the Black Mesa
A Minerva Doyle Mystery (vol. 1 beta 4 2017)
“In every land,
Hardness is in the north of it,
Softness in the south,
Industry in the east,
And fire and inspiration in the west.”
All rights reserved.
White Barn Books Inc.
1301 Walnut Street
Golden City Mo 64748
“Everything revolves around bread and death.”
“I won’t eat in a town with cement tepees as its main tourist attraction. I'm hot, thirsty and tired,” I stated to my hubby.
I finished my business with NCC (Navapache Community College) in Holbrook, Arizona. Thanks to Homeland Security rules, I brought every document I could think of when I accepted my new job. My briefcase bulged with transcripts, references, degrees, a fingerprint card, birth certificate, social security card, and passport.
“Geeze, I had to give them everything except a DNA sample and a pint of blood to sign my contract. My brain hurts,” I said as I jammed my seat belt tight.
“Minnie, how about that little place we saw on the way up to I40 off old Route 66?” Michael said.
“Sounds great, I’m exhausted,” I said. I leaned back against the headrest. A cold glass of sweet tea and a homestyle meal sounded perfect.
We pulled up to the Black Mesa Café, a burnt-red brick building. Emblazoned on the front window a hand painted sign read: HOME OF THE CRAZY BURRO! Signs nailed to the brick walls advertised Coca-Cola, Texaco, Camel Cigarettes, Beeman's Chewing Gum, even Route 66. I couldn't escape tacky.
Michael opened the door of the Café for me. A blast of cold air welcomed me. Delicious smells wafted over me from a mahogany counter full of freshly baked pies. Magnificent antique beveled glass mirrors decorated the back wall.
I perched on a red leather stool. I turned and twirled the chrome shoe kicks with my back to the crowd. An auburn haired waitress in faded jeans, cowboy boots, and a black polo shirt dropped two menus in front of us.
“Welcome to the Black Mesa Café. What would you like to drink?” She asked. She smiled at us with pleasant warmth not a fake grin like most servers. Not much makeup other than a swipe of smoky eyeshadow, a dash of brick red lipstick, and a spatter of freckles showing on tanned skin, the outdoorsy type.
“Rose, she'll have sweet tea, and I want black coffee,” Michael said as he spotted her name tag. He knew everyone's name right off.
He raised his bushy eyebrows at me and pointed his chin to a dirty booth in the back of the Café. We scooted over to the cluttered red Formica and chrome table. With a flourish, he stacked dishes in a neat pile and wiped the table off with a wet bar towel someone had left behind. He'd do it all the time. He had a mischievous temperament that suited his optimistic nature. It was impossible for him to stay serious for long. We'd go to a strange restaurant; before I knew it, he poured water and coffee for customers. He used to embarrass me, but as long as the restaurant owner didn't fuss, I didn't either.
“Okay, you two played musical chairs on me.” Rose held our drinks and looked around in surprise. She spotted us in a back booth of the Café. She shrugged in a good-natured, straightforward way, set down chips, homemade salsa, and our drinks.
“She'll have the Crazy Burro, red sauce, guacamole and sour cream on the side, and I'll have the Cowboy Burger with fries,” Michael ordered for both of us.
As we waited for our food Michael and I played our favorite guessing game. Each one of us tried to outdo the other with a fantastic imaginary profile of our fellow diners. As a retired ATF agent (Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco, and Explosives) Michael loved to scrutinize people.
“See that fellow at the bar in dirty blue jeans. He smells of sulfur and brimstone. He’s the devil's apprentice. Come here to grab an unwitting soul?” Michael said. The sooty man slouched over his burger and fries, gobbling up his meal as if he had to run out the door. He slurped up his coffee and banged the empty cup for a refill.
“Welder, in a hurry to get back to the job site,” I guessed. “Look at his white forehead. Tiny burn holes in his shirt from the sparks. His jeans blackened from welding rod. Look at his thick shoes, steel-toed. It's bad news to drop a steel bar on your foot.”
“How about Mr. Cowboy over there? The one with the mustachio and $200 Stetson,” I said at my turn to challenge him.
Michael inspected the man. “Knife pleated jeans tucked into spit-shined black boots, crisp starched ironed blue denim shirt, and a bolo tie. Gun at his waist. It's Arizona, okay to carry a weapon. A badge on his shirt pocket. Yep, he's the local law.” Easy guess for Michael. The man placed his hand on his belt near his gun and turned to inspect us as he paid his bill.
“All right, score one to one. Even. Your turn, loser pays for lunch,” I said.
“How ‘bout the old lady in the next booth surrounded by a circle of kinfolk? Do her,” he said.
A sizable clan of ten people took up the entire back booth of the Café. I watched the family dynamic. Each person gazed with rapt attention as the white-haired elder commanded their silence.
She pointed her bony finger at each person in turn. The sun-beaten weathered woman spoke in a dry, raspy voice, “Ever' one of you are after my money. I got my updated will right here in my pocketbook. No one gets a damn thing unless they help me like I want. I can change it anytime I want. Lawyer Smith is very helpful to me since I pay him a wad of money every month. I got everything tied up nice and legal: land, mineral rights, and grazing leases. I got it all here. Nobody gets a thing unless I say so,” the crone's voice blasted over the diners.
Most people in the Café ducked their heads down, ignored the loud outburst and tried to focus on their food.
“She's somebody's mama,” I guessed, “but wouldn't want her as mine. Got them in her tight fist. The family's afraid to look crosswise at her in case she leaves them out. She must hide something important in her purse. She holds onto it for dear life. I hate emotional blackmail. My answer, a dysfunctional dynasty in action. I'll bet she pits one against the other to see them squirm.”
Rose arrived with our dinners. The game over, I dug into my Crazy Burro.
“Homemade salsa, handmade tortilla, and fresh guacamole. I'll bet a little old lady cooks in the kitchen,” I said. I entered foodie heaven with my first bite. Michael couldn't talk with his mouth full, so he nodded in agreement. We ate in satisfied silence as dishes clattered around us in the busy Café. A little later Michael stretched out in the booth and pulled out his shirt over his jeans.
“Terrific burger. Add the Black Mesa Café to our Diner List,” he said.
On our honeymoon last summer we traveled across the United States in an RV. We checked out little mom and pop diners and wrote our favorites on our Diner List.
Shouts of horror from the large family in the next booth interrupted us. Plates and cups crashed to the floor. Our elderly matriarch passed out on the table. I punched 911 on my phone. The dispatcher knew the exact location.
Michael strode over to the booth. Helpless relatives fluttered around the elderly victim. Only a fashionable slender woman beside the old woman kept calm.
“Can you settle your family while Michael helps?” I asked her.
“Mother…” The daughter patted the old woman's hand. “Mother?”
The old lady’s head rolled back unresponsive to her daughter's urgent query.
Michael pushed the table back and laid the old woman down on the booth. He cleared her airway and checked her pulse. I dealt with the relatives as he performed CPR. I heard the sirens.
“Help me move the tables. The EMTs need room,” I commanded using my teacher's voice. I stood up and started pulling chairs out of the way. I needed to get the family out of the way now.
Rose stepped forward to help me. “Come on get these chairs up to the wall. Richard. Victor. Flynn. Ed. Move stuff out of the way now. Let's go.” She snapped her fingers in impatience at the most prominent man in front, and the others soon followed his lead. She acted like a Chief Master Sergeant. Guys in the Café moved the tables, and the gals stacked chairs.
I heard the sirens stop. A wiry pony-tailed woman burst through the door. She wore navy scrubs, and cop shoes. A Stethoscope wrapped around her neck.
“Lady passed out a few minutes ago. Pulse thready, face clammy. I cleared the airway,” Michael informed the pony-tailed woman.
He stepped back out of the way as she took over rescuing the victim. The EMT clicked open a gunmetal gray suitcase packed with equipment. Three more EMTs dressed in heavy black and yellow boots rolled a Striker folding bed through the Café. They eased it down to a few inches above the floor. The EMTs lifted the victim onto the bed.
I got out of their way and went back to our booth. I watched as the EMTs wheeled the elderly matriarch out of the Café. The family gathered up their belongings and followed the EMTs out the door.
“Thank you for helping my mother,” the elegant woman said to the crowd before she left the Café.
“Everybody. Listen. Let's say a prayer for Mrs. Steven,” Rose said.
People in the Café went silent and bowed their heads.
“Dear Jesus, please hold Mrs. Steven in your hand. Help her on her journey. Thy will be done. Amen.”
“Leave your tickets at the cash register. Dinner's on me. Thanks for all your help,” she said.
Rose looked around at the messy Café. Michael and I pushed the chairs back; soon other customers straightened up the Black Mesa Café. Women cleared dishes. Men moved heavy tables back in place. Someone grabbed a broom and swept up the EMTs' debris. People moved with quiet efficiency.
The Black Mesa Café looked as if nothing had gone wrong, but an odor of medicinal alcohol and ozone wafted in the air. Michael and I lingered behind.
“Oh my God, I need a drink, thanks for your help,” Rose said. “I’ve never had anything like this happen since I inherited the place from my Dad.”
She gathered up the dinner tickets strewn around the cash register. During the confusion, people had thrown piles of twenty dollar bills on the counter.
Rose wiped her eyes with a napkin. “This town. I told them dinner’s on me. They didn't have to leave any money.”
“I’m glad her daughter had the common sense to calm the family,” I said.
“Yeah, it's a good thing Mrs. Steven had Gloria here, she's the brains of the outfit,” said Rose. “At times the Steven’s clan goes for each other's throats, but they come together in trouble.”
“Are you going to be okay?” I asked as I patted her shoulder.
“Tomorrow's another day. I always say ‘nothing a good night's sleep, and a good breakfast won't cure.’ I hope Mrs. Steven comes out of the hospital okay. God willing,” she said.
“You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
I woke up the next morning with a scratchy passionate kiss from Michael. I hugged Michael. I loved the smell of his Old Spice, although he always had a perpetual five o’clock shadow no matter how often he groomed. When he worked for the ATF, he had to run to the men’s room to shave before a court deposition.
I tousled his wet hair with my fingers. His black Irish hair inherited from some long-dead Celtic ancestor stuck straight up curling around his ears. He was blessed or cursed with a dimple in his chin, and a cheery lopsided grin. Startling lapis lazuli eyes looked out at the world in mild surprise at the wickedness he saw. The only thing that kept him from being an Adonis was his squashed potato nose, which had long ago been broken in a donnybrook and had never healed properly.
Michael was easy to shop for, his plain pocket undershirts were navy blue or black. I bought them by the six-pack. Nothing white ever lasted for more than a few minutes on him. He chose black or indigo jeans, cotton socks, and comfortable leather moccasins. He had no favorite sports team and picked whatever team gimme-hat he grabbed from the closet. He said it was a great conversation starter. He never went anywhere without his multi-purpose Swiss army knife that had every tool under the kitchen sink attached to it. He was Mr. Fix-it personified. He snapped on his cartoon wristwatch, and he was ready to face the world. Yet in spite of his neat habits, he would unravel until relaxed scruffiness won out at the end of the day.
I showered quickly. I still got dressed in less than five minutes, old habits die hard. For years I was used to sharing a bathroom with my kids and getting them ready for school took first priority. I slapped on a bit of my favorite lipstick, a swish of eyeshadow and I was good to go. I never needed blush because my cheeks were fever bright red at the most inconvenient moments. I dressed in my usual uniform of the day; boots, jeans and a sweater. I stuffed my hair under a straw hat, and we were ready to go.
In the morning Michael and I headed back to the Black Mesa Café. The muffins and OJ offered at the Bed and Breakfast where we stayed didn’t meet my ideas for breakfast. Although Michael's sweet tooth mandated him to grab a handful of muffins for a snack later, I started the day with something nourishing. Michael and I sat at our table in the back of the Café. He knew what I wanted to eat. I figured if they screwed it up I wouldn't return.
“Morning, Rose. Don't need a menu. Denver omelet for her, side fruit, English muffin dry, salsa. Two over easy, bacon, crispy hash browns, sourdough for me. Black coffee, lots,” Michael said.
“Pardon me, can I talk to you for a minute?” said the town Marshal as he gazed straight at Michael and tipped his Stetson to me. “Ma'am, don't mean to interrupt, but I need to ask your husband a few quick questions.”
I approved and nodded my head. The Marshal and Michael moved to the counter and drank coffee while they conferred.
Rose came to my table with our breakfast. “I'll have iced coffee, nothing fancy, a plain glass of ice with coffee. I'll need cream too,” I said. “How are you feeling?”
“I'm fine. Got a good night's sleep,” she said.
“Do you know what happened to the woman who fell ill last night?” I asked.
“She's at the county hospital in Show Low. Nice of your hubby to step in to help. Mrs. Steven has a big family, but sometimes they don't have common sense. They eat here every Payday Friday. I know exactly what everyone eats and drinks. They're some of my regulars. Although they didn't sit in their usual spots,” Rose replied.
“Well, I hope she's okay. Kind of shook us up,” I informed her.
I hoped to pull out some local gossip. “My husband's retired. I start a new job at the college in August. We're looking for a place to buy around here.”
“Are you LDS?” asked Rose.
“Well, most LDS (Latter Day Saints) members want to buy a house by the Temple in Snowflake. Other folks like it here in Black Mesa. We're all kinds of outcasts. Don't fit in with the high and mighty too much,” she said so no one overheard her.
“Is the Steven’s family LDS?” I asked.
“That's where all the feuding comes in. Mrs. Steven doesn't approve of Mormons. Her son Victor is LDS. She thinks it's the devil's own work, a cult. It doesn't bother me any what people believe as long as they work hard, stay honest, and abide by their word. Most town-folks think the same,” she said as she left my table.
“Couldn't help overhearing,” a robust grey-haired man leaned over my booth. “Here's my card. I can find you a home out east if you want something with a little land, beautiful, and quiet. Give me a call when you're ready,” he went back to eating.
I filed the card in my planner as Michael came back to our table. Michael dug into our food.”
“So what did the Marshal want?” I asked.
“Marshal Dubois thanked me for my help. Things could have gotten out of control. It still doesn't look good to have people passing out when you're eating,” he said. “Dubois commended me because I kept a cool head. The EMTs seem to live at her house. The old lady keeps getting rushed to the hospital. The court appointed two of her daughters as her legal caretakers. The youngest daughter’s her power of attorney. Dubois thinks they're a pack of vultures waiting for the old lady to die.”
“No wonder Mrs. Steven holds her will over their heads. I wouldn't trust a crew like that with my welfare. Rose told me about the family feud. I guess Mrs. Steven didn’t approve of some of their church choices,” I filled him in on what I knew.
“Religion or lack of it can start an argument in any family,” he agreed.
Marshal Dubois stopped by our table and leaned down. “Would you two come down to my office after you’re done? It's up the street. I'd like a little more private conversation.”
“What's that all about?” I asked.
“He wants more background info on us. We’re witnesses. Can't blame him. Routine questions,” Michael reassured me. “Seems like an honest guy.”
“Whoever says A, must also say B.” German Proverb
We walked to the Marshal's office, a remodeled grocery store. I expected a walk-in somewhere, and an IGA sign out back. I smelled oranges. Full-length white drapes covered the plate glass windows. Gold lettering spelled out names and the location of offices. We entered a foyer and turned right to an intake window.
“Good morning Peg. We're looking for Marshal Dubois, he asked us to stop by after we finished our breakfast,” Michael said.
How did he know her name? Oh, yes, a nameplate on her desk. He had sharp eyes. Terrible with names, I could never keep them straight. I met people two or three times before I remembered their names. Yet, I recalled all the little details about how they looked. So I guess it evened out between us.
“Oh,” she fussed. “Marshal Dubois didn't tell me. Let me see if he's in, please wait right there,” she disappeared into another office. Chubby with a genuine welcome smile, Peg measured five feet tall on a good day. Her permed hair arranged in tight ringlets around her face.
“Charles, there are folks out here to see you. Did you forget to tell me? You know I have to keep track of your schedule,” she scolded him.
“Bring them in. I'll get with you later on my calendar,” he said. I noticed the Marshal didn't seem too concerned with obeying her wishes.
“Hi, take a seat. Ma'am right here. Michael over there,” he gestured towards two large rocking chairs.
The office looked more like a living room; a claw-footed round oak table for a desk and a buffet piled up with folders. A brass barometer hung prominently on the wall telling the local weather. A well-kept basic black Underwood manual typewriter sat on a stand in the corner with a new stiff white piece of paper rolled into it, ready to go. He even used a traditional black Bakelite landline telephone. Beige cowboy hats hung over elk antlers. Some pricey Cowboy Artist pictures covered the walls.
Charles Dubois hair stood straight up in a 1950’s buzz cut. When he took his hat off his forehead from his eyebrows up was pale and smooth. Shaggy eyebrows bristled over his tawny brown eyes. His wrinkled eyes and leathery skin told of a life outdoors rather than stuck in a patrol car. He had the look of a hunter. If he was an animal, he could have passed for one of the wild Arizona mountain lions that still roamed the Mogollon Rim. His hands were gnarled with large bony knuckles. An heirloom train engineer’s gold pocket watch peeked out of his black vest. Crisp ironed blue jeans, boot cut, were stuffed into black mirror finish squared toed western boots. A magnificent hand braided horsehair bolo tie with a cabochon of gold-bearing quartz completed his sober demeanor.
“I'm Charles Dubois, Marshal of Black Mesa,” he pronounced his name with a soft C. He shook Michael's hand and nodded in my direction. “I got a call from the hospital before you got here. Mrs. Steven didn't make it. She died this morning. I hope you can help me with anything you observed when all this happened.”
