It had been a rough morning. I'd delivered an Emmy-type performance at the police station, lying for my client. The police knew I was lying, and they knew I knew they knew. Just out of principle it made them mad. It almost didn't matter that my lie put a neat bow on their case, taking it right where the DA wanted it to go. No, some days they just didn't like me, the way I straddled the truth until the scales of justice were in a proper balance.
It's not that cops are against justice, it was just that their hands were tied every inch of the way, and watching me stride unimpeded through their curious world of arcane laws made their blood boil. They wanted to be them, and they wanted to be me. Protect and serve, that was their job, but the citizens they'd been hired to serve had through the years constructed rules that seemed at times only to protect the victim. It was almost as if they, the good guys, couldn't do good no matter which way they turned, legally hamstrung by the system.
Still, that's the way it should be. Fifty years ago the cops had a lot more leeway, but it was too much operating room for the bad apples that find a place in any organization. No, the maze of the law wasn't constructed to help good cops do their job, but instead to stop bad cops from gaming the system, and, sorry to say, at the expense of those they were hired to protect.
I like to think of myself as a good cop, unencumbered by the rules. No, that's not quite far enough. I think of myself as a self-contained justice system. When possible, I work with the authorities, but never at the expense of justice. I don't make myself judge, jury and executioner, but I create an environment, an agar-culture, where justice will play out to its logical conclusion.
So I would wait to see where the morning's little drama led. I had a pretty good idea. If I was wrong, it would just unravel and all the parties would go their separate ways oblivious to the threat to their freedom; but then, I knew that wasn't how it was going to end. Justice would be served. I made some notes in the file and slipped it into the pending drawer.
I reached over and hit the play button on my answer phone. "Hidey-ho, bro, this is Green. Got a big problem and need your advice."
My brother, Dave. Twenty years with UPS. We had a running joke. When I first saw him in his truck, I asked him what color it was, and he said green. Green truck, green pants, shirt and belt, lots of green stuff. Well of course it was all gray to me. Then two years later, can't remember who I was talking to, I pointed out the green UPS truck, and, lo and behold, I learned it was brown. I told Dave what I thought of his little joke, I mean, we're brothers and he's not supposed to make fun of my handicap, and since then he calls himself Green to everyone, not just me, and when they ask him why he tells his little story.
Me, I calls them likes I sees them. "Hey, Gray, what's the problem?" He tells me to fly in, that he has a use for my special talent, no more.
I caught one of those mid-sized jets to Spokane, then a puddle-jumper to Kalispell, Montana, just north of Flathead Lake. I took my fishing gear just in case. Dave picked me up at the airport, and was content to talk about the fishing until we got to the house. He'd only moved up there three months ago, and it was the first time I'd seen the place. He was on the outskirts of the small town of Browning, overlooking the casino-supported Indian slums of rural America. From a distance they looked almost picturesque, if it wasn't for the damned rusting cars jacked up on blocks behind too many dilapidated single-wides. The view in the opposite direction was expansive and beautiful, especially through my Ansel Adams black-and-white eyes.
When I asked him what was up, he told me it would wait until after dinner. So I passed the time with his wife Debbie and ten- year-old son, Harry. The meal properly stashed within, we packed up the rods and drove east to Cut Bank, then parked on a bluff overlooking a large box canyon. He reached under his seat and pulled out a pair of binoculars, then focused them through the front windshield.
He handed them to me. "Take a look. There's a man and a woman down there, and a little girl."
I refocused the lenses. A tall aging Hollywood-looking type guy with grayish hair that looked bleached, a pretty young wife with her white-gray hair flowing in the wind, and an equally pretty little girl about two with darker hair. They looked like the all-American happy family. "So, what am I looking for?"
"That man is Edgerton Fuller,III. I'd never seen him before, but when I lived in Tucson I delivered a lot of packages to his house from his employer. I got to know his wife and their then one-year-old daughter pretty well."
"The daughter is the same little girl, but it's the wrong woman."
"You sure it's the same Edgerton Fuller,III? Lots of kids look alike at that age."
"Gotta be the same guy. Like I said, same little girl, and the packages I take him here are from the same company, the one he works for, Biorad Research. He's a salesman. You know, I'm the only person who would have noticed."
I kept my eyes on the pretty woman. "Noticed what?"
A matter-of-fact, "That he killed his wife."
I lowered the binoculars and eyeballed his face. He wasn't kidding. "Come on, that seems a little melodramatic. Maybe he got a divorce."
He shook his head. "No, that's not it. I'm sure he killed her."
