The black-haired woman slammed down the tequila mini and took a deep breath. The booze’s dead-skunk reek steadied her shaking hands. Where was he? And how had she found herself crouched against a dead Ponderosa Pine on a bone-cold quarter-moon mountain night in December?
She wrapped her hand around her cell phone as though it was some kind of fail-safe device. “No lights,” he’d said. “Leave your cell in your pocket turned off.” Then why have it with her? Why not leave it in the truck? “You might need it,” he’d said. “Later.”
Cal Jenners almost never cried. Not when his old man beat the shit out of him. Not when his mom had kissed him on the cheek and said, “Bye, baby, it’ll be better this way.” Not when the kids in every one of the twenty grade schools he’d walked into each first day had ignored the set of his skinny shoulders and caught him later at the edge of the playground.
He felt the tears slipping down his torn face, cool as the mercy that wasn’t on its way. The guys in the ski masks and cammy coveralls had duct-taped his wrists and mouth. They’d smashed their crowbars down on his knees, his ankles, his elbows and wrists. They’d saved his face for last. One guy had leaned in close, his breath stinking even through the mask. Cal had closed his eyes. Then the work with the knife had begun.
They left him tied to the dozer scoop, his arms and legs bent at the precise angles for maximum pain. He’d tried to move his right hand and passed out. Then glare had flashed across his closed eyes and jolted him conscious. He’d heard the tires rattle down the washboard road and the engine cut out. He blinked away the tears and wondered if it was the woman.
If it was her – Barb something – she’d be walking toward the old picnic ramada, pausing at the southeast corner, then taking twenty measured steps due north and leaning against the one huge snag that was left of the old Ponderosa grove. She wouldn’t call his name. She knew she wasn’t to call for him or shine her flashlight into the trees. He’d given her instructions, instructions that he’d known might be necessary to keep them both alive.
He could hear his wife Jinelle laughing, felt her kissing him on the forehead and saying, “You gotta get off the cop beat. Not everything’s a Pelecanos novel..” He’d been wrong before – the big snarling narco who’d called with a tip that turned out to be for a poetry reading; the homeless guy who’d muttered, “C’mere, pal.” and handed him a loaf of French bread the guy had just liberated from one of the far too many up-scale bistros taking over downtown.
When the woman had called and told him that she’d found something about the Fort, he’d set up a meet. He’d known Jinelle was wrong about this one. Something deadly was in the air, something necrotic as greed and just as icily efficient.
Cal felt his feet go numb, then his ankles. The something deadly was moving its way up his body. He worked his lips against the duct tape. One whispered message. Just one. It was no use. And even if it had been, the death-cold was past his hips and creeping steadily. He had no strength left to call out. But, he wanted to breathe out the ache in his heart, and the deep regret. “I’m so sorry, babe,” he wanted to whisper. And those last words wouldn’t be for the woman waiting patiently at the old Ponderosa snag.
Caroline Arthur woke before dawn, pushed the fat Malamute off her feet and stretched. “Come on, big guy,” she said, “this is the morning you start your fitness program.” The dog hauled himself up and padded into the kitchen.
The light beyond the bedroom windows was dark gray. She knew what came next, the gray going silver, the silver to pale rose, the rose deepening until the first flash of scarlet laced through the pines. The eastern side of the mountain would begin to glow and she’d know for sure that she was home.
It had been six months since she’d left Flagstaff, six months that at first hadn’t felt long enough, but then had dragged on and on in the murky heat of D.C. She’d begun to wonder if the huge salary and the corner office were worth it. But then the first morning of the rest of her life arrived, the plane lifted away from D.C. and Caroline had known that the next morning she and Doofus would head out on some pine-scented trail. The last six months had felt like nothing more than the flicker of a stock market report.
Caroline pushed Doofus up into the back of the Subaru and climbed in. She’d drive slowly through downtown, grab a double capp and Raspberry Danish at Macy’s and head out to the Fort. It was no surprise to see more For Rent signs then had been on the city streets before she left. It was a surprise to see that the parking lot across from Macy’s had been closed to anyone who wasn’t a customer in the restaurant that abutted the lot. She parked on Cottage and raced into Macy’s for her to-go breakfast. She’d eat at the big ramada in the Fort, then she and Doofus would head off on the urban trail.
Caroline cruised down the slope to the entrance to the Fort and felt her heart jolt. The entrance to the Fort had vanished. A wasteland of bare gouged earth stretched away to the north and south. There was nothing but a sprawl of construction barriers, pipeline, back-hoes and dozers. The trees, the bushes, the wildflowers and grasses were gone.
Caroline pulled over, parked and walked Doofus toward the huge machines. She was about fifty yards into the destruction when Doofus froze. A shadow sprawled against a dozer. Caroline tugged Doofus closer to her, started to walk slowly toward the dark shape and yanked her cell out of her pocket.
