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Authors: Clinton McKinzie

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BOOK: Badwater
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six

A
lthough I was careful to keep to the shallows and far away from the deep pool beneath the boulder, picking my way across the river was still a little scary. The rocks were slippery with algae, and the proximity of the sink made me extra cautious. I nearly fell down once when I kicked something that squirmed; the dorsal fin of a goosed trout shot upstream like a torpedo. It was with relief that I crawled up the far bank, away from all that had gone on in the river and what was still happening on the other side.

Mungo had stayed just where I’d commanded her to. I told her that she was a very good wolf. She responded by dancing around on her oversize feet, shimmying with pleasure at the compliment. She very nearly knocked me back off the bank. Then she warmed my legs by licking them with her sandpaper tongue as I tried to put on my shoes.

It’s hard to believe that people are afraid of wolves. Sure, it’s true they can and sometimes will take down unwatched livestock, but they’re no threat to humans. Unless it’s domesticated like Mungo, a wolf will always flee the far more dangerous two-legged predators or, if captured, usually just cower in abject submission. Yet some people in Wyoming still believe in fairy tales. They see wolves in Grandma’s bed, coaxing children close so they can gobble them up. For this reason, even owning a dog tainted with wolf’s blood is illegal in most states, including my own.

But I also knew that something about Mungo scared people. She might pass for a dog with the bandanna, but the predator was just a little too obvious with a closer look. She generally avoided strangers, but when confronted she would spread her long legs, lower her head, and watch the stranger’s every move through flat yellow eyes.

The state’s residents had taken to the federal reintroduction of wild wolves about as well as they would have if the government were sequestering soldiers in their homes. Some openly called for armed revolt. Now that the reintroduction had been a success, and the Feds were considering delisting the animals as an endangered species, Wyoming legislators had the opportunity to come up with their own plan for regulating the few packs in the state. Their official proposal: shoot on sight. And they were outraged when the plan was rejected.

I tried one more time to get Mungo to carry the floppy disk, but she wasn’t biting.

For me, there was nothing that spoke about the freedom and wildness of Wyoming as eloquently as hearing a pack calling to one another under a full moon. It was something I’d only heard once, when I spent a week skiing alone through the nearby Absaroka Mountains, but it had stayed with me. I’d told Rebecca about it just as she was writing a story for the
Denver Post
about a wildlife refuge for abused animals. The refuge was about to be shut down by timorous neighbors. She’d adopted Mungo, without asking for my approval, and given her to me as a gift.
My wild things,
she’d called us fondly in better days.

Now I was a cop in disguise, partnered to a wolf in disguise.

Hiking out, we ignored the meth lab that was surely nearby. Ignored it just as my office would when I reported it. Right now, anyway, I was more interested in a possible crime that was far different from anything I’d ever investigated. Unlike drugs and murder, there were some potentially intriguing moral implications. Thinking about such things might be refreshing; it might even renew my faith in the law. And God knows I needed that.

When Mungo and I rolled into town an hour later, I parked away from the main street where the sheriff’s office was located. Instead I stopped the Pig down by the river, in some dirt beneath a cottonwood tree. I cracked all the windows for Mungo and checked to be sure that all one could see through the wrinkled tint on the glass was a big dog shape inside and a gray muzzle poking through the opening. I walked a few blocks to the station.

There were three grim-faced deputies standing silently in the lobby. I showed my creds to the cop at the desk.

“So you’re Burns,” the deputy said.

The others exchanged looks and began to sidle over.

“Where is he?” I asked, acting in a hurry.

I was given directions down a hall to an interview room. The cop looked like he wanted to say something else. The others looked like they wanted to listen.

“Listen, Burns—”

“Anybody heard from the hospital?” I interrupted.

“Few minutes ago. The kid’s name was Cody Wallis. A lot of people know him, a lot more know his dad. Anyway, he was declared dead on arrival. They never got any vitals at all.”

I nodded quickly and headed down the hall. The boy’s river breath was in my mouth, my hands feeling the crunch of the small bones in his chest.
Shit,
I thought.
What about the mammalian diving reflex? Why didn’t I get hold of him on my first try? Why did I chicken out and go for the surface?

It was a small room, like a walk-in closet, with the standard one-way mirror on a wall. Jonah was sitting in a plastic chair at the scarred desk, his head on his arms. His back was to me. They’d taken off the orange life jacket. Now he wore just a sleeveless black T-shirt with a white picture of a snarling rottweiler on it. Beneath it was the word PURGATORY.

