A son of peasants walked quickly toward the elevator. He was followed closely by his entourage. Dressed in a charcoal pinstriped suit and, as always, carrying his own briefcase, he stood before the elevator doors and looked up at the arrow marching relentlessly towards the number seven, the floor on which he stood. It was not unlike the relentless march of the lower classes that he had come to represent. As the head of Colombia’s Liberal Party, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán had ridden a wave of popular sentiment to an unprecedented rendezvous with destiny. Only two months earlier, he had organized and led the largest protest march in his nation’s history. At his behest, thousands of his countrymen moved through the streets of Bogota, holding candles to protest the government’s continued repression of the underclass.
His efforts had made him a hero and an icon among the masses. But the endeavor of Colombian politics was sheathed in a clandestine and sinister veil, entangling the Catholic Church and the wealthy of both conservatives and liberals alike. Colombia, not unlike the medieval British Isles, had experienced tremendous consolidation; a privileged few controlled the bulk of its wealth. The abused majority enjoyed a standard of living no better. In most cases, their standard of living was worse than the feudal serfs of the eleventh century. During that time, a wealthy cadre of overseers tried desperately—and savagely—to retain what they considered their birthright.
At 11:43 A. M. on April 9, 1948, Gaitán, whom his own party referred to as El Negro due to his unusually dark complexion, stepped out onto the streets of Bogota. As usual, a crowd of fans and well-wishers had gathered to see the small, dark man. The hopes of the multitudes rested on his diminutive shoulders. He shook hands with those near him and spoke informally about their concerns. He shared with them a brief insight into his vision for the future of their nation. Then, on that hot and muggy morning, he began to move up the street with his entourage and the crowd in tow.
It was evident, even to the casual observer, that this former lawyer, Congressman, Cabinet Minister, and Mayor of Bogota had in his pocket the hearts and prayers of his fellow Colombians. The small crowd grew more significant as those on the street followed Gaitán to his meeting.
Ahead, Gaitán saw a young man in a dark suit cross the street, quartering toward the precession. His gait was swift and purposeful. Gaitan did not know the man but recognized the face and smiled as he drew near. It was evident to Gaitán that he wanted something, perhaps a handshake. They were smiling genuinely at one another as the man pulled out his revolver and fired three shots into Gaitán’s chest and head. Gaitán fell into the arms of one of his followers. He was unconscious, his breathing labored. Within minutes, he was dead.
Screams of rage soon replaced his followers’ screams of grief. Before Gaitan’s blood had formed a pool on the street, his assassin was lying in his own blood, beaten to death by the Liberal Party leader’s followers.
A reign of chaos prompted by the death of Gaitán ensued. Within three hours, Bogota was ablaze. It started with government buildings and was followed by the houses of the rich since they were most likely responsible. Soon the wave of violence reached critical mass, and by dinnertime, stores, convents, and a cathedral were destroyed. Amid the chaos, prisoners escaped from jails. Even hospitals were under siege. Before the fall of darkness, the army rolled down the streets in tanks and fired into the crowds.
Conservative estimates pegged the death toll at more than three thousand that day. The death of Gaitán had prompted a reaction grossly underestimated by those responsible for his death. The era of La Violencia had begun. For the next five years, bloodshed would be leviathan in a country where it had always been commonplace. Before its end in 1953, an estimated 250,000 would die.
The urban war of that day quickly enveloped the countryside. The class struggle that had begun with the life and death of Gaitán was quickly converted into a conflict between the Conservatives and Liberals. In the 1949 election, which the Liberal Party boycotted, the Conservatives made it a requirement for all Colombians to carry identity cards to ensure their participation in the elections. In some regions, the Conservatives executed those without the cards. In the other areas, liberals executed those who carried them.
The diverse terrain of Colombia had not been a stranger to conflict and bloodshed before La Violencia. Between the years of 1830 and 1903, Colombia had experienced nine national civil wars, fourteen local civil wars, two wars with Ecuador, two successful military coups, and one that failed. However, the magnitude and ferocity of La Violencia had a lasting impact on the government and the people’s disdain for it.
During the peak of La Violencia, a new generation was born. Among them, born in the squalor created by a century of brutality, was one Pablo Escobar.
From the womb of La Violencia, he and countless others like him sprang forth upon the world with a warped sense of reality. To these men, violent death was simply a part of life. The law was merely a tool used by those with power to control those without it. The year was 1949.
Lieutenant Commander Babe McSherry, United States Navy, sat in a drunken stupor, staring off into the vastness of the hotel’s central banquet hall. It was as if he were listening to the ensuing conversation through some endless conduit, and as such, found its root impossible to grasp. He tried, rather poorly, to divide his time between digesting the evening’s schedule of ceremonies and watching Dr. “Whiskey Bob” Thompson, a Naval Flight Surgeon, flirting unabashedly with his date. What was her name? He could no longer remember. He tried to read the insert on the program’s inner cover. It went as follows:
“Among the men who fly the great metal birds, there is one distinguishing feature that sets a certain few into a class all their own. This feature, the tailhook, has made weak men shudder and brave men cautious. It is the tailhook, and the carrier capability, that sets us apart and above the average aviator.
Be it hereby resolved that the Tailhookers of Naval Aviation will hold an annual meeting of their members, both old and new. This gathering at the Rosarita Beach Hotel is the initial effort at assembling the group. We have high hopes that next year’s Tailhook party will be even bigger and better.
We hereby dedicate this party to all who have dropped the tailhook before us and to those that will come after. May they be as proud of their carrier service as we are of ours.
So, hoist one tonight to Tailhookers everywhere.”
It was five minutes past nine, and despite a general state of drunkenness among the participants, things were running precisely on schedule. The first floorshow had just begun, a rendition of old sea shanties by a vocal group comprised solely of volunteers pulled from the crowd.
The group lacked talent, but they did not lack enthusiasm. As they sang ditties traditional to the mariner’s way, the group’s vivacity enjoined the crowd. Enthralled by their passion, the throng spontaneously bolted into the third floorshow, which was not scheduled to begin until 2300.
It was highly irregular that the songfest should begin early, or in any way, impinge upon the current performance, much less entirely skip the magician scheduled to appear next. McSherry, now somewhat disgusted, for he was rather fond of magic shows, looked up to see Mirabella—though he still did not remember her name—dancing upon the table. Several Naval Officers had gathered around the lass and were clapping in unison and generally egging her on. She was in her height of glory as the group continuously repeated their refrain. Mirabella became increasingly bold as her jig progressed. Her steps were more intricate, and her leaps more daring. She was now working her way up and down the cluttered banquet table, her red dress and long black hair twirling as she did so. She was a beautiful sight to behold. Soon the crowd had forgotten the background noise intended as the main attraction. Even Babe McSherry now laughed and clapped.
It was all quite enjoyable until the cheesecake. Mirabella gracefully pirouetted upon Dr. Thompson’s dessert, and her body careened out of control. Gentlemen—those near her—lunged to catch her, but alcohol had dulled their senses and impaired their reactions. Mirabella landed squarely on her ass in the middle of the table, impaling her derriere with a nasty chunk of a wine glass, which obliterated upon impact.
“Ahee!” she screamed as she twisted to assess the damage.
The singing came to an immediate halt, and the great hall was suddenly silent. “How bad is it?” Babe asked the doctor as he steadied his date.
“We’ll need to dig that hunk a glass out of there. And she may need some stitches. Let’s get her up to my room. I’ll have you fixed up in no time,” he said with a reassuring smile. McSherry found Doc’s bedside manner somewhat less reassuring.
It was midnight when Babe McSherry stumbled up onto the stage. As the fourth and final floor show, the program had billed him as a fine Irish tenor. He remembered being fine, and Irish, but beyond that, he remembered little else. He stood there for a moment, his body weaving and bobbing from the tequila. In the awkward silence before the catcalls and jeering, he tried to recall a happy time. He looked out across the familiar faces of comrades, his brothers-in-arms.
He could not help, even in his current state of intoxication, but think of all those he had known and lost. The dead brought sadness across his brow. Babe McSherry was now in the proper mental state for an Irish ballad. He sang one and then another.
The crowd, having been bludgeoned quite nearly to tears, yearned for a happier tune. McSherry then gave them several. By the time he began his final rendition, it was uncertain whether the crowd was laughing and dancing to the merry tragedy of an Irish Jig or the merry tragedy that was Babe McSherry.
Having nearly exhausted his repertoire, the evening’s final floor show stumbled off the stage, trying to recall what it was he should be doing. Wasn’t there something or someone to whom he should be attending? He poured out of the room and onto the beach, the crowd still laughing wildly at his drunken antics. He staggered down to the surf and, shedding his shoes and socks, let the water lap against his toes. After a moment of relative tranquility, he began to feel deathly ill. He vomited into the surf. Then, finding a patch of dry sand, he passed out under the stars. It was the end to a perfect evening. The first-ever Tailhook Symposium had come and gone. The year was 1956.
“Be a pillar, not a pile,” his father offered, changing the subject.
Logan Van Hoehn III, age five, cocked his head and curled his lip slightly.
“What’s that mean, Daddy?” he asked. Logan’s father and grandfather were sitting on the front porch of their Montana home, finishing their morning coffee.
“A pillar stands tall. It holds high and steady that which is important, like the span of a bridge, or the parapet of a tall building. A pile does the same thing in a way, but it does it where no one can see, in the dirt, or sometimes underwater. A pile is buried in the ground, and it helps steady what’s above. Stand up and show the world what you’re made of, what you stand for, like the pillar. Nobody notices pilings. Do you understand what I’m saying, Logan?” The boy gave a generous nod.