I gave him my best skeptical voice, "So, what makes you so sure?"
He pointed down the cliff. "The woman, her name is Tamarella, at least that's how she answers the phone, and her daughter is Elouise, neither one particularly common." He read the confusion on my face. "It's the same name as the wife in Tucson. And the daughter's the same girl. They even got the same dog. It's just not possible."
I shrugged my agreement. "Okay, I agree it sounds fishy, but the world is full of strange coincidences. We'll get on the Internet tomorrow and see what we can find out."
We fished the Cut Bank River until nightfall, caught and released a lot of large striated gray rainbows, then made our way back to Browning in the dark. My mind returned to Edgerton Fuller, III, but until I knew more, there were only dead ends.
The next day, long after Dave left for his morning deliveries for Big Green, I blocked his phone id, then placed a call to Biorad Research using the number Dave got from the delivery envelopes.
A perky voice answered, "Biorad Research, how can I help you?"
"Hi, my name's Carter Jackson, and I'm with the Internal Revenue Service. I'm needing some information on one of your employees, an Edgerton Fuller."
"Yeah, that's the guy."
She transferred me to personnel. "Hi, this is Jackie Thomas. Kathy says you're with the IRS and you need some information on Edgerton. Is there a problem?"
I gave her my guarded confidential voice, "Well, there might be, but we're not really sure yet. We learned his wife, Tamarella, received a large insurance award, but it wasn't reported on their joint return. We need to ask him a few questions." I heard her scratching on paper. "I tried calling him in Tucson, but the line was disconnected. Does he still work for you?"
I could feel her thinking over the line, how much to tell me. "Yes, but Edgerton's been transferred." I waited. "To the Rocky Mountain States region. He's in Montana."
"Can you give me an address?"
"I'd need that request in writing, Mr...?"
"Jackson," I said, then, "Look, just give Mr. Fuller,III, a call and ask him to ring me up. My number is 415-555-1515." She said she would.
Fuller would get the offices of my company, started, built and sold in a previous life. He'd maybe try information to see if the IRS number was close, if maybe it was just a mistake by Jackie Thomas, but it wouldn't be. He'd start to worry, and I wanted him worried.
I got onto Dave's computer and adjusted the color palate so the screen was readable to my sensitive though restricted vision. I used one of the people-finder search engines, but Fuller's new address was not listed. I did a national search on the first name, Tamarella. I got only three hits, two in the same town in Kentucky, Kettle, and one of course in Tucson.
The first Kentucky number was for a Tamarella Kelly. A man with booming voice answered. I asked for Tamarella. He said he didn't know where she was, and for all he cared, she could be dead. The second number for Tamarella Tubutz was disconnected.
The town was tiny, so I tried the city hall. A woman with the old voice of a lifelong public servant answered, "Kettle City Hall." It sounded like a single word.
"Hello, my name's Carter Jackson and I'm trying to locate one of your former citizens, a Miss Tamarella Tubutz. Can you help me?"
Her voice took a reflexive institutional guarded tone, "Well, just what is it you're looking for her for, young man?"
"Seems a Bob Tubutz in Tennessee died and left her a bundle of cash."
She whistled, "Jesus H., some people get all the luck."
"What do you mean?"
The reservation I'd noted in her voice was gone, we were friends. "Well, young Miss Tamarella was in town about four months ago. Her daddy died a year ago and the estate, mostly stocks and bonds stolen from when he ran the bank here, was finally settled. She was the last surviving issue of that lying thieving old coot, so to speak. Had to sign some paperwork so she could transfer her fortune to some foreign bank."
"Off-shore?" I asked.
"No, Arizona," she chuckled.
"Did it take a long time to process the estate?"
"Sure nuf did. Her ex-husband, Jack Kelly, made a claim, said she'd never properly divorced him." A short silence. "Didn't stop Jack from getting married again. Sorta think that weighed against him with the court."
"And you're sure it was the same Tamarella Tubutz?"
"Sure was, saw her with my own eyes. Tamarella was never so pretty, but she had the cutest little girl with her." I could almost see her shaking her head. "And now she goes and lands another fortune. Out of the Kettle and into the chips. Some people got all the luck." I didn't inform her that the original unmixed metaphor was more correct.
"Does she still have any friends in Kettle?"
She laughed out loud. "Friends in Kettle. When people move out of Kettle, they never look back." She was still laughing as I hung up the phone.