“Do you mind if I record you?” he said as Peg bustled with the machine. “Saves me writing. Got arthritis in my hands. Peg does most of my paperwork for me. She'll transcribe what you say when we’re done. You can read it. Make any changes you see fit, and then you can sign the statement. Thanks, Peg, that’ll be all.”
“I don't know how much help we can give you. We arrived yesterday. Don't know anyone here,” Michael said as Peg scurried out of the office, her arms piled with folders.
Marshal Charles Dubois seemed like one of those old-fashioned types who thought the little lady came along for the ride. I kept my mouth shut and observed the situation while my brain calculated on overtime.
“Let's get your names and where you're from. The basics,” Charles said after he spouted legalize into the recorder.
“Michael Sean Doyle. Grew up in Miami, Arizona. Joined the Marines out of college. Pretty much traveled all over the world. Entered the ATF after I got out of the Marines. Got divorced. Stayed with the ATF till I retired recently. Got married to Minnie. Always wanted to move back to Northern Arizona. I missed the open skies. The Valley lifestyle annoys me, too citified for my taste. We took my boys camping up here, and we had a terrific time. She got a new job at the local college. As soon as her contract down in the Valley finishes at the end of May, we'll live up here in the mountains,” Michael stated.
My turn next, “Minerva Helen Doyle, friends and family call me Minnie. I'm from Joplin, Missouri. I went to Missouri Southern State College after high school got my B.S. in Math. Divorced, left Joplin with my kids after the tornado wiped out my home and my teaching job at the high school. I moved out to Arizona. Got a Masters in Computer Science from Arizona State University. I started teaching at Central Arizona College and met Michael there. Got married. We decided to live a rural lifestyle in Northern Arizona,” I said. My life summed up in sixty words or less.
“Mid-west folks like you two have common sense. That's what I need in a good witness. Tell me what you noticed, even obscure details. The oddest fact could contribute to the investigation,” Charles said.
Michael related his astute observations about the incident at the Café. “Noticed a big family eating dinner. Mrs. Steven gave them a real dressing down and upset them. Helpless relatives; they stood around in shock like most civilians. Then I rushed over to her when she passed out. Figured I'd better do CPR till the EMTs came on board. Concentrated on keeping her breathing and her airway open. Luckily the EMTs got there ASAP, and then I let them do their job.”
“Not surprising the EMTs got there fast because most of them eat lunch at the Café since the county keeps a tab going. They know her pretty well. They get called a lot on her,” Charles commented and then asked me. “How about you Mrs. Doyle, did you notice anything unusual?”
“I noticed the relatives didn't seem happy to eat at the same table with her. She talked about changing her will. She pulled the document out of her purse and kept saying she was seeing a lawyer. The family's mother had them under her thumb. This morning the waitress from the Café told me Mrs. Steven didn't approve of some of their lifestyles,” I said.
“The county coroner will let me know exactly how Mrs. Steven died. She kept getting rushed to the hospital for bronchitis and pneumonia. A couple times passed out at the grocery store and church, and yesterday the Café. Appreciate all your help. Most folks wouldn't have bothered,” Charles said.
“I do my duty. Couldn't stand by and watch. If you need anything let us know, we're at the Bed and Breakfast close to the Café, room four. We're in town all this week,” Michael said as he shook Charles’ hand.
“Why don't you two stop over to my house for a home cooked meal tonight around five, so we can talk a little more? Here are the directions,” Charles said.
The Marshal drew Michael a rough map and explained directions Arizona style. “Easy to find. Turn left on Azurite Lane. Keep driving when you hit Third Street, go down past the cornfield, over the orange cattle guard, to the dead end. That's my house. Can't miss it. Big Adobe. Red Metal Roof. Built it myself.”
“We've eaten restaurant food for the last two days,” Michael said. “I'd like a home-cooked meal.”
“A man without dinner means two for supper.” Irish Proverb
Michael and I left the Bed and Breakfast at 4:15 p.m. He drove while I navigated. I hated using a GPS, although Michael loved it. The voice got on my nerves. Half the time it sent me out on some weird route. Give me two cross streets and a map, and I can find anything. I’m left/right dyslexic when it came to directions, but I could always feel North, South, East, and West.
After turning off the main road, I pointed to a dirt road. Farmland on the roadside smelled sweet. I noticed corn planted in the fertile soil. Tiny green shoots already poked up from the ground. An ancient cottonwood tree loomed over the red-roofed adobe house. Marshal Dubois' home dead-ended on a cliff that overlooked the rest of the town. Michael parked the car, and I got out. I could see clear across the valley to the looming Black Mesa volcanic outcrop.
As I walked up the stone path, two lazy Australian Shepherds by the front of the house didn't even get up to bark a warning of strangers approaching.
“Don’t mind them, about all those hounds do is eat and sleep,” Charles greeted us at the door. “Come on in. There's more danger tripping over them than getting bit by them.”
“Take a seat. Supper's almost ready,” he said.
He pulled out a massive wooden bar stool at the inlaid Mexican tile counter for me. The breakfast bar wrapped around the room ending at the kitchen stove. Cilantro, beans, and spicy meat cooking in pots on the stove smelled intoxicating. Charles handed us a glass of sweetened ice cold fresh lemonade, with a sprig of mint and a slice of lime on the glass.
“Hope you like Mexican. You don't mind a little spice, do you?” Charles asked.
“Minnie likes spicy, me not so much. I'll try anything once though,” Michael said.
“Hon, welcome Michael and Minerva Doyle. They're moving to Black Mesa. He helped out with the incident at the Café. Let's eat supper before it gets cold. We can talk about Mrs. Steven later,” Charles said.
“Hi, I'm Sunny, Charles' wife. Glad he invited you. He told me all about you. I never know who's going to drop in, so I make plenty to go around. Enough left for my widow ladies too,” she said. She wiped her hands on an over-sized cobbler's apron. Many hearty meals stained the front. Underneath she wore jeans, a western shirt, and cowboy boots.
Charles piled our plates with fresh tortillas, refried beans, and spicy fajitas mixed green chilies and grilled onions. “Here you've got to try my homemade salsa. Folks around here call it Gunslinger.”
Michael's eyes teared up. “Wow. That's got a bite.”
“You've got a baby's palate, son,” Charles laughed.
I piled on the salsa and munched away. Michael couldn't understand how I could eat blistering spicy food. I loved it: horseradish, wasabi, chilies, and the hotter, the better.
“These beans taste savory. What's the secret?” I asked.
“Charles puts plenty of Tequila in them when they're cooking,” Sunny said.
Michael handed the Marshal a business card, “Who's this guy?”
“Paragon Realty. Ed Sanders. He's lived here for a couple years, from New York. He’s kind of quiet for a city fellow. He hasn't had any dealings with the law, or complaints from the locals. But to be on the safe side, read the fine print when you sign a contract with him,” Charles said.
After we had eaten, we all went into the family room. Michael and I sunk into massive lodgepole pine chairs, while Sunny and Charles took the gigantic couch. A polished slice of a tree trunk served as a coffee table. Charles propped his feet on the table. Sunny knocked them off with her arm and gave him a look.
Charles got down to business. “I'm sorry that Mrs. Steven died. She worked hard as a man, and did all the ranch chores. Folks around town say she wore the pants in the family.”
“She had to stay strong. Her husband died in a mine accident,” Sunny said. “She raised all those children herself. Five of them: there's the oldest boy, Victor; the twins, Loretta and Deborah; the youngest boy, Flynn; and the youngest girl, Gloria. It makes for a huge family. They've done well for themselves.”
“When men give their word around here, a good man's handshake says enough, honor bound,” Charles explained. “The Steven's bunch got into trouble because lots of handshake agreements went bad.”
Sunny said, “People around here get the gossip out quick if someone doesn't hold to their word, or tries to cheat. Most people don't trust any of that Steven's clan except for Flynn; he's a ‘good hand’ like his daddy. Flynn's the family outcast because the rest of them act like their Momma.”
“I wanted to warn you, nobody deals with Mrs. Steven or the family unless there's a lawyer involved. Count your fingers after you shake hands with them,” Charles said. “I'm having an autopsy done on Mrs. Steven. I got permission from Holbrook to have her examined by the Pima County Office of Medical Examiner. It will take six to eight weeks for all the paperwork. I’ll piss off the family, but it's what I have to do. Don't want you, me, the EMTs, the Black Mesa Café, or Navajo County blamed because of the circumstances surrounding her death. I’m covering my bases.”
“You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.” German Proverb
“Minerva, let me give you a tour of the house,” Sunny said.
She showed me a large formal living room with dead animal heads galore on the walls. Not something I would consider a decorating style but I guess it went with the rest of her Southwest theme.
She saw my look. “Charles and the boys go hunting in the fall. Would Michael would like to join them?”
“He likes to fish,” I said. I knew Michael had enough excitement in the past hunting down men.
“During the summer my kids rough-house outside, and we don’t use this room. We use a whole log in the fireplace when winter comes around. We're glad to have it,” she said as she pointed to a mammoth floor to ceiling fireplace at one end of the room.
“My hideaway, I get more work done in the winter. It's my quilting time,” she said as we went to the next room.
I saw a lovely organized quilting room. Rows of flat drawers filled up one wall. A large folding table on the other side held Sunny’s sewing machine and cutting mats. Her long arm quilting machine took up the other wall. She had an entire walk-in closet full of sewing supplies.
“I'm jealous. I love your sewing room, you’ve given me some ideas for mine,” I said in admiration.
“During the summer we've got animals to take care of, alfalfa to grow, and corn to watch. It’s an all-day job keeping the crows off our plants. I can vegetables and fruit in the fall,” she said.
“I’m frustrated.” She continued. “I wrote a recipe book for the ladies in the Altar Society, but my computer went blank. Every time Charles touches anything electronic it seems to die, so he’s no help. I don't like the kids handling it either. I lost all my work once.”
“I teach Computer Science at the college. Let me take a quick look at it,” I said.
I went down a mental checklist. “First thing I do, check to see if it's plugged in. Sometimes cords can loosen up by tripping over them or pulling on them.”
I pushed all the plugs in. The screen popped right up. I could see one thing right away on her hard drive. No separate folders. All her files resided in one messy list.
“Do you back up your files?” I asked.
“My recommendation, buy a flash drive to back up your recipe book. Get another for your pictures. That will clean up your hard drive so it won't run so slow when you turn it on, plus it will protect all your hard work. You can get an external hard drive to protect your computer on a weekly basis,” I said.
“What's a flash drive?” She asked.
I saw her eyes glazing over. I gave her too much information. Sometimes I get wrapped up in my job. I needed to take it easy on the technical jargon. Bless her heart. From my experience, there are no dumb questions except the ones you don't ask. She needed to start from square one. I went into teacher mode.
“I'll tell you what. I'll get a couple of little storage devices big as your finger. Sometimes people call them thumb drives. They're small and portable. I'll plug them into your computer. I'll show you how to make a secure copy of all your latest work. A free lesson. My hostess gift for an excellent meal,” I offered.
“Great. Charles doesn't touch computers. When I ask him for help he tells me to ask the kids, but they show me so fast I don't understand,” she said.
“At least you aren't afraid to turn it on. One of my students took forever to touch a computer, terrified she’d break it,” I said in admiration.
“Charles needs help at work,” she stated. “The county court insists on storing all law files on the computer. Charles must save his records on one at his office and then e-mail the file to the county. The County Sheriff's department was computerized two years ago and even has computers in the patrol cars. Peg helps him with some stuff but he needs to learn how to use technology, or else he's out of a job.”
“I'm happy to do some consulting work for him if he's got the okay,” I said.
We continued the tour of her home. Her bedroom, an oasis of calm, with a beautiful blue and cream hand quilted wedding ring quilt on the bed. In the next room, sturdy rodeo patterned coverlets decorated the boy’s lodgepole pine bunk beds. Last, in her daughter's room, a 1930's cowgirl themed bedspread on an antique four poster bed surprised me.
“The boys rodeo every Friday. My daughter likes gymkhana. My kids rode since they could walk,” she said.
She brought me back to the family room where the guys were watching the fishing channel.
“Charles, Minerva says she's glad to help you organize your computer at the office. You need somebody that knows what they're doing,” she said.
“I did consulting work for the Maricopa County Sheriff's office. I have a fingerprint card, and I've had a thorough background check done,” I explained.
Charles admitted. “I'm not on the up and up when it comes to computers. Peg at the office does most of that for me. I could use all the help I can get. Navajo county contains more square miles than some eastern states or even some countries. My town provides lots of places for bad folks to hide. Let's talk down at the office. Give me the details. I'll see how much I got left over in my budget. I could get away with hiring a consultant. Lord knows I need help,” he said.
I got to know Sunny better while we did the dishes, and cleaned up the kitchen. Sunny matched her name. She was a bubbly enthusiastic woman who no matter what life threw at her she came out fighting. She made it her mission to feed the hungry, clothe less fortunate children, and comfort the grieving widow.
Her home was decorated for comfort, everything thing Southwestern from dried red chilis hanging on the wall to original Cowboy Art. She had a series of black and white photos of pioneer women honoring their struggle to make a home on the frontier. They stared straight out of their picture frames. A woman washing clothes with a washboard, another woman boiling clothing over the fire, a group of women at a quilting bee, a horsewoman in a divided skirt driving a buckboard, and last a school marm sheltering her unruly awkward charges behind her long skirts.
Sunny’s greyish blonde hair was tied up in a messy ponytail, more for practicality than style. Her one instance of feminity was a necklace made of silver and turquoise in a beaded cascade waterfall. I liked her right away. She struck me as funny, honest and not afraid to learn new ideas. I met my first friend in Black Mesa, Arizona. She was my type of gal, not prissy, and not stuck up.
Michael and Charles conversed. They looked somber. Michael shook his head. Charles slammed his hand on the table. Sunny looked concerned. Michael gestured with the universal hand slicing a throat. What happened with those two? I thought they hit it off. I looked at Sunny, she shook her head in wonder. I couldn't take it.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Not much,” Michael said. “Turns out we were both stationed in Beirut in October of 1983. We compared notes on our time there. No worries.”
Michael shrugged the memory off. He didn't talk much about his time in the Marines or the ATF. He kept himself to himself. Charles nodded in agreement, their friendship cemented. They watched the fishing show as if nothing happened.
“Behind every successful rancher is a wife who works in town.” Cowboy Proverb
I felt at home in Black Mesa when I first saw it, a green valley made by a tributary of the Little Colorado River. The Rio de Plata, ran through the west side of town, next to a massive black volcanic outcrop. Michael and I explored the unique village before our meeting with the Realtor. I ambled down the country lane, and I heard the wind stir through real trees for a change. Wildflowers popped up alongside the road: California poppies, ox-eye daisies, and wild irises.
Cattle munched sweet grass and horses roamed the fields, a familiar sight as Michael and I strolled around the town. Wild animals also found a home in Black Mesa. I held my nose because I smelled lots of skunks and manure.
We searched on Zillow to eliminate the houses we hated on sight and narrowed our list down to four homes. After breakfast at the Black Mesa Café, Michael and I approached the Paragon Realtor's office. I hoped the Realtor held up to the name of his business, a paragon of virtue.
“Ed, I'm Michael Doyle, and my wife, Minerva. Here's our list. We're looking for a VA approved three bedrooms, two baths, fixer-upper,” Michael informed the Realtor. Ed pumped Michael’s hand. Michael had memorized Ed’s name from his card, a name I forgot. I remembered he came from New York, a plus for me.
“I'm surprised at the home prices,” I said.
“When the Paper Mill outside of Snowflake/Taylor closed we lost a lot of good-paying jobs. Farmers and ranchers lived here for generations, so most need a side income after the harvest season,” Ed said. “Then the recession hit and people now work for the county or state government. We get some tourists traveling old Route 66. Thank goodness the town officials didn’t tear down the old buildings like a lot of paces did in the 1970’s.”
“It's a beautiful quiet little town. You're lucky, before the recession, people couldn't find a house for sale in Black Mesa until somebody passed on, and the kids didn't want it.” He escorted us to a pea green Land Rover, and we drove off with him on our new house hunting adventure.
Ed showed us to the first house on our list within walking distance of the Black Mesa Café, A two-story stone cottage with old fashioned lead glass windows was tucked behind tall old growth cottonwood trees. A journeyman stone mason had laid the mauve streaked limestone and quartz turquoise bearing rock.
Ed gave us the pitch as he unlocked the door. “You see a historic home, built in 1870, one of the oldest houses in Black Mesa. Irish Catholic folks settled here after the Civil War. Most of the men came over on the boat together. They all joined the Irish Brigade on the Union side. Soldiers who survived brought their wives and families out west away from the devastation and tragedy. They worked the ranches and mines, plus they were excellent horsemen.”
Michael went inside the house like a little kid on a new adventure. “It's beautiful, Minnie. Wood floors, fireplace, look at those beams. What craftsmanship. Old wiring though,” Michael said as he glanced around.
As I stepped into the house, I got a weird feeling. One that made the hair on my neck stand up. My arms had cold shivers. I felt someone watching. I could not live in this house no matter how enchanting.
“Michael. Wait. Nope. No can do. I'll wait outside till you're done,” I stated.
I couldn't stand the atmosphere of the house. I ducked out the door, relieved to calm down in the sunshine. Michael teased me about my sixth sense, but it had saved my life. I would not ignore it.
“I'm sorry Michael, not this house,” I walked toward the Land Rover.
The Realtor looked stunned.
“You know, and I know it's haunted,” I said.