“Daddy, one thing you could ‘splain?”
The boy’s father smiled. “What is it, son?”
“What’s a poora pot?” The two men roared with laughter.
“It’s what your dad’ll be in if he don’t get to work,” Logan’s grandfather offered. Little Logan’s eyes got big.
“A parapet is a tower, Logan,” his father said, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder. He knew that his son had not grasped the drift of the discussion, but he would, in time. He tousled the boy’s mop of hair. “You go run and play now.”
“Yes, sir.” The boy scampered off the porch and raced toward the timber, where he soon disappeared.
The two men watched as he was consumed by the forest. Dust the boy had kicked up danced on the rays of the warm morning sun.
“It’s none of my damned business, but you ought to let that boy grow up summore, ‘fore you go confusin’ him... with such nonsense,” the grandfather said.
“I disagree. You’ve got to start early with these kids today if you want to instill a sense of worth and a sense of responsibility in them.”
“Maybe so, but I don’t ever recall tellin’ you not to be a pile. I guess you turned out okay… so far.” Logan’s grandfather took one last swig from his cup, then nonchalantly pitched the rest over the porch railing as he stood.
Logan Van Hoehn II stood with his father. He had recently been appointed as the youngest Federal Judge in Montana history. Today would be his first on the bench. It was the Summer of 1967.
In the thick blackness of his cell, he could envision a happy Colombia. Perhaps that would make for a happy self. He wondered if he would live to see such a time, such a place, a place where young men did not have to steal gravestones to pay to feed their families. That time was far removed from the reality that he had known. It was far removed from the reality now strangling the marrow from his bones.
He listened to the familiar clang of metal as the cellblock door slammed home. He thought it still too early for mealtime. He wondered, as he watched a rat nibbling on a clump of human excrement in the opposite cell, who was coming. He could hear the taunts of some of the more seasoned inmates. Someone new was coming in, he thought.
He saw them coming. One was a short, fat Colombian prison guard, and the other was a tall, slender norteamericano. The very white, fair-haired man bounced slightly as he shuffled to keep up. The guard was pulling him along by the upper arm. Obviously, the gringo had never been shackled, he thought as he watched their advance.
He was surprised when the guard stopped in front of his cell.
“¡Oye! This is my cell!”
“Si, Señor Escobar. The warden has told me to tell you that this will be temporary. It was his idea,” the guard said in a conciliatory tone.
“It damned well better be temporary,” the tall norteamericano said in a booming voice.
“Maricón!” The guard said as he whacked the gringo on the back of the skull with his nightstick. The weapon connected with a sickening thud and the man fell to the floor. The guard left him lying there, still shackled, and slammed the cell’s door.
“Welcome to Colombia, gringo!” were the first words that Pablo Escobar spoke to the lanky norteamericano.
Two days later, Escobar was sitting on the floor in a shadowy corner of the cell. The norteamericano stood leaning against the bars. He had a whimsical look on his face as though his mind was a thousand miles away. This intrigued Pablo Escobar, and he finally spoke again.
“Who are you?”
“My name is David Lempke.”
“Why are you in jail in Medillín, David Lempke?”
“I work for Carlos Lehder.”
“Ha! That’s funny! So do I.”
Lehder, a German-Colombian, had established a sophisticated distribution network for smuggling cocaine and marijuana into the United States. Under his tutelage, Escobar and Jorge Ochoa, another future kingpin of narcoterrorism, were just beginning to learn their trade.
“So, what did you do?”
“Whatever Mister Lehder asks me to do,” Lempke said.
“Que bueno. You speak Espanish like an idiot. I asked what you did, not what you do.”
“Oh, busted for possession of coke.”
“Half a kilo.”
“HA!” Escobar began laughing so hard that he eventually produced tears. His body shook violently, and he held his belly as though it would burst.
David Lempke did not mind. He didn’t understand what was so funny. Nevertheless, he laughed with Pablo Escobar. It was probably safer that way, he thought. David Lempke had good instincts.
Lempke and Escobar became friends. Lempke would serve two years for possession of half a kilo. Escobar served two and a half months for 39 pounds. After Escobar’s arresting officer was brutally murdered and nine judges refused to hear the case due to fears of reprisal, and what with the disappearance of the official records, the case against him was dropped.
Twenty-two months later, Escobar and David Lempke were reunited. Over a period of many years, their friendship grew.
Lempke, the son of an esteemed neurosurgeon, was an unlikely sort for the bloody business of narcotics smuggling. Any shortcomings, however, were quickly overcome by virtue of his unmitigated lust for money. Escobar had a natural distrust toward all norteamericanos. In that regard, he was a typical Colombian. But in those weeks of confinement, he grew to appreciate David Lempke. Lempke would do anything for money or drugs if the pile of either were large enough. Such a man might prove useful in the States. It was harder to find trustworthy help up there. Escobar would not forget his cellmate. The year was 1976.
June 1995, Oakland, California
Logan’s world turned in an instant, and it was all on account of a sparrow. Routine preflight inspection revealed a bit of blood on a stator vane of the starboard engine, and, though maintenance eventually cleared the aircraft to fly, the delay put them well behind schedule. It had been a very long day. Coupled with the revelation delivered earlier that morning, that his business partner was most likely a criminal, the day was bound to get longer.
To this day, Southwest Airlines prides itself on its on-time arrival rate, but unfortunately, due to that suspected bird strike in San Diego, Logan’s flight landed late in Oakland, and, as a consequence, he had missed the last flight home to Reno for the evening. That is why he now stood at the Hertz counter and listened as the clerk recited her schpiel.
“Finally, would you like any additional insurance to cover the possibility of unforeseen damage to the vehicle?” The woman behind the desk said.
“No, thanks. I’m good.”
“Very well, Mister Van Hoehn. Hand this to the attendant in the Hertz booth, and he’ll give you the keys. Follow the signs toward rental down the escalator and out to the Hertz shuttle. It runs every ten minutes, any questions?”
“Then have a great evening, and thanks for choosing Hertz.”
Logan didn’t relish the idea of a six-hour drive. Yet he did not want to miss his oldest son’s game in the morning, either.
Had he been a less committed father, he could have stayed at the crash pad in Willow Creek and caught an early morning flight. If he did that, however, everything would have to go smoothly, or he might show up late or perhaps even miss the entire game. No, the crash pad was a higher risk option.
He and several other Southwest pilots rented a charming home there in Willow Creek. Typically, he bunked there only when he had reserve duty.
Tonight, however, was the end of a four-day trip. Since he flew in the Naval Reserves as well, his family lived in Fallon, Nevada, not far from the Naval Air Station located there.
Now, as he merged into traffic on I-80 heading east, he contemplated whether to drive the rental the whole way to Fallon or stop to swap it out for his Jeep when he made Reno. After all, the best case would put him there after 0200.
He sped along Interstate 80 and hoped that no California Highway Patrol personnel were looking for speeders. It took him one hundred miles to figure out the intricacies of the vehicle’s cruise control. Having made it more than halfway to the base of the Sierra Nevada’s without incident, he now set the cruise control to a reasonable seven miles per hour over the posted speed limit for the remainder of the trip. He hoped that this was a safe ticket avoidance speed, even in California.
At Donner Pass, he felt the first serious pangs of fatigue. By Reno, he decided that returning the rental would be just the thing he needed to wake him up. He kept finding his chin in near proximity to his chest, and he was fighting valiantly to keep his eyes open. The cold desert air rushing by him in the open cockpit of his Jeep would be just the ticket. Admittedly the CJ-7 would be a much less comfortable drive than this vehicle—a Ford Taurus—but that would only ensure he stayed awake.
He was pleased with his progress. He pulled into the rental return at precisely 0152. By his calculations, he was eight minutes ahead of schedule.
“Sorry, pal, but could you take me up to the front gate of the Air National Guard Facility?” He said to the first cab in line when he got out to the street.
“Sure, but you know there’s a minimum charge, right?”
“Yes, but it’s too darned late to walk,” he said.
“All right, jump in.”
Logan, a world-class cheapskate, had always parked his vehicle at the Air National Guard Facility across the street because it was free for anyone with a military ID. Unfortunately, although the facility was across the street—indeed, he could see his Jeep from where he now stood—the front gate was nearly a quarter of a mile away.
Logan pulled back onto Interstate 80 at 0210, heading east. He figured he was five minutes behind his self-imposed schedule. That said, as had hoped, the switch had gotten his blood moving again, and for now, at least he was wide awake.
Unfortunately, not five minutes into the remainder of his drive, Logan Van Hoehn started to grow tired once again. The hum of tires on pavement and the warming embrace of the heater made him sleepier than he realized. It was not so much the warmth as warmth juxtaposed against the cold night air that enveloped the Jeep’s open cockpit. It was like looking outdoors on a cold and rainy day and listening as the raindrops land softly on the rooftop. It was the kind of warmth one might feel when they are completely safe. It was the kind of warmth that could kill if left untended. As such, Logan decided to pull over again halfway home. The Pilot Truckstop was open 24/7. It was on the west side of Fernley, Nevada, near the service entrance of the mini storage complex that Logan owned. Officially he, Logan Van Hoehn III, was the General Partner.
He had been unable to wake up for the entire ride across the Sierras. He assumed a cold drink would do the trick for his final leg. His wakeup call turned out to be much, much more than a beverage.
