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Authors: Christine Gentry

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BOOK: Mesozoic Murder
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Ansel walked through an archway to his left which he hadn't noticed. “There you are,” she proclaimed, a large silver platter of orange-red crustaceans resting on a garnished bed of Romaine lettuce in her hands. “I hope you're hungry. You're having homemade Crouching Crawdad Boil, baked potato, spinach strawberry salad with raspberry vinegar dressing, and sourdough bread. These raspberries came right from Kalispell. Dessert is pastry with chocolate mousse.”

He walked a step further and saw a wooden table with four brown leather armchairs. The table faced a long row of partially opened casement windows. Formal table settings for two included a satin tablecloth, woven place mats, linen napkins, gold flatware, and china dishes.

Dorbandt also noticed Ansel's pretty smile and sparkling brown eyes as she gazed back at him. She was packaged in tight black jeans, a white short-sleeved shirt with a low zippered neckline, and black, spike-heeled boots. She looked damn good for a problem child.

Chase caught Dorbandt's gaze by leaning closer to his shoulder. “Whatever you do, buckaroo,” he whispered, “don't mention the pond.”

Before Dorbandt could ask what he meant, Chase retreated and firmly closed the door.

Chapter 13

“We are all children of one God. The sun, the darkness, the winds, are all listening to what we have to say.”

Geronimo, Chiricahua Apache

“These are great crawdads.” Dorbandt snapped off the tail, forked out the tender meat, and swallowed.

The conversation had been formal but relaxed. Neither had jumped into a discussion about the real reason for Dorbandt's visit.

Ansel watched his movements with fascination. He opened and dissected the three-inch-long crustaceans with large, dexterous hands. Every muscle in his arms bulged from beneath a white short-sleeved cotton shirt. It had been a long time since she'd enjoyed such ordinary delights. Too bad Dorbandt was a cop.

She gazed at the magnificent panorama visible through two corner windows. An east wall overlooked the Ponderosa pines and well-tended grounds. The south wall framed a pastoral view of a horse pasture, filled with beautiful pinto horses frolicking and grazing among wind-blown grasses. A large pond sparkled beneath the sun. Ansel quickly averted her eyes, vertigo spinning the room for a moment. She focused on Dorbandt.

“It's a beautiful day. Warm but windy. The horses love weather like this.”

Dorbandt looked at her. “Are those overo or tobiano pintos?”

“Both. Overos have large black and white patches all over their body. Tobianos have white patches over any color except black. Pintos are Indian horses. My mother gave me that brown and white gelding when I was ten years old.”

“What's his name?”

“War Bonnet. He's twenty-eight.”

“He has more seniority than my boss.”

Ansel stopped chewing. “I hope your boss won't mind you eating at the ranch.”

Dorbandt sighed with contentment. “Don't worry. Do you ride War Bonnet?”

Ansel shook her head. “I'm not at the ranch much, and he's got laminitis. Bad hooves. He rarely gets to graze like he is today. Most of the time he's paddocked. I'll never get rid of him, though.”

“Sounds like you and your mother were close. How did she pass away?”

Ansel reached to touch her Iniskim, then dropped her hand away. “Diabetes.”

“She liked horses?”

“She lived and breathed them. In her twenties she performed as a professional barrel racer. She also worked the rodeo crowds wearing a ceremonial Blackfoot buckskin dress decorated with elk teeth. She charged four bucks a Polaroid. Tourists got a souvenir photo of themselves standing next to a ‘real' Indian maiden. It was a lucrative gimmick for her. That's how she met my father.”

“Really?”

“Yes. My father had his picture taken and never left her side. It was fate.”

Dorbandt appeared to be enjoying himself. He was making small talk and working his way through a creek-full of crawfish. Good. Ansel flashed him a smile.

