Note: I am a compulsive reviser and editor, so here’s the most recent version of Fort Slaughter with the new chapter 5. I was trained by old-time editors – for which I am grateful.
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.
t 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, backhoes and dozers. The trees, the bushes, the wildflowers and grasses were gone.
She 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 keeping your distance, 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.”
“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’ve 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.
Riley slumped in the front seat of the squad car and glared at the cup of de-caf in her hand. She needed caffeine. She needed sugar. She needed a double shot of Jameson’s in the cup. “Okay,” she muttered, “I don’t want to do this and I’ve got to do this and so I might as well slam down the rest of this squirrel piss and drive to Jillene’s and do this.”
Jillene and Cal Jenner would win Weirdo Prom Queen and King ever year, if the Weirdos elected a queen and king, or for that matter, put on a prom. Cal was a quiet guy, a guy with a grin, a guy who was the best investigative reporter in Arizona – North or South. Jillene was a tiny woman with a black belt in Aikido and the designer and builder of their chicken wire caged backyard in which a couple dozen cats lived in feline satori. None of that in Flagstaff would have been considered particularly weird, except that the Jenners had been faithfully married for over twenty years. That was weird. The faithfully part. In Flagstaff.
Riley parked in front the Jenner’s mid-Seventies standard ranch house. Jillene’s bike was chained to the front railing. Riley wished it weren’t. She put on her hat, climbed out, locked the car and wished all of that had taken an hour – or a day – or a year.
Before Riley could start to walk toward the house, Jillene opened the front door. She nodded to Riley. “It’s Cal, right?” She walked down the sidewalk and looked up into Riley’s eyes. “It’s bad. Right.” No question in her voice, no doubt. No way to Aikido the news.
“The worst,” Riley said.
Jillene shook her head – the way an animal might try to shake off pain. “I knew it when he never came back last night. I called his cell and it went to voice over and over again. I would have tried to find him, but he wouldn’t tell me where he was going. ‘Stuff for a story,’ he said. I asked him if it was for one of his stories or for the paper. He said, ‘Doesn’t matter. Just a story.’”
Riley knew better than to touch Jillene. She knew that Jillene would make the next move. Not every woman liked touch. She’d learned that at the in-service in the Women’s Shelter. You never knew a woman’s backstory. You never knew what a touch might mean. Riley shivered.
“You cold?” Jillene said. “We can go inside. I’ll put the kettle on.”
“No, not cold, but let’s go in,” Riley said.
The dark-haired woman leaned in toward her computer screen. Concerned Citizen had posted on FLAGscanner’s FB page: “Something going on out at Fort Slaughter. Sparkly red and blue lights.” Hawkeye had replied: “Fort Slaughter?” CC: “Yeah, Fort Slaughter – you know, used to be Tuthill till they slaughtered all the trees.”
Barbara Lennerz leaned back in her chair. Cal Jenner hadn’t stood her up. He’d been, as they say, unavoidably delayed. She resisted the urge to respond to CC. It was about to be better to be careful about how she responded. If they had gotten to Cal, they probably knew about her. And, if they knew about her, they were not happy.
She went into her email account. Nothing. She was glad Cal hadn’t sent her a message. There had been one phone call. Short. She’d erased it immediately from her cell. She wondered if they’d been surveilling his every move and, if they had, it was time to ditch her cell.
She heard the front door open and glanced at her watch. Tanner, just home from school. “Hey Mom,” he called out. “I’m starving. What’s for lunch?”
Barbara walked out into the kitchen. Tanner was head-deep in the fridge. “Hey,” she said, “’Hi, Mom. How was your morning?’”
Tanner emerged with a package of hot dogs in his hand. “Oh yeah, right, Hi, Mom, How was your morning?” He carried the hot dogs to the stove and pulled out the old iron frying pan. “Oh, forgive me, dearest mother, how about if I make lunch?”
Jillene cradled the cup of tea in her hands. “I wonder if I’ll ever feel warm again,” she said. “How come all I feel is cold?”