“A left-handed gunman killed the first town Marshal. He left a widow with eight little kids. The tragedy happened over 130 years ago,” Ed said.
“There's more to it,” I stared him down.
“All right, they used it as a hospital during the Spanish Flu epidemic in the 1917's, right after statehood,” Ed said.
“Let's look at another one,” Michael said.
“One without so much history,” I said.
“He who has a farm with water and peat has the world.” Irish Proverb
Michael and I surveyed a couple more houses in town. Nothing else stirred our souls. We desired a home for the kids and grandkids to visit. Finally, Ed showed us a house about ten minutes outside of town, close to the Apache County line. Driving off Old Route 66, he turned down a dirt road lined with rural mailboxes and traveled up the gravel driveway to the house.
The saltbox style house had two stories on the front, slanting down to one story in back to an enclosed veranda with a sizeable twenty-acre lot, and a stand of old growth cedar trees. In the rear, more outbuildings, a pair of railroad cars were converted to a barn and with a small workshop next door.
Ed unlocked the front door. In the living room, a wall of windows faced north; they let in sunlight but not the heat of the day. On the south wall opposite the windows stood floor to ceiling bookshelves on each side of a stone fireplace. Oh, heaven for bookworms like Michael and me. Wood floors flowed throughout the house.
“The children’s bedroom runs across both sides of the upstairs. The first floor has the master bedroom, the kitchen, dining room, and another separate guest bathroom. There’s a combination sewing/craft room/laundry room off the kitchen. The enclosed veranda goes the whole length of the house. It gets a little warm in the summer, but it's cozy in the winter. I'll let you folks look around. It's the only house in these parts that has a full basement where all the mechanicals reside. Let me know if you have any questions,” Ed said as he finished his sales pitch.
“I love it so far. How about you?” I said.
“Let's look deeper. I want to see the electric, heating, and plumbing,” Michael said.
While he investigated the core mechanicals of the house, I looked at the rest of the downstairs.
In the kitchen, I envied the new black appliances, state of the art, thank the kitchen gods. But, the solid knotty pine cabinets in the kitchen seemed a bit dark for my taste so a lighter stain could freshen them up. Looking out to a flower garden, the large window over the kitchen sink dispelled the gloom. I could tell the downstairs bathroom off the kitchen took a beating from kids. Our first re-do.
I opened a door off the kitchen and walked into a pantry that was as big as the sewing room with floor to ceiling shelves. I stood in awe, a person could store a small grocery store full of food. Who needed storage for an apocalypse?
“Minnie, you're not going to believe it. There’s a finished basement. It's got a huge family game room, the guy left his Plasma TV,” Michael said. “There's a heat pump, on demand hot water heater, and state of the art wiring panel. The mechanicals are up to code, let's look upstairs,” Michael said as he came up from the basement.
A wrought iron stairway ran up to the second floor. The railing continued around the second floor to mirror image loft bedrooms. Two sets of bunk beds stood in the middle of each room.
Ed said, “I know what you're thinking. Gigantic storage pantry and enough beds for a dorm. The man, LDS, built it himself in 2000. They had four boys and three girls. That's why the bunkhouse look. Father got a new job in Salt Lake City after the Paper Mill closed. He moved the wife and kids there last year. Owner’s a motivated seller. He bought a brand new house in Salt Lake City for cash. No mortgage on the house, quick close, no bank to slow down the process.”
I felt a happy vibe in the house. It seemed I could still hear children's laughter.
“We've got a big family too, between his kids, my kids, nieces, nephews and the grandkids we've got about as many,” I said.
“I can't foresee any problems. Let's put in an offer, with approval after inspection, and title search,” Michael said.
Then I decided. “Okay let's go for it. I've got to drive back down to the valley Monday. My plate’s full. Finals are coming up soon, and grades. I don't know how I can juggle this and semester end. Can you finish up the VA inspection and closing paperwork yourself? Do you mind staying up here?”
“I'll drive down on the weekends and help you pack. Got it under control. The Marines are always prepared, Semper Fi,” Michael kissed me and twirled me around the dining room. He looked so happy.
“Don't judge people by their relatives.” Cowboy Proverb
Michael signed the papers on his end. I e-mailed, faxed, and over-nighted my end of the paperwork. Thank goodness for Internet, and Craigslist. I couldn't believe how fast the house closed. I got rid of stuff we no longer needed and made a little money. No sense in hauling things I didn't use anymore up a mountain. But, I couldn't get rid of our books.
Michael and I celebrated a second honeymoon when we met in my motel room on the weekends. After our romantic interlude, Michael carted our possessions up the Rim to our new house.
Staying in a motel by myself during the week helped me get all my school paperwork done in record time. My student's finals done, thank God. On my last day, I turned in my grades and left my phone number with the Dean's secretary. What a sense of freedom.
I looked at my phone, already eighty-three degrees at 5 a.m. in the Valley. The days got hotter and hotter. The Weather Channel predicted Memorial Day would average over one hundred and five degrees for the three day holiday. I wanted to beat the vacation crowds going to the lake for the weekend. I hustled to get out of town early Friday morning because I knew by noon the highway up to the White Mountains turned into a parking lot.
I beat the rush, the road to Payson was clear with only a few cars on it. I turned off the AC when I got close to Payson because the steep climb was rough on a car's engine. The highway from the Valley, close to 1200 feet above sea level, goes up to 7000 feet in Heber/Overgaard. Then it climbs over the Mogollon Plateau to Show/Low, reaches I40 and Old Route 66, and last Black Mesa. When anyone asks people in Arizona how far to a city, they never answer how many miles to a place. It's always spoken in hours. I made it up the hill in about four hours, a 215-mile trip for foreigners.
My stomach grumbled in hunger by the time I pulled into the parking lot of the Black Mesa Café. I walked in and saw Michael at our favorite booth.
“I see you've found a home, your name on it yet?” I teased as I joined him. I gave him a hug. I missed him these last six weeks.
“All the locals hang out here. Learned a lot about them sitting here drinking coffee, listening to gossip, and keeping my eye on the characters. How was your trip up?” He kissed me long and hard in front of everyone. He didn't care what people thought.
“Tiring, traffic wasn’t bad coming up the mountain. I left early. Of course, everyone slowed down to a crawl going through Star Valley,” I said.
“Star Valley, a speed trap for sure. You didn't get caught going ninety miles an hour through town?” He teased.
He knew I white-knuckled my steering wheel as I drove up the mountains. When the tops of ancient 300-year-old trees stand level with the highway, I didn't dare look out the window. I kept my eyes focused on the front of the road ahead till I got up over the Rim and past Heber/Overgaard.
“How did the movers do? Any trouble?” I asked.
“Got the bed made up,” Michael whispered as he kissed me again on my ear and smiled with a naughty grin.
“Anything else I ought to know?”
“I moved the furniture where you wanted it. Left the kitchen, pantry, and closets because I knew you'd want to do the organizing. But, I got my coffee pot going, grill set up, tool shed and barn finished. If I'm lucky I won’t need to do much remodeling or repairs on the house,” he said.
“Have you eaten yet?” I asked. I guessed he'd eaten out all the time I stayed down in the Valley.
“Sunny and Charles looked after me. Fended for myself at breakfast and lunch, but they had me over for supper every night. He's a fascinating guy. I liked him right off,” Michael said. “He's French Canadian, from Montreal, met Sunny when he was on leave from the UN peacekeepers. They got married and moved here close to her family. Her family's some of the original Irish Catholic pioneers.”
He waved Rose over. He tended to take a long time to get to know people and didn't trust anyone at face value. His few close buddies in the Marines and ATF felt the same. If my life depended on someone watching my back, I didn't want them to flake out on me either.
“I'm getting the chicken fried steak, taters, and white gravy, salad with blue cheese,” he said. “What's the vegetable?”
“Green beans,” Rose answered.
“Skip it,” he said.
“Glad to see you back, hon. What would you like?” Rose asked.
“Patty Melt, baked potato if you have it, and I’ll eat Michael’s green beans. Salad, French with an F not Ranch with an R,” I said.
“That's funny. I guess the two do sound alike. I'll have to remember that because sometimes I get people's salads mixed up, especially if they have a thick southern accent. I'll get this going for you. You want iced coffee, plain, nothing fancy, ice and coffee with cream on the side. Right?” She said.
“Yes, how did you remember?” I asked, astounded that she could recall what I drank more than a month ago.
“Oh, I remember everything when it comes to eating and drinking, by my everyday customers. You look like you'll be a regular like your hubby,” she smiled and nodded. She left to put our order in the kitchen.
“Thanks for getting the taxes done. Were they too complicated?” I asked.
Michael and I had gotten married last summer, this year was our first tax return together.
“Found a local guy. Richard Fitzroy. Lives right across the street from us. He was an accountant at the Paper Mill for years. Now he’s retired and has his own tax business. Seemed like he knew his stuff, very meticulous,” Michael said.
“Did you hear anything else about our unfortunate little old lady?” I said.
“Not yet. Charles says it takes about six to eight weeks to get an autopsy done. They have to rely on Pima County. I used them before in the past on some investigations of mine around the border, they do an excellent job,” he said.
Michael was built like an Olympic swimmer, broad shoulders, narrow waist, firm butt, long legs, five feet seven inches on a good day in western boots. He had outdoor bronzed skin and untamed curly black hair. He could pass for any Mediterranean or Latin ethnic group.
Before he retired, he sometimes worked undercover for the ATF. He kept his slight gapped toothed grin, because expensive dental work could sometimes give an operative away. He didn't talk much about his old cases, and I didn't ask. Too gruesome from what I've read in the papers. My expertise; I analyzed numbers and data. I wasn’t a crime scene person.
“How is the family handling their Mother’s death?” I said.
“So far they haven't missed a Friday night dinner. I witnessed a lot of arguments. I sit still and listen. Interesting family dynamic. Don't have a handle on the players, but I will figure them out given enough time,” Michael said.
“You'd think it would give them the creeps eating at the same table where she died,” I said.
“The family leaves Mrs. Steven's chair and place setting empty in her memory. I noticed they always sit in the same places,” he said as he took out his pocket-sized notebook.
He made a circle with his forefinger. “Clockwise around the table: Gloria, Richard (Gloria's husband), (twins) Deborah and Loretta. Flynn, (Flynn's wife) Jennifer, (baby) Lizabeth, (Victor’s wife) Pearl and Victor. Rose told me they eat and drink the same thing when they come in. She's about got their order ready when they walk in the door.”
Michael knew all their names. I still had trouble with people's names, but he’s a natural at remembering.
“Something else you should know. The whole family lives on our street,” he said.
“What, how did that happen?” I said.
“The guy whose house we bought didn't lose his job. He had altercations with Victor Steven, the oldest brother, over horses grazing on Victor's land. That's a no-no around here. Grazing rights are a serious issue in Arizona. Charles said both of them lived in and out of court suing each other,” Michael said.
“Great, I hope they leave us alone,” I said.
“Always take a good look at what you're about to eat. It's not so important to know what it is, but it's sure crucial to know what it was.” Cowboy Proverb
While knee-deep in boxes, I heard the front door knocker. Great, my home’s a wreck. I wasn’t finished unpacking. I found the coffee pot this morning but not the can of coffee. I yearned for my drug of choice sugar with a bit of coffee. Michael hadn't come back yet from the store. Had he forgotten his keys? I yanked open the door.
A tall slender elegantly dressed woman smiled at me. “Hello, I'm your neighbor Mrs. Gloria Fitzroy. I noticed you moved into the neighborhood. I'm in charge of the Black Mesa Chamber of Commerce welcoming committee. I wanted to give you this packet of information about all the local places to shop, and coupons for local stores. I also brought a little token of local treats from artisan businesses who are members of the Chamber. Am I interrupting you? Is this a good time?” Gloria said. She glanced around at my mess.
“No, I'm trying to get things straightened up. Unpacking, and organizing; last in first out. Of course, all the stuff I need right away is at the bottom of the pile. Come on in, I've got sweet tea if you'd like or Coke. That's about it,” I said.
“I don’t drink sugary drinks. Bottled water is perfect for me,” Gloria said. She was one of those naturally slender women who wore higher priced off the rack clothes like they were designer originals. Skin made flawless by artifice, I knew it was an exacting makeup job. Not a sliver of hair escaped her perfect blonde French twist. She seemed out of sync with the outdoorsy pioneer type women I had met so far in Black Mesa.
“I've got a case of bottled water around here somewhere. Give me a sec. Please, make yourself comfortable,” I said as I shoved a pile of books off the sofa.
She brushed the couch off and sat down, her legs crossed at the ankles. She wore pale hose and tan spectator pumps.
I felt like a rube dressed in a Suns’ baseball cap, hair sticking out, jeans, an old Phoenix Suns’ purple and orange T-shirt, orange socks and purple sneakers. Yep, I was a fashion plate. I took the basket of goodies to the kitchen.
“This looks yummy,” I called out to Gloria, as I ran to the pantry to get a water bottle.
At least I had some semblance of order in the main room. Though, I noticed she had snooped around in the living room while I left. It might look messy, but I knew the contents of each pile.
“So, where exactly in the neighborhood do you live?” I asked. Not too close I hope.
“My family owns most of the land around here. My husband, Richard, and I live across the street in the large white colonial. My mother lived in a little old ranch house next door to me. My oldest brother Victor owns all the grazing pasture, alfalfa field, and cornfield along with the two-story log cabin next to your property. He also has a stable and barn on the other side of his house. You should be glad the smell isn’t close to you. You have a common lot line with him.”
“My twin sisters, Loretta and Deborah, live in Show Low near the hospital. My youngest brother, Flynn lives at the end of our road in the double-wide manufactured home. Thank goodness no one can see him from the road. He doesn't exactly bring up neighborhood property values, but our area is zoned for manufactured homes and farms, as well as proper houses, so what can one do?” she said.
She interrogated me, “Where does your husband work? Does he own his own business? We welcome new members to the Chamber of Commerce.”
“He’s retired. I’m teaching Computer Science at NCC this fall. I'm looking forward to helping people learn how to use computers,” I said.
“I’m the English department chair at Navapache Community College. My brother, Flynn, is a tenured Geology professor at the college. I trust I'll see you at our fall faculty reception. Adjunct faculty is invited too, you should be getting an e-mail. Make sure you contact your department chair in person, sometimes the quality of the secretarial pool is lacking,” Gloria said. “I couldn’t help but notice your collection of books. Very impressive, quite an unusual range of authors.”
“Michael and I are both bookworms. He likes non-fiction, history, biographies, and sci-fi. I read classics, science, math, mysteries, thrillers, and adventure. When I was a kid, I read all my dad’s favorites like Treasure Island and the Three Musketeers. A good book, comfy chair, and a cozy fireplace then my life is good.,” I said.
“We have something in common I see you have an extensive collection of 18th and 19th-century women writers. That’s my area of expertise,” she said as she lovingly passed her fingernail over my books.
“Any women's groups around? Quilting groups? I love to quilt,” I said.
“I am involved with the Chamber of Commerce, a professional group, so I’m not familiar with women in those other groups,” she said. “I had better go. I have more visits to make today. I’m glad to meet you. I'll see you at the next Chamber of Commerce meeting, third Thursday night of the month, at the Black Mesa Café, 7 p.m.”
“We have been talking about upgrading our records to a computer and putting the town of Black Mesa on the Internet. We could use your technical expertise to bring us into the twenty-first century,” she said. “Thank you for the bottle of water. It was refreshing.”
“Thanks for the info. I'll keep the Chamber in mind,” I said. Given my first impression of her, she was an executive type. I prayed her outfit today wasn’t the dress code for the college. I expected a more jeans, boots and even an upscale Eddie Bauer country vibe for teachers. Fingers crossed. Otherwise, I would have to buy a whole new career wardrobe.
“A meager compromise is better than a fat lawsuit.” Danish Proverb
Mr. Michael Doyle and Mrs. Minerva Doyle
4445 South Opal Drive
Black Mesa AZ 85938
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Michael Doyle,
This letter is to inform you that we, the family of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Steven, have decided to initiate a wrongful death lawsuit in the matter of our Mother's recent demise.
As you know the family gathered together at the Black Mesa Café on the night of March 23, 20__. We were having a quiet family dinner when Mother began to choke. She then passed out in front of us. Mrs. Doyle, you held us back from helping our mother. Mr. Doyle, you immediately presumed to take over the responsibilities of the EMTs who are professionals. Mrs. Doyle, you were lax in your timeliness to call the EMTs. You kept us gathered together in such an emotional state and turmoil that none of us could come to Mother's aide. As a result, our Mother died wrongfully and through your neglect. Mr. Doyle, you are not a medical professional. You should have waited until the EMTs arrived and you should have let them do their job.
It is for this reason that the family of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Steven has asked me, Mrs. Gloria Steven Fitzroy, as executor, to inform you of our decision to file this lawsuit. We are requesting the following damages:
1) Economic. We have incurred close to $50,000 in medical expenses due to her stay in the hospital, and the cost of ambulance services. Funeral expenses are expected to be close to $10,000. Loretta Steven and Deborah Steven, my twin sisters, are no longer professional caregivers for my mother. Also, we have to pay unexpected taxes due to the sale of family land to cover the immediate financial burden. My brother, Vincent Steven, has stood to lose the grazing lease rights which amount to $50,000 per year.
2) Non-economic damages. We have suffered mental anguish, pain, and suffering because of the loss of the love, society, companionship, care, protection, guidance, advice and nurturing from our Mother. Although these items are less tangible, they have more value to our family than any economic loss. We, therefore, decided we will ask one million dollars for mental anguish and suffering.