Inside, Logan looked for a drink that might keep him awake. He thought a cold drink might be preferable to coffee. He also recognized that he could use a dose of caffeine. He settled on a Frappuccino.
He walked up to the counter where a big trucker was chatting up the salesclerk.
“So, what the hell is up the hill behind you guys?” He said.
“Mini storage. Why?”
“I come through here about twice a week, and there’s always a shit-ton of vehicles in and out of there at this time of night. Motherfuckers—’scuse my French—it’s like they’re in a hurry, or drunk, or both. One ’o those assholes cut me off again tonight. If I hadn’t stood on my air brakes, I woulda squashed him like a bug. Mini storage, you say?”
“That’s what’s back there.”
“I wonder… you’d think the owner would be closin’ the thing down earlier than three in the morning.”
Logan found the conversation interesting because he was the owner. He didn’t realize the clerk behind the counter was staring at him.
She cleared her throat rather loudly and said, “Will that be all for you tonight?”
Reality had just been thrown askew. In a trance, Logan gave an absent nod and handed her his purchase. He paid his bill with cash and made his exit.
The mini storage was the one thing that had been automatic. The business had been the only constant in his frenetic existence. Over the last crazy half-decade, it had been the single indicator that he still retained his grip on reality. It was the thing he could point to and say—when his wife asked questions about the madness that had enveloped their entire family—‘yeah but look at our mini storage. That’s still workin’ like a champ.’ Moreover, it was totally passive. The money just showed up like clockwork.
Therein lies the problem, he thought. Tonight, passivity ends.
He drove around behind the truck stop where he could see the front gate. He took up a spot behind a big rig where he watched and waited. At three a.m., he saw two white vans come out and pull onto the service road. His field of view was very narrow, and they quickly disappeared as he looked between the tractor and trailer of the rig he was behind. A minute later, he watched the vans pull onto the interstate and head toward Reno. He glanced back toward the facility in time to see the manager close the gate. What in the hell? He thought. Fate and Frappuccino had conspired to open his eyes. And to think it was all on account of a sparrow. He pulled out and continued home. He was wide awake now.
June 1995, Northern Nevada Desert
According to witnesses, the body was in a wash at the base of the Stillwater Mountains. Death and the desert were often co-conspirators in nature’s saga.
Yet, Gary Wyman, Churchill County’s Sherriff, was happy to be out of the office for a change. The azure sky stretched on and on. It was another beautiful morning in the Dixie Valley. He was driving his Ford Explorer at an uncharacteristically high rate of speed, even for a Nevadan. He felt it was warranted. After all, he needed to locate the site before the coroner and the criminal investigative division arrived. They hadn’t bothered posting a guard due to the late hour of the discovery and because the site was so remote. They felt it would be unlikely that anyone would disturb the evidence. Certainly, the perpetrator would not return because it had not yet been released to the press. That would happen today, most likely.
Wyman liked the wide-open spaces. He had missed them sorely after leaving Utah. He wanted to be a big city cop. Fight crime. After twenty years in Los Angeles, he had seen enough. He had a family. So, he retired and started looking for a small western town that might need a deputy. Fallon was the spot they picked him up quickly at the Sheriff’s insistence. “Because a deputy sheriff, with L.A. motorcycle, beat, and detective experience, doesn’t just fall into a small town’s lap every day.” Now he was the Sheriff.
Animal on the side of the road, he thought, though he could not yet identify it. Jackrabbit. It just stood there until the Churchill County Sheriff’s Department vehicle was nearly beside it. Then it made a mad dash for the other side, to no avail. The vehicle shuddered as though going over a small speed bump. In his rearview mirror, Wyman watched the carcass of the animal tumble into the sage-covered desert, creating an impressive cloud of dust as it disappeared from view. It thoroughly amazed him that there were so many jacks in this valley. Even more amazing was their sheer stupidity when it came to crossing roads.
Granted, Highway 121 was a dead-end road for all practical purposes, petering out into a dirt path that eventually found its way to Winnemucca. And, granted, the rabbits living in this valley were not likely to encounter vehicles on a daily basis. Indeed, the species was noted for big ears, big feet, prolific reproductive capabilities, and nimbleness afoot, not wit. But why freeze when a vehicle was two miles away, only to try to run underneath it as it passed? Perhaps it was a suicide. Perhaps the poor bastard was having difficulty at home, Wyman thought. He had become more cynical than most other Mormons he knew, but then most had not subjected themselves to twenty years of police duty in Los Angeles. He regretted having run over the creature. Truly, the loss of life for no reason was a tragedy. But he grew up in territory much like this, and he knew the ecosystem would absorb the carcass quickly. It would probably make a tasty morsel for a coyote, or an eagle might carry it home to the nest he reasoned.
Near Eleven Mile Well, the highway crests a little rise as it bends to the Northeast. From this point, Wyman could see the vast expanse of the valley sprawling before him. The road proceeded north by northeast and then bent left back toward the north-northwest. After the bend left, according to the map, it would only be another four or five clicks before he would shift into four-wheel drive and head west toward Slaughter Canyon.
The Dixie Valley is typical Northern Nevada. It would take days to walk across its width at its narrowest point. It is broad and, like most in the region, contains a large dry lakebed or salt flat. It is remote. A human could live out here and seldom see another. Assuming no one was looking for you, Wyman thought.
Strangely, it had been only a year earlier that this very valley had teemed with law enforcement officials searching for an escaped convict who’d shot and killed a Nevada Highway Patrolman. They caught him because the imbecile built a fire to avoid freezing to death. He was lucky that no law officer shot him while trying to escape. Or, maybe he wasn’t, Wyman thought as he pulled off the road and started up the dry creek bed of Slaughter Creek. After all, he would be on death row for eight or ten years, even for killing a cop, even in Nevada. And what did he have to look forward to? Lethal injection followed by eternal damnation. Serves him right, he thought.
He turned his GPS on and slowed down a bit. He watched as it began tracking the satellites that would pinpoint its position. “There’s one... two... three.” Three was enough to ensure that he was proceeding up the correct wash. The only reason the remains had been discovered in the first place was that hunters, out scouting for new spots to chase chukar, turned a couple of washes too soon and were forced to hoof it a considerable distance to check Cain Spring Canyon.
Chukar are game birds. They dwell in the mountainous terrain and foothills of the region. Hunting them is a challenge because of the terrain in which they are found and due to their propensity to run uphill. They are larger than quail but fly only slightly slower, which, when coupled with the physical exhaustion of the shooter, make them an exceedingly difficult quarry. Gary Wyman hunted them as a younger man but, in middle age, preferred Cornish game hens from Safeway to climbing on the rocks.
He looked down at the GPS resting precariously on his console. It was tracking five satellites now and had him within a mile of the spot where the party had discovered the body. Up ahead, he could see where the wash became too narrow to continue. Prior to that, he could see the fresh vehicle tracks where the hunters had climbed the bank and proceeded. He followed the trail they had cut only a day earlier, moving at a slower pace, in case any large rocks were concealed beneath the sage. He had seen many a cowboy leave his oil pan in the desert because he was in a hurry. Being stranded here would quickly become a survival situation. He cursed the Ford Motor Company, under his breath, because it became obvious that the Explorer, though billed as a sport utility vehicle, lacked the necessary clearance to continue. A walk would be nice in the cool morning air, he thought. Later in the day, when the sun was high, he might regret the decision, but at least he would be coming downhill then.
According to the GPS, he was within half a mile, and, by the looks of what lay ahead, he figured the body would be somewhere near the mouth of the canyon. He was not mistaken.
The mental dwarf that picked the burial site was obviously unfamiliar with the concept of spring runoff, he thought as he surveyed the site. Though bone dry for ninety percent of the year, any significant thundershower, or the considerable annual snowmelt would turn the gully into a raging torrent for at least a part of any normal year. What had been first exposed—probably a foot—had decomposed and washed out into the desert. All that remained, sticking out from the sand, were two bones—most likely the tibia and fibula. In addition to that, the frontal and top part of the skull lay, partially exposed, three feet upstream. Before noticing the skull, members of the scouting party were not certain that the bones were human. What was first noticed were the two bones and a shred of sun-faded denim. Most likely, a part of the person’s clothing, the Sheriff thought as he studied the site.
He stopped for a moment and backed away to look at the overall picture, and then it dawned on him. He had forgotten his camera. The coroner and the forensic investigators would each have one, but he didn’t like relying on others for his pictures. He started back down the hill.
He had just reached the Explorer when he noticed a dust cloud slowly advancing up the wash. It was larger than his had been, and it intrigued him to the point that he decided to wait for whatever it was to appear. It did not take long. Rising out of Slaughter Wash was the Nevada Department of Investigation’s forensic team. They were driving a Ford 4 x 4 crew-cab with an oversized canopy to accommodate their gear. Following in close proximity was the Churchill County Coroner. The Sheriff smiled at the sight of the coroner following so closely, eating the dust of the forensic team. It was exactly what had been happening figuratively for the past several years in cases such as this.
It was an unfair comparison, however, though few people recognized it. Dr. Temis had been a coroner two decades ago. Now he was a teacher at the University of Nevada, Reno. He had developed techniques for aging human remains in a desert ecosystem. When NDI asked if he would be interested in plying his gruesome trade in Nevada, he declined to take the post. Instead, he formed an ad-hoc team comprised of grad students from disparate disciplines such as Archeology, Medicine, Criminal Science, Photojournalism, Microbiology, and Entomology. Most cases involved only lab work. NDI had a number of crews trained in crime scene investigation and evidence recovery.