“Would you like more salad?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

Ansel rose, grabbed the large wooden salad bowl, and walked around the table. She stood close to Dorbandt, leaned over, and dished out more of the raspberry and spinach mixture. She made sure that Dorbandt could smell her musky Shalimar perfume as well as get a good view of the mocha-colored curves within her blouse.

“Is that good for you?”

Dorbandt's breath hitched in his throat. He blinked, and heat pulsed into his cheeks. “Great. Just right. I mean, this is the best meal I've had in months.”

“And you haven't even had dessert.” Softening Dorbandt up was easier than she had thought. “Just yell if you want more.”

Ansel walked slowly around the table, swishing her hips before taking her seat and continuing her meal. She decided the time was right to start the inevitable conversation about her attack. Dorbandt remained silent and shoveled food into his mouth.

She forked a limp crawdad across her plate. “I suppose my father told you what happened last night.”

Dorbandt stopped eating. “You were lucky. Changed your mind about filing a complaint?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I have my reasons.”

“That's unfortunate.”

A long silence prevailed. Ansel stared. That's all? Wasn't he going to demand the facts or try prying the info out of her? Maybe she'd softened him up too much.

“Makes me wonder though,” Dorbandt added.

“Wonder what?”

Dorbandt wiped his mouth. “Why you called me. If you want to put your life in danger by allowing a maniac to go free, that's your business. I can't force you to make a report. So Miss Phoenix, why am I here?”

“I thought you'd want to know what happened. My family certainly feels better knowing the police have been told.”

Dorbandt speared raspberries with golden fork tines. “This guy was looking for money he claimed Capos had?”

“Yes.”

“So maybe you got a look at Capos' killer, and you don't want to help me catch him?” Dorbandt shook his head. “Not very logical for a smart scientist-type like you.”

“You'll probably never understand me.”

“I'm not your psychiatrist. I'm a homicide detective. You want to cut the cards and deal or not?”

Ansel bit back a sharp retort. This was no time to let her temper run away with her. She had called him.

“All right. I'll deal, but everything I tell you is unofficial.”

Dorbandt nodded. “May I take unofficial notes?”

“Go ahead.”

Dorbandt dropped his fork and wiped his hands. He grabbed his pad and pen from his coat jacket draped over the chair. “Shoot.”

Ansel sighed. “Before I describe what happened, I want to tell you that Nick and I slept with each other. Just once. After the last society meeting I told you about earlier. He stayed and we started drinking. One thing led to another.”

She scrutinized Dorbandt's reaction. The guy was a pro. He scribbled notes, a bland expression stamped across his face.

When he looked up, his gaze was inscrutable. “So Capos stayed over on June second, and you lied during our first interview.”

“I didn't think it had anything to do with the murder. Afterward we were just friends.”

Dorbandt scribbled again. The scratchy noise of the ballpoint tip sounded like a personal indictment. “When did Capos leave?”

“I'm not sure. I woke up at noon on Sunday. He was gone. I had made a mistake.”

“Did Karen Capos know about this mistake?”

“No.”

“You're sure?”

Ansel was sure about Karen, but she remembered Evelyn Benchley and suppressed a shudder. Could Evelyn have found out and gone crazy, poisoning Nick for revenge? She couldn't tell Dorbandt about Evelyn's affair because she'd promised she wouldn't. And what about the man in her trailer who seemed to know about that one night?

“Karen didn't know, but that cowboy made a snide comment about Nick and me. I thought he'd just assumed we had sex.”

“Maybe Nick told him,” Dorbandt speculated. “And he figures Capos and you were working together. The last time anyone admits to seeing Capos was Sunday morning. Landlord spoke to him around ten o'clock when he was leaving the Sky View Apartments. Tell me about your attack.”

Ansel told about coming home, listening to phone messages, and being jumped. She took her time. Dorbandt interrupted to ask questions or to clarify some detail. He took copious notes. Then she described the cowboy as best she could. She said nothing about the bracelet. If he knew about it, he'd want to see it. Then he'd want to take it.