3) We are further asking three million dollars in punitive damages. Mr. Doyle should not ever presume to have the knowledge to rush to perform CPR when he is not a medical professional. We ask for these costs to compensate for elder abuse, misconduct and the resulting death of our Mother.
4) Attorney's fees. As the survivors, we plan to recover interest on damages and be reimbursed for attorney's expenses incurred in bringing this lawsuit. Attorney's fees will be minimum of $125,000.
Mrs. Gloria Fitzroy nee Steven
Executor of the Estate of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Steven
4448 South Opal Drive
Black Mesa AZ 85938
“There's nothing so bad that it couldn't be worse.” Irish proverb
Enraged, Michael grasped the official-looking registered mail document and paced up and down the kitchen floor, his voice sharp and bitter.
“Are you kidding me? Wrongful death lawsuit? Crazy nut job family. What the hell! Tried my best to help the woman. Read this. You won’t believe it,” Michael said.
“Oh my God. I don’t start school until August. We spent all our savings on closing costs,” I said. “We need a lawyer. No matter how much they cost. I found out the hard way they're worth every dime you pay them.”
“Charles warned me. The clan from hell is on our doorstep. I tried to save her. The family stabs me in the back after I tried to help the old woman. Can't trust anyone,” he said. “Get dressed. We’ll see Charles about this. He's the one sane person I'd trust with my life in this damn town.”
Michael reverted to combat wary Marine mode. It made no sense reasoning with him. I pulled on my boots, and jumped into the truck. Fastened my seatbelt before Michael gunned his old truck, and I hung on for dear life.
Ten minutes later Michael screeched into the parking lot at the Marshal's office.
“Peg, Charles in? Emergency,” Michael barged past her.
“Sorry, Peg, but it's critical,” I said.
Charles sat with his feet up on his desk, listening on the land-line phone. He waved his hand for us to sit, then held up one finger. He kept writing, not saying anything.
Then Charles spoke. “Got it. So that's what happened. Homicide. Thank you for working on it. Appreciate your attention to detail. I know it takes a while, and you own the only game in town. Get right on it. Released when? All done. You have the grand jury evidence you need?”
Charles continued, “Take caution you have more samples than we need for a murder case. The relatives planned to cremate her. I want it all: hair, nails, blood, ‘tox’ screen, the works. We're dealing with a very twisted family here. Okay. Fax the report ASAP, send an extra official copy registered mail. No slip-ups.” He hung up.
“How can I help you, Michael? Looks like you've got a burr on your tail,” he swung his boots to the floor.
“That damn Steven’s family is suing us for millions of dollars. A wrongful death lawsuit. I tried to save her. Can't pay. It'll bankrupt me. We'll lose our home. Can't even think straight I'm so mad. I heard about people suing a Good Samaritan, but never thought it could happen. In all my years in the ATF, nothing like this ever happened, even when bringing someone down. God Almighty, help me, you're the one person in this damn town I trust. You warned me about them,” Michael said.
“Easy does it. I've got good news for you. The Pima County Office Medical Examiner phoned me with the autopsy results. You don't have to worry about the wrongful death lawsuit. It's ruled an overdose of caffeine and other poisons. We're looking at a homicide,” Charles said.
Michael calmed down, “What happened?”
“The old woman had enough poison in her body to kill three grown men. Found long-term arsenic poisoning in her hair and nails. Her stomach contents revealed someone used caffeine poison to kill her at the last Steven's family Friday night meal. Somebody wanted to make sure she died. We have to investigate who poisoned her,” Charles said.
“I understand arsenic poisoning,” he pondered, “but you wouldn't think caffeine would kill you. Lord knows I drink enough coffee every day to float a battleship. The coroner said a tablespoon of pure caffeine can kill a horse. We’ve had recent incidents, some involving kids, where they’ve drunk caffeine pumped-up sports juice, and they ended up at the doctor’s office. We've got one case now where a college student is in a coma on life support at the hospital. This time whoever is adding caffeine to drinks has gone too far, someone ended up dead.”
“OK, now what?” Michael said.
“Don't say a word to anyone in town, you’re not the only one being sued by the Steven’s family,” Charles said. “The family wants to cremate the body right away. I suspect they hope to get rid of the evidence. Wish I knew this before, I’d have secured the scene at the Café when the incident happened. Too late now. Everything's washed up long ago,” he paused.
“I’d be glad to help. I want to find out who did this, and clear my reputation,” Michael said.
“There’s the fax,” Charles said. The machine spit out three sheets of paper. “Here let me read to you.”
“Background: Mary Elizabeth Steven was alive and well, eating dinner at the Black Mesa Café with her family. It was a Friday occurrence for the family to gather and discuss the family’s ranch and other business holdings. She was last seen alive but in obvious respiratory distress at 17:55 on April 30 when the EMTs transferred her to Summit Hospital in Show Low.”
“Death Scene: Mary Elizabeth Steven was surrounded by her children; Victor Steven, Loretta Steven, Deborah Steven, Flynn Steven, and Gloria Steven-Fitzroy. Also, attending were in-laws, Pearl Steven and Richard Fitzroy.
“GI Findings: Vomiting, abdominal dumping, hypertension, tachypnea, and dysrhythmias. The following tests were made upon Mrs. Steven when she was admitted to the hospital: decontamination with activated charcoal, complete blood count, urinalysis, arterial blood gas, chest radiograph, CT of the head, ECG, electrocardiography, and telemetry monitoring. Symptoms shown included anxiety, tremors, seizures, and dilated pupils. She died from complications of extreme cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity.”
“An autopsy of her organs was performed after her death. White particles mixed with undigested hemorrhagic liquid were in the stomach contents. Toxicological test proved an acute overdosage of 255 mg of caffeine. Lab Note: 40-400 mg is an acute overdose. Also tested were the kidneys, liver, lungs, heart, brain, skeletal muscle, urine, and skin that showed extreme levels of caffeine. This confirmed extreme levels of caffeine toxicity. The conclusion of the cause of death is due to fatal caffeine poisoning. Further testing for other toxic substances showed high levels of arsenic in hair and fingernails over an extended period.” Charles concluded.
“That lets me off the hook. Mrs. Steven’s death wasn’t due to my negligence. Score one for my side,” Michael said grim relief. “Sorry she died.”
“I need your help to investigatete Mrs. Steven’s death. We’ll do it the old-fashioned way before DNA, use our brains. I've interviewed enough people, and I know liars. The truth will come out. I don't trust any of the Steven clan,” Charles said. “Michael, you’re an expert profiler who can get inside people’s heads, and figure out their motives. You're retired, but I need a ‘good hand’ on my side as a part-time deputy. I’m stretched too thin, that’s all I can afford out of my budget.”
“The Maricopa County Sheriff's department confirmed Minerva's done some impressive computer forensic work for them. Minerva can charge me consulting fees. I need a computer expert to dig into the family background and finances,” Charles continued. “I wanted to hire you and her the minute I met you two. I've got to have people I trust working for me. The county sheriff's office computerized their whole outfit. Other police departments have computers in their squad cars. I need an expert computer guru.”
Charles said, “Sunny and I came to Black Mesa because it's off the beaten path. I can't touch anything electronic. The innards fry. Sunny looks stuff up on the computer, and she programs the HDTV. Peg does all the routine computerized paperwork in the office.”
Michael said, “I can see your point about computers. I have my bubble nose Chevy truck. It's ugly but simple to fix. Manufacturers cram every new car or truck chock full of computer crap. I stopped fixing Minnie's car a long time ago. You have to have computer diagnostic tools to find out what's wrong. The engine warning light went off on Minnie's SUV, turned out it was due for a regular oil change, nothing serious.”
Charles said, “I drive a classic Chevy El Camino because it works for me. I ruined the new truck I bought last year. Got stuck out in the boonies. Blew up when I touched it. Cost me $1500 for a new computer brain,” Charles said. “I'm not the only one who's affected by electronic white noise. I figured I'd fit right in when I read about Black Mesa in an article: ‘The Town Frozen in Time.’ Some of the townsfolk chose no electricity on purpose. There's an entire subdivision north of town made up of people allergic to man-made materials. I figured most folks around here were old-fashioned, like some Amish people.”
Charles’ relentless lion-like eyes of a born hunter bored into us. He was on the prowl searching for justice for the elderly murder victim. Michael and I were included in his pride.
Charles explained, “Mrs. Steven’s wake and funeral are coming up. I want you both to go to it. I need people on the inside. The Steven’s family will be on their best behavior around me. Big. False. Front. They'll think you're a friendly neighbor, making peace. They'll apologize to you for the lawsuit. Let them drop their guard. Keep your ears open. Watch them. You know how to profile behavior. You know how to pull out the truth.”
“I trust you,” Michael stated. “I'll help with interviews and arrests if it comes down to it. Don't let anyone around here know my real background. Not anyone, even in the Marshal's office. Nothing about me goes on paper or in a computer. As far as they know, I'm another redneck blue collar guy and a retired ex-marine. Anonymous. I've put too many evil men in prison,” Michael said.
I agreed with Michael, “I'll help you with any forensic computer investigations as a consultant.”
We were quiet on the way home. What a relief we didn’t have to go to court. Michael and I were both lost in our thoughts. Michael took his time driving back. He turned the radio on to our favorite country station. Patsy Cline’s soothing southern lilt washed over us. I scooted over on the bench seat close to Michael and laid my head on his shoulder as he drove. I felt safe against his arm when he shifted gears. A familiar mechanical smell of well-oiled steel machinery drifted up from the floorboards. The engine’s deep rumble lulled me into a relaxed doze.
“What do you think about Charles’ offer?” I asked.
“Charles will be a trustworthy partner. I’d enjoy working with him,” Michael said. “I’m bored since I retired. Me working in Maricopa County as a law officer, no thanks, but Black Mesa is a small town. There’s not much mayhem 683 people can get into. There are the outlying ranches, but I predict more traffic stops and bar fights than real trouble. Everybody and their brother has guns around here, it’s the culture. Most of the problems would come from travelers coming off I40 and staying in town. Plus outsiders stick out like a sore thumb around here.”
“Do you mind working part-time?” I said. “It’s quite a change from being a field officer in charge of your own cases to a small town deputy.”
“I could use the extra money. Max’s Mother has been pressuring me to get him into a private school. His grandfather’s fine hand is behind the push. I can’t understand why Max can’t go to a regular school. Didn’t hurt me any. I got a good education growing up.”
Michael’s ex-wife had stepped up the pressure to get his youngest son Max into a private military academy. I thought Max was a delightful child, with an excellent creative imagination. A rigid military environment would stifle the kid's wonderful gift, but it wasn’t my decision to make.
“A chance to work as a forensic computer consultant is an opportunity to get my foot in the door at NCC’s Police Academy,” I said. “Usually at any college, you have to wait for someone to get hit by a bus before you can get on full time. Plus, I want to keep up with the latest forensic applications. Working for Charles is a win-win for both of us. It’ll give me a chance to teach part-time, and the extra income would come in handy.”
I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of catching the bad guys by gathering data for a search warrant, by piling up irrefutable evidence for an arrest, and by helping prosecutors provide reliable documentation of the case to a jury. However, I got cold feet when it came to carrying guns and physically catching a criminal bigger than me.
“A stiff apology is a second insult. The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged, he wants to be healed because he has been hurt.”
Gilbert K. Chesterton
A few days later, after the lawsuit fiasco, Michael and I came back home from grocery shopping. As we pulled into the driveway, I saw two people inside a car parked in front of our house. I jumped out of the truck and hurried to unlock the front door. Michael grabbed our groceries from the Chevy. I recognized Gloria. What did she want? I wasn’t in the mood for trouble. Gloria held a gift basket in her hand. Although the basket was piled full of fresh fruit and exotic cheese , ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ ran through my head.
“Hello Richard,” Michael said. “Come on in. How can I help you?” Michael was more generous than I. He motioned them to sit down on the couch. I had straightened the house up before we drove to the store. Lucky me, I made it in in time to entertain someone who had sued us.
I set Gloria’s fruit and cheese basket on the counter. I opened a bottle of wine, reached for glasses, and some snacks from the kitchen. Before I had a chance to place the wine, goblets, and plates on the table, Gloria demurred.
“No wine for us, but plain unsweetened tea sounds good if you have it,” Gloria requested.
I went back to the kitchen. I brought the basket back into the living room, adding some plain Ritz crackers to go with the fancy cheese. I nabbed a couple bottles of unsweetened tea from the fridge and two glasses. Done playing hostess, I sat down to hear what they had to say. I could play helpful when I wanted to.
“We drove over to offer an apology for the lawsuit we brought against you. The document of Mother’s cause of death arrived by registered mail from the Marshal’s office. Mother’s death was due to a caffeine overdose. I can’t imagine how Mother got into caffeine, but she was always trying out some weird home remedies. The family discussed our options and decided that we would drop all the lawsuits. I still say a professional emergency worker would have been more advantageous than the amateur help given to Mother at the time. The amateur help could have waited a few minutes.” She smoothed her elegant chignon with her manicured fingers although not a hair was out of place.
“I disagree. In an emergency situation, minutes count. I've experienced battlefield conditions worse than what happened to your mother. I lived through a terrorist bombing. I saved my men and most of my guys survived,” Michael stated, shaking his head.
Richard stuffed his mouth with cheese and crackers. Then he nodded in agreement with Michael. With her arms tucked around her waist, Gloria glared at Richard. She acted as if Richard should jump in and defend her statement
“Hear anything back on your taxes I did for you?” Richard interjected, changing to a safe subject to avoid an argument.
“You did a good job. Complicated taxes. Two states. Two incomes. Married half the year. A retirement package. Everything came out fine. No problems,” Michael said.
Gloria said, “I need to welcome you and your wife to our neighborhood. I would like to invite you to the Property Owners Association meeting tonight. You can meet the rest of the family since we all live in proximity to each other. It’s not a formal group; rather it’s a gathering of like-minded neighbors. We discuss any problems in the town and seek ways to remedy them.”
“Is this some kind of neighborhood watch?” I asked.
“It’s not a legal entity. However, only homeowners are allowed to attend - no renters,” she added. “Any complaints we forward to the Navajo County Building, Zoning, and Code Enforcement. They handle all grievances which include abandoned vehicles, accumulation of garbage, and junk. Property owners who fail to comply are issued citations.”
“I don’t believe we had anything planned for tonight, do we?” Michael asked me as he turned his back to the Fitzroy couple and winked at me as he poured more wine into my empty glass.
“No, I suppose we could go. Thank you for inviting us. What time does it start?” I said.
“7 o’clock on the dot. You better come early. We’re having elections to replace Mother,” she said. “Mother was the old POA President. Victor, my brother, takes over as the new President since he was Vice-President. So we need a new Vice-President. See you tonight,” Gloria said. She gathered up her expensive designer purse. She hustled Richard out the door before he could grab more cheese and crackers. I smothered a laugh. Poor henpecked guy.
“That was a backhanded apology if I ever heard one,” Michael said after they left. “Better than nothin’. Bet Victor used his power as POA VP to harass the man who owned our property. Nepotism in action, give someone a little power, and they become petty tyrants. I want to go and get the lay of the land. Scope out the players.”
We snuck into the POA building. Wooden picnic tables and benches lined up in a row facing the speaker’s stand. The Fitzroy’s sat in front. We sat in back next to Charles and Sunny.
We heard Victor Steven congratulating Ed Sanders, the new POA Vice-President. Ed gave a short acceptance speech. Next, on the program, we listened to a pair of nurses dressed in scrubs. They took turns explaining the details of a charity fundraiser for the NICU unit at the hospital.
A man shouting from the rear drowned out the nurses’ speech. “I told your Ma, and I’m telling all you Stevens the same thing. If you don’t keep your nose out of my business, you’ll be in trouble. You got no call to report me to the county. Your Ma’s house is a pig pen. Now I got the county sniffing around my place on account of her interfering and on my ass about cleaning it up. Victor, the next time any of your family comes on my land I’m meeting them with my gun. A man’s home is his castle, and I’m defending it,” he yelled as he pounded his fist on the table.
Sunny whispered to me, “Mary Steven feuded with Jeremiah, he’s the local welder, over junk cars, rusted metal, and an old WW2 Quonset hut full of broken appliances on his property. She turned him into the county. That ornery welder caused a rumpus at last month's POA meeting too. He and Mary used to get into screaming matches. Then the whole family took turns defending their mother. It was a big mess. Charles and I only come here to keep the peace if things get out of hand.”
Charles leaned over to Michael and clapped him on the back. “Let’s go. Want to help me? Your first arrest. Welcome to Black Mesa.” Michael agreed and followed behind Charles.
Charles called out, “Take it easy, Jeremiah. There’s no call to get riled up. This family gathering isn’t the place for shouting and causing trouble. Come along peaceable.”
With Charles on one side and Michael on the other, the welder calmed down. The man had no quarrel with the two lawmen. They arrested Jeremiah for disturbing the peace, a misdemeanor, and he would be invited to spend the night cooling off his temper at the Marshal's office.
After Michael and Charles left, I had no desire to interact with any of the Steven’s family nor the Fitzroys. Fed up with all of them, I felt outraged for Michael's sake, but I kept my anger in check in a public place. Gloria’s apology was inadequate for the grave act of bringing a lawsuit against us. Michael tried to save Mary Steven not hurt her. I ducked out the door to avoid any meeting with them.