Despite that, Dr. Temis had negotiated with the State to allow his teams into the field a few times per year. The teams, there were two sometimes three, were not kept all that busy. They might only visit two or three sites per year. Temis considered it important that his students get out to see actual crime scenes. The state of Nevada did not mind having extra teams that worked part-time for free. It was cost-effective. Most impressive, though, were the results. The teams were good. Temis had a way of picking his teams, almost like he could read minds. He could put people together as though he were working a jigsaw puzzle. The synergistic effect was evident even to casual observers.
“Good morning, Sheriff.”
“Doctor Temis, always a pleasure,” the Sheriff said, shaking the man’s hand through the open window of the truck.
“Any luck locating the remains yet?”
“Right up there at the mouth of that canyon.”
“The Explorer wouldn’t clear the sage I take it?” the coroner asked as he bounded up. He, too, was in an Explorer.
“Hello, Doctor Williams,” Sheriff Wyman said. “Yeah, the damn thing doesn’t have any clearance, but, from the looks of the Doctor’s rig, he could probably drive us all right up there. This thing new, Doctor?”
“Why yes… yes, it is. We ordered two of them last fall.”
“Your budget must still be growing,” Wyman said with a wry grin, glancing at the county coroner to gauge his reaction.
“Load your gear in the back, Doctor, and climb aboard,” Temis said, smiling.
The big Ford inched its way up the hill until the rocks were too large and frequent even for it to traverse. At a point still more than a football field from the site, everyone piled out of the vehicle. The students and Dr. Temis stretched and yawned and slowly began to come to life after the three-hour journey. The coroner and his assistant, a balding middle-aged man named Harold, slid their gear onto the tailgate of the CID’s truck and then began walking up toward the site with a camera. Initially, this went unnoticed.
“Doctor Williams, DOCTOR WILLIAMS!” Temis shouted. Dr. Williams, pretending not to hear, continued his deliberate ascension toward the mouth of the canyon. Gary Wyman did not want a botched investigation on his hands. He had worked with both the coroner and Doctor Temis on previous occasions, and based on his experience, he knew who to trust. He did not understand why Dr. Temis would be calling Dr. Williams, but he reasoned that it was probably of some import from the look of distress on Dr. Temis’s face. Wyman resorted to his only means of alerting Williams, aside from discharging his weapon. With two fingers on each side of his tightly pursed lips, he whistled as loud as he could, which was considerably louder than team members around him had suspected. For, despite seeing his intentions, many were still visibly startled by the shrill and eerie screech it produced. Dr. Williams took two more steps, then stopped and turned around quickly. The effect of the reverberation bouncing off the foothills was even more impressive. The Sheriff and Temis, each with exaggerated signals, motioned Williams, and his assistant back toward the truck. It was apparent, even from a distance of several hundred feet, that Williams was disgusted at the notion of having to backtrack. His purposeful and vaulting gait, coupled with the tone of his voice, gave it away. At least for Wyman, it was not possible to discern what he was saying, only that the tone of his parlance was not cheerful.
“What is it?” he asked in a wearisome tone.
“I was hoping before we descended, or I suppose in this case ascended would be more appropriate, upon the site that is, that we could all agree on how we should proceed. I would hate to see us all up there, tramping around and poking things and quite possibly destroying evidence in the process of trying to discover it.”
“I’m a coroner, Doctor Temis. I realize that Churchill County doesn’t have the volume of Las Vegas or even Washoe county, but this is not my first murder investigation. We were just going up there to shoot a couple of rolls of film before your team starts digging around.”
“Doctor, I appreciate both your intrepid spirit and your experience, but we don’t even know exactly where the body is yet. I was hoping that we could get a quick brief from Sheriff Wyman. Then perhaps we would know what kind of gear to bring and how best to proceed.”
“Well, gentlemen, in that case, if I may, let me give you a synopsis of what we have,” Wyman said, jumping in before the two doctors became embroiled in an argument. “The body is lying in the middle of the wash, mostly buried in sand. It’s right up where the wash spills out from the canyon walls. The only thing visible is the top of the skull and what appears to be part of a leg about three feet downstream.”
“It sounds as though this will be an archeological expedition, at least once we’ve shot some photos. Doctor Williams, would you and your assistant be willing to lend us a hand with some of our gear?” Temis asked.
“Yes, we’ll help,” Williams answered, with no small measure of disdain.
“Okay, people. Gather around. We will accompany Sheriff Wyman up to the site. He will point us in the right direction. I would like each of you to view the site and the body, please remember not to get too close. I’m initially just looking for big-picture, first impression sort of stuff. If you have a pad and paper, you can jot down any thoughts for later reflection. The first folks to get in will be photography. That will be the Sheriff, Doctor Williams and his assistant from the Coroner’s office, and Kara. As for the rest of you, this is sounding like an archeological dig, so we need to listen to Shelby, so we know what to bring. Oh yes, if you’re not part of the camera crew, plan on two trips to get the necessary gear up the hill. Where is Shelby?”
“Here I am, Doctor Temis.”
Wyman looked up to see Shelby Smith. Her voice was the thing that attracted his attention. It was demure yet sultry. To his chagrin, the woman he saw before him did not fit the heavenly voice. She wasn’t ugly, per se. It was simply that her appearance was disheveled. She looked off balance just standing there. The Sherriff questioned whether she would make it up to the site without stumbling.
“Come forward, please,” Dr. Temis instructed.
The young woman did not move, but from behind her came a woman of such radiance that her wondrous voice now paled in comparison to her aesthetic prowess. Wyman had never met an archeologist. He had imagined a crusty chap, clad in khaki, and advanced in years. That image was now wholly neutralized by the heavenly Shelby Smith.
“Shelby, are there any special considerations or instructions before we make our way to the body?” Temis inquired.
Ms. Smith—in three more semesters, it would be Doctor Smith—pursed her lips and put her index finger on her cheekbone, her brown eyes rolled slowly toward the heavens. With one hand on her hip, she crossed her feet. She thought for a moment while every man marveled, and every woman envied. To Wyman, she looked more like a “Valley Girl” in this stance, and he wondered if she would have something intelligent to say.
“We need to bring packs One and Three to start, the tarp and some poles, both sifters, and a shovel or two. We can save the rest for a second trip once we assess the site.”
“James, anything for entomology?” Dr. Temis said.
“Nah, I’ve got everything I need right here,” he said, holding up a small duffel.
“Very good. Let’s get a move on then, shall we?” Temis announced.
At the site, everyone encircled the body, giving it a wide berth so as not to impede the view of others. Some team members stood in quiet reflection, while others were jotting down notes on pad and paper. Temis and Williams were both dictating into their tape recorders in low and inaudible tones, while Kara, Harold, and Sheriff Wyman snapped photos. This continued for several minutes, until finally, Dr. Temis, noticing that photography had ceased, cleared his throat.
“Okay, people. Initial impressions.”
“The person or persons who buried this body weren’t familiar with the territory. I would doubt if they were from around here. Pretty stupid to bury a body in a wash.”
“You assume that the people who did this were attempting to hide the body. On what have you based your assumption?” Dr. Temis retorted.
“Well, the body is almost completely buried. It seems logical that it has been buried for a reason.”
“At this moment, I’m inclined to agree with you. In which case your assertion that the murderer was not a local is very astute... for an Entomologist.” Muffled laughter could be heard in response to the Doctor’s jab.
“Why do we think it was a murder?” Kara, the photojournalism major, asked.
“Duh!” someone said sarcastically.
“Ah-ha! Kara gets the prize. We assume foul play because the body is almost completely buried. Isn’t it possible this poor soul died of a heart attack, and the wash simply consumed him or her?”
The Sheriff sat on a large rock and watched the discussion spin into a frenzy. Each member of the team offering a point. It was followed immediately by a counterpoint until the spiral of synergy reached an intellectual crescendo. Dr. Temis, in the height of his glory, stood there in the middle of the canyon over the body, the catalyst of a mental microburst. No classroom could facilitate such a learning environment. Wyman marveled. In a few minutes, the world of academia would give way to the laboratory of practicality. It always went this way. At least it had the last two times Wyman had seen the volunteer NDI team in action. Temis would brainstorm with the team for an hour, and then work them like dogs for the next three days.
By mid-morning, the temperature was climbing through the ninety-degree mark, and the work had commenced in earnest. The team had staked out the scene in a grid of ten-by-ten-foot squares. Temis had instructed them to begin with the center square where the body lay and work outward. An archeological expedition was underway. The sand was scraped, an inch at a time, from the middle of the grid. Soon, the skull was more than half exposed. Once Dr. Temis had determined that the skull was that of an adult male, Sheriff Wyman decided that it was time to alert the media and started to saunter down the hill to his truck. Since he would not be able to get reception for either his radio or cell phone from the remote valley, he had instructed a deputy to take post several miles to the south, at the intersection of Highway 50 and 121. There he could act as a relay for any pertinent details or instructions concerning the case.
“Churchill County Sheriff Three, this is One. How copy?”
“Loud and clear, Sheriff. How me?”
“Same. This Garrett?”
“Okay, here’s what I need. First, I need you to give headquarters a call and have Jody do the standard press release for a newly discovered body. Make sure you say it like that, a newly discovered body and make sure she includes the coordinates, got that?”