He lifted his head when I came around the desk and sat down on the other side. His eyes were still spacey, his expression weary, and his fingertips were blackened from the fingerprinting. I didn’t say anything. I was still digesting the news and wondering how I should deal with it.

“Is he all right?” Jonah finally asked.

Should I come on hard or soft?

“No. He died.” Soft, I’d decided. Not
No, you killed him.

But I watched his eyes constrict as if my fist were coming at his face. Then they grew bleary. And his face grew even paler, if that was possible.

“Oh shit . . . oh shit,” he moaned.

“You did what you could to make it right,” I told him. “You and I worked on him for more than fifteen minutes. The paramedics did all they could, the people at the hospital did, too. But it didn’t do any good. We tried, though. Everybody tried.”

“Oh shit . . . that little kid . . . I didn’t mean . . . I didn’t mean . . . I just wanted . . .”

I let him ramble on for a few minutes, listening and gauging his sincerity. I’d seen a lot of people faking remorse, but I wasn’t getting any bent signals from him.

“Where’s Mattie?” he finally asked. The tears were beginning to roll down his cheeks.

“I don’t know.”

I hadn’t seen her since I’d pushed her away at the river. I hadn’t thought about how she’d get here, or back to wherever they were staying. I felt a little bad about that, too.

“Can you take me to her? I think I need to lie down. I need to go back to the motel.”

“Listen, Jonah. I’m sorry, but you can’t go anywhere for a while. The county attorney’s going to have to be notified, and then he’s going to have to decide if he wants to file any charges. You’re going to need to stay here. For the night, at least.”

“Just let me see Mattie.”

His face was screwing up and his lips were quivering. No, he wasn’t faking it.

“I’m sorry. You can’t right now. But I need to talk to her in a little bit. I’ll find her. Don’t worry. I’ll see if she has a message for you. If she does, and if it’s okay with the county attorney, I’ll bring it to you.”

I didn’t leave. And I didn’t read him his rights and start asking him questions. I just couldn’t. My plan had veered off course. It was quiet except for Jonah, who seemed to be having a hard time breathing. It took a while, but he finally started to calm down.

“What could they charge me with?”

I didn’t want to say the word
manslaughter,
or even the somewhat gentler phrase
criminally negligent homicide,
and set him off again, so I just shrugged.

“I don’t know. What’s that mean on your shirt, ‘Purgatory’?”

He looked down at his shirt. The front was plain black except for a smaller picture of the rottweiler, a reproduction of the one on the shirt’s back.

“It’s the name of my band. Actually, it’s the name of the guitarist’s dog—Purgy. That’s what we named the band.”

“What kind of music?”

“Speeded-up Clash and the Dead and stuff like that. A lot of it original, but a lot of covers, too.”

“You do ‘Mexicali Blues’?”

“Uh, yeah.” Then he got it and gave me a wan smile. “All that jailhouse stuff. ‘Friend of the Devil,’ ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ ‘I Fought the Law.’ And here I am.” He closed his red eyes and took some very deep breaths.

After a minute he added, “Fuck. That poor kid.”

“Have you ever been arrested before?”

“No. Just an open-container citation when I was twenty. And a jaywalking ticket a few months ago.”

I believed him. But we’d find out soon enough if he was lying. “You guys any good? Purgatory?”

“We played at the 9/11 memorial for cops and firefighters, were on national TV for a few seconds. Mostly just clubs in the city, though. We’ve opened for a few big names.”

I could see that the tough look—the hair, the tattoos, the eyebrow ring—was just a look. He wasn’t tough or mean. It was meant to be cool, nothing else. It was a uniform, in a way. Like the uniforms the two grim-faced cops were wearing when they came in a minute later to take him away.

Later on I would learn about his introduction to the county jail.

 

The next thing Jonah was aware of was a different voice speaking close to his ear.

“Stop. I want you to see something.”

Jonah was jerked to a stop. He hadn’t even realized that he’d been walking. It took an effort to lift his head and see where he was being led. His hands were still cuffed behind his back and a firm hand gripped each arm. There was a man on one side, a woman on the other, both of them dressed in powder-blue uniforms. They were in some kind of hallway, like what you’d find in the basement of a large building. Windowless, all concrete and steel.

It was the woman who had spoken.

Jonah turned to her and tried to focus.

Her face was young, a little heavy, and he could see that it might even be pretty if it were smiling at him. But the lips were pressed together and the blue eyes were narrow. Everything about it was rigid.