I settled in a comfy chair to wait for Michael to come home. I was reading the local paper when Michael got back. The Black Mesa Gazette had a full page article about Mary Steven on the back page of the main section. I didn’t know she was famous in Black Mesa. Mary Steven had starred in many old Western movies during the 50’and 60’s. A black and white picture showed her astride a galloping horse. Her young, bold, grin told of her reckless daring-do.
She started out as a stunt rider, graduating to speaking parts. Her career as a B-movie actress was curtailed when she married. She was famous in Northern Arizona on the rodeo circuit for her quarter horses. The Steven’s Sliding S Bar Ranch continued to this day breeding rodeo horses. A memorial ride was scheduled by her son Victor Steven after the Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Peace Church. It started at OLPP and would go down the highway to the Ranch where Mary was to be interred alongside her late husband.
I suspected one of these loving liars had poisoned their mother. The Steven's family had their mother cremated. Mrs. Steven's obituary said the funeral service was open to close friends and family members. Friends of the family were invited to Mrs. Gloria Steven-Fitzroy's house after the memorial ride.
I heard the rumble of Michael’s old Chevy in the driveway. The back door slammed. I heard him clattering around as he made a pot of coffee. He didn’t look any worse for wear as he brought in two steaming cups of coffee: his black, mine half sugar and cream.
“You didn’t have to wait up, Charles stayed with Jeremiah at the office. He’ll pay a $25 fine and be out in the morning after he sleeps it off,” Michael said as he kissed me on my forehead.
“I wanted to make sure you got home safe from your first arrest. How did it go with the desperado welder?” I asked.
“The jail here is a joke. It’s an old storage room with no windows and a Schlage lock on a standard metal house door. The cell is furnished from the thrift store; a kid’s iron double bunk bed, a dented metal lawn chair, and a folding table. It’s enough for someone to cool their heels overnight. Anything more serious and Charles has to take them to Holbrook to the Navajo county jail,” he said. “Watcha reading, any news?”
“Mary Steven’s obit covered the entire back page. I had no idea she was that well known,” I said as I handed him the Black Mesa Gazette.
“Wow. She must have been a hellcat in the old days. From what went on at the meeting it’s not a surprise that Jeremiah was pissed at the whole family. I heard about his side of the story once we got him calmed down. I don’t blame him. Mary Steven has been harassing him for years, Another situation, in and out of courts with the Steven’s clan.” he said. “They better not start with me, because that shit won’t fly. I’ll nip it right now. They have no idea they’re messing with the Marines.”
“I can understand how she was the boss lady of the family. From what went on at the POA meeting, looks like she ran the meetings and the town with an iron glove. Now, Victor, the son, took over running things. Kept it in the family,” I said.
“Weird, I guess they can bury relatives on their own property,” he commented as he read the obit. “Hey, Minnie you know you could cremate me, put me in a toolbox, and bury me inside my man cave?” Michael teased me.
“I’ll put your ashes in a fake book and stick you on a shelf in the library if you don’t behave,” I said. I snuggled up to him. Joking aside I didn’t want to think about anything wrong happening to my husband.
“Dead men tell no tales, but there's many a thing to be learned at the wake house.”
We skipped Mrs. Steven’s funeral services and the memorial ride. Instead, we decided to check out the reception at Gloria’s house. Michael broke out his only navy blue suit left from his ATF courtroom days. I helped him with his Marine Corps necktie. He smelled like Old Spice and freshly starched cotton. I loved him so much. My handsome Irish man.
I hugged Michael for support. I dreaded this farce, and I hated wearing black. I had to wear makeup, a dress, stockings, and heels. I plunked a retro 1940’s black toque decorated with a small black veil over my baby fine messy hair. It hid a multitude of sins.
“Ready?” he said. “Let's get this over with.”
We walked across the street to Gloria's house. Gloria didn’t kid around when she said she had a large white colonial house. It looked like someone sucked up Tara from Georgia and plunked it down in Arizona. Two story white columns framed the entrance. A long veranda led up to the double cut glass front doors. What did we get into?
Two full-figured women met us at the door. The first wore navy blue scrubs. She ran her hand through her short burgundy streaked spiked hair and grabbed something pale blue from the table behind her back. The other dressed in bright green cartoon hospital scrubs sported a shaggy pink highlighted bob. Except for their striking hair, both women were identical.
The navy blue scrubs nurse held out her hand to us. “Hello, I'm Loretta Steven, and this is my sister is Deborah Steven. Gloria instructed us to make sure everyone puts these on over their shoes before they come into her house. It's not our idea, sorry,” Loretta said as she handed us blue hospital booties.
I did have the compulsion to take my shoes off as I walked into the Fitzroy house. Putting the booties on saved me. Michael grinned at me over the absurdity of the situation.
“Go with the flow,” he whispered. “We're observers in a strange land.”
“Sorry about the hospital scrubs but we got off work an hour ago. I work in the ER (Emergency Room), and Deborah’s in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) at Summit in Show Low. It’s forty minutes away. Gloria insisted we come early. Otherwise, we would have changed clothes,” Loretta said.
“I’m sorry to hear about your Mother. Michael tried his best to help her,” I said.
“Yes, we know. Mommy has been sick for a lengthy period of time. Loretta and I were her caregivers. We've been nursing her for more than a year now at home,” Deborah said.
“Mommy went downhill so rapidly. We weren't expecting her to die so soon. We tried to give her the best care we could. I should have been there,” Loretta said. Her eyes teared up. “She and Daddy are together now.”
“We felt so sorry about Gloria suing you. We didn't want to, but Gloria told us because of Mommy's medical expenses, the family couldn't afford to pay the bills,” Deborah said.
“Mommy has been in and out of the hospital this year. Even though we work at the hospital the Medicare insurance doesn't pay for everything, the copays were killing us,” Loretta said.
“Yes, Gloria made us sign the paperwork. I hated to sign the paperwork because it was so sweet of your husband to help Mommy in her time of need,” Deborah said.
“I’m grateful he helped her. I don't blame your husband at all. It would have turned out different if I was there, who knows?” Loretta said.
I felt like I watched a verbal tennis match between the two of them.
“There's plenty of food and drink in the dining room. Gloria told us to let people know to help themselves to the buffet,” Deborah said.
Michael and I made our way through the two-story foyer, lit by a glass chandelier. We negotiated our way into the central part of the house. Pale white walls, frosty aqua blue curtains, white rugs, and icy blue-white furniture adorned her home. Immaculate white birch logs were piled in the ecru stone fireplace. Bet no one lit a match in that recess. I feared to sit down on the white satin couch lest I left a spot.
A picture on the wall portrayed a bleak forest covered in snow which echoed the wintry white room. I felt Gloria’s house had all the warmth of a glacier. Was she allergic to color? No cuddles, no snuggles, no softness.
A tray of minuscule tea sandwiches, ham, chicken, and various cold cuts was set on the dining room buffet. Cocktail crackers with hors d'oeuvres looked like tiny jewels, untouchable. Plates of minuscule vegetables and fruit held the only color in the dining room. White plates, white napkins, and white on white placemats.
No wine or liquor in sight. Soda water, 7-up, orange juice, and some kind of pale red punch offered the only drinks. I suppose if anyone spilled a drop on the white dining room rug it would look like blood. This soirée was not like any Irish wake I knew.
I wanted to poke around, so I went into the bathroom, the best place to find out secrets. Beige walls and a white spa look. Too clean and antiseptic, it gave me the shivers even in June. It reminded me of my master bathroom. I definitely needed to repaint mine in brighter colors.
Holy cow, I thought, even white vanilla soap. Thick white rolled towels hung on a rack and dared me to wipe my clean hands on them. A pale birch basket held white folded paper towels for guests. White birch trees decorated the sliding glass doors of the shower stall.
I opened the medicine cabinet, usual stuff: perfume, wrinkle serum, Band-Aids, deodorant, razors, hand lotion, and shaving cream. All high dollar pricey brand names, no Wal-Mart stuff sullied these shelves.
I snooped in the wastebasket. I found empty bottles of generic brands hidden in the trash can. Gloria must buy cheap generic brands and fill up the expensive display bottles to look classy. Who’s she trying to fool?
I joined the visitors at the buffet. The wake gave me license to eat since I felt starved and nervous. I loaded up my plate as Gloria came up to me. “I’m sorry about your loss,” I said, gulping down a mouthful of food.
“Yes, Mother was ill for some time, so we were not shocked when she had passed away,” Gloria said. “Cremation is so civilized. No dirt or coffins. Victor will get the ashes of course since he is the oldest. I do not want them in my house. I choose to remember Mother as she was in life.”
“Yes, I understand. When my dad died, our family chose cremation. People live so far apart. My youngest brother couldn't get leave from the Navy right away. My sister managed to get a plane from back east, so we had two memorial services, one military, and one for the family and friends,” I said.
“Did you enjoy the buffet?” She asked me, not paying attention to my answer, while she looked around at the other guests.
“Gloria, it's great. Did you cater? The cuisine appears as if a professional chef made it. I hope you didn't go to all this trouble in your time of grief,” I said.
“I made every morsel. You know in this provincial town it is traditional to bring covered dishes to the grieving family. People wanted to bring in foodstuffs, but I don’t trust their kitchens. After all, you never know how immaculate someone is, especially around groceries. I only consume what I prepare,” she said. “So I gave all the extraneous fare the women brought in to Loretta and Deborah. They’re not fussy about what they wolf down.”
“You have an absolutely elegant house,” I said. “Like a Martha Stewart decorating magazine. Perfect.”
“Yes, I have worked hard to decorate it. I had to go to Scottsdale, down in the Valley, since nothing here would suit me. Mother thought it was too modern, but Richard and I love it,” she said.
“Help yourself to more of the buffet. Thank you for your condolences. I appreciate you and your husband coming to my home. I hope you don’t have any hard feelings about the lawsuit. The family had me initiate the paperwork. At first, I felt sorry about the situation with Mother because you and I must work together at the college in the future. However, my family comes first before strangers.”
“We're okay. We're glad it's over now,” I said.
“Yes, it’s over. Mother had an accidental death due to heart failure. Nothing anyone could do. At least she had professional help in the hospital,” she said.
“Michael had CPR training. He tried to help your Mother,” I protested in Michael's defense.
“The family dropped the suit as soon as the Marshal talked to us,” she acquiesced. “I must see to my other guests, now.”
Was she clueless or was she not willing to admit a family scandal in public? Mrs. Steven was murdered.
“The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.” Irish Proverb.
In my view, men can gossip as much as women. I found Michael huddled in the corner with a tall, bulky man sporting an old-fashioned mustache, and looking owlishly thru gold wire rimmed glasses. He reminded me of old black and white pictures of Theodore Roosevelt. The man wore black jeans, a well-starched ironed white shirt, a tan western cut sports coat, and a bolo tie with a solid gold nugget slide. I almost burst out laughing when I saw the blue hospital booties over his tooled black leather cowboy boots. I contained myself with effort.
“Victor, meet my wife Minerva,” Michael said.
“Hi, you're our next door neighbor. I'm sorry to hear about your Mother,” I said.
“Yeah, Ma had a hard life. We worked the ranch together from the time I was a little kid. Pa died when I was 12. I quit school to help Ma. She worked like a man. We'd get up at dawn to do the chores together. She kinda slowed down the last year or so. I've pretty much taken over the running of the ranch. Loretta and Deborah took good care of Ma,” he said. He shoved his hand through his bushy chestnut hair.
“So what happened?” Michael asked.
“Ma's been sick for a while. Last winter she caught bronchitis, seemed like she never recovered. She's had some bad stomach spells. Seems like we took her off to the hospital in Show Low this year a bunch of times,” he said.
“I tried my best to help her. Couldn't sit by and not help. Not my nature,” Michael said.
“Glad you helped Ma. I'm not good with sick folks. If it were up to me, I wouldn't have started the lawsuit. My baby brother Flynn didn't want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. But Loretta and Deborah came to me all upset about the hospital bills. They worried about paying the invoices. I told them to wait till Ma's insurance paid off the hospital then worry about what's left to pay. Bill collectors would get the blood money soon enough from Ma’s insurance. But the girls both work at the hospital and guess they’re afraid for their jobs.”
“Gloria gets along good with stuffed shirt city boys. I let her do all the legal paperwork. I hate all lawyers. Nothing but a bunch of liars, thieves, momma's boys, and sissies,” Victor said, his face getting redder.
“Victor told me he raises his own cattle and pigs. Does all the butchering himself,” Michael said, hoping to calm Victor down by changing the subject.
“Yeah, I hunt every fall. I got drawn last year and got me an Elk. You'll have to get a tag, Michael. Join the guys and me for a run,” Victor said.
“I'm more of a fisherman. Do you know a good trout stream around here?” Michael said.
“Big Lake on the Apache Rez. Good trout. The Forest Service stocks it every year. You go up to Pinetop to get a license,” Victor said.
“Sounds like a plan. What else do you guys get up to around town?” Michael asked.
“I belong to the White Mountain Gold Prospectors. Got this solid gold nugget myself up around Prescott. We go up in late July or early August after the Monsoon rains wash down the gravel. You’re welcome to join me and Flynn. He's a teacher up at the college, real gold expert,” he said.
“Michael told me he might run some horses. You ride?” Victor asked me.
“Michael's the horse expert. I'm a swimmer and camper,” I said. “Couldn’t your wife come?”
“She worked all day. Pearl and the other Relief Society ladies cooked up food for the family. I took the grub here for her. Told her to lie down, get some rest and come over later. I hoped you'd meet her. She's a good old gal, she's everyday folks, not uppity like my sister Gloria,” Victor said.
“I'm looking forward to meeting Pearl. I used to belong to a quilting group in the Valley. I'd like to keep up with it,” I said.
“Pearl quilts. Relief Society ladies could keep a whole village in blankets. They meet at the Stake House every week,” Victor said. “Well, got to see what Gloria wants. Probably needs something for me to tote or fetch. She's always bossing somebody around. I'll cut her some slack today. Nice to meet both of you,” he patted my hand, and he shook Michael's hand as he left to see what Gloria demanded.
“Blood is thicker than water.” Irish Proverb
As Victor Steven walked off, Michael took me to the corner by the fireplace.
“What did you think?” Michael asked.
“It doesn't sound like any of them wanted the lawsuit,” I said.
“We've got one more interview, Flynn. Let's go find him and see what he says,” Michael said.
“They all act as if she died in her sleep, no one wants to admit the murder happened,” I said.
“Charles didn’t give them all the details. its murder, we look at families first, then enemies last,” Michael slipped into cop talk.
Gloria came up. We waited as she grabbed a six-foot tall man's arm and dragged him over to us. He was dressed in jeans, a pale blue western shirt, corduroy jacket and a bolo tie, which had a trilobite clasp. Slender, with a runner’s build, his red hair curled slightly over his collar. He sported a neatly trimmed beard, and keen sun-creased brown eyes, from an outdoor life.
“I see you are meeting people. Let me introduce you to my brother, Flynn Steven. He’s a tenured Geology professor at Navapache Community College, where we both work,” she said.
“Flynn, I would like you to meet Mr. and Mrs. Michael Doyle. Minerva is adjunct faculty at the college this fall. You two are colleagues. At least you can have an intelligent discussion. Lord knows no one else in this room has any brains. I must see to my other guests,” she said.
“Hi, Flynn Steven. Glad to meet a fellow teacher. Gloria likes to sound all snobby. I get my hands dirty like anyone else especially grubbing around in rocks. Plus contrary to what Gloria thinks, everyone’s smart in their own way, college or not,” Flynn shook Michael's hand and then mine.
“Minerva,” I said. “I'm teaching Computer Science in Keam’s Canyon during the fall semester.”
“I’m sorry about your Mother’s death. I tried everything I could till the medics got there,” Michael said.
“I know you did your best. I refused to be part of the lawsuit. Gloria and Victor love to get into legal crap. We all knew Mom's been sick all this year, first a bad cold last winter, next in and out of the hospital with stomach problems. She was a feisty woman. She fought for her health all the way. It got too much for her. She's at rest now. No one could have done any better to help her at the time so don't feel guilty. You did right by Mom,” Flynn said.
“Thanks, I appreciate your opinion. In a crisis, civilians don't realize professionals react immediately. Because of my lifetime of emergency experiences, I did what I was trained to do. I can’t stand by and do nothing when someone is in trouble. I did my best to help your mother until the EMTs arrived,” Michael said.
“Dad died when we were young, so Mom took over the ranch. She's worked hard all her life trying to keep the ranch going. She should have let Victor run the spread a long time ago. He's a hard worker too. Up at dawn and in bed late at night. Not a day goes by something needs fixing, mending or tending. Ranch work is the hardest living I know. That's why I went to college; I couldn't see myself as a rancher. Friday nights I still ride and rope for fun. I dig around and prospect a little, but I love teaching. Mom wanted Victor and me to be partners. I’m happy I’m a good teacher,” Flynn said.
“Here’s my wife, Jennifer,” he said. “Honey, meet Michael and Minerva, they moved up here from the Valley, and live next door to Victor. Minerva's teaching with me at the college.”
“Glad to meet you. Sorry to interrupt but Gloria's giving me the high sign about the baby. She's not real happy about having kids anywhere near her white carpet. I’m dead on my feet, sweetie,” Jennifer said.
“We've stayed here long enough. Give me my little country bumpkin,” he said as he nuzzled the baby. “We've worn out our welcome. Both of you are invited to come on over to our house. We're at the end of the road in the white trash trailer,” he joked. “You can wear your shoes too.”
I liked his wry sense of humor.
We said our goodbyes to the grieving family. The reception at Gloria's house drained me. As soon as Michael and I got home, I chucked the little black dress, heels, pantyhose and ridiculous hat in the closet. Michael laughed when I threw my lacy black bra into the corner laundry basket.