“All right. Now once you get that called in, drive over to Middlegate. Go to Guss and Reita’s place and borrow the biggest cooler they got and fill it with drinking water, some ice but not too much. If Guss gives you any grief, tell him I’ll personally return the danged cooler. And, if that’s not acceptable, ask him how old his new bartender is. He’ll cooperate.”
“You got a GPS?”
“Did ya get the coordinates?”
“I’ll be looking for you in about an hour then. Oh yeah, don’t drive past my truck, big rocks. I’ll come down and help ya hump the water up to the site. Got it?”
Upon his return to the site, the Sheriff saw that the investigation was well underway. Two people were processing a small pile of dirt through a series of sifters. They were about fifty feet upstream from the body and were accompanied by the lady who the Sherriff initially thought of as disheveled or off balance or both. She was armed with a metal detector. The dirt they were sifting was being removed from around the body with a cement trowel and a paintbrush. If the tools were indicative of the future pace, the outlook was bleak because Shelby, the chief excavator, had a toothbrush in her hip pocket, and periodically she was using it. After several minutes of watching this bottleneck, Dr. Temis leaned over her shoulder and had a brief discussion with the beauty. Shelby then called a huddle for another meeting of the minds.
Dr. Temis joined the Sheriff, who was seeking a meager patch of shade provided by a small boulder near the mouth of the canyon. He crowded uncomfortably close to him, apparently in an attempt to jump the Sheriff’s claim and plunder a portion of the prized location.
“We may have a problem.”
“I’ll say, you just stole half my shade, Doctor.”
“Thank you, but I really can’t stay long,” he said, smiling. The Doctor and the Sheriff, having worked together on previous occasions, had developed a mutual respect for one another.
“This body lies in a wash. Therefore, the standard methods of determining the age of remains in a desert environment do not apply. We must assume that for at least a part of every year, the surrounding earth was very moist. I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps the person or persons responsible for this were idiots or geniuses.”
“I’m not certain I follow your line of thought, Doctor.”
“The ancient Egyptians used to bury their dead in shallow graves, not unlike this one,” he said, pointing at the dig and his students huddling around it.
“Sometimes, fairly frequently, predators or big windstorms would uncover the corpses and, though unnerving, people began to notice that Gramps looked pretty good for having been dead for so long. The concept of mummification and the great pyramids and all was born out of the realization that decomposition of flesh occurs more slowly in dry environments. Indeed, decomposition of all organic material occurs more slowly in the desert. That’s my forte. I’m an expert at approximating how long organic material, namely flesh and bone, has been dead after being aged in dry environments. Beef jerky from your dehydrator is a classic example of what the desert can do to remains. The problem is that in moist environs, things decompose at a much faster rate. Now, we must figure out how often it was wet here and interpolate the percentage of time that this body spent decomposing in an environment—not unlike that of any rain forest—and balance that against the percentage of time it spent decomposing in a desert!”
“Possibly. But I’m not giving up before we get back to the lab. I leave you sole possession of the shade.”
The division of labor ensuing from the huddle prompted by Doctor Temis was having a profound impact on the speed with which the expedition progressed. Shelby had reluctantly acquiesced her trowel and had donned her hat as supervisor. Others would now excavate the shallow grave. Shelby was keeping an attentive watch over their progress as she munched on a celery stick and a Power Bar simultaneously.
The clumsy-looking lady and her cohort, Kara, at the sifting operation, were now dual-hatted. Every fifteen or twenty minutes, they would come down for another tiny pile of dirt. On every other trip, one of them would bring the metal detector and zip it around the dig. Shelby was keeping notes of the results of each sweep.
At every pass over the skull, the detector yielded indications of metal, and there were smatterings of activity at the middle of the grave in two or three consistent locations. Ironically, the strongest indications of metal were near the sifter as the detector was transported back and forth. A secondary dig near the sifter ensued. Dr. Temis and Harold, the County Coroner’s assistant, started scratching around, and as a result, the sifting operation multiplied. Dr. Williams joined in the operation, much to his dismay. Sheriff Wyman had gone down to help his deputy haul the water.
About a foot down at the secondary dig, they discovered an unusually large cartridge case. It was so large, in fact, that no one recognized it’s caliber. It had been there for some time and required a great deal of cleaning and brushing to detect some writing at the bottom of the case’s rim. Despite a vigorous scrubbing, the writing remained illegible.
At the primary dig, the skeleton was being pulled out bone by bone and being cataloged and placed into evidence bags. When the skull came out of the pit, the likely cause of death was revealed. Sheriff Wyman and his deputy, doused in perspiration, were entering the mouth of the canyon lugging a mammoth jug of water when he noticed the commotion at the lower site. There was no shade any longer, so the Sheriff motioned the deputy to set the cooler down.
“How we doin’ Doc?” the Sheriff inquired, as he wiped the sweat from his brow with a well-tanned forearm.
“Well, we’ll have to take a closer look at the lab, but we’re pretty certain we’ve got a murder.”
“The body was lying in a grave that was too short. That’s why the head and feet were exposed first. We’ll have to go down another foot or two to get the rest of the body, and we’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting close.”
“Please don’t tell me you plan to finish today!”
“I think so. Why? Does that disturb you?”
“I just lugged a hundred and fifty pounds of agua up the hill, tripped once, and ran a piece of sage branch through my trousers! I was hoping to have people up here long enough to drink it.”
“Sorry to disappoint you. This is loose sand, and it was fairly easy going. I suspect that’s why the body was buried there in the first place. We have some indications of metal, and we found something you might find interesting up near the sifting operation where we were beginning to dig when you went to get the water.”
“What is it?”
“Take a look at this. It’s a rifle cartridge of some type. Seems larger than what you would normally see left by a hunter. There seems to be some writing on the bottom. Thought maybe you might recognize it.”
“I do. It’s a military round. Fifty caliber. It was fired from an aircraft forty years ago.”
“You can tell all that just by looking at an expended cartridge?”
“No. There’s probably a million of those things laying around out here.
“Probably says SL Forty-Three on the bottom. That signifies that it was produced at the Saint Louis Armory in nineteen forty-three. The Navy used to hold aerial gunnery practice over this entire valley.”
“So, this isn’t a clue.”
“Probably not, but keep it and see if it says something other than two letters and two numbers on the bottom. If it was made somewhere other than the U.S.A, it’s most definitely a clue.”
“I thought we might have really had something there,” the doctor said with a look of dejection on his face.
“Actually, we do have something,” he said, his face suddenly brightening. “Take a look at the skull. Notice the eggshell fracture here on the cranium. This would be indicative of severe head trauma. A blow such as this could have been enough to kill this person or at least render a severe concussion. It’s doubtful he died from this, though.”
“What makes you say that?”
“This,” he answered, turning the back of the skull towards Sheriff Wyman.
“Looks like it. We’ll learn more back at the lab, but it’s an educated guess based on this.” He set the skull on the ground and motioned for the woman operating the metal detector to come down. With metal detector in hand, she bounded down the gulch as though it were a race and, with rapid onset and increasing velocity, was soon a prisoner of inertia, and it was evident to both Wyman and Temis that she would fall. Without regard for physics or self-preservation, both of them attempted to stop the oncoming locomotive before she inflicted damage upon herself. The resulting impact was truly spectacular. Wyman, who had played football at Brigham Young, could not remember ever being hit any harder. Temis, apparently unhurt, largely because he had taken only a glancing portion of the blow, was up trying to help the girl to her feet. She, too, was apparently unharmed. Wyman was in severe pain. The metal detector had careened across his shins in the collision, and he wanted to cry, or rub it, or something. But he was too proud. He got up slowly and dusted himself off, grimacing slightly as he did so.
“Are you okay, Celia?”
“Yes, Doctor. I’m so sorry.”
So, the clumsy lady has a name, Wyman thought. He felt pangs of sympathy and guilt. The poor lady was so embarrassed. It was not difficult to recognize, even for a cynical man like Wyman, that she was acutely conscious of her awkwardness.
“Here, Miss,” he said, handing her the metal detector. “Are you sure you’re not hurt?”
“I’m not hurt, but thanks for asking, Sheriff,” she replied with a small smile.
“Oh my God,” Temis said rather loudly as he looked at the remnants of the skull.
“You were worried about me destroying evidence?” Dr. Williams quipped sarcastically as he looked on.
The skull was mostly still intact, with the exception of the lower jaw that had been held in place by two thin leathery strips of flesh. Additionally, the area of eggshell fracture was now in pieces in the sand. Tears welled in Celia’s eyes.
“There’s no harm done here. We’ve got all the pieces, and we’ll just reconstruct them back at the lab. Now, don’t cry. I called you down here to sweep the skull… if you would be so kind.”
She did so, attempting not to sob. The skull, which had shown indications of metal, was now inexplicably clean.
“I assume that you were going to show me that there was metal in the skull?”
Temis nodded without looking up at the Sheriff.
“Well, apparently, the machine isn’t working after the wreck,” Wyman added.
“Okay. Scan the fragments.”
She did so again with no result.
“Then, scan the lower jaw,” Temis ordered, pointing at it.
Celia scanned the lower jaw, and the characteristic growl of the machine once again detected the metal.
“Now, that’s what I wanted to show you, Sheriff,” he said, bending down to pick up the lower jaw for closer examination. He noticed nothing initially. He rubbed some dirt off the inside of the left mandible and cut his finger on jagged exposed metal in the process.
Everyone stopped working, as it was evident the doctor had made an important discovery. Dr. Williams, seemingly disinterested, wandered off to continue sifting.