The next day was Sunday and Dave and I went back to the bluff overlooking Casa Fuller. A more furtive Edgerton Fuller,III, left early after putting an overnight bag in the car. I called the house and told the woman Edgerton had been in a fender-bender and she needed to come into town to give him a ride home. We waited while she packed the kid and started the car. We kept our eyes on the trail of dust until she intersected the main road. Dave kept lookout on the bluff and I worked my way down into the canyon.
The house was relatively new, and judging by the amount of grass it had a pretty good well. One of the master bedroom windows was unlocked. I took off my shoes and climbed through. I did a quick casing of the large ranch-style house, then went to the home office at the end of the westernmost wing. It had a beautiful panoramic view of the craggy ridge of the canyon. Everything in there belonged to Edgerton, business and private papers. His bank receipts showed a deposit of more than nine hundred grand in March. I found one of those retirement asset calculation sheets he'd filled out. He was worth a million and a half with about four hundred thousand in debt. Not so bad for a sales guy.
I searched the living room and kitchen, then went back to the master bedroom. I found it under the bed. A metal box from some California winery that once held three bottles, merlot, cabernet and chardonnay. No wine now, just a collection of letters and cards. Misty Cantarra of Smallston, Idaho, was a very popular girl, and, if the letters were any indication, a little too free with her sexual favors.
I wrapped the metal box in a towel and tucked it under my arm.
I made the six hour drive to Smallston and arrived in town about four o'clock. I took a quick pass through. There were two bars. I turned around at the city limits and stopped in the Back Water Saloon. The wall was covered with license plates from the last sixty years, from what looked to be all fifty states. There was no one there but the barmaid, a busty blonde with pretty features washed plain by hard living, and not all of it in a vertical position.
They only had Michelob and Budweiser on draft. I begrudgingly ordered a bottled beer. "Nice little town," I lied.
She didn't look up from washing glasses. "Yeah, as long as you don't live here."
Great conversationalist that I am, I took that as an opening, "So why are you here?"
She turned to me with a who-the-hell-gives-a-shit kind of look, saw my disarming smile, and grinned, "I been out, screwed up big time, came home. Now I'm afraid to go anywhere else."
I was sympathetic, "That happens, life's tough."
"You ain't seen tough til you've seen Smallston tough." She cast her arm in a wide circle. "Trees and lumberjacks. Rednecks and idiots. You know what I mean?" I nodded, she continued, "You gotta be mean to live here, mean to stay. The men are mean, and if the women are to survive, they get mean, too."
I carried my end, "It's hard work. No room for creampuffs and softies. Someone's got to do it."
She softened up a bit, "Yeah, well it's like natural selection here. Darwin'd be proud. Only the fittest and the meanest survive, the rest leave in search of humanity."
"Must have been big trouble to bring you back?"
"It's the only kind of trouble there is." She dried the glasses, but kept her steady gaze on me. "You obviously got some reason to be talking, mister?" She made it a question.
I didn't shilly-shally around her perception, "Yes, I'm looking for a person." She waited, not helping me out any. "Misty Cantarra. You know her?"
She frowned. "Now there was a girl mean enough for Smallston. She downright scared the men round these parts. What do you want with her?"
"Just trying to find her, that's all."
She returned to the glasses. "Well, you're a day late and a dollar short.
You police?" "Not really, private."
"Gosh, never met a PI before." I shrugged. "Misty's dead, or at least we think she is. Went off hiking one day, never came back. You should have seen the men of this town searching, you'd've thought the president was lost. They looked for two weeks. Found her backpack in an old tree house overlooking the gorge, site of some of her favorite conquests. Gotta tell you, been a whole lot less sex in these parts since she done disappeared."
"Any chance she just skipped town?"
She shook her head, "No way. She was having too damn much fun. She just loved lumberjack nooky, no other way to put it."
I pulled out a picture of Edgerton Fuller,III. I'd taken with my telephoto. "Ever see this guy before?"
She held the picture at arm's length, then took reading glasses from her jeans' pocket and looked more closely. "Yeah, I've seen him. Maybe six months ago." She seemed to rummage through her memories. "Yeah, he and Misty got it on. She banged him in the woodshed out back." She motioned over her shoulder with her thumb. "I think he took it more seriously than he should have. Why?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Can't tell you, but my guess is you'll hear soon enough."
I finished my beer, left a tip. "Thanks for the information." I patted the back of her wet hand.
"Name's Maria, if you're ever back in these parts."
The next day I was Dave's assistant, a new substitute driver. We pulled the big green truck into Fuller,III's driveway with a half-mile widening band of dust behind us. He skidded to a stop in front of the house.