“Probably because you are,” Riley said. “Shock. System shuts down. You know the drill. Want me to get you a blanket?”
“Sure,” Jillene said, “there’s one on the couch.”
Riley walked down the hall to the living room. An old Navajo eye-dazzler blanked was thrown over the back of the couch. She lifted it off carefully. A throwaway cell phone bounced down to the floor.
Sometimes the cops forgot to redact a report on a crime scene. Barbara clicked into the activity log at the City PD and scrolled down. It was all there: Lozano and Riley first on the scene, Cal Jenner, apparently murdered, and the name of the woman who’d found the body – Caroline Arthur. She thought she might remember the name. The woman was probably one of the Silicon Valley young retirees who’d flooded town right before the bubble burst.
Barbara had seen her at a few City Council meetings. Caroline never spoke. She took notes in a leather-bound notebook with a Mont Blanc fountain pen, a Starwalker Red Gold Resin Fountain pen. Other than the pen, you wouldn’t have guessed Caroline had money. She was a nervily skinny woman with a great haircut growing out. Her jeans were faded and her denim jacket about ten years back-dated. Once Barbara had seen Caroline sitting on the bench at the bark park on the west side of town. A big Malamute had fallen asleep at her feet, oblivious to the frantic racing and barking around it.
Tanner knocked on her bedroom door. “The Good Kid Special,” he said. “In that case,” Barbara said, “come on in.” Tanner set a plate next to the computer. It held a fried hotdog on a bun. “What’s special about this?” Barbara said. Tanner fell back against the wall. “The Good Kid made it – that’s what’s special. You have crushed the Good Kid, causing him to need to go into his room and brood for at least ten minutes.”
“How about if the Good Kid broods over that late math assignment for at least an hour?”
“You,” Tanner said, “have marked me for life. At least ten years of therapy are in my future.”
“Punk,” Barbara said.
“Sadist.” Tanner inched the plate toward her, bowed and left.
Barbara bit into the hot dog. It was greasy and cold. She chewed and kept eating. She was going to need protein to get through what came next – finding Caroline Arthur.
Caroline parked outside the PD. She’d just walk in and ask for Riley. It was simple. If Jake was there, she’d say, “How you doing?” He’d grin. She’d race to the ladies room and cry till she almost threw up. If he wasn’t there, she’d be on Red Alert the whole time. She grabbed her bag, put on her shades, climbed out of the car and stomped into the station.
Leanne looked up from the computer. “Why, Caroline, what a surprise! What brings you here? I haven’t seen you in ages – since Jake moved up the ladder.”
Caroline loved her shades. They were Oakley Black Iridiums. There was no way Leanne could see her eyes – and they turned Leanne’s face the gray of a person suffering from a terminal illness.
“Hey, Leanne, how’s it going? I need to talk to either Lozano or Riley.”
Leanne smiled sweetly and nodded. “Riley’s out. Lozano’s at his desk. I’ll buzz you in.”
Lozano was on the phone. He shook his head and pointed Caroline to the chair on the other side of his desk. “Graffiti, “ he said, “written in mud. You’re reporting that somebody wrote Vengeance for Fort Slaughter on your sidewalk in mud and left dead pine branches on your doorstep?” He winked at Caroline. “We’ll get an officer out there as soon as we can. It’s a zoo here today.” He put his head down on the desk. “Yes, ma’am, I know who you are. Like I said, we’ll get somebody out there as soon as possible. No, you don’t need to call the sheriff.” He mouthed, “Fuck you.” at the phone “Thank you so much for your patience.”
Lozano set the phone on the cradle verrrry gently. “Why,” he said, “why did I ever think that I was going to right injustice and make the world a better place for everyone?”
“Because you were ten when you had that idea and were watching reruns of Starsky and Hutch and you wanted a cool haircut?”
“Caroline, you got that same smart mouth. How are you doing? Did Leanne give you her Alpha Chick bullshit?’