“You know better.” Jake’s voice was in Caroline’s mind for the zillionth time. Jake, the cop; Jake, the bad boy; Jake, the ex-husband who’d left her almost five years ago. Jake, the omnipresent. You don’t go near a crime scene. You don’t contaminate the evidence.
She stopped. “Piss off, Jake.” She took a few blurred pictures of the dark shape, the dozer and a trail of footprints, then punched in 911. There was nothing to do but wait and listen to Doofus whine. And try to chase the ghost of the stocky guy with the glacial eyes out of her mind. As usual, anything she did to negotiate with Jake’s ghost resulted in the same stalemate that had ended all their arguments. Jake strolled away with a winner’s grin on his face.
Lozanos was the first cop on the scene. The rookie, Nan Riley walked behind him. “Nice job, Carrie,” Lozanos said. “Jake’s training must have had an effect.” Riley shook her head.
“Fuck you very much,” Caroline said. “I got a few photos from here – the body, some footprints – all pretty blurry.”
“Thanks,” Riley said. “Come on in later and we’ll get them into the evidence file.”
“We’ve got it under control,” Lozanos said. “You might as well go ahead with your walk. We’ll need to see you at the station later to fill us in on a few details.”
Walking into the cop shop was the last thing Caroline wanted to do that afternoon – or any afternoon. Jake was long gone to better pay as the head of Security at the university, but his tomcat spray was everywhere in the place: a nasty and irresistibly funny cartoon tacked to the message board; the back-dated Rolling Stones magazines in the reception area; the faintly superior smile she knew she’d see on the face of the receptionist, Leanne – who was now Mrs. Jake.
“I’ll be there,” Caroline said and gave Riley her cell number and email address. Doofus tugged on the leash. “O.k., boss,” Caroline said, “We’re out of here. Looks like it’s Buffalo Park for us. At least they haven’t paved up there.”
“Not yet,” Riley said. She and Lozanos went back to the squad car for their gloves and booties.
“Why me?” Riley said.
Lozanos shrugged. “I hate to say it but you’re a female officer and most wives are female these days and she’ll take it better from you.”
“You know, pal, I’d go for a discrimination charge if I could stand the idea of you telling Jillene the news. I’ll do it. But you owe me.”
Caroline opened the back door of the Subaru. Doofus thumped down onto the muddy ground. “Okay, gordo,” she said. “Time to work off the extra we both got.” He looked up at her. She could swear he was grinning. “Yeah, yeah, I know. We’ll work it off, then we’ll put it right back on again. But, see, all you got is what they call adipose brown tissue. I got about twenty pounds of that – and I got Jake.
They set out on the loop trail through the meadow. The morning was your standard ridiculously gorgeous Northern Arizona ten a.m. Light slanted across the tall gold grasses. Woodsmoke drifted on the icy air. The mountains rose over the meadow. They were having one of their Big Days. Sometimes they looked like normal mountain; other times they could have been the Himalayas, so huge that they filled the sky. “Nothing magic,” Jake would have said, “just science. Water vapor in the air magnifying everything.”
Caroline didn’t even begin to try to argue with the In-Her-Mind-Jake. First of all, she didn’t need another stalemate on a beautiful morning; second of all, she didn’t care. Plus, which she guessed would be third of all, she’d stopped believing in magic five years ago. Jake and what had happened to the mountains had taken care of that.
She and Doofus headed for the old Alligator Juniper on the side trail that led into the walking track. There was an old aluminum bench on the eastern side of the tree she loved to sit on. That Grandpa Juniper and that bench had gotten her through the worst of the fury and grief. There had been roughly sixteen hundred hours she’d sat on that bench – if she figured she’d walked the Buffalo almost every day for the last five years minus the unfortunate exile in D.C.
She suddenly felt afraid. What if the juniper was gone? What if a similar seizure of bureaucratic zeal had resulted in its being butchered? Doofus pulled her forward. The tree stood, but there was something wrong. A big stone bench had replaced the beat-up aluminum one, and the southern-most lower branch had been cut off at the trunk.
Caroline pressed her hand against the stump. It was still damp. She remembered the perfect shelter she’d found at the juniper, her face pressed against the missing branch, her hands pressed against the rough bark. Without thinking, she bent and kissed the stump. “I’m sorry,” she said. “My species has always got to manage yours to death.”
She didn’t sit on the bench. She could imagine how cold the marble would feel on her butt. “I’ll be back,” she said to the juniper. “And I’m going to find out what happened to you.” She and Doofus stepped back out on the side trail. The sun felt like a soft hand on her face. She leaned into the warmth and walked north toward the mountains.