“Okay, people, it’s official, thanks to Celia,” Dr. Temis said, giving a quick glance and a bantam smile to the young woman. “We’ve now determined with certainty that we have a murder investigation on our hands. Here is what we have so far. Human remains discovered in a shallow grave in Slaughter Canyon. Aptly named, I’m sure you would agree. They are determined to be that of a male, not sure how old yet, but I feel certain between thirty and fifty. We know this is a grave based on the position in which the skeleton came to rest. It is possible that this poor soul was forced to dig his own grave. We have here two basal entry gunshot wounds to the back of the head, fully consistent with an execution-style murder. Here, on the left side of the mandible, is a fragment of the metal jacket from one of the bullets. Hopefully, we will find the bullets and the rest of this casing in the grave. Right now, we’re still detecting metal in the grave, are we not, Shelby?”
“Yes. But we also have something else, Doctor.”
“What is that?”
“We have another body. Or at least a part of one. Here’s another patella. That makes three.”
“Well… maybe we’ll need that water after all, Sherriff. It is most likely that we will find additional fragments, either in the grave or perhaps in a rib, or more likely the vertebrae. Sheriff, what I suspect is that this poor fellow was whacked on the head and rendered unconscious. He was then transported here and was executed after digging his own grave. Obviously, it is too early to comment on the additional body.”
“Do you know for certain the bullet couldn’t have caused the skull fracture?”
“Ah, the entomologist speaks! Excellent question. No, not for certain, but look at what we do know. Based on the entry wound and where we’ve already discovered fragments of a jacketed bullet, it seems implausible that the gunshot could have caused eggshell fractures on the top of this man’s head.”
Silence reigned for several seconds as the members embroiled in thought contemplated the horror of the man’s last few minutes of life.
“Expounding further, it seems likely that although the skull fracture was a serious wound, the man must have regained consciousness.”
“Why? How do you know this guy wasn’t dead from the skull fracture?” the coroner’s assistant asked.
“Well, I don’t, with certainty, know that the victim ever regained consciousness. But look at the bullet’s angle of entry. Wholly consistent with the victim kneeling and being shot in the back of the head.” He demonstrated the shooter’s stance for effect.
“To achieve that sort of angle of entry, on a victim lying prostrate, the murderer would have had to have stood way up there and fired from a considerable distance to the back of the man’s head. It’s possible, but not likely. Yes, Shelby, go ahead,” he said to the archeologist, raising her hand.
“Doctor, we’ve begun to remove the skeletal remains of a second victim. There is still some metal down in the hole.”
“Any number of items could be down there. Buttons, jewelry, but we gotta keep sifting until we’ve found everything. Once you’re convinced we’ve accounted for all the remains and clothing, we can start using shovels.”
It took the rest of the day and most of the next morning to exhume the second victim. It was not difficult to determine the cause of death. A notched rib on the man’s chest and a fragmented scapula revealed that a single shot to the thoracic cavity, probably taking out the victim’s heart, was to blame.
After a lunch break, the process was greatly hastened by the shovels. The method made Shelby Smith cringe. As a future archeologist, it was near blasphemy to use such a blunt instrument for such precise work. Nevertheless, she agreed that it profoundly improved the pace of such dealings, if not the thoroughness. The thoroughness was quite satisfactory for the two Doctors and Sheriff Wyman.
By dinnertime, the press had gotten the necessary footage and were speeding out of the valley to make it available for the eleven o’clock news. At dusk, there were no more indications of metal at the site, and less than half of the dirt remained to be sifted. It had topped one hundred degrees by five p.m., and the team had consumed all of their water, as well as the water the Sheriff and his deputy had hauled in. The remaining dirt reluctantly began to relinquish its secrets just before darkness consumed them. First came additional fragments from a bullet, then a metal button on a piece of denim, most probably from one of the dead men’s trousers. Next, another bullet, badly mangled but guessed by the Sheriff to be .38, or 9mm, then a tooth with a gold filling. This prompted Temis and Williams to take another look at the skulls. To their dismay, several molars were missing from the second victim. Shelby quickly pointed out that she had found no loose teeth at the site. It was suddenly apparent that the murderer had pulled teeth in an attempt to render impossible the use of dental records as a means of identification. Finally, at about nine p.m., as the last scoop of dirt was sifted, the final clue, a Saint Christopher medal, was discovered. On the back was an inscription: “To David from M & D with love.”
June 1995, Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada
Desert Rescue is a large Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) exercise held annually at the Fallon Training Complex. Rotary Wing units from the Air Force, Navy, Marines, and several friendly nations, along with various contingents of Special Forces, converge to conduct recoveries of downed airmen in simulated combat scenarios. For helicopter pilots, life doesn’t get any better. For Logan, a more boring mission had not yet been conceived. As a bogey driver flying around in circles over simulated enemy territory, trying to find a pilot on the ground or a helicopter coming to the rescue was an exercise in futility. He would rather spend his gas doing something more productive, but he didn’t get a choice in the matter. His mission was to provide the bandit simulation that the customer had requested.
The exercise was hosted by the Naval Strike Warfare Center. Their building was located down the street from Hangar Four. Logan and his wingman, a fellow reserve aviator callsign “Purple,” walked briskly toward Strike’s building. The air was fresh and clear. It wasn’t that cold either, Logan thought to himself as he listened to Purple ramble on about Jeeps.
Purple, who had received his callsign in honor of the late Jimmy Hendrix because his last name was Hayes, was a great enthusiast of Jeep pickups. He had built a fine off-road specimen some years earlier and, upon his arrival, became an instant hero.
They walked into the building and were checked through security. Moments later, they entered a small conference room where the brief was about to begin. Logan took his seat, but soon caught sight of a long-lost comrade. It was Jerry Moran, a member of Logan’s company at the Academy. Logan got up and went across the room to shake the SEAL Lieutenant Commander’s hand.
“Logan Van Hoehn, you son-of-a-bitch! How the hell are you?”
“I’m doing all right. How about yourself?”
“Can’t complain. So, what… do you work here?”
“Nah, I’m a reservist with VFC Thirteen across the street.”
“No kidding? What are you, the bad guys today?” Moran said, shooting a quick glance at Purple Hayes.
“That’s us. So, what’s up with you? You got your own platoon now, I hear,” Logan continued.
“Yes, sir. Just goes to show, they’ll promote anybody around here.”
Logan stopped smiling and looked down at the ground where his feet were shuffling indiscriminately as though he were leveling sand. “Well, I wish that were true, Jerry.”
“Huh? What’s that?”
“Let’s discuss it later, over a beer,” Logan said, recognizing that the brief was about to begin.
“You’ll be at the club later?”
“I will if you will.”
“Okay then,” Moran said as he turned to take his seat. “See you there.” Logan gave his friend a thumbs-up as he too sat down for the brief.
Post debrief Logan walked into the Fallon Officer’s Club at precisely 1600. It was not crowded yet, even though there were a good number of organizations in town for Desert Rescue. Logan sat down at the near end of the bar close to the television and close to the barmaid, Ruthie. She was leaning against the counter behind the bar, watching Oprah and pulling hard on a cigarette that hung limply from her mouth between puffs. She was clad in a sweatshirt bearing her name, which also happened to be the name of the bar. Logan thought it funny that she was a walking advertisement for a place that had more business than it knew what to do with. There were other clubs on the base, but none where officers could congregate.
Aside from the sweatshirt, Ruthie did little to solicit business. She was happy, on most days when traffic was light, but occasionally complained when she needed money. She had raised five children as a single mother. Her life had been tragic, and the lines across her face showed it. She was a portly woman with bleached blonde hair intermingled among the gray. She was quick to tell a fighter pilot when he had had enough to drink, regardless of his rank. Despite her rather gruff exterior, Ruthie was more like a grandmother than a barmaid, especially to all the regulars. She would remind them when it was time to call their wives or go home to see their children. She seldom talked about her personal life. Like most good bartenders, she was a better listener than she was a talker unless somebody did something that made her angry. Woe unto the tenant command that forgot her birthday. She would be extremely hard on each member of the organization until they made amends.
The Fallon O Club was a place of great nostalgia. There were patches, stickers, and all sorts of other mementos from the various squadrons and air wings that had visited the tiny base over the last twenty years. Stickers and patches and nametags covered nearly every inch of wall space and had to be periodically rotated so that everyone was represented equally. Above the bar and above the television, a large camouflage F/A-18 Hornet with VFA-127 markings hung in remembrance of Logan’s former squadron. Behind the bar, dead center, was a poster of a Bogey driver in full fighting regalia. He was sitting in an ejection seat and looked menacingly down on the patrons. At the bottom of the poster, the words “Have a Nice Day” were inscribed. An oversized frame outlining the poster held, tacked to its backing, the nametag of every Desert Bogey that had ever been stationed in Fallon. Logan looked to find his own nametag. He thought of a time long ago when he had stood on the bar, two squadron wives holding on to each of his legs to steady him and placed his alongside the host of others who’d worn the red and black of Strike Fighter Squadron One Two Seven. Those were the good old days he thought to himself as he took a sip of his beer.
“Sorry I’m late,” Lieutenant Commander Moran said as he plopped down on the barstool next to Logan.
“I just got here myself,” Logan replied. “What’ll ya have?”