“Look in there,” she ordered him.

Jonah didn’t move.

She let go of his arm and stepped out of his vision, moving behind him. Then her hands grasped the sides of his head. She turned it so that he was facing one side of the hallway.

It wasn’t a wall, but it was as unmoving as a wall. There were at least twenty faces peering out at him from between rectangles of steel bars. A kaleidoscope of them—high and low, left and right, white and brown—all staring out like gargoyles.

Staring at him.

Jonah, who had been booed off a stage more than once, had never had an audience like this. He’d never seen such hate. Never, in his worst stage nightmare, had he imagined it directed at him. But at least one of them was smiling. A big guy—some kind of biker look—with a full blond beard framed by tattooed fists on the bars. Jonah sought solace in the grin, returning an almost apologetic smile, before he saw that the grin directed at him was nothing close to friendly.

“That’s our jail, Mr. Strasburg,” the young woman said matter-of-factly, still holding his head in her hands. “In there. With these gentlemen. That’s where you’re going to be staying tonight.”

Although Jonah couldn’t move his head, he let his vision drop to the cement floor.

Then, in a louder voice, she called out, “You guys got room in there for a tourist who killed a local kid?”

No one answered.

“You’ve heard what they do to child-molesters in jail?” the woman continued in a softer voice. “Just imagine what they do to child-killers.”

seven

I
stayed in the interview room after he’d been hauled out. I squared the notepad in front of me, picked up my pen, then just stared down at the paper. There was really nothing to add. There was nothing I
could
add. Unlike at the river, when Jonah hadn’t even initially known that I was a cop, here he had pretty obviously been in custody. Since I hadn’t had the heart to Mirandize him, any statements or acknowledgment of guilt he’d made would be inadmissible in court.

If it came to that.

I hoped it wouldn’t. But I’d seen the outrage on the stiff faces of the jail deputies when they’d led Jonah away, and remembered the shouts of the onlookers at the river. It may have been more or less an accident, but that didn’t mean no one would pay for it. A boy had died, after all. Someone would have to pay. Whether the real cause was bad luck or stupidity or even the boy’s own partial culpability, the community would demand retribution from somebody.

Still, if it were permitted, what I would have liked to write on the pad was that I kind of liked Jonah. Or at least I felt sorry for him. Remorse is rare in this business. True remorse, that is. Not the usual
I shouldn’t have cooked my shit so close to the road
, or
I shouldn’t have sold to that narc,
or even
I should have whacked that fucking narc when I had the chance.
I thought Jonah truly regretted pushing the boy into the river. Not just because it had gotten him arrested, but simply because it had led to the boy’s death.

I didn’t write any of that. I was still determined to be a good cop, nothing more. To just do my job.

Blowing out a breath and standing, I smoothed the horns of my hair in the two-way mirror before heading out into the hall. I had to grin at my reflection.
You’re getting soft, Ant.
No one would believe it. I was aware that the image I could see was very different from what others had been seeing lately.

I began to wander through the small building, seeing few signs of life on the upper floor of the sheriff’s department. No one challenged what a guy dressed in sketchy hippie clothes—looking like a climbing bum living out of his truck, which was more than a little true—was doing in this protected domain. I guessed they were all in the lobby, waiting for the lynch mob to form. I trotted downstairs.

The radio/911 operator was at her station. She didn’t notice me—she was too busy with a paperback novel. No one else was around. Not even the three deputies who’d eyeballed me when I first came in. I looked out the windows, but the street was empty except for some tourists idling outside the gift shop and the restaurant next door to it.

Walking deeper into the complex, I pushed through a swinging door and discovered where everyone was hiding. It was a large conference room that doubled as a break room, and everyone apparently was on break. No one said
Boo!
when I walked in, but they all looked at me as if I had.

Still no one challenged me. I supposed they all knew me. I was somewhat famous—infamous, actually—in Wyoming law-enforcement circles. It was obvious from the sudden silence that they’d been talking about me.

“Hey,” I said, giving them my best smile.

Once it had been my likability, my coolness, that was my best professional asset. But, judging from the faces and the continuing silence, I’d definitely lost it. I focused in on the one face I recognized—the tall state trooper from the river.

“Can I talk to you for a minute, Trooper?”

“Sure. Here or somewhere else?”

“Somewhere else.”

I beckoned him out into the hallway. No one else moved or spoke. It was like time had frozen for everyone but the two of us. He followed me down the hall, out of earshot from the room.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Seth McFarland.”

“I guess you know mine.”