“I do. I’m okay. She did.”
“Okay, let’s get this business over with.”
Riley nudged the cell phone with her foot. “Hey, Jillene,” she called out, “can you bring a paper towel in here?”
“For chrissakes,” Jillene said, “did Arthur pee in there again? That’s all I need.”
She walked into the living room, handed Riley a paper towel and slumped down on the couch. “I told Cal, I told him a millions times, ‘We don’t need a senile cat.’ but oh no, he’d seen the thing at the shelter and couldn’t stand to think of it being killed. I told him it was just because it reminded him of his grandpa, but he wouldn’t listen. Dumb jerk. Why wouldn’t he listen? Why, Riley, why?” She looked past Riley to the big living-room windows. “He had to bring that cat home, name it Arthur ‘because he was once a king,’ and he had to start poking around in stuff that wasn’t his business. Same same. Cal, the knight with the bald patch and the pen. Right this minute, I could kill him.”
Riley had registered ‘poking around in stuff that wasn’t his business’, but she kept her mouth shut. She knew what was about to happen. She’d seen it too many times.”
“Oh my god,” Jillene said, “I can’t believe I said that. I can’t kill him. He’s dead. Cal’s dead.” Her voice broke and she crouched over herself, her face buried in her hands. Her sobs seemed to rip up from the souls of her feet. Riley sat on the edge of the La-Z-Boy. You waited it out. That’s what you did. You kept your big sensitivity in service trained mouth shut and you waited it out.
Arthur hobbled into the room and rubbed against Riley’s ankle. She scratched him behind his battered ears. He looked at her vaguely. Jillene raised her head. “Christ, Riley, what am I going to do? I can’t aikido this one.”
Riley nodded. “Nowhere to run. What’s worse is I have to ask you to come with me to ID his body.” She realized she hadn’t said the body. She knew Cal too well. Not as a friend, but as the honorable, but savvy reporter who’d been the best crime beat reporter she’d ever known.
Jillene leaned across and petted Arthur. “I’m glad cats don’t speak human and I don’t have to tell him Cal’s gone. It’d break his ugly little heart.” She glanced at the floor. “What’s that?”
“I thought you might know,” Riley said. “Please don’t touch it.” She pulled an evidence bag from her pocket, wrapped the towel around her hand and picked up the phone.
“I’ve never seen it before. Cal had an Iphone. I don’t have one. Hate the fuckin’ things. That looks like one of those prepaid cell phones – you know, where you can’t track the caller.”
“That’s what it is,” Riley said.
Jillene shook her head. “Why would Cal want one of those?”
“If we knew,” Riley said, “it might make the next twenty-four hours easier – at least for me.”
“The only thing that’s going to make the next twenty-four hours easier for me,” Jillene said, “is if I can help.”
“Okay then, do you think you can get ready to head over to the morgue? He’s at County – we’re sharing jurisdiction with them. We’ll do what we’ve got to do there, then we can go into the station so you can answer a few questions.”
“All I need to do is put on my boots and grab a jacket.” Jillene stood. “Riley?”
“Do you think I’m weird? Do you think it’s weird that I’m not falling apart? You know how tight Cal and I were.”
“Do you think it’s weird?” Riley said.
Jillene looked her hard in the eye. “No, Riley. I don’t. I have a bad feeling for the last few months. Should I save it for the station?”
“Yes,” Riley said. “But if you want to grab a notebook and make some notes while we’re on our way to the morgue, it might be a good idea.”
Caroline walked back through the station toward the front door. It was a minor blessing that Mrs. Jake wasn’t at the desk. A young cop, who couldn’t have been older than thirteen, buzzed her through. Cops, doctors, police receptionists – how’d they gotten so young? She shook her head. She’d always figured a mid-life crisis was a sheer luxury of the affluent. She unlocked the car door. “I’m anything but middle-aged,” she said to Doofus. “I’m old. And we’re on our way to being anything but affluent.