“Two Sam Adams, Ruthie… please,” Logan added before she gave him a look of disdain. She moved slowly to the cooler, all the while keeping her eye on the television. Oprah was introducing a new novel to members of her book club. Ruthie was a member. She brought the bottles and asked if Jerry Moran needed a glass. Ruthie was in a good mood or perhaps liked SEALs. She had never asked Logan if he wanted a glass. Logan put a ten on the bar and stuffed a dollar bill into a tip glass, of which there were several, all less than arm’s length from any barstool.
“To the good old days,” Moran said, holding his bottle high above the bar.
“Rumph, rumph,” Logan replied.
“So, what was the long story over a beer you mentioned this morning?”
“Well, you remember Tailhook?”
“I was there.”
“So, what happened?”
“Some chick bit me on the ass. I bit her back.”
“So, you were the guy? I’d heard about it, but that’s nothing, right?”
“Conduct unbecoming and consensual butt biting. Those were the two charges the IG brought against me.” Jerry Moran’s mouth fell open, as Logan took a swig of his beer.
“Well, they couldn’t make it stick, I guess. Much to her credit, after the woman that I bit, and bit me found out what was going on, she refused to testify. She changed her story—recanted, I guess you’d say—and they didn’t have a case against me anymore.”
“From what I understand, they even threatened to bring her up on charges, for perjury, but she stuck to her guns. ... Anyhow, when I was up for O-Four a couple of years ago, my personnel record was held up by the Senate, and I didn’t get promoted.”
“That was the first time, though. You might’ve made it on your second look?”
Logan shook his head. “Nah, my dad asked our senator to look into it. He suggested I look for a new line of work.”
“So, what do ya do now? Fly for the airlines?”
“Yes, among other things.”
“What kinds of things?”
“I started a business a couple of years ago. It’s nothing too sexy, just a mini storage. But it’s starting to make some money.”
“I’ve heard that’s a good business.”
“It is. I’m having a few problems with my partner, though.”
“We’ve had an opportunity to do some follow on development. I don’t know. It’s almost like he’s scared. Of what, I have no idea. He’s supposedly worth millions, has businesses strung all up and down the west coast.”
“Yes, I thought so too.”
“No. I mean, that’s strange too, but I was thinking about what you just said, that he’s supposedly worth millions. Don’t you know? I mean, he is your partner, isn’t he?”
“Truth of the matter is, there seems to be a lot of questions with this guy. The firm interested in building on our property has had trouble getting any data on him. They haven’t even been able to figure out if he pays taxes or not.”
“You think he could be some kind of criminal or something?”
“Truth told, I’m starting to wonder. Linda, and I—she’s fine by the way—we’ve noticed a lot of cars from out of state coming and going, and one night, just last week, I had to drive back from Oakland, and I noticed a lot of activity there at zero two-thirty.”
“Our hours are supposed to be six am to nine pm.
“I think I need to do some recon.”
“Listen, I’m in town for ten days. If you want to do a little covert reconnaissance, I’ll help ya.”
“You’d do that?”
“It’s what I do. Bring a couple sets of goggles and an IR camera. They’d never know we were there if you’re interested. Might put your mind at ease.”
“I think we should, I mean, if you’re serious.”
Logan pulled a little black book from his flight suit. “Looks good. What time?”
“Let me check moon illumination. I’ll give you a call at work.” Logan nodded in agreement.
“Nice ’stache, by the way. You kinda look like a porn star from the seventies.”
“Oh, really? Linda hates it too. She calls me ‘Chester the Molester.’ You should talk. I know you ‘Snake Eaters’ have different grooming standards, but really if I’m a porn star, you’re Charles Manson.”
“Ouch,” Jerry Moran said. “Say you got any pictures of your boys? How old are they now?”
In a seedy hotel on the outskirts of Cali, Colombia, Jaime Vazquez sprawled on a bed that was too soft and too small for his six-foot-four-inch frame. The bedspread was a deep crimson, and despite having slept upon it all night long, Jaime now felt the irritations it had rendered upon his bare back. The shades were pulled shut, except for one small slit that let a thin shaft of light into the room’s stifling blackness. Jaime’s eyes were wide open. He could hear the midday traffic and bustle on the street below. In the distance, there was the bray of a burro and the sound of the whip against hide, followed directly by the sound of a man cursing the beast.
Jaime turned his head and looked at his watch on the nightstand. It was ten o’clock in the morning. Near his watch were the remnants of the gin and tonic he had been sucking on to help himself sleep. Beyond the sweaty glass and bottles were pills and a line of coke he had laid out then decided against. Beyond that was the tiny void between the nightstand and the dark paneled wall that surrounded the window.
Across the room on the darkened wall in the tiny ray of sunshine was an imitation ivory crucifix. It was plastic, but it was dazzling in contrast to the blackness of the wall.
Presently Jaime heard footsteps and muffled voices. There was a knock at the door. Jaime Vazquez jumped to his feet and picked up the revolver lying beside his pillow. He pulled back the curtain with the barrel of his weapon. It was his new boss.
Ivan Urdinola, accompanied by Julio Fabio and Roberto Orjuela, the younger brother of the now-imprisoned Guilberto Rodriguez Orjuela, entered through a lime-colored door. Jaime Vazquez closed and locked the door behind them.
“Buenos dias, Jaime,” Urdinola said without smiling. The two shook hands.
“Buenos dias, Señor Urdinola. Please, sit down,” Vazquez said, pointing to the room’s only chair. Julio Fabio rushed to the tiny desk and pulled the chair out for his brother to sit on.
Fabio, always the kiss ass, Vazquez thought. It pained him that Ivan Urdinola, a man young enough to be his son, had ascended to a position of authority over him. If what he had heard were true of this scum, it had been his ruthlessness, not his intellect that had gotten him here.
“Roberto tells me you’ve been doing good work in North America on behalf of the six Mafias.”
Jaime Vazquez nodded, smiling graciously.
“How is the Abrego boy working out?”
“I could not be more pleased with him. He’s proven himself more than capable.”
“Good. His father will be pleased to hear it. As for you, how are you getting along with the new arrangement? By the way, let me be the first to offer my condolences. I know that you and the Chess Master are very close.”
Again, Jaime Vazquez nodded graciously, though he knew in his heart that Ivan Urdinola couldn’t be happier.
“You are very kind, Señor Urdinola. As for me, I’m doing fine. I know this is a risky business. But for the grace of God, we might all find ourselves behind bars one day, no? As I see it, we’ve got to do our best and continue on. That’s what Guilberto would expect.”
“I assure you, Jaime, that’s exactly what Guilberto expects. Despite being behind bars, he remains very active in the day-to-day operations of the Cali Mafia,” Roberto Orjuela interjected.
“But not so active in the coordination efforts between the Mafias?” Jaime Vazquez added.
“No. I have stepped forward to assume that role in Guilberto’s absence. That is why I’ve called you down here,” Ivan Urdinola announced. “The efforts of the six cartels in North America, I would like to see them expand even further.”
Jaime Vazquez raised his eyebrows. “Don’t look so surprised, Jaime. It is my nature to be aggressive. Boldness is a virtue, don’t you agree?”
“Yes, Señor Urdinola, but we have not yet finished the current expansion. I wonder if it wouldn’t be prudent to take things one step at a time.”
“We’ve got cocaine coming out of our ears down here.”
“We’ve got more heroin than anybody else, too,” Julio Fabio proudly announced.
“Shut up, Julio,” Urdinola said in perfect unison with Jaime Vazquez. The two smiled at one another. It seemed that they both had little patience for Urdinola’s younger brother.
“You and I are not so different, Jaime. I’m simply a younger, brasher version of yourself. I admit that sometimes I let emotion guide me. In that regard, I am sometimes overly impetuous. But I assure you, I’m no less a visionary. I want to expand.”
“Very well, Señor.”
“Tell me, what are your impediments?”
“One site in Nevada, our Fernley complex, is a particularly delicate situation.”
“We have a legitimate partner as a cover for the operation. His reputation is beyond reproach and his name on the deed has deflected all suspicion. Until recently, although listed as the general partner, he lived out of state and was really little more than a passive investor. Unfortunately, he has recently moved back into the area and, as such, he’s becoming a nuisance. Sometimes I wonder if we should simply eliminate him, but—”
“Kill him,” Ivan Urdinola said quickly. “What else?”
“It will take some time to do it right, to make it look like an accident.”
“You Cali people are too damned careful,” Urdinola said, laughing out loud. “But if that is how you would prefer to play it.”
“It is,” Vazquez quickly added.
“Well, don’t take all year. It would be good to see him dead by summer.”
“Can we have until the fall? It’s best not to rush these things. This is America we’re talking about here. If he dies under questionable circumstances, it could blow up in our face. I’d be taking my meals with your brother,” Jaime said, looking at Roberto Orjuela.
“That’s really all that prevents us from further expansion, assuming shipping and logistics are worked out.”
“They will be. Le Muneca assures us that he is ready to double shipments through Mexico. And we’re just scratching the surface with the Oregon fishing fleet.”
“When will you have a detailed plan for my review?” Vazquez asked.
Ivan Urdinola turned to Julio Fabio, and his younger brother extracted a written proposal from a briefcase. “Destroy that when you’ve finished reading it,” Urdinola said, pointing at the report now in Jaime Vazquez’s hands. He stood up and shook hands with everyone. Just before walking out the door, Urdinola turned back to Jaime Vazquez.
“Eliminate your partner, and remember, nobody is irreplaceable, Jaime. Nobody,” he said as he donned his sunglasses and stepped out onto the balcony.
Jaime Vazquez sat down on the bed. He had some reading to do.