“Bad time, huh?” He said.
“I've never been so uncomfortable in my whole life. What's wrong with me? I can't stand formal social obligations,” I said.
I pulled on my jeans and a t-shirt. Michael came over, wrapped his arms around my waist and kissed my neck.
“You're my country gal. I love you. You're beautiful with or without makeup. I chose you because you're honest and intelligent. You’re my special little nerdy bookworm. I married you because you are sensible, trustworthy, scary smart and very sexy. You smell like lilac soap and sun-dried clothes.”
“You have big bright green eyes and fuzzy duckling hair. You don't mind me messing it up. We can make love in a tent, or the back of a truck or on our big bed. You’re my best friend and my wife. Give us a campfire, or a Bar-B-Que, and we're happy. We're not hifalutin’ kind of people,” he said.
“Yeah, you're right. Let's get the stink of respectability out of our noses. Gloria gave away all the food the other women worked so hard to make. Her food wouldn't have fed a mouse, more like tidbits. I need some good solid food. Let's go to the Café,” I suggested.
“A thief thinks everyone steals.” Danish Proverb
At the Black Mesa Café, we sat in our favorite booth. I even saw Gloria and the rest of the Steven family in their favorite back booth, as hungry after Gloria's reception as us.
“Hi, Rose. Don't need a menu. We'll have our usual; sweet tea, patty melt, baked and salad, French with an F for Minnie. Chicken fried steak with taters, salad with blue cheese, and coffee for me,” Michael ordered. Rose nodded. Her lips were pinched tight, not her usual snappy self.
“What's wrong?” I asked.
“Two of my waitresses called in sick, the dishwasher showed up drunk on his ass, and none of the damn busboys came into work. My worst nightmare come true, I'm here by myself on a Friday night,” she swept the hair out of her eyes.
“I don't want a job, but I worked my way through college as a waitress. I can help,” I said.
“I’ll bus tables,” Michael offered. “I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty. We can eat later.”
“Oh, thank you,” Rose said. “Here's a pad and pencil. Grab an apron behind the counter. People over in the corner need their order taken.”
Michael bused tables, poured coffee, and water. He handed out menus, made sure everyone had their drinks, chips, and salsa. I got into waitress mode: greet them, seat them, and feed them.
“Hi, Gloria. Can I get you something to drink?” I asked.
“Since when do you work here? You are a teacher at the college, not a waitress,” she stared at me like I had betrayed the entire teaching profession.
“Rose is short-handed. I volunteered to help out. Can I get you something to drink?” I stifled my retort.
“We'll both have iced tea,” Gloria said.
“Two lemonades,” said Victor.
“Two Cokes and small milk for the baby,” said Flynn.
“Pepsi for me, and Dr. Pepper for Deb,” said Loretta.
I figured the best way to eavesdrop on the Steven’s clan occurred during one of their infamous Friday family dinners. I brought their drinks to the table.
“Minerva, pay attention, neither of us uses lemon. Please bring unsweetened tea, no ice, no lemon,” Gloria demanded.
As I left, I heard her whisper to her brother Flynn. “There are filthy germs on cut fruits, and you never know what they use to put ice in drinks.”
“Give it a rest Gloria, I don't want to hear about your germ theory, we've got family business to settle,” Flynn stated.
“Sorry, I should have waited on them. Gloria's a real fussbudget. Can you handle her?” Rose asked.
“I'm okay, but why didn’t she tell me the first time around,” I said as I dumped their drinks in the sink. I felt Gloria watching me to make sure I brought clean glasses to the table.
I set the drinks down. “The specials are …,”
“We know what we want, Rose always has our order ready,” Gloria interrupted.
“I want the Baha grilled fish salad, no croutons. Richard will have the baked fish, baked potato, and salad,” she ordered.
“Do you want sour cream or butter?” I asked.
“Nothing, no dressing, no butter, no sour crème. Richard is watching his cholesterol,” she said.
“Pearl and I want the catfish dinner, baked, butter, sour cream, salad with ranch. I'll take Richard's sour cream and butter,” Victor laughed as he ordered.
“Same for us, extra butter and sour cream, please,” Flynn winked at me. “Mashed taters and applesauce for my sweet Lizzie.”
“I'll have the chicken Chimichanga special, with green sauce, and Loretta will have the same with red sauce,” said Deborah.
“Good choice, I love Rose's Chimichangas. Chips and salsa on the way,” I said.
Again I heard Gloria's whisper, “You know they dump chips back in the bin. You don't know whose hands touched them. They recycle the salsa too.”
“Minerva, please bring plenty of chips and salsa for us. We can't get enough,” Flynn said.
I clipped their order to the wheel. “Is Gloria always like this?” I asked Rose.
“Gloria sends food back, and wants it taken off the bill,” she said. “She’s so particular. One time she accused me of giving her food poisoning. Mrs. Steven, her and Richard got sick, everyone else was fine. So I gave them a free meal to keep the peace, a $100 bill down the drain. Sometimes the whole family gives me a pain in the ass. They're my regulars. I suppose I make money in the long run.”
After I had got the Steven clan served, I overheard snippets of conversation as they ate, and I refilled glasses. Michael slowly helped me remove the dishes so he could listen to their plans. Inevitably they settled down to discuss the hidden family agenda.
Victor: “I've worked hard to build up the ranch stock.”
Loretta: “We've got so many legal papers to sort through.”
Deborah: “We'll never get it done without help.”
Flynn: “Let’s get this business over with.”
Gloria: “We're lucky Mother had life insurance.”
Victor: “You don't have to deal with the government.”
Loretta: “Mommy changed her will a dozen times.”
Deborah: “How do we know which one is correct?”
Gloria: “I handle the legal papers.”
Flynn: “I don't give a rat's ass about getting any of it.”
Victor: “Zip it. Ladies present.”
Gloria: “We have to be sensible.”
Victor: “Dubois won’t tell us nothing about Ma’s death.”
Loretta: “It will take forever. I’m so discouraged.”
Deborah: “At least we have the house to ourselves.”
Flynn: “All you people think about is the will. Mom’s gone.”
Gloria: “I'm Mother’s executor. The will reading is soon.”
Flynn: “I'm fed up. I'm out of here! Supper's on me.”
Victor: “Let him go. We'll figure it out between us.”
Loretta: “Flynn never listens to us. We're the oldest.”
Deborah: "So true. Flynn won't take our advice.”
Gloria: “Never mind, Flynn’s not receiving anything.”
Victor: “We all have a say so, Ma decided a long time ago.”
Loretta: “We’re right not to include Flynn.”
Deborah: “Yes, indeed, I agree. He’s so stubborn.”
Flynn handed me their check and money. “Keep the change, you did a good job.”
I forgot the hard work involved in serving people, but I wanted Rose’s customers to have a good meal and friendly conversation. I got to know more individuals in town as Michael and I assisted Rose till the rush died down.
“Thanks so much for your help, supper's on me, how 'bout a steak?” she offered.
“We'll have what we ordered the first time around. You don't have to pay us. Glad to help you out,” Michael said. “I made sure I had my coffee.”
“Besides I made tips, over ninety-five bucks,” I said. “I can afford to treat Michael to supper. I'm rich now! I guess I haven’t lost my touch.”
After we had eaten, we helped Rose clean up. Michael and I talked while we washed dishes. I bounced ideas off Rose.
“The family discussed Mrs. Steven’s will over supper. They're already arguing over who gets what,” I said.
“I know. The family acts like I'm part of the furniture. As if I can't hear what they're talking about. I hate it. The Steven’s clan can't fool me. I’m aware of their secrets. They aren’t hiding ulterior motives from me,” Rose said.
“Do they always come in on Friday nights?” I asked.
“Yes, I’ve even memorized exactly what each one of them eats and drinks.”
“When Mrs. Steven was hospitalized it didn't come as a surprise to the family members when she died,” Michael observed.
“Why has Mrs. Steven been in and out of the hospital this year?” I asked Rose.
“Loretta and Deborah were her caretakers and did her meds. Neither one of them can count worth a darn. I can do money and percents in my head, while they have to get a calculator out to figure out a tip. In a hospital situation, the doses are pre-packaged. I bet they overdosed the old woman at home. The two of them must have slipped up a couple of times, and look what happens. Mrs. Steven ends up in the hospital,” Rose said.
“What about Flynn?” Michael asked. “Seems as though he likes to tease Gloria.”
“Yes, he goes after her every chance he gets. For a long time, I've known one of the family steals my tips. I've seen Flynn lay down a twenty dollar bill. When I go to clean off the table, it's gone. One time he asked me about it. I told him the truth. I'm sure he knows who stole the money, and from then on he put the tip on his debit card,” she said.
“I noticed Gloria's digs about the Café when I waited on them,” I said.
“She thinks I'm stupid because I'm a waitress. I don't care. I own this business and the entire shopping center, including the antique store next door, and the beauty shop. Well, a good business owner knows their customers. What better way than to serve them myself?” she said.
“How about Victor?” Michael asked.
Rose said, “Victor and Pearl pretty well keep to themselves. Victor comes in and sits with the morning coffee guys. He never misses a session. It's a group of businessmen who meet here in the back room every morning, an unofficial chamber of commerce. I've never had any trouble with him. Although when they talk politics, Victor gets a little heated.”
“I don’t see Pearl often except on the Steven’s Family Friday night dinners, and once in a while when she comes in with the quilting gals,” she said.
“Notice anything else unusual about the family?” Michael asked.
“Yes, not to speak ill of the dead but Mrs. Steven stuffed salt and pepper shakers and sugar jars in her purse when she thought I wasn't looking. I don't know why she took them. They're miniature souvenir Ball jars. I buy them by the case. Black Mesa Café is printed on them, so I guess it's good advertising."
“That's petty,” I said.
“I'm bushed. I'll let you know of anything else out of character,” Rose said.
Both Michael and I were quiet on the way home. I wanted to mull over what Rose had told us. When we pulled up to our house, the lights in the house were on, and the front door was wide open.
“Stay here,” Michael went into cop mode. He stood at the left side of the front entrance, peaked through the French windows and eased through the house. I heard him banging doors as he went in each room.
“All clear,” Michael motioned me into the living room.
What a mess. Books tumbled on the floor. Cushions tossed around. A lamp lay shattered in the hall. I went into the kitchen. Sugar and flour scattered over the counters. Food dumped out of the refrigerator. Canned goods had rolled into a corner of the pantry.
Soap poured on the floor in the laundry room. My quilting materials flung around. My jewelry box in the bedroom was smashed. Our bedding and mattress overturned on the wood floor. The medicine chest was ransacked.
“They used pillowcases for their loot. Must have ducked out the back way. Didn't get a chance to go upstairs to the kid's rooms,” Michael said.
“Michael Doyle, 4445 South Opal Drive, Black Mesa. There's been a burglary. We're safe. Oh, okay,” he put his phone down.
“Charles had more reports. He took statements over at Flynn's house. The robbers hit the entire neighborhood: Victor's, Gloria's, Mrs. Steven’s, and our place. They must have gone up one side of the street and down the next,” he said as he sat at the kitchen table. “I'll stay up and talk to Charles. Go upstairs. Use the bed in the girl’s room. I'll clean up this mess in the morning. You're safe. I love you. I'll take care of it.”
Furious with the disaster, I couldn’t believe what happened to us. My hands shook with the adrenaline rush. We got robbed after a funeral. I climbed the stairs, went into the girl's bedroom and laid down on the bunk bed. What a mess. What a mess. It kept running through my head.
“If you want something done right ask a church lady.” Grandma Ruth Proverb
Noises downstairs woke me up. I clunked my head on the bunk bed railing and eased myself out of bed. Grease, hamburger, onion and pickle odor from the Café lingered on my jeans and t-shirt from last night. I didn't take a shower. Didn’t make sense until I cleaned up the mess waiting for me. I clumped down the stairs, ready to tackle my chore.
“The Altar Society ladies pitched in to clean up the mess. Word got out about our trouble,” he said.
“Hi, Minerva. Charles told me about your burglary, so I called my ladies this morning to help clean up. Whoever did this made the biggest mess I've ever seen,” Sunny said. She came over and hugged me. “It's all right. Let's get you a bite to eat.”
Food equaled comfort. Sunny sounded like my Irish grandma Ruth. Nothing like ‘cuppa’ tea with lots of sugar to cure what ailed you. I heard the ladies as they worked in the laundry room. Michael fixed me tea as I perched on a stool at the breakfast bar and munched on buttered cinnamon toast. The kitchen gleamed. Back to normal, as if nothing happened last night.
“Hi, Minerva. Michael, can you fill out this inventory sheet form?” Charles asked when he came into the kitchen. “Write what the burglars took, and sign it. The sooner we get this list of stolen guns to the county boys the better.”
“They took her jewelry and my medals. They didn't go into my tool room,” Michael said.
“What happened?” I asked Charles.
“The Navajo County Sheriff issued me a warning. Burglaries have been happening every weekend in different small town neighborhoods. Thieves look for items easy to fence: guns, ammo, electronics, and jewelry. From my experience in law enforcement when the crime involves guns you get heavy hitters,” Charles said.
“What did they get?” I asked Michael.
“We're the last house they hit. They didn't get a chance to go upstairs. The TV’s too big to get through the basement door. Good thing you hadn't unpacked all our stuff because they didn’t bother the items still taped up in boxes,” Michael said. “I helped Charles this morning. Checked on the neighbors. Are you okay?” He touched my shoulder.
“Sure, I'm all right,” I said. I patted Michael’s hand.
“Thieves did extensive damage at Gloria's place. They threw logs into her TV, poured food over her carpet and caused a lot of reckless damage,” Charles said. “They did the most vandalism to her house of any on the block.”
“She'll have to get professionals to clean up. We tried to go over to her house to help, but she wouldn’t let anyone in except Charles,” Sunny said.
“Flynn, Jennifer and the baby. Are they okay?” I asked Michael.
“Charles and I went to Flynn's house,” Michael said. “They took his electronic games and Game Boy and his metal detector. Flynn kept his mineral collection and gold in the local bank vault. They left the baby's stuff, stole Jennifer's jewelry she got from her grandmother. That's about it. No messes. They seemed to know what Flynn kept in his house.”
“It’s someone Flynn knows. Flynn's made me a list of recent visitors to his home,” Charles said.
“How are the twins holding up?” I asked.
“The twins had no idea if anything was taken. I don’t understand how anyone could even get through the front door of Mrs. Steven’s house. Thieves had to dig through fifty years of hoarded junk. Bet the robbers took one look and didn't bother,” Michael said.
“Victor lost the greatest amount of valuables,” Charles said. “He’s a Teddy Roosevelt buff. His antique gun collection dated back to the Spanish-American War. Original Colts and rifles, over 100 years old. Victor had a framed Fredrick Remington sketch, the 'Bronco Buster.' They didn't touch it. He also had new weapons. He and the boys went hunting with me every year. Never missed getting an elk tag. The burglars knew right where to look for Victor's items. They broke the gun safe wide open.”
“Pearl spent her money on fancy laying hens. She had expensive Amish quilts, worth thousands. They ignored the quilts and took guns, and didn't mess the house up at all,” Sunny said.
“They didn't know what to find in your house. Did a lot of surface damage. Thieves in general look for money hidden in books, canisters, pantries and the freezer,” Charles said.
“The ladies have finished the sewing and laundry room. Are you going to be okay if we leave?” Sunny asked.
“Thank you, I'm very grateful for your help,” I said. “If you need help with the cookbook, let me know. I can get it published for you,” I gave Sunny a big mama bear hug.
Sunny patted my back. “Woman, get back in the saddle after you're thrown. You're tough when you need to be.” Michael walked Sunny and Charles to their SUV.
Fed up with moping around I decided to act. Behaviors show on a map, I needed to find a pattern. In the past, I helped the Maricopa County Sheriff's department find a burglary ring. Like regular people, thieves have their comfort zones. They steal and fence close to home. Thieves leave traces of their greed on the Web, Craigslist, Pawn shops or Park and Swap. I was determined to find out who did this to my neighbors. I drew a rough sketch of our neighborhood and made a list.
Victor: Guns, Collectibles, thieves knew where to look?
Mrs. Steven or Twins: Didn't bother. Junk. Everyday mess?
Gloria: Destruction. Anger. Personal hatred?
Flynn: Quick. Electronics. Jewelry, thieves knew where to look?
Michael and I: Hurried. Medals. Jewelry, thieves made a mess. Looking. Searching. Not familiar with our house.
How did they carry the stolen items? Did burglars leave tracks? Where was the vehicle? Truck? Car? ATV? Horses?
Michael entered the kitchen and slammed the door behind him.
“Here's my map of the crime,” I said as I laid out our neighborhood and theft patterns on the table. “What else did you find out?”
“The thieves walked from house to house. Charles and I followed the prints down the gravel road, and they ended by the asphalt highway. They didn't have a vehicle until they got to the road. Looks like they grabbed what they could carry, light stuff. Two of them from the tracks,” Michael said.
“Any more ideas?” I said.
Michael profiled the burglars. “Thieves are kids, high schoolers. They live around here. Someone older drove. Look for two plus a driver in a truck. Someone who knows Flynn, and Victor. They've visited Victor's and Flynn's houses. Someone who's gone hunting with their boys. Knew right where the house keys were hidden, and exactly where the valuables were located, in and out in less than a few minutes. Gloria's house is different, something strange going on there like someone hated her guts, or she pissed someone off,” he said. “They weren't familiar with us though, but I bet they knew right where the old owners kept an extra house key."