The trooper chuckled. “Yeah, I know who you are. Sorry about calling you that other thing in the river. I didn’t know it wasn’t a compliment. A lot of guys would be flattered.”

I felt myself scowl. And my blood grew a couple of degrees warmer. A head popped out of the doorway. I seared it with a stare and it quickly withdrew.

“The guy who made it up, this reporter in Cheyenne—he didn’t mean it as a compliment.”

“Yeah, I heard that, too. Some of those guys in there were just talking about that. A few seem to think you’re some kind of badass, and others think you might be dirty.”

I knew what the trooper just said was true—I’d been hearing the same shit for three years now—but what I couldn’t believe was that this near rookie had the audacity to say it directly to me. He couldn’t be much more than twenty years old. Either he was mocking me, or he was cocky as hell.

Then he continued, “I really don’t care which it is. What you did in the river—diving down there—holy shit. That was about the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Instead of responding, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the notebook. I tore off the pages where I’d written everything Jonah had said to me at the river. I pushed them into Trooper McFarland’s hand.

“For what it’s worth, I think it was an accident.”

I turned to walk away.

It had been interesting, and I’d certainly gotten some stimulation out of it, but I realized it wouldn’t be my case. I was damaged goods.

“Wait a minute,” McFarland called. “What are you giving this to me for? State patrol doesn’t do this kind of stuff.”

I stopped and turned back.

“Neither do I. I’d appreciate it if you’d just add my notes to the report you write up for the sheriff here. I’ve got to get going.”

“Hey, listen. I already talked to the sheriff about twenty minutes ago, and he said he’s going to be recusing himself. He doesn’t want any part of this thing. Said he’s a second cousin to the victim, or something like that. He’s already called your office to ask that they pick it up. I bet they’ll be calling you any minute.”

The state’s Division of Criminal Investigation handles mostly drug crimes. But they often step in when there is a conflict of interest or simply the appearance of one—something that is pretty common in Wyoming’s small, inbred towns.

Shit.

For a long time I’d been wanting my old responsibilities back, but this was not the kind of case I wanted to be in charge of anymore. This wasn’t one where you do everything you can to put the bad guys away for as long as possible. No, I was beginning to realize that this was more the kind of case where any outcome will be a bad one. If no charges were filed, then the community would choose another scapegoat—most likely me or the county attorney. If charges were filed and a conviction was achieved, then I’d have nothing to look forward to but the immense satisfaction of putting an arguably innocent man in jail.

Putting asses behind bars is a piece of cake
, I used to joke with my liberal climbing buddies in the days before my brother became a regular behind bars.
It’s putting the innocent in prison that’s the real challenge.

But I didn’t let myself get too worried. There was no way the office would put me in charge of this mess.

Then my cell phone rang. The screen said the caller’s number was blocked.

“What?”

“QuickDraw,” said a deep, raspy voice. “I heard you got a little wet today.”

It was my boss, Ross McGee—the only man I willingly allowed to call me that. He’d once been my mentor, protector, and best friend. But since a year ago, when things went so bad with the big lab bust in an abandoned potash mine and the disappearance of a certain Mexican drug lord, McGee had abruptly ended all of those relationships. He’d suspected me of no longer worshiping at the same altar of justice where he’d spent thirty years communing. He’d also been all too glad to end another relationship to me—he was my ex-fiancée’s godfather.

“The boy died, Ross.”

“So I heard,” McGee said without a lot of sympathy or compassion. But the man had done five tours in Vietnam before becoming a prosecutor and trying capital cases, so I tried not to hold it against him. But what he said next I had a harder time forgiving.

“You’re about to get a lot wetter. The criminal investigation is all yours, QuickDraw. I’m turning you loose, bringing you back from the wilderness. Try not to fuck it up.”

“Thanks a lot, Ross.”

He responded with a hoarse bark of laughter. “Don’t say I never did you any favors.” He grunted another chuckle, then added in a quiet growl, “This is your last chance,
amigo
. You screw it up and you’re done. And I don’t just mean fired.”

After a suitable pause, assessing his threat and what it meant, I asked, “Just what do you want me to do with it?”

“Do the family notification, then report to the county attorney for further orders. You know who that is? Your old scumbag partner, Luke Endow. They actually let him practice law after I canned his ass. You and him can catch up on old times. I bet you’ll have a lot to talk about these days. Birds of a feather.”

More hoarse laughter, then the line went dead.

Luke Endow. Now, there was another tangled relationship.

BOOK: Badwater
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