Authors: Susan Wittig Albert
"I'm dying to find out what
Swenson has been up to in this godforsaken place," she said. "Drugs
may not be the half of it, China. For all we know, there's a bunch of dead
bodies buried out here. You know, like serial murders. Or maybe buried
The Datsun dropped
its left front wheel into a hole the size of Canyon Lake and I nearly bit my
tongue in two. "Serial murders?" I muttered.
probably an exaggeration, but you've got to admit that it's the perfect spot
for skullduggery. You could get lost out here and nobody would find you for
weeks and weeks. Maybe months." She shuddered. "Maybe years."
The sky was turning
shell-pink in the east and there was enough light to see that the day was not
going to be one of Texas's finest. Angry gray clouds scudded overhead on a
stiff north breeze. The rugged, rocky landscape was barricaded by
fierce-looking prickly pear cactus and fortified by sentinels of Western red
cedar, standing at attention in the pale dawn light. This was deserted country,
starkly and severely beautiful, deceptive and treacherous and full of
unpleasant surprises. If we had an accident or car trouble, it'd be a long hike
back to the road. Surreptitiously, I reached under the driver's seat to make
sure the cell phone was there, and came up empty-handed.
was still in the truck. The one piece of equipment we really needed, and I'd
forgotten to bring it along. But I wouldn't mention it to Ruby. It might jar
her faith in me.
We drove another half mile in silence.
Just when I was ready to quit and turn back, the lane dipped and rose again and
crossed a small open meadow. We had found Carl Swenson's house.
I stopped a little distance from the
house and turned off the ignition. In the gray predawn light, we could see that
there was no sign of a car, and the graveled area between the outbuildings and
the house was empty. The house itself was a large, well-kept, two-story affair
with a cedar-shingled roof and a wide porch across the front. A neatly mowed
lawn extended around the house, and the whole area was landscaped with native
shrubs, yaupon and agarito and cenizo. The place had a prosperous look.
"Interesting," Ruby said softly.
"Swenson didn't pay for this with his mistletoe money."
"It's been here for a while," I said.
"Swenson inherited the land from his family." Still, I was surprised.
I had expected something more along the lines of Clyde's hovel, with surly
dogs lounging in the dooryard and goats and pigs eating garbage out back. This
place had three or four bedrooms plus a couple of living areas and had been
recendy renovated—or so I guessed—with skylights and glass gables. Sited as it
was, almost at the top of a ridge, it commanded a sweeping view of hills and
I thought again about the locked gate. "Do
you still want to have a look around?" I asked nervously. "Maybe we
just ought to bag it and go home."
"What do you
mean, bag it?" Ruby was indignant. "We came to take a look and we're
taking a look. Let's go."
With a sigh, I
started the car again, drove into the parking area, and stopped. Ruby fished
in her bag, retrieved her pepper spray, and pocketed it. Then she stripped off
her wool cap and yanked a black ski mask over her face.
that really necessary?" I asked doubtfully.
"Yep," Ruby said, pulling
her cap back on. The black mask muffled her voice and gave her a malevolent,
sinister look, like something out of
Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
one for you." She thrust a red wool mask into my hand. "Don't argue,
China. Just put it on." She began tugging a pair of black leather gloves
on her hands.
"I hate these
things," I muttered, pulling the mask over my head. "They make me
feel like an Egyptian mummy."
Ruby picked up her canvas bag and slung it over
her shoulder. "I'm ready. Are you?"
I opened the door and got out,
swiveling my head to check for loose rottweilers. If I lived this far out in
the country, I'd keep at least two. Maybe a half dozen. If I were really
paranoid, I'd probably arrange a few booby traps in convenient places. As I was
wondering how paranoid Carl Swenson had been, a gust of icy wind lifted dust
from the parking area and flung it into my face, and I realized that the ski
mask hadn't been such a bad idea after all. It limited visibility to what was
directly in front of me, but I was glad for its protection.
"I wonder where
the greenhouse is," Ruby said, her voice low.
I glanced around,
getting my bearings. The house was on a grassy knoll and the outbuildings—a
double garage; a tin-roofed shed that sheltered a tractor, an old truck, and
some farm equipment; and a substantial gray metal building, maybe thirty by
sixty, with twelve-foot double doors— were off to the east, fifty yards or so
away. All the buildings except for the house looked as if they'd been
constructed in the last couple of years. Well-constructed, too, not a
tumbledown shanty among them.
I turned back,
squinting, my attention belatedly caught by the truck in the tractor shed. It
was dark under the tin roof and difficult to tell at a glance, but I was
getting that twitchy feeling that tells me I'm onto something important. I
strode toward the shed, Ruby running to catch up.
"I said, I don't
see the greenhouse," she repeated. "Where do you think it is?"
We reached the shed. The truck was
wedged, nose in, between the tractor and a couple of pieces of farm equipment,
both new. The truck wasn't new. It was red, it sagged in the right rear, and
the right-side window was covered with ratty-looking cardboard. It was a Ford.
"By damn," I said softly. "We've
found Aunt Velda's truck."
truck?" Ruby made an excited noise. "But what's it doing here? Who
put it here? What—"
"I have no idea,"
I said. "Stay put. There's only room for one person in there."