The little girl was playing with a beach ball on the thick- grassed front lawn. Dave knelt down beside her and pushed the ball away from her. She laughed and chased after it.
As the woman came out the front door, Dave said to the daughter, "Hey, Elouise, don't you remember me? From Tucson?"
Dave turned and looked at the woman. "I have a package for Tamarella Fuller."
Instant suspicion clouded her face, but she was quick, "I'll give it to her."
Dave continued, "I haven't seen her around since I got transferred from down south. Is she okay?"
Another quick ad-lib, "She was injured a while back. She's been in the hospital for a while, but she's getting better."
She looked at the envelop, scanning the address label. It was from the Back Water Saloon in Smallston, Idaho. She blanched an ashy white.
Dave gave her his best smile. "Gee, when's she due back? We were pretty good friends in Tucson. I'd like to say hi."
"Yeah, sure." The woman turned without another word and walked into the house. She slammed the door behind her, an emphatic good-bye.
When he got back to the truck, Dave had a sudden attach of doubt. "What if she really is in the hospital? What if I'm wrong?"
I used my cell phone to call the number, "Hi, I'm looking for Tamarella Fuller."
We both listened, "This is she." I hung up the phone.
Dave dropped me off at the top of the canyon again and headed for Kalispel to get the cops. We figured it'd be better for Dave face-to-face than trying to explain it over the phone. Anyway, I didn't want to be involved. Sometimes the cops, not without good reason, don't take so well to my meddling ways.
As I was getting myself comfortable under a wide fir, I saw Edgerton's big silver Caddy come roaring down the driveway. My guess was she'd called him on his cell phone. I didn't like the look of it; the hen had panicked, the chickens were coming home to roost. I started making my way down the bluff, working hard not to trip and break a leg. The little girl was still on the lawn. I kept her in sight as I slid down the hill. The Third didn't even look at her as he went by. I wished I had a gun, but who'd have thought it.
I was at the corner of the house when I heard the shot. I dashed for Elouise, grabbed her, put my hand over her mouth and stuffed her under my arm. Pushed by a strong following wind, I ran for the line of trees on the north end of the canyon, a hundred yards from the house.
The woman's voice, pitched high with fear, screeched into the wind, "Elouise, where are you?"
Elouise squirmed, but I held her tight. Tamarella, aka Misty, walked around the house with the revolver at her side. The hammer was cocked. We waited.
Fifteen minutes later the Caddy went screaming out to the main road. I took the little girl back to the front yard, set her down and told her to play. I've got a real way with kids. Yeah, right.
Misty had torn the place apart looking for her metal box, probably before Edgerton had arrived. Pots, pans, plates and silverware were all over the kitchen floor, the closets were emptied, sheets, blankets, clothes everywhere. Edgerton Fuller,III, was dead in the bedroom, a bullet hole in the back of his head. I went out to the garage and pulled the garbage bag from beneath the crawl space. I put the precious box back under the bed, about four inches from Fuller,III's outstretched hand.
I scurried back up the bluff. The siren's wail pushed me faster. I breasted the top just as two cruisers braked to a stop. Dave jumped out of the back door of the first one and rushed to Elouise. He lifted her to his crooked arm. She was laughing.
Sometimes in life things end like they begin, at least if the newspaper accounts were to be believed. I recalled the barmaid's words, "I been out, screwed up big time, came home. Now I'm afraid to go anywhere else." So it was that Misty returned home, and at the first sign of the cops, was back on that hiking trail trying to lose them. The cops got no help from the lumberjacks - for some, in their mean world they'd probably make her a patron saint - but they found her huddled in that tree house above the gorge. She babbled all the way down the mountain, blaming that smooth-talking city feller, poor Fullerton,III. She claimed Fullerton,III, shot himself; then when she realized the evidence was against her she said he attacked her, was going to kill her, that she defended herself. Of course that was another lie The coroner showed Fullerton,III, had been dead from a blow to the back of the head before the bullet scrambled his brains. Eventually Misty led the cops to where she and Fuller,III, had buried poor Tamarella.
Two months later my brother sent me a newspaper article from one of the Idaho dailies, an investigative report on the Fullerton murders. He highlighted the comment from the barmaid, Maria Cantarra, sister of the little killer. "Just a couple days before Misty showed up, this big man comes into the bar, wanting to know about Misty and this guy, Fullerton,III. He said he was a private investigator, a PI. Just couldn't be, you know what I mean? Brown socks, black shoes, blue-black pants and a reddish-brown shirt. I mean, a PI, he'd dress cool, right? I think it was the devil hisself coming after my bad baby sister."