“I'm still unpacking. I didn't have time to invite anyone over. Gloria's the only one who came to our house,” I said.
“We were in the line of fire,” Michael said. “The thieves didn't know us, but they did know the people who used to live here. Bet we find a key under a rock. How could I be so dumb?” He chastised himself. “Should have changed all the locks. It was on my Honey-Do list. This town lulled me into a false sense of security. I'm sorry, forgive me?”
He wrapped his arms around me and put his chin on my head. I knew he felt like he hadn't protected me.
“I always feel safe when you're near me,” I reassured him. “There's nothing we could have done. It's stuff. People are more important than things. No one was hurt,” I kissed him.
But as an afterthought, I added the former owner's name to my map. The thieves were someone their kids hung out with at school.
“Tell me who you go with and I will tell you who you are.” Spanish Proverb
Working for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office taught me finding the bad guys was rigorous work. It involved dusty archives, mountains of folders and reams of records. Nights spent staring blurry eyed at a computer screen when everyone else went home. I sifted thru the dirt to find the truth. Ask any cop, because the bad guys couldn't hide for long. Charles was stretched thin, and we could help him.
“Let's go for a walk around the neighborhood,” Michael said. “Bring your cell phone. I want to take pictures.”
“Okay, let me get my sneakers on,” I wanted to find out about the thieves.
“Look at your shoes and mine, now look at these,” Michael said.
I looked at mine. My fuchsia Hoka soles left a lightning pattern, with zigzags. Michael's ugly black cop Recon trainers had small interwoven triangles on the bottom. Compared to ours the thieves footprints were weird circles, like the hypnotic swirling patterns on the old Twilight Zone TV show.
We walked the neighborhood. When the county road grader scraped down the dirt road, the cement-like caliche stayed hard until the next rain. We looked for pockets of fine dust from the last big Haboob. If we found tracks where the thieves had avoided a pothole and walked on the fine silt piled up on the side of the road, we had evidence of their trail.
“Michael look, here's one,” I said.
I avoided stepping anywhere near the print. The glaring Arizona noon sun beat down. I chose a high contrast shot, so the footprints showed up clearly. The tracks led to Victor's horse barn, went up into the house, out past the stable, along the chicken coop fence and back down to the pitted wash. Victor's home, as well as ours, butted up against a deep ravine. The water eroded wash carved a mini canyon behind our land. Footprints led further around a bend in the wash.
“Minnie, I found where they came out at Flynn's house,” Michael said. “Here's where one of them set the pillowcases down. Must have taken a cigarette break. Cheap generic butts. Cool shoes though, Nikes.”
The logo was imprinted in the fine dust. He took a picture with my phone then picked up the cigarette butts with tweezers and put them in a plastic bag.
“Doesn't hurt. we could do DNA on these, too expensive, but might come in handy when they're questioned.” We followed the tracks to Flynn's house. “Deeper prints. Looks like the loot sacks got heavier,” he said.
The footprints led past the Twins’ house, they didn’t even go up to the cottage. We followed the tracks up to Gloria's house, then they led back down to the road.
“These guys knew the people in this neighborhood,” he said. “Why else would they destroy Gloria's place? They didn't do it to anyone else. Our place was the luck of the draw because we were new to the neighborhood, they didn't know where to look. A quick smash and grab. They knew Victor and Flynn had the good stuff.”
“Let's keep walking down the next road,” Michael said. “Keep looking on the side of the road, someone had to give them a ride.”
We walked up to the highway. Heat waves shimmered off the asphalt. Nothing on the next road, either side. The third block up was the school bus stop and mailboxes.
“Wait, weird prints again,” Michael said. “How could they be so stupid!” he said. “Big criminals. They stopped to get their mail on the way home from a theft.” He took a snap of the mailbox number and the footprints.
“Let's see where this leads. Look like we're taking a pleasant stroll in the sunshine,” Michael said.
We followed the prints off and on the dirt road until they stopped and went down a driveway.
“Honey, I want to take a picture of you. Fluff up your hair. Smile, Queso,” he said as he shot the video.
I pretended to pose for the camera, giving Michael plenty of room to film the driveway and the house. Arm in arm we walked back home.
“I can add these footprints to my behavior map. Marshal Dubois has enough preliminary evidence on them to get a search warrant,” I said.
Michael called the Marshal as soon as we got home.
“Charles, Michael here, Minnie and I have good news. We followed the tracks around and down a couple of streets. Led us right to the mailboxes on the county line. Their driveway's down a ways from the county road. Why don't you pay them a little visit? I’ll bet they got the loot under their beds. By the way, look for a pair of Nikes.”
“Yeah, no problem. Glad to help. I know you're stretched thin. No, we kept a low profile. Didn't go near the suspect’s house. I took shots of Minnie with the house and driveway in the background. I had to tie my shoes by the mailbox, so I got pictures of the entrance to the road and the footprints leading up to it. You can take official law enforcement camera shots tomorrow. I'll show you. See you soon,” Michael hung up.
I heard Michael come back. “What else did you find out?”
“It's the weekend, so Charles said he had to wait until Monday to get a warrant from Holbrook. The wheels of justice grind slow around here, we have to be patient,” Michael said.
“In the meantime, I'll get these pictures off our cameras, transfer the video and print out a map of the crime scene. I'll make copies of the stolen inventory list to help Charles,” I said.
“I also want to check out the social media sites around here. The thieves want to get rid of the stuff as soon as possible. I can locate the laptop by pinging it.”
Michael agreed, “I’ll quiz Victor and Flynn to see if they have any visitors in common.”
I said, “then I’ll match your list to the County Records of who owns the land and a directory of people who live along the road. I’ll also get a copy of June graduates from the local newspaper archives to match faces and names.”
I’m better with computer data and patterns, while Michael excelled at legwork and interviewing people. I was the cyber-crime guru. Michael was the firearms and profiling expert. Between the two of us, we made an excellent forensic investigation team.
In secret, I was also a voyeuristic sucker for the awful cheesy Mugshot Magazine I bought at the convenience store every week. It was chock full of local criminal's arrest pictures. In the Valley, sometimes a crook I was looking for was detained by chance. Karma bites.
“An ugly patch is nicer than a pretty hole.” Yiddish Proverb
Charles came over Sunday morning. He and Michael spent the day taking official pictures of the footprints, while I camped out at my computer and sifted through the data I gathered. Did I hear thunder? Save and save often was my motto. I learned the hard way months of research could get wiped out in one false keystroke, or by a lightning strike. I kept backups of my backups: hard copy, external drives, and thumb drives. No two resided in the same physical location.
Michael and Charles stomped into the kitchen, they looked like drowned rats. “Monsoon season hit a little early,” Charles said as he shook off his Stetson. “Rain’s coming down like the wrath of God. We got pictures of the footprints in time. The wash behind your house is filling up.”
“Let me fix you guys coffee while you dry off. You’re lucky to get the evidence before the rain wiped out the prints,” I said.
“I forgot how quickly monsoon desert storms hit,” Michael said. “One minute it’s sunshine and dry as a bone, the next we’re knee deep in mud. We had to book it. Sorry about the footprints on the floor.” He grabbed kitchen two towels out of the drawer, rubbed his hair dry and flipped one over to Charles.
“Don't worry, no biggie. I'm glad you got back safe,” I said.
Flashes of lightning exploded close. I counted, “One thousand one. One thousand two. One thousand three. One thousand four. One thousand five.” Bam. Thunder crashed again. “It's less than a mile away. Good thing you both ran for the house,” I said as handed them the coffee.
“Minnie, great coffee, thanks. These pictures will help me build a case against the thieves,” Charles said as he wrapped his cold hands around the mug. “I appreciate the preliminary legwork. Saved me a bunch of time. I’ll catch the judge first thing Monday morning.”
“Victor and Flynn gave me a list of people who've visited their houses over the last few months,” Michael said.
“Let me make backups of my work,” I said. “Sit and finish up your coffee, plenty in the pot. Grab some fried chicken from the fridge and potato salad. You must be hungry.”
Both men nodded. Michael rummaged around in the refrigerator and fixed lunch for the two of them.
I finished my back up work and turned off the computer to be on the safe side during the barrage of thunder and lightning.
“Here's your copy. Keep one in your office. You can give the judge the other one if he wants it.” I'd turn Charles into a computer weenie yet.
“Thanks for the coffee, and grub. I'd better get back to the office,” Charles said. “When it rains like this, people get crazy. We'll have car accidents up the wazoo. The arid season’s over, and they aren’t used to driving in the rain. People believe they can go twenty miles above the speed limit like they do when it's dry.”
The rain kept up throughout the day. I looked out the front window to see our yard turn into a mud bog. Because the lights kept flickering off and on, I drug out the candles, while Michael got lanterns from the shed. Not much else to do so Michael and I sat in the living room reading. I felt restless. I didn't mind wind and rain, but I hated lightning. Every time it cracked I jumped.
“I can't concentrate,” I said. “Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for supper. That's it. I'm going to bed.”
Worn out from the last few days, I needed a nap. Covering up with a quilt, and reading by candlelight sounded like my idea of cozy. I listened to the rain beating on the bedroom windows. As I lay in bed, I felt a drop on my head.
“Michael, come in the bedroom, there's water dripping from the ceiling,” I called out. He helped me push the bed over to the wall away from the drips.
“I'm checking upstairs, the boy's bunk room is right above our bedroom,” he said.
I heard him dashing up the stairway. Michael hollered over the stair rail. “Crap, it's streaming water through the ceiling. The plaster fell down. Get me a bucket.”
I grabbed a bucket from the laundry room and sprinted upstairs.
“Oh, my God,” I said as I looked around the bedroom. I saw a small stream of water gushing out of the cross beam.
Michael grabbed the bucket from my hand. “Turn the breakers off. We could have a fire if the electric comes back on.”
I raced back down the stairs, into the kitchen hallway then snapped the breakers off. I was shaking. Michael was going to need a bigger bucket. I ran to the sewing room and dumped out my material. I grabbed my huge plastic storage bins and hurried back upstairs.
“Here use these. We can dump the water in the bathtub,” I said. I grabbed the kitchen bucket already full of water and substituted the empty storage bins. We formed a bucket brigade for the next hour. My arms felt like they were going to fall off. The stream of water from the beam slowed down to a few drips. The rain stopped.
I looked out the upper window into Victor’s backyard. A woman dressed in flowered culottes and yellow rubber boots was trying to hold onto one horse, while Victor led another towards the stable. A boy had his hands full with a colt, which struggled as it attempted to break free from the boy's grasp. Two other horses raced in circles around the corral.
The rushing brown water tore at the banks of the wash. I saw tree branches swirling in the rapids. An abandoned washer forlornly floated in the dirty water. Caught in the snarl of debris, barbed wire fencing added to the tangled mess.
Michael and I sprinted downstairs, out the kitchen door and through the pasture to Victor's stable. Michael grabbed a frightened horse from the woman while I assisted the boy with his.
“We've got another animal hiding in the corner of the corral. I should have left both the mare and filly in the stable. I didn't expect the storm to come up this fast,” the woman said.
Victor burst out of the stable. “Michael, I've got the mare settled down in the stable. Can you help me with the geldings? Pearl, you get Baby.”
Michael calmed one horse down while Victor settled the other. They led the horses to the barn and locked in the animals. Victor's wife and I went after the tiny horse. It was standing fearfully in the corner of the corral.
“Looks like Baby got kicked. I'll take her in the house,” she said as she wrapped the shivering Baby up in one of her old quilts. Pearl treated it like a child, soothing it with a gentle voice. “My Baby, my Baby. You're okay.”
I followed her into the house. We tracked in mud and manure on our boots while she laid Baby on her huge kitchen table.
“Can you hold Baby while I get hot water and towels?” Pearl said.
I held the tiny creature, whose brown eyes looked right at me. I patted the filly’s head. I never had been this close to a horse before. It shuddered once, then it relaxed and breathed slower. Its breath smelled like sweet milk. Pearl came back with a pan of water and towels and washed the blood and mud off the poor creature.
“It's not as bad as I thought, skin deep scratch,” Pearl said. “There, there Baby. Mommy's going to fix you right up.” She cleaned the cut, applied the disinfectant salve and lifted Baby off the table onto her kitchen floor. “Foals don't do well laying down after getting hurt. She has to stay upright on four legs. Baby's my special girl. I've waited a long time for her.”
She scrubbed her hands, while Baby pranced around the kitchen like a large dog.
“I'm Pearl, Victor's wife,” she said. “Guess you're our new neighbor, Minerva. Victor told me about you. Your man tried to save his Ma. Thanks. Looks like you came to our rescue again.”
Baby nuzzled her. Pearl petted it, then cleaned up the table. “Sorry I didn't get to meet you at the reception. I was up the night before last with the mare. My little filly, Baby was born. Then I cooked for Mrs. Steven’s funeral and Victor’s family; I was tuckered out. I guess I laid down for a bit, didn't wake up till dark. Victor took me out for supper at the Café. Thanks for stepping in to help Rose out. She's a good gal.”
Pearl didn't seem concerned to see Baby, trot around the kitchen. It stuck a nose into the dog food, then drank water from a big metal dishpan.
“She wants her mama. Guess she'll be alright now. I'll check on her through the night. Well, I got a kitchen to mop,” she said. “Ain't nothing soap and water won't fix. What's so funny?” Pearl asked.
She was the antitheses of Gloria. Gloria would have a hissy fit about a horse in the kitchen let alone horse poop and mud on the floor.
“I'm thinking about Gloria, she made Victor wear blue hospital booties over his cowboy boots at the wake. She’d have a conniption if she saw your kitchen now,” I couldn't stop giggling. Pearl joined in. We held our sides gasping for breath.
“What are you two up to?” Victor asked as he and Michael sloshed more mud into the kitchen.
Neither Pearl nor I could stop laughing. I calmed down and wiped my eyes.
“The booties at Gloria's struck us funny,” I giggled.
“Yeah, I felt like I was in the middle of a crime scene, and the food was the crime,” Michael said.
Victor's phone went off.
“Turn around don't drown.” Arizona Proverb
Victor answered his phone, “Okay, I'll get them saddled. I've got them calmed down. It’ll be good for them to work off their pee and vinegar. This storm's got them testy.”
“What's up?” Michael asked.
“Dubois wants me to help look for some darn fools stuck in a wash. Can you handle riding a horse in bad weather?” He spoke to Michael.
“Sure, I had to ride on the Arizona/Mexico border when I looked for smuggled firearms,” Michael said.
“Pearl and Minerva can follow us in the horse trailer. My truck can't get too close to the wash. We'll have to ride horses to find them,” Victor said.
Victor and Michael got the horses saddled. They led them into a double stall horse trailer. Victor had a school bus yellow heavy duty Ford 150 crew cab.
“You can see me coming a mile away,” Victor said.
I climbed in back with Pearl. She wore bright yellow rubber boots and pink flowered culottes. She put on an orange slicker before going out in the weather. She wore a green bandanna on her head. I wore my red Justin Roper's, jeans, t-shirt and a Sun Devils sweat-shirt. I crammed my Cardinal’s ball cap on my head. We were a pair of glamour queens.
Victor said. “Dubois told me they went in around five-mile draw outside of town. The wash flattens out near the bridge. It fools a lot of people into thinkin’ there’s a few inches of water over the highway. When the wash roars, it can tear up the whole roadbed, and it’s five to ten feet deep in parts. I’ve seen houses gobbled up by the fury of water in a wash. People don't listen to the weather reports. The rain might have calmed down, but the water runs off the land. It takes days for a wash to dry out. As big as my truck is I’d never go through a wash.”
Michael had gone through Hurricane Katrina, and he knew the power of water. “I agree,” Michael said. “Disasters happen in the blink of an eye. I was stationed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. My guys were ready to sacrifice their lives to save people rather than stuff. Saving lives was essential to our rescue crew. We worked weeks on end with no sleep. We canvassed flooded neighborhoods house by house picking up people. We had this spirit of determination to keep going to save as many people as we could. Saving stuff wasn't even on our radar.”
I'd survived a mile-wide tornado that leveled my hometown back east, so I knew the power of wind. Mother Nature was not someone to tangle with because she didn't play a fair game.
I heard the water roar down the wash as we got close. A bedraggled drenched woman waved us down. We stopped the truck a safe distance from the wash. The rushing water could dissolve a roadbed in a minute. As Michael and Victor got the horses out of the trailer. Pearl and I went to the nervous woman.
“We got separated,” the woman said. “My kids and I were walking down the road when we saw the water coming down the wash. A wall of water almost hit us. Me and my girls ran up the bank, but my son got stuck on the other side. I'm afraid he's going to try to walk into the water.”
A teenage boy waved his shirt in the air. He was trapped. The rushing water had divided into two foaming streams around an ancient cottonwood tree. I hoped the roots stayed sturdy. A tree grew in the shape of a wine glass. The crown of the tree held the branches’ weight, down a slender trunk to a flattened shallow root system. Older cottonwoods had massive crowns and trunks, but a very shallow extensive root system two to three feet deep. The diameter of the root system was a mile or more branching out to catch the tiniest drop of water.
Michael yelled to the teenager. “Stay where you are. DO. NOT. MOVE. We'll get you.” He had seen many people drown in the Katrina aftermath because they refused to listen to good common sense advice.
Michael and Victor decided to check down the path at least a mile in either direction. They searched the banks of the wash. Michael rode his horse upstream, while Victor rode downstream. They looked for anyone else who might have gotten trapped by the rising flood water.
