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Authors: Clinton McKinzie

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BOOK: Badwater
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eight

N
ight had already fallen when I left the station, and I cursed it. I’d intended to climb a few rope-lengths or at least get in a little bouldering before bedding down. I’d wanted to watch the sunset from atop something high and see the darkness filling in the land below. My training schedule and my nightly calls to my daughter were the only steady things in my life. It had become a routine, one that I strove to rigorously maintain.

But now I had a job to do. A shitty job, but a real one for the first time in a year.

The hospital admissions desk gave me the name and address of the deceased. First name Cody, surname Wallis, born only ten years ago—in the 1990s, for God’s sake. It seemed impossible for someone already dead to be that young. The address was a number on a county road. A ranch or, more likely, a subdivided “ranchette.” Despite the state’s hype, there were few real ranches left in Wyoming.

Mungo stood on the armrest between the front seats and studied a well-used Wyoming atlas with me. She was drooling, as well as blocking the light from the dome lamp. Normally we’d be eating dinner at about this time and she was probably a little annoyed. The county road was a place well outside of town, near the foothills of the Absaroka range. Twenty minutes, at least—Mungo was going to have to suffer with me. I elbowed her into the backseat, wiped my slobbered forearm on my shorts, and headed for the hills.

A year before, I’d had to tell my parents that my only brother, Roberto, was all but dead. Broken just about everywhere he could be broken, burst where things rupture instead of breaking, and in a coma he wasn’t expected to recover from. That had been an ugly, ugly thing to have to say to your folks, but Mom and Dad had been expecting something of the sort for more than a decade. What made it infinitely worse, though, was that I also had to say that it was my fault. I’d let two FBI agents put my felonious, drug-addicted brother into a dangerous sting. I hadn’t stopped Roberto even though I was aware of the price he might pay if things went wrong.

The memories didn’t improve my mood. Imitating Mungo, I stuck my head out into the dark wind and tried to clear it.

We pulled off the highway at the county-road marker, then crunched on gravel for six miles before coming to a mailbox marked “Wallis.” There’d been no other mailboxes, so I guessed this wasn’t a McRanch or a ranchette after all. I stopped before turning onto the long driveway, remembering that I was still dressed like a climbing bum. Some of these ranching families could be pretty formal. Not that they expect anyone out here but young Mormon missionaries to show up in a suit, but torn khaki shorts were out. They screamed environmentalist or something, which wasn’t fashionable around here. And I didn’t want to be obnoxious while officially notifying them of the death of their son.

I hopped out of the truck, popped open the back, and pulled some clothes out of a crate. The back end of the Land Cruiser was packed with stuff—camping gear, climbing gear, skis and axes, like I’d robbed an outdoor store—as well as a crate of miscellaneous clothes. In it I found a pearl-button Western shirt that wasn’t too wrinkled. The last time I’d worn it was while impersonating a Mexican drug mule. I buttoned it most of the way up this time, and didn’t accessorize with the gold crucifix. I found the pair of black jeans that went with it, as well as the well-worn buckskin boots. Good enough, I figured. Not quite respectable, but at least not obviously offensive.

The long driveway was dirt but graded smooth. The house was maybe a half mile from the county road, set in a dip between two hilltops. On three sides around it—the west, south, and north—had been planted cottonwoods to block the wind. They must have been around for a long time, as the trees were more than fifty feet tall. The house was a two-story with wooden shingles and dark windows. Parked all around it were dusty sedans, SUVs, and beat-up ranch pickups.

Despite it being a rare windless evening, and despite all the vehicles, there was no one outside.


Paranda que,
” I told Mungo before locking her in.

Then I walked toward the silent house.

The house was as well maintained as the driveway. The porch was freshly painted and had been swept clean of Wyoming’s ever-present grit. More than a dozen pairs of boots and tennis shoes were lined up outside the door.

I glanced at the picture window by the door but couldn’t see much because the front room was dark and there was a lace curtain on the inside. I bent and peered in, wondering what had happened to all the owners of the boots and vehicles. I jumped back when I realized there was a face, just inches away through the glass, staring back at me.