“Now that we're finished with that, detective, would you like dessert?” Ansel, relieved, hoped to move the conversation on to something else.

Dorbandt closed his notebook. “Sure. There's just one more thing.”

Ansel rose and went over to a walnut server where she picked up two plates, each laden with a large chocolate mousse. “What?”

“You're a professional artist. Draw the face of this cowboy and fax it to me.”

Ansel considered the request. “I draw dinosaurs, not people. Besides, I didn't see much. He wore a big hat and sunglasses.”

“Give it a try. I'll run it through the sketch artist databases. I also need to look over your trailer. Can I do that today?”

Ansel stopped beside him. “Today?”

“The sooner the better. I can dust for prints and collect evidence. I especially want to retrieve that bullet.” He looked expectantly at the dessert plate in her hand.

Ansel set the china plate down hard. “This is supposed to be an unofficial report, remember?”

Dorbandt moved the dessert closer. “I'll need evidence to work with even if I don't report collecting it. You want me to catch the perp, don't you?”

“Of course. I just don't want it to be obvious that I helped.”

“Hey, I'm doing you a favor. I could get in big trouble for sneaking evidence through the labs without proper authorization. I'm doing what your father asked—keep you out of trouble.”

Ansel turned and went back to her seat, dropping her plate with a dull thud on the table. Suddenly she wasn't hungry, and she loved mousse.

Dorbandt ate a huge forkful of cream-filled pastry, chewing with ecstasy. “He's right, you know. Somebody has to watch your back. We could go to your place from here. I've got my evidence kit in the trunk.”

“I have something planned after lunch.”

“Then, tell me when,” Dorbandt grinned.

He's too agreeable, Ansel thought angrily. What had her father been thinking? She loved him dearly, but she wasn't a child that needed a guard dog, especially a rough-edged, muscle-bound, hungry one. She already had a gun. God help the next person who sneaked into her trailer and tried to manhandle her. Still she had to walk a thin line between her father and the sheriff's department. She had to appear cooperative.

“Tonight at seven.”

A muffled ringing erupted from his jacket. “Hold that thought.” He fished out a black cell phone. “Dorbandt.” His expression turned sour. “Hold on a minute.” He glanced at Ansel. “Excuse me.”

When she nodded, Dorbandt stood and walked toward the archway. As Ansel inconspicuously tried to eavesdrop, she managed to hear the word, “Capos,” just before Dorbandt disappeared into the study. The house was like a soundproof fortress. She considered leaving the table under the guise of clearing the dishes, but never got the chance.

Dorbandt shot into the room. “I've got to leave.” He reached for his jacket, pushed the phone into a pocket, and slid his arms into the tailored sleeves with practiced speed.

Ansel stood up. “Bad news?”

“Very.”

“Nothing personal, I hope.”

Dorbandt half-turned in the archway. “No, this is business. I'm sorry to rush out. Lunch was very good. Thank you.”

“What about tonight?” Ansel trailed behind the detective as he opened the cedar door.

“I'll try to make it by seven. If I'm running late, I'll call. I need to collect evidence and get it processed as soon as possible.”

“Because of the call?”

“Yes.” Dorbandt hurried down the hallway.

Ansel rushed behind him. “Can you tell me what happened?”

Dorbandt slowed a bit. “I'm sorry. No.”

Ansel stopped in the hallway. The truth behind Dorbandt's upsetting call hit her like a brick wall. “There's been another murder, hasn't there?”

Dorbandt halted abruptly. His piercing blue eyes met hers. “Dispatch just got a call. Evelyn Benchley was found dead at the Roosevelt Museum. When you go back to your trailer take somebody with you. Don't touch anything. Good-bye, Miss Phoenix.”

Ansel was left speechless. She watched through a window as the detective raced to his car, shock and disbelief paralyzing her. She heard Pearl draw up beside her.

“Lord. He left like a jackrabbit in a brush fire.”

Chase stood by Ansel's other side, hands on his hips. “Sarcee,” he said, an ominous tone lacing his voice, “what in blazes did you do to that man?”

Chapter 14

“If you have the honesty to pray for real, from your heart, you will be heard.”

Good Lifeways Woman, Lakota Sioux

After Dorbandt rushed away, Ansel explained to Chase and Pearl what had happened. They empathized and consoled her, but she saw a deepening fear in their eyes. Under the circumstances, coming home had not been a kindness to them. Ansel urged them to go about their regular activities: Pearl had to make final arrangements with a local band to perform at the party, and Chase had to supervise the vaccinations of heifers.

Then Ansel had forced herself to sit down and write a pleasant and supportive recommendation letter for Tim Shanks. With the events of the night before, the letter had completely slipped her mind until that morning. She couldn't let Tim down. The letter waited on the foyer table to be mailed. She spent the rest of the afternoon holed up in her childhood bedroom. Alone with her morose thoughts.

Evelyn Benchley was dead. Not only drained by her emotions of grief and shock, Ansel was also riddled with guilt. In her mind's eye, she replayed the angry parting scene at the Roosevelt Museum the previous afternoon.

She had every right to have been angry. Evelyn had disparaged the Pangaea Society and had shown her vulgar intolerance of Indian Peoples. Still Ansel berated herself for allowing the secretary to get to her. Firing Evelyn as society secretary was a knee-jerk response to confrontation and, perhaps, a gross misuse of her presidential power.

All she wanted was to step down next June with a successful term record which included securing the POP Center money that would propel the Pangaea Society into a new era of statewide recognition. Nick and Evelyn had put everything at risk.

I should have returned Evelyn's call, Ansel chastised herself. If I'd warned her about the cowboy, could I have saved her life? She prayed that wasn't the case. As these tortuous reflections whirled through her mind, the doorbell rang.

Ansel forced herself to rise. The Timex clock on the pine night stand read four o'clock. She didn't want to answer the door, but anything would be better than suffering endless mind loops over Evelyn and Nick.

The doorbell chimed two more times before Ansel climbed down the stairs. She peered through the peephole on the heavy spruce door and didn't see anyone. When the doorbell rang again, she jumped backward. Was someone hiding from view? She turned to dash upstairs and retrieve her gun when a voice called through the door.

“Hey, Sarcee. Open up. I'm getting blown off the porch.”

A smile eclipsed her fearful grimace as she unlocked the door. Freddy Wing looked up at her. All sixty pounds of him.

The psychiatrist and part-time tribal spiritualist had achondroplasia, a defect in the formation of cartilage of the long bones which produced a form of dwarfism. Despite his four-foot stature, he was a dominant presence wherever he went.

Ansel leaned down and hugged him, feeling the mounds of beefy muscle inflating his shoulders, chest, forearms, and calves. To offset progressive bone and ligature problems, Freddy weight-trained daily. He smelled of sage and fry-bread.

“I've missed you,” she said.

The wind tousled Freddy's waist-long, ebony locks, as he flashed her a knee-weakening smile, revealing perfect little alabaster teeth. “I was told to come. So here I am,” he declared, throwing up his child-like arms.

Ansel's heart fluttered. He had the same effect on all the ladies. She eyed the gray truck with driver parked out front. “Why don't you have your friend come in, too.”

“Lenny's fine. He likes to wait,” Freddy said, gazing at her with black sloe-eyes. His coffee and cream complexion was flawless, his masculine facial contours rivaling any cover-boy's good looks.

“Grab a seat.”

Ansel closed the door, as Freddy moved inside with a short-legged quickness. He headed for the living room, hopped onto the sofa, and scooted backward on the leather cushion. Slightly bowed legs dangled above the floor. She sat beside him.

“The place looks great, Sarcee. How's Pearl and Chase?”

“They're great, too. They're out doing chores. Pearl will be upset that she missed you.”

“I won't be in Montana long, but I'll catch them before I leave.”

“Are you coming to the Beastly Buffet?”

Freddy folded tiny hands on his lap. “Gonna try. I'm supposed to be in Corwin Springs on Saturday morning doing interviews for an article.”

Ansel nodded. “I hope you'll come. Pearl is pulling out all the stops. What are you researching?”

“The Church Universal and Triumphant. I'll be doing intervention and exit-counseling with ex-CUTs when I get back to New York. If it goes well, I can get something into print about the cult dynamics from a psycho-clinical perspective.”

Ansel knew plenty about the New Age cult started in 1958 by Mark Prophet as a New Age retreat. Later renamed by his wife, Elizabeth, as The Church Universal and Triumphant, the church touted a combination Christian-Reincarnation philosophy.

The thirty-two-thousand-acre religious retreat had always been a burr under the saddle for state residents. The cult dallied in controversial activities that included selling expensive bomb shelters after making dire apocalyptic predictions, allowing dozens of leaking petroleum fuel tanks to contaminate the environment, stockpiling weapons, committing tax evasion, and even identity fraud.

“I don't envy you working with confused and needy people, Freddy.”

Freddy gave her the once over. “Speaking of needy people, you look wrung out. I read the newspapers. How are you? “

Slightly flustered at his scrutiny, Ansel nervously brushed hair from her face. She felt too emotionally raw to deal with her problems. She wanted a good, stiff drink.

“Fine. Would you like something to eat or drink?”

“No thanks. How are your panic attacks? Had any flashbacks lately?”

At least he'd branched toward a topic she could handle, Ansel thought. “I had an episode a few days ago while I was drawing, but I got over it quickly.”

“What triggered it?”

“Water leaking from a paper cup.”

“Interesting. How are you sleeping?”

Ansel smiled. “Like a rock. No bad dreams.”

“That's good. You want to tell me anything else?”

Ansel fidgeted. “I guess you're wondering why I sent Jessie Whitefish to find you.”

“Didn't see Jessie.”

“Pearl talked to you?”

“Wrong again, Sarcee.”

Ansel fixed him with a wry grin. “Then how did you know I wanted to see you?”

Freddy's eyes sparkled. “A meadowlark told me.”

“Uh huh. And what did the meadowlark say exactly?”

His brow furrowed. “It was a short message, but I had a hell of a time figuring it out.”

Ansel couldn't resist taunting him. “Why? Did the bird have a cheep accent?”

“Hah, hah. No, the bird spoke French. I had to find somebody who could translate. Do you know how hard it is finding a local who speaks that? I finally called a language professor at Bowie College. Imagine my surprise when I realized the meadowlark was talking about you.”

Ansel was dumbfounded, but decided to move forward. “How did you come to that conclusion?”

“I realized the meadowlark spoke French because of all that French-Indian angst you cart around all the time.”

“You're joking.”

“I wouldn't kid about this,” Freddy protested.

Ansel fell against the cushions. She'd heard the Indian gossip that Freddy could talk to animals, but she'd never believed it.

“So what was the message?”

“It said, ‘
Burnt honey keeps the bees warm
.'”

“What does that mean?”

“I don't know,” he said with a shrug. “It's your job to figure it out.”

Ansel scowled. “That's not very helpful, Freddy.”

“It's all I've got. So tell me why you were looking for me.”

“I've decided I don't want to talk about it.”

Freddy regarded her for several seconds. Then he shook his head. “Sounds like post-traumatic avoidance behavior with a dominating superego. Self-punishment through irrational free association is characteristic of a neurotic anxiety state.”

“Good job. Go back and tell the meadowlark I'm cured.”

He ignored her sarcasm. “You wanted to show me something. What is it?”

Ansel nearly fell off the sofa. “You know about the bracelet?”

Freddy grinned. “No. That was just good old psychological guesswork. I don't get the big bucks in New York City for nothing.”

If anyone deserved to be successful, it was Freddy Wing, Ansel reckoned. When she had been suffering through the monumental decision of whether to choose a Tasco 450X Reflector telescope or a Bushnell 1200X Deluxe Zoom Projector microscope for her eighth birthday, Freddy was a kid living in a reservation shack with fifteen other family members surviving on sowbelly.

“You're sure a little bird didn't help you?” she kidded.

Freddy reached out and took her right hand in his miniature one. “Come on, Sarcee. Didn't your mother ever tell you that you can't fight the spirits? Get the bracelet.”

How could she resist his brown eyes, soothing voice and sensitive touch? What a charmer he was.

“I guess if that's what the spirits want, I'd better oblige.”

Ansel left the living room and took the stairs two at a time. In her bedroom, she retrieved the gold bracelet. By the time she'd returned, Freddy had spread out a handkerchief-sized black cloth on the burled wood coffee table.

As she stood watching him, he pulled a narrow, braided rope and some matches from his size ten boy's jeans. He lighted a match and held it to the brown plait. Blue smoke curled upward. Sweet grass. The pungent, incense-like smell filled the room, purifying the area, according to Indian tradition.

“Set the bracelet in the middle of the cloth.”

Surprised at his serious tone, Ansel stretched the heavy link bracelet out with the eye charm visible. When the great room was hazy with vapors, Freddy snuffed out the burning braid with a quick twist of his thumb and forefinger. He pushed the sweet grass into his shirt pocket, jumped down from the couch, and stood staring at the jewelry in deep concentration for several moments. He rotated the cloth occasionally, not touching the bracelet with his hands.

“Hai,” Freddy exclaimed with disgust. He carefully pulled the cloth corners over the bracelet. Jumping back onto the sofa, he slid as far away from the coffee table as he could.

Ansel's eyes widened “What's wrong?”

“Tell me where you got this.”

Ansel told Freddy of her attack and how the cowboy implicated himself in Nick's murder by admitting he was searching for money. Freddy never interrupted, unlike Dorbandt, but nodded encouragement as she relived the worst parts. When she'd finished, Freddy steepled his hands and thought quietly for a long time.

“Freddy, what is this thing?”

“This is what my people call
wihunge
. Witch medicine. A conjurer's charm.”

“Not Indian,” Ansel concluded.

“No. This is white power, not red. Magic power is either good or bad. Somebody bad made this. I believe it's very relevant to your friend's death.”

Ansel sat down. “Do you know what the symbol is?”

Freddy looked at her gravely. “It's called an
utchat
. The Eye of Horus. Usually a charm to protect against evil.”

“Why would a cowboy have it?”

“Hard to say. The
utchat
is Egyptian in origin and can represent either the left or right eye of the falcon-headed god Horus. This sky deity is associated with the sun or the moon. The charm represents the All-Seeing eye of the mind. That's all I know.”

What in the world did Nick have to do with a gun-toting jerk into Egyptian mythology? Obviously Nick had either owed money or taken it from somebody. Evelyn might have known about Nick's activities. Now she couldn't tell her anything.

Freddy slid off the sofa. He pulled out a bent business card and a pencil stub from another pants pocket. A quick scrawl, and he passed it to Ansel with an enigmatic smile. “He'll tell you about the charm.” Freddy headed for the door in a fast, bobbing gait.

Ansel sprang off the couch. “Wait. That's it?” Freddy stopped short, and she almost bowled him over.

He gave her a gorgeous, machismo look. “All you need is that card.”

She looked at the name and phone number. “Mortimer Peyton. He's not one of your loony patients, is he?”

Freddy opened the door, turned around, and said sweetly, “Pick up the phone and call Peyton. Do it, or I'll come back and shove your dominating superego up your neurotic id.”

In the blink of an All-Seeing eye, Freddy Wing was gone.

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