Pearl parked the bright yellow truck and horse trailer sideways to block the road. She and I set up flares to warn drivers off. No one could drive thru our side until the waters receded. I was glad we brought two big thermoses of coffee, one black the other cream and sugar. It was going to be a long night.
On the opposite side of the bank, I saw the Marshal's truck. He had already set up flashing yellow lights on traffic barriers. I kept my conversation short when I phoned the Marshal. I tried to save my battery power.
“This kid looks antsy. Charles, what's the word on the rescue copter?”
“They're on the way,” he answered. “It took time to get permission and to gear up from a medical emergency to a flood rescue. Once they get airborne, a half hour or less.”
Air Rescue left Show Low to Black Mesa, a good ninety miles away. Thank goodness it was in air miles, not road miles. They flew over the Black Mesa instead of around it.”
“Stay where you are. Don't move,” I called to the kid again.
Rain drizzled as it got dark. I turned my flashlight on him, so he knew we hadn't abandoned him. The drenched boy was wet and cold. The kid still hugged the tree. In the meantime, Pearl had covered the mother and daughter with quilts. She made them sit in the truck.
“What's up?” Pearl asked.
“Another half hour. I hope the boy listens to us,” I said.
“Boy’s name is Billy. Here’s the Mom’s story,” Pearl said. “She moved here from back east. She saw the water under the culvert but didn't think anything about it. Her car ran out of gas down the road. She and the kids walked to the country store to get gas. Billy, her boy, didn't want to come with them, so he turned around to wait in the car. The water broke over the road and caught them by surprise. She had her cell phone and called for help. Billy will learn to listen to his Momma next time when she tells him to stay with her.”
Both of us prayed that Billy would stay in the tree, and the copter would get here soon. Please, Lord, I don't want to see a boy drown, even if he’s hard headed.
I heard helicopter blades beating overhead. Searchlights lit the water. A man in a blue helmet and maroon wet-suit winched himself down to Billy. Avoiding the tree branches the helicopter gently lowered the man and boy to the ground. The woman’s stubborn shivering son was reunited with his mother. Michael and Victor waited until the helicopter and rescue crew flew off so the horses wouldn’t get spooked at the sound of the blades.
“It doesn't look like anyone else got caught,” Victor said. “Let's get the horses loaded up.”
“Michael, okay if they stay at our house?” I asked. “We can put them in the girl's bunk room. The Mom's car ran out of gas on the side of the road. No one gets across tonight.”
“No problem, first I've got to help Victor put up more flashing road closed signs, then we can leave. I'm sure they're exhausted after what happened,” he said.
Pearl and I squished in back with the family. The skinny son and the younger girls sat on mom's lap. No seatbelts, this one time, too crowded.
I was glad to be back home. I felt like I had been stuck in a clown car for the last half-hour. We all piled out of Victor’s truck. In the meantime, Michael had lit a fire. I got the family settled in and fed everybody leftovers: chili and cornbread. They gobbled it down like they hadn't eaten in a week. I gave them clean, dry pajamas. I had plenty of clothes from when my kids came to visit. I’d wash the family's wet, muddy clothes in the morning. For now, I dumped their clothes and shoes in the laundry room and went upstairs to get the family settled into the bunk beds. After Michael checked the breakers, the children took a quick hot shower, and the mom used my candle lit bathroom for a long soak in the tub. I had plenty of quilts. Snuggled and safe, the kids conked right out.
Over a cup of tea, Billy’s mom and I talked for a while and then she went up to bed. I was bone tired. Tomorrow was another day; I'd worry about her car then. I was sure Marshal Dubois had it locked up, and off the side of the road.
Morning came too early, 5 a.m. I had a restless night, no sense in going back to sleep. I threw on my usual jeans, t-shirt and shoved my hair under a ball cap. I decided to throw a load of clothes in the washer while I ate breakfast. My middle name was multi-task.
I got a butter knife out of the kitchen drawer, sat on the back steps and scraped mud off shoes. It was a mundane task, but the skies were clear, birds sang, and the rain-drenched earth smelled sweet, mixed in with cedar. I finished the mom’s and girl's shoes. Not much dirt. The boy's shoes were so full of caked on mud they looked like a modern clay sculpture. As I beat the tennies on the porch rail, the mess came off in one big clump. Oh, my God. These were the same shoes as the thieves. I saved the mud clump, as evidence to show Michael.
“Here, Minnie,” he handed me coffee, and gave me a long kiss, as he sat by me. “What's on the agenda for today?”
“Look at these shoes. Familiar?” I said.
“Shit, poor woman's got enough trouble. Billy’s shoes match the shoe prints we saw from the burglary. Kid's been giving her a hard time, and he's on the path to perdition. I'll take him to Lowe's with me if it's okay with mom and get his side of the story. I need supplies to patch the roof. I'll talk sense to him on the way. He'll pay attention to me, or else,” Michael said.
I hoped Michael wasn't wrong about the woman’s son. Billy, the kid, had a stubborn streak, but Michael was willing to talk to him. As for me, I had taught too many know it all teenagers who looked for trouble and were hell-bent to go their own way.
Michael was restoring his primer gray 1954 Chevy pickup truck. He called it the Gray Ghost. Good enough for hauling construction materials he needed to fix the leaky house roof. It came in handy today. Michael got permission from the mom to take her son to Lowe's. Michael and Billy, the kid, went off to get the construction and roofing supplies.
“Money buys everything except brains.” Yiddish Proverb
Michael teased me about my black F.O.R.D. = 'Found on the Road Dead.' My Ford Expedition SUV, Eddy Bauer Edition, had the same engine as a Ford F150 truck, it got me through any country road. The county road dried out where the flooded wash had overflowed. ADOT (Arizona Department of Transportation) had bulldozed the mud off the road.
Billy’s mom, Deidre, feared to go any further in the storm when she ran out of gas. She hadn't run the car bone dry. When the empty gas light came on, she had enough sense to pump the gas pedal before she shut off the engine, which primed the carburetor. I dumped gas in her car, and it started right up. I followed her to a gas station and filled her car with gas. What the heck, a full tank of gas wasn’t going to make me or break me. I refused the money she offered me. I told her to help someone out if she got the chance. Pay it down the line was my motto.
I remembered the days when I worked two jobs; waiting tables, cleaning houses, going to college and raising my kids. I lived paycheck to paycheck. I figured despite whatever else life threw at me, I managed. My constant prayer after my divorce: “Lord, don't let my ex-husband find me, don't let me get sick, and please let my car run.”
I remembered how when I lived back east the Joplin Missouri tornado hit our neighborhood. A few minutes warning from my 6th sense was all I had that bright day. I was glued to the Weather Channel. When I heard the tornado sirens, I grabbed the kids and headed for the basement. It was all over in minutes.
Nothing was left of our neighborhood. The school I taught at was leveled. I had no house, no clothes, no car, and no job. Everything I owned demolished. I had my precious children. I bought a cheap car and drove west to Arizona. Best thing I ever did in my life. I had my children and my brains. That's what mattered. When I got to Arizona on a Friday, I had $5. I found a job and started to work Monday. I lived with my brother for a month, bless his heart. I found a cheap apartment, and I furnished it with items from thrift stores. The kids and I made a family. Stuff doesn't matter only family does.
Today, (OLPP) Our Lady of Perpetual Peace Catholic Church in Black Mesa scheduled a community-wide swap meet and garage sale. I was ready to hunt for treasures. I had my Friday night mad money, $95. By shopping early, I could beat the church crowd. I didn't go to church anymore since my old priest and I had a serious philosophical argument. Number one, my choice to use birth control when I already had four kids, and number two I got a divorce from my drunken ex-husband. Although my parish priest wasn’t happy with my decisions, God and I still communicated on a regular basis.
About a hundred families got together every weekend in the summer at the OLPP church parking lot for a huge swap meet and garage sale. Rained out this past Saturday, the event came back full force on Sunday. I hoped to find out what happened to our stuff the thieves had stolen.
Some people spread out blankets on the 12’ by 12’ squares. Other vendors in the OLPP parking lot had sophisticated booths with tents and sun shades. In the OLPP hall, the church ladies had every craft imaginable. I searched for kitchen towels with buttons. I liked them because they didn't fall on the floor when I used them. Sunny manned the table. I bought seven, cute embroidered retro days of the week: Monday- wash day, Tuesday- iron, and so on.
“My grandmother Berta had towels like this,” I said.
“I used an original 1940's pattern. I embroider towels while I watch TV with Charles. I can't stand to sit and do nothing,” she said.
“How’s Charles? I saw him on the other side of the flooded road last night,” I said.
“He got home when I left this morning,” Sunny said. “The county sent someone from Holbrook to relieve him. He devoured breakfast and crashed on the couch. Poor guy didn't even take his boots off. Fell asleep drinking coffee. Now that's a trick. Charles told me you rescued a family. Did they get home okay?”
“They bunked in the girl’s room last night at our home. I got the family squared away this morning. I dropped her off at her car and filled her car with gas. Michael took ‘Billy the Kid’ to Lowe's with him to get construction supplies for the roof.”
“Billy, the Kid?” Sunny said.
“Yeah, my name for him. He’s involved in our neighborhood burglary. His shoes matched the shoe print pictures Michael and I gave to Charles. I saved an imprint from his shoe, more ammunition for a warrant.”
“I hate to see young people make bad choices. They've got their whole life ahead of them. They don't realize one run in with the law can ruin their lives and future opportunities. Every profession keeps out any felon,” she said.
I said, “I know my little German grandma Berta used to say: ‘We get too soon old, and too late smart.’ I’m checking out the booths for stolen items. Charles gave me the list. Takes some nerve to dispose of things in the same town they robbed people. Do you want me to get you a drink or a sandwich?” I asked. I needed to return the favor from when she pitched in with the burglary clean up at my home.
“Coffee, a couple creamers and a doughnut or two. To keep my strength up,” Sunny laughed.
I looked at the vendors. The OLPP swap meet contained everything from tools, tires, car parts, and guns to hay, saddles, bridles, alfalfa, and feed. Chickens scratched, and pigs grunted next to beautiful lamps, old china, dolls, books, games, electronics, and jewelry. One stall sold homemade canned goods, eggs, beef jerky, honey, jam, jelly, and dried herbs. The Farmer's market stand had organic fruits and vegetables. I purchased my favorite homegrown tomatoes and mesquite honey. The Amish ladies had fresh fried blueberry pies, perfect for Michael, his favorite.
Richard Fitzroy, our neighbor, had sports drinks for sale at his booth. I tried tasty samples. I bought the Brown Buzz, like a mocha latte but all natural. I also purchased a couple bottles of Orange Buzz; orange, pineapple, and apricots. I locked my stuff in my car and went to get Sunny's doughnuts and coffee.
“Hey, Minnie. Did you spend all my money?” Michael said as he kissed me on the cheek.
“I’m getting Sunny coffee and doughnuts, want some?” I said as I stood at the counter.
“Can't resist doughnuts, cop's curse,” he said. “My lady’s buying.”
“Let me drop these off. Hold my seat?” I asked Michael.
I dropped off Sunny’s food at her busy booth and went back to Michael.
“Good news, bad news,” I said.
“Good news: Billy's not the ringleader, he worked as the lookout. Bad news: Billy's hanging out with a rough crowd,” Michael said.
“The instigator of the outfit, a gang banger in the Valley, was sent to the uncle's house to stay out of trouble. Gang member thinks he can start his own 'Crips' group here in Black Mesa. He's recruiting younger kids as lookouts, while the older guys rob the houses and drive off with the loot.”
He continued filling me in on what he learned. “That's how Billy got involved. Either the younger kids do what the boss says, or they get the crap beat out of them by gang members. He's scared to death. They've even threatened to hurt Billy's mother and sisters. He doesn't know how to get out of this mess. I'm glad we had a chance to talk before he got in worse trouble.”
“I pinged my stolen laptop,” I said. “It’s located right where we took the pictures of the house on county line road, the one by the mailboxes.”
Compelled by curiosity, thieves couldn’t resist plugging in a stolen laptop. Whenever an incorrect login activated, a silent program came on in the background. I pinged my stolen laptop and got a location. As soon as the burglars got on my computer, I had them. I got the IP address. When I Google mapped the area, the house showed clear as day on a county map.
“I was right about the kids knowing where to look in victim’s homes,” Michael said. “Naive people leave their keys out and don't lock doors. Flynn's students joined the gang, plus one of them hangs around with Victor's oldest boy. They knew exactly what to steal,” Michael said. “The firearms theft worries me because kids can graduate to an armed robbery in a heartbeat if they believe they have nothing to lose.”
“Will Billy get arrested?” I asked.
“Yes. I've got to call Charles, let him know what I've found out,” he said.
“His mother doesn't have any money,” I said.
“I can explain the situation to the judge. I'll find him a lawyer. He's underage by a whisker, and he might get probation for a first offense. They might even drop the charges on him because he helped me. We'll see,” Michael said.
“Will he change for the better?” I asked.
“He's basically a good kid, who hung around with the wrong people. The flood made him realize he’d better start listening to what people tell him for his own good. The best thing for him to do is join the Marines and get the hell out of Black Mesa. Get away from the gang. It'll make a man of him,” he said.
“The reddest apple hides a worm.” Yiddish Proverb
As Michael and I checked out the real deals at the OLPP garage sale, I spotted Jennifer and Flynn, with their baby Lizbeth.
“Find anything good?” Michael asked Flynn.
“I'm checking out the firearms table. Interested? I can locate Victor's guns,” Flynn said.
Michael and Flynn joined forces while Jennifer, Lizbeth and I looked at the animals and produce for sale.
“I want homemade jam,” I said. “I saw booths selling fresh eggs too.”
“Be careful of the eggs you buy because people feed their chickens with old grain which contains arsenic. It was banned last summer,” Jennifer said. “I know Pearl doesn't use the old feed, but Mary Steven didn't throw anything away. One time I went to her house, she had rotten food in the fridge, expired herbal supplements and out of date canned goods. Mary scraped off the cheese mold and kept on eating,” she said.
“Ewww,” I tried to keep from gagging at the thought.
“Every time Flynn's Mom got sick and rushed to the hospital,” Jennifer continued, “Gloria had a chance to shovel out the house. Gloria marched over to Mary's house like the wrath of God. She filled an entire commercial dumpster with old food, out of date newspapers, magazines, and tons of broken junk. My mother-in-law was mad as heck when she got out of the hospital.”
“A dumpster full?” I asked.
“Gloria has the right idea I'd throw everything in the garbage, and start from scratch. I wouldn't even drink a cup of coffee at Mary’s house. No wonder Flynn's mom got sick. The Twins have a chore ahead sorting out Mary’s hoarder house.”
“Thanks, I'll buy Pearl’s eggs,” I said.
“Flynn's mom was a cheap miser, she never got rid of anything,” Jennifer said. “His Mom should have left Flynn something for her grandbaby Lizbeth, but I didn't want a dime from her.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“The lawyer read Mrs. Steven's will to us. That old, em, witch left Flynn a dollar in the will. A dollar!” she said. “Flynn told me he didn't care, but I could tell it hurt. After all these years, she continued to be bitter about him not taking over the ranch with Victor.”
“Mary Steven could hold a grudge,” Jennifer continued. “His mom left him nothing because Flynn attended the Colorado School of Mines after graduating from high school. He put himself through college, entered rodeo teams in the summer, bused tables and worked construction. He never received any help from the family.”
“What about the other family members?” I asked.
“Victor got a house worth $375,000 plus the Ranch another $400,000. All paid off, no mortgage. Victor got the stock and grazing leases, over 640,000 acres along the Black Mesa; the Steven Cattle company.”
“Landowners in Arizona don't have mineral rights,” she added, “they own the top the dirt a house sets on, nothing below. Flynn's mom got a long-term lease on the mineral rights to their land. When she died Victor received the mineral rights too; Steven Sand and Gravel,” she said.
“And the girls?” I said.
“The Twins, Loretta and Deborah, got the horrible hoarder house. Worth about $45,000 but at least it's paid off. I guess Flynn's mom got back at the twins also by saddling them with a mess. Gloria, the executor of the estate, is the beneficiary of a $500,000 life insurance policy.”
I stored the information in my head. Nothing like a vindictive will to set all the family members at each other's throats. Mary Steven manipulated her family from her grave.
“Flynn and I only show up at the Friday night dinners because of tradition. I dread family dinners. I won't go to Mary's house, too dirty. Gloria's too clean. Pearl's pretty down to earth, I like her. Victor and Flynn are close, big brother, little brother. We all Bar-B-Que in the summer. The guys like to go prospecting and hunting together.”
“Do you remember the Friday night dinner when Mrs. Steven got ill? Why did she gather all you together?” I asked.
“Well, Lizbeth was teething, and I tried to calm her down. I wanted to leave right away, but Flynn begged me to stick it out because his mother had something important to tell the family. Gloria gave me the evil eye because Lizbeth fussed. Finally, Flynn soothed the baby,” she said.
“I wanted to walk out before the meal finished like Loretta and Deborah did. My mother-in-law ranted on about how Flynn and I were bad parents. Mary accused Flynn of abandoning the Steven family because he didn't work the ranch. Mrs. Steven’s favorites were Gloria and Victor, none of the other siblings could do anything right.”
“The Twins have a long drive from Show Low, and they both took turns taking care of Mrs. Steven, 24-7. Friday night they got raked over the coals by Mrs. Steven because they weren't married yet at their age and didn’t have any kids to carry on the family. Mary kept trying to get them to move in with her. I hated Friday night dinners with that woman,” Jennifer added.
“Anything out of the ordinary?” I asked.
Jennifer said, “Mrs. Steven wanted the boys to sit on one side and