Logan zipped west along Interstate 80 toward Painted Rock, Nevada. He had just crossed the Truckee River and was looking for a place to ford the sandy median—easily accomplished in the jeep—so that he could reverse his course and head back to a small turn off on the east side of the bridge that spanned the Truckee river.
There, he and Lieutenant Commander Jerry Moran got out of the jeep carrying two small backpacks filled with sophisticated night vision optics. The most likely cover was a short climb above the interstate and the railroad tracks that bent around the mountains, hemming the boundary of Apex Mini Storage. But SEALs aren’t trained to seek the most likely cover. Their success comes from living and thriving in the least likely concealment. As such, Jerry Moran led Logan much higher up the mountainside. The climb was treacherous, strewn with loose shale, lava rocks, and sagebrush. The two worked the backside of the ridge to avoid highlighting their silhouettes against the faint glow of Reno’s city lights some thirty-five miles to the west. The concepts and tactics Jerry Moran employed were not foreign to Logan. He had spent a fair portion of his life employing similar techniques as he chased game across mountains much like this one.
“Hold up a second,” Logan said, puffing the words to his friend. Jerry Moran was a small and wiry fellow. He had been a varsity wrestler at the Naval Academy. Though he had not grown accustomed to the altitude and consequent thin air of the high desert, his stamina was such that he was leaving Logan in the dust. This was no small feat, as Logan was in fine shape himself. Moreover, he was accustomed to the altitude.
Thirty-eight minutes after they had left the jeep, they methodically crested the ridge. They were each wearing night-vision goggles. Walking with the apparatus required Logan to keep his head moving constantly. Their field of view was only a few degrees. To see to the side at all required turning one’s head. Seeing down near his feet to avoid a misstep was a task that required some getting used to. Despite this, Logan managed the climb without once falling. This was fortuitous, considering the steepness of the grade. A fall here would be slow and uneventful in the beginning, perhaps, but before one came to rest, a considerable amount of rolling and crashing through brush and over rocks could be expected. Jerry Moran had some concern, but knowing Logan as he did, figured correctly that his former classmate was a fast learner.
Logan’s fleet squadron had not been an NVG (Night Vision Goggle) squadron. He had only received briefings and heard stories about the “Stevie Wonder” method of scanning the horizon, the instruments, and the terrain ahead. Employing these precepts, Logan had fared quite well on the ascent. He hoped desperately that he was now proficient enough to tackle the descent that would follow.
LCDR Moran sat down on the face of the ridge directly above Apex Mini Storage. He was well camouflaged and, on the side of the hill surrounded by sagebrush, was completely invisible in the shadows of the ridge. Logan sat down beside him and didn’t say a word. After some time, Logan suggested that they move down the ridge to a group of boulders near the facility. Moran scanned the area and then shook his head slowly. He cupped his hands and put them on the side of Logan’s head.
“Look, I doubt anybody can hear us up here, but let’s not talk unless it is absolutely necessary.” Logan nodded agreement but inside felt that Moran was overly cautious.
“I think we’ll be fine right here. If you were on goggles down there and you were doing something wrong, and you figured it prudent to look up this way occasionally, where would you figure people might be hiding?”
Logan pointed at the group of rocks where he had just suggested they conceal themselves.
“Exactly,” Moran said, with his hands once again cupped around Logan’s ear.
“We’ll hide where the enemy doesn’t expect us to hide.” Logan nodded his agreement.
Jerry Moran took a tripod and camera out of his backpack and assembled it. The camera looked like an older version of a standard 8mm camcorder, except that it had what looked to be a telescopic lens. The lens was a simple night vision monocular with 4x magnification. It screwed directly to the end of the video camera. Moran focused the system on the facility and then sat back to watch. It was 2230.
At about 2330, having been in place for less than an hour, the show began. Vehicles, no more than one or two at a time, began to pull into the facility. Through his night-vision goggles, Logan noted that most of the vehicles had California license plates. One vehicle had a plate out of Illinois.
“Cook County. That’s Chicago, ain’t it?” Logan asked Moran, remembering to cup his hands before whispering. Moran nodded slowly, but Logan did not see this because he was too busy watching what the occupants were doing.
The driver and a passenger got out of the car and went to the lock on the door. Their flashlight washed out the view through the night vision devices until the gain compensated for the light source. The two seemed to be reading instructions or the combination for opening the lock of the door. They entered the facility, one carrying a duffle bag. After a few minutes, the two came out and closed the door, ensuring that the lock was secure. One carried a different duffle bag, the other a black garbage bag that appeared partially filled.
The visitors all went to the same building but each to a different door. Every visitor went to the southernmost building at the back of the facility. The traffic continued for an hour and then ended at precisely 0030.
At about 0200, Logan gave a start and realized that he had been sleeping. He looked at his watch and then at Jerry Moran. He was sitting up, stiffly with his legs and arms crossed. His chin was buried in his chest just above the spot where his arms crossed his torso. He was snoring lightly. The office lights were on. Logan saw that three of the doors on the north side of the southernmost building were open. In the adjacent building, Logan noted that nearly all the doors facing the South were open. He could not see inside and had only made this determination because of the long rectangular fields of light that stretched across the drive separating the buildings. This was one of the two buildings that had electricity. Logan had been opposed to the notion, but Harrison Rabaul had insisted.
Now, for the first time, Logan understood why. On a distant wind with a smell of sage came the whirring sound of electrical motors. The sound of them woke Jerry Moran, who, suddenly wide-eyed, checked the aim and focus of the camera. As the star-filled desert night grew silent, Logan quietly urged Moran to move south along the ridge to see what was inside the structure from which light and sound emanated. He had to know what had made the sounds. Moran refused. He refused for two reasons. First, even in the pale glimmer of a moonless night, Logan could see grave caution on the face of his friend. This to Logan was nothing short of amazing. Moran had run at will throughout Iraq, blowing things up during the war. But there was a secondary cause for Moran’s hesitance. This, Logan could not argue against. At that very moment, a white Ford Econoline Van pulled down the drive between the two buildings where all the activity had been occurring.
Logan and Jerry Moran watched as people poured out of the lighted building and the white van. They were clad in dark jumpsuits. It was like watching one of those circus cars where clowns never stop climbing out. Soon, there were people in dark jumpsuits crawling all over the place. Logan had no way of knowing that this was a part of the quality assurance team that Dale Brown had formed years ago to extract and distribute cocaine and cash. What he did understand fully was that he was witnessing the unraveling of his current cozy existence.
The group began unloading the van. It was full of large black and white garbage bags. The bags were distributed to various individual spaces within the southern building. Soon the crew began hauling tiny square bundles of white plastic from the building where the whirring sounds and lights originated. Logan could not discern, even with night vision devices, what was inside the small white bales. They were shining and quite translucent.
Fifteen minutes after the first van had arrived and only one minute after it had left, a second white Ford pulled into the facility. It did the same thing. This went on in fifteen-minute intervals no less than seven times. One hour and thirty minutes later, as the last van pulled out of Apex Mini Storage, Logan watched in horror as Ricardo came out of the office and locked the gate. He walked around the facility with a flashlight, apparently checking that all the doors were locked and that no one had mistakenly left a bag lying about in the open.
Well? Seen enough?” Moran asked.
“Yes. I believe so,” Logan replied, no longer bothering to whisper. The two packed their gear. Each took a swig from their canteens before they got up to leave. It was nearly 0330.
Just two hundred fifty feet south, at the back of the bowl and slightly higher, one man sat doing similar surveillance work. He was also equipped with night vision equipment. He, too, had been unable to determine what was inside the building where electrical equipment had been buzzing. But, unlike Logan and Jerry Moran, his cameras were capable of light spectral analysis, which left little doubt as to what he had just witnessed. Each and every door, each van, each person, was tagged with an iridescent powder that glistened like a beacon in the special devices. Now he watched with interest as the two strangers slowly trekked back over the ridge and home.
It was as dark at 0500 as it had been at 2230. It had been a long and depressing vigil. Jerry Moran did not speak. He occasionally offered a backward glance at Logan, who followed carefully. At the jeep, neither said a word. They quietly stowed their gear and sped off toward the first hint of dawn.
It was obvious that Harrison Rabaul, Ricardo, and a host of others were using Logan’s business as a front for criminal activity. Upon their return, Jerry Moran just handed Logan the tape and gave him a long look.
“What will you do now?” he asked.
“What can I do? I’ll have to turn them in. There is no other choice. But, before I do, I want to make sure that I’ve covered my bases. I’ll want to get my family out of here. Beyond that, I don’t know what to do. You got any ideas?”
“Well, on a positive note, you know something’s up. They don’t know that you know. I would say proceed cautiously.”
“I never saw this coming,” Logan mumbled, shaking his head. “I mean, sometimes I wondered, but I never imagined.”
“Who could have?” Moran added pitifully.
“You should get some sleep.”
“I don’t know what to say, Logan.”
“I do. Keep this under your hat until I figure out what to do next.”
“That goes without saying.”
“And, last but not least, thanks, old buddy.”
The two shook hands. Logan watched as Jerry Moran slowly dragged himself to the top floor of Carson House at the Fallon BOQ (Bachelor Officer’s Quarters). Moran waved and tried to grin, then disappeared. Logan sighed, looked out over the sage-covered valley floor then headed for home. From the front gate of the Fallon Naval Air Station, the Van Hoehn residence, on Sunshine Loop, is less than five miles. In that time, Logan Van Hoehn had finalized his plan of action.