It was one of the boys from the river. The older one, judging by his chubby face. The one who Jonah claimed had told now-dead Cody to “whack this yuppie dipshit with a stick.”

“Hello,” I called out.

He didn’t respond.

I motioned toward the door, but the kid just kept on staring at me. I mimed turning a knob, opening the door. Nothing. Finally I knocked on the door. Hard. The kid’s face suddenly did take on an expression—the brat snarled at me like a wild animal then disappeared.

I stood there for more than a minute before the door opened. The man standing on the other side was big—tall, wide, and beefy. His whole face seemed droopy, though, following the bow of his walrus mustache. I could see that his eyes were red. He didn’t resemble the small, cold figure I’d done my best to breathe life back into, but I knew this had to be the dad. And I wanted to crawl away.

Do your goddamn job, Ant,
I reminded myself.

He looked me over, then asked, “What can I do for you?”

“I’m sorry to bother you. Are you Mr. Wallis?”

The big man nodded.

“My name’s Antonio Burns. I’m a special agent with the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation. I, uh, believe you already know what I’m here to tell you.”

The man nodded again, the face drooping even more. “My boy’s dead.”

“Sir, I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”

Another dull nod. Behind him was a dark living room, a TV playing quietly, all but naked men and women incongruously cavorting on a beach. Some bullshit “reality” show. Try this for reality. Beyond the room was a hallway, and it led into a sunken family room. There was light in there, a murmur of many voices, and a few faces peering down the hall at me. That was where everyone was. Mourning. Grieving. The snarling boy, though, was gone.

“Sometime in the next few days I’d like to talk to you and your wife. I realize that now’s not the time. I do, however, need to talk to the two boys who were with your son as soon as possible. I believe they’re his cousins. Are they here?”

“I’ll get them,” the man finally said. “Their parents will want to talk to you, too.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll wait here. We can talk on the porch.”

The man started for the other room but stopped.

“Are you the fellow who went into the river?”

Now it was my turn to just nod.

The man stood very still, looking past me, his red eyes slowly filling with liquid. The drooping face began to crumple.

“Thanks,” he managed to say on his second try with a breaking voice. Then he turned and staggered like a blind drunk toward the other room.

It wasn’t the boys that came toward me, though, but another man. He was squat and bald and short, maybe five-six to my five-ten. In Wyoming, a state that seems to breed big people, he made me feel tall.

He planted himself in the open doorway and grinned up at me.

“I can’t fucking believe it. Antonio QuickDraw Burns. And looking good, too. What are you supposed to be tonight? A pimp?”

I looked at his rumpled suit and his wide, untidy tie.

“Hey, Luke. What are you supposed to be? A citizen?”

He came out, closing the door behind him.

“Didn’t you hear?” he chortled happily. “I’m the goddamn county attorney. I run this town. I’m here commiserating with my constituents.”

Luke dug in his coat pocket and came out with a pack of budget cigarettes and paper matches.

“These people actually elected you? There must be some really bad water in Badwater.”

Wearing only his socks on his feet, the lawyer gingerly stepped down onto the dirt and waved for me to follow him as he lit up. We walked a little way away from the house and stood between some cars.

“Shit, I can’t believe they’re still letting you run around with a badge and a gun. But the old man was always in love with you. He must be, to let you get away with all that shit. The things I’ve heard about you . . .”

I had to laugh at the irony. Luke, my very first partner, had been fired for tiptoeing across the line. Some warrantless searches, some roughing up of suspects during interrogations, some “personal use” of contraband. My alleged transgressions were far more spectacular. But it was Luke who had gotten the boot. He made up for it, though, by going to law school, getting a degree, and becoming a criminal prosecutor. Now he got to order the investigators around.

He was aware of it, too. He grinned at me.

“Don’t go thinking you’re such a hotshot, Ant, now that you got this badass rep. I’m looking forward to having you as my whipping boy. It’s gonna be like old times.”

“You think this thing is going to get that involved?” I asked. What I meant was,
Do you really plan on charging Jonah?

“It’s a terrible thing,” he said, shaking his head. But I thought I could also see a bit of the grin still on his face. He struck a match and fired up a bent cigarette. After huffing on it a couple of times, frowning deliberately, he added, “You never saw this. My wife hears I’m smoking again and she’ll be all over my ass.”

I waited to hear about her, or even be told her name, but he said nothing. So I tried again.

“Do you think it’s going to take much time? From what I can tell so far, this whole thing was an accident.”

He sucked deep on his cigarette again and blew it out hard. Then he held the cancer stick out from his body, as if trying to avoid the smoke.

“You think so, huh? Those people in that house, I represent them now. Right now they’re thinking that Cody was murdered.”

Murdered? That requires intent to kill or do great bodily harm, and I hadn’t seen any evidence of an intent other than to give an obnoxious kid a soak in the river. But before I could express my skepticism, the front door opened then banged shut and a pair of feet hammered down the dark steps.

The man who was immediately in my face was short, too, by Wyoming standards. About my height, that is, and about the same age as Luke and Mr. Wallis. Unlike them both, this guy was rawhide thin. But his intensity made him seem bigger.

“You the cop who wanted to shoot my boys?” he demanded.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

I looked to Luke. I expected him to at least roll his eyes, in order to indicate that this guy was a wacko, or to step in and say or do something if he wasn’t. But my old partner was looking away. Like he was deep in thought or something. He wasn’t smiling anymore.

“Sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I never told anybody to shoot anyone else.”

“Now you’re calling my boys liars,” he said without raising his voice. His eyes, however, and the pressed whiteness of his lips, indicated that his temperature was rising to the boiling point. Luke was still doing nothing.

“Your boys . . . were they the ones at the river? The ones with Cody?”

“His cousins.”

“Okay, now I know what you’re talking about. Your boys, they were upset. While I was doing CPR they attacked the man who was assisting me—”

“Guy who killed Cody, right?”

“But I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that he was trying to help. With the CPR. So when your sons attacked him, I asked the other officers present to restrain them—”

“Cuff ’em or shoot ’em, that right?”

I felt warmer remembering my own words—from shame, not anger.

“Yeah, that’s probably what I said. But I didn’t mean it literally. I was just trying to emphasize the need—”

He wasn’t listening. He was looking at me with disgust and barely concealed violence.

I held up my hands in a gesture of surrender.

“Look, I’m very sorry. It was a dumb thing to say. But at the time I didn’t know what was going on. Just that a boy—your nephew, I guess—was dying. And that I was trying to stop that from happening. I’ll apologize to your sons if you like.”

The man’s temperature seemed to drop a few degrees. After staring at me for another few seconds, he blinked. Then he glanced back at the house.

“I’d appreciate it if you’d do that,” he said. “Make it in a day or two. The kids are pretty shook up.”

He spun and walked back toward the house. Going in, he managed to close the door softly.

My tension eased and I could once again hear the crickets in the night.

“You handled that well,” Luke told me, his grin returning. “Given your rep these days, I half expected you to just shoot him.”

I swallowed a
Fuck you, Luke,
and said instead, “When something like this happens, it’s always easiest if you’ve got someone to blame. Or at least to vent on.” I knew from firsthand experience. I’d once desperately felt the need, only I’d had a better target. Pushing away the thought, I asked, “What’s his name? And his kids’?”

“Ed Mann. The boys who you threatened to shoot are Randall and Trey. You’re going to talk to them, right?”

From Mann’s appearance—very dissimilar to the far brawnier Mr. Wallis—and his different surname, I guessed that the boys were related through their mothers.

“I said I was. But, like he said, I’ll wait a day or two.”

“And you already interrogated the perp?”

Calling Jonah the perpetrator sounded a little strong, but I nodded to this, too.

“His name’s Jonah Strasburg. He’s a tourist, a musician from New York.”

“Did he confess?” Luke asked, pausing for an answer before taking another hit.

“Well, he said he’d gotten in an argument with the kids after they’d thrown some rocks at the raft he was on. He confronted them. One of the kids—Cody—picked up a stick or something and swatted him. They had a kind of tug-of-war with the stick, and Strasburg let the kid fall into the water.”

BOOK: Badwater
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