I squeezed between the truck and the
tractor, stepped around the front, and took a look. What I saw sobered me. The
right front headlight was broken and there were spatters of something that
looked like blood on the grille. I walked back around to the passenger side,
stood on tiptoe, and peered through the window. The key was still in the
I rejoined Ruby.
She'd wrapped her arms around herself and was jiggling up and down, trying to
she asked. "Is it what you thought?"
"It is," I said grimly. "There's
blood on the grille and the right front headlight is broken." I was
wishing like hell for my cell phone. Some smart investigators we were. We'd
brought props and costumes—and no means of communication. I glanced toward the
house. There had to be a phone inside. "This changes everything, Ruby.
We're not playing a game. We need to get Blackie out here. Right away."
"I don't get it,
China," Ruby said, puzzled. "Why would Aunt Velda have hidden the
truck here? You'd think it's the last place she'd put it."
"Because she's completely loony, that's
why," I replied crossly. "Because the Klingons told her to do it.
I stopped. "Because it's the last
place anybody would think to look," I said softly. Which was not so loony,
"Do you really
think that old lady could have driven it here and then walked all the way back
to the flower farm? It's an awfully long way back to the mailbox, and from
there, it must be three or four miles to the farm."
I glanced up, assessing where we were. "I'll
bet it's not as far as that. We drove quite a distance to the south, but
Comanche Road loops back, and the flower farm is on this side of it. For all we
know, the Fletcher place is just over the next hill."
That made sense,
actually. Donna had said that their house used to belong to the ranch manager.
Surely the manager wouldn't live a couple of hours' horseback ride from the
main house. Still, Ruby had a point. The terrain was pretty rugged, not easy
for an old lady to hike across.
"But maybe Aunt Velda didn't actually do
it," Ruby said, thinking out loud. "Maybe somebody took her truck,
ran Swenson down, and then drove it here. Somebody like, well, Marvin."
"If he did, his
prints will be on it." I turned toward the house. "Come on. Let's see
if we can find a phone. We need to get Blackie out here."
Ruby grabbed my arm. "Before you go calling
the cops, I think we ought to check out that big metal building over
there." She pointed. "If it was me growing grass, I'd put my
greenhouse indoors, under lights and a metal roof. That way, nobody could see
what I was up to." She headed off in the direction of the metal building.
I have to give it to
Ruby. When she gets an idea, she sticks with it. And for all I knew, she was
right. I've cultivated a lot of herbs in my life, but
is not one of them. While I am not one of those
who condemn the plant outright—after all, it enjoyed a long and honorable history
as a fiber and medicinal plant long before we criminalized it—my distaste for
spending time in jail has overcome my desire to have a plant or two in my own
personal collection. And even though my previous job required me to defend my
share of users and dealers, I don't keep up on recent advances in commercial
Anyway, there was a
certain logic to Ruby's idea, and I went after her. Aunt Velda's red Ford truck
had been parked in Swenson's tractor shed since Sunday afternoon— it could sit there
a few hours longer. Aunt Velda wasn't going anywhere. And if there was
something illegal in that bam, we could alert Blackie to the fact, so he would
Ruby and I stood
together in front of the building. I assumed that the double doors—sliding
doors, hung from a track at the top—would be locked, and wondered whether it
was time to use Ruby's handy-dandy lock-picking kit. But the right-hand door
hung open a couple of inches. Ruby pushed it to the side until the opening was
just wide enough to slip through.
Ruby," I said cautiously. "Somebody might be in there."
"If anybody's in there, they're in the
dark," Ruby retorted.
"We'll be in the
dark, too. Did you bring your flashlight?"
"No, but I
brought this." She reached into her canvas bag and took out the can of
pepper spray. "Are you coming or do I go by myself?" And with that,
she stepped through the door. I had no choice but to follow her.
It was pitch-black
inside, but my nose told me that something—pot or not—was growing in this
building. The smell of rich, damp earth and green leaves was unmistakable, and
the air was warm, 50 degrees or so.
it?" Ruby asked excitedly. "He's growing staff!"
it's orchids," I whispered.
"If I were a
light switch," Ruby said, "where would I be? To the right, just
inside the door?"
Ruby!" I exclaimed. But it was too late. She'd found the switch and
flipped it on. A string of bulbs suspended overhead came on, not very bright,
but bright enough to show us what we'd come all this way to see.
Not your everyday glassed-in variety, but a large, open growing area in the
middle of a dirt floor. This rectangular space, covered with several inches of
pine-bark mulch, was home to forty or so rows of robust, flourishing green
plants. Some, in three-gallon pots, were head-high and obviously mature; others
were waist-high; still others, in gallon pots, were knee-high. Along the right,
on wooden tables, were flats of tiny green seedlings. Banks of fluorescent
tubes, not operating at the moment, were suspended over the growing area, along
with a complex web of what looked like sprayers or misters. With a metallic
grunt and a whisde, a blower came on and the leaves began to stir slightly in
the mechanical breeze.
We moved forward and
to the right for a better look. As we stood there, taking all this in like a
pair of open-mouthed tourists on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, we heard a
loud click. The fluorescent tubes blinked and brightened, flooding the growing
area with an intense, full-spectrum light that made the leaves look intensely,
potently green. Seconds later, the misters came on, spraying clouds of
sparkling droplets. The system was obviously regulated by electronic timers which
measured out just the right amount of sun, wind, and rain. The result was an
extremely lucrative harvest of green plants that were almost literally worth
their weight in gold.