.

Zucchini had been wandering around town, which she was wont to do when she was upset. Asia thought that Zookie wanted to go back to her former home, the same way that Asia wished to re-visit her own library, photo journals, furniture, etc., in the worst way. The hardest part of being stalked was not being able to go home to her own familiar routines. Even her documentary work had been curtailed to do research on her own case and the Almquist-Tuttle case. She would probably produce a film on both, though.

Zucchini scratched at the back door and Asia let her (and Big Boy) in. More and more, the two huge dogs had been trailing each other. She gave them both a large Milk Bone a piece. Even though both dogs were sterile, there seemed to be some love there. And they had been shoulder to shoulder throughout Asia’s residency at the Almontes.

Sheila had to stop taking pain medication this evening so that she could go back to work tomorrow. To compensate, she decided to sleep through this painful phase of her deep tissue healing. Her arm was surrounded by a new arrangement of pillows that she and Chico had worked out, making her look like she was floating on her back in the clouds. He hoped she felt that way. She was haunted by phantom pains, which her doctor had said would gradually go away. She was relieving herself now with a safer drug: vitamin E. It was working.

Tomorrow, after lunch, the SLPD was organizing a thorough search of Tobias Smart’s condominium. Both Sheila and Chico were going with the department’s detectives to look for physical evidence (such as the outfit that was worn by the alleged ‘woman’ in the Spa pool video). They had quite a bit of verbal testimony from Tobias Smart, Gloria Smithers and Michael Diamond. All of which would be presented at Samuel Fuller’s trial.

If they could find the outfit that the killer wore in the video captured poolside, Sam Fuller’s DNA might match stray hair on the clothing and bring the unjust murder of Vance Smithers to a conclusion.

Then, again, the small, verdant town of Silver Lake, Illinois would be at peace with its’ scores of thronging tourists and talented artisans lining the streets. Then, again, it would be safe to lie on one’s back in the soft, summer grass and watch a lazy hot air balloon drift slowly overhead like one of the many circling hawks flying the skies above. Then, again, it would be truly safe to say, “Ah, Summer!”

____________

Alphonsine LaDuque was abruptly fired from KANU that weekend. She barely had time to moan, since the local commercial radio station, WATR, hired her for their own newsroom.

Despite the fact that the Board of Directors At KANU refused to give her a letter of recommendation, WATR felt she could enhance their reportage.

Elise Snuggles was relieved. Alphonsine was fired because she tried to get a scoop on Elise by interviewing Samuel Fuller when Elise had already been assigned to do so. This was just what the Board was waiting for and Alphonsine paddled her own personal canoe right out the big double doors of the cable news studio.

To add to Elise’s successes, Elton Jamison proposed marriage and she accepted with double delight. They made it official by smoking a joint in his car next to the park in the center of town.

As the sun set slowly on the little town of Silver Lake that Sunday, two unusually large dogs walked together, shoulder to shoulder, on their way to Asia Reynolds’ house. The killer’s clothing had been found on the floor of Samuel Fuller’s closet, his DNA would be back in a couple of weeks, so Asia was much more self-assured at home now, even with Timmons and O’Brien still parked out in front.

A couple on a park bench across from Elise and Elton watched with amazement at the size and docility of Zucchini and Big Boy. The man commented, “Phew! What’s that smell?!” as Big Boy passed by them, catching a breeze floating in their direction.

“He must have rolled in some wild animal poo,” answered the woman.

“More than likely,” said the man. “Darn pretty dog, though.”

Beauty is, truly, in the eyes of the beholder – if not in their noses.

 


It All Comes Out In The Wash

Set in the East Cape Girardeau area of Illinois across the Mississippi river from Missouri and the Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, Silver Lake is an extreme eco-tourist resort and farming area (mostly corn). Our main character Asia Reynolds is an internationally known documentary film maker who grew up with Elise Snuggles (African American cable newscaster/lady that types the little yellow banner on the bottom of the TV screen) and Sergeant Sheila Rodriguez, tough Chicana motorcycle cop in the Silver Lake Police Department. Asia disappears and Chico Almonte, super buff boyfriend of Sgt. Rodriguez, promises to track her on Nino his midnight black stallion with Asia's rescued 120lb. Husky-German Shepard Zucchini. Asia's politics cause more than one problem with the conservative farming community, especially her documentary on the sharing of irrigation water rights during droughts. When Elise can -- between bouts of jealous rivalry with Alphonsine LaDuque, fellow news person and prettier-than-thou irritant around the news station -- she researches leads about Asia's disappearance. Meanwhile a local financier is found dead on his new property, complicating everything. If that isn't enough, an Illinois Congressman is shot dead during a small cavalcade into town. What connects all of this? Perhaps it is the bungee jump, local hot air balloon rides, private plane hangars or international jet setters that make the small town its money? Find out by reading this First Book in the Silver Lake Cozy Mystery Series by Sophia Watson....two more books to come by summer 2016

  • ISBN: 9781310955891
  • Author: Cathy Smith aka Sophia Watson
  • Published: 2016-04-03 01:35:17
  • Words: 88629
It All Comes Out In The Wash It All Comes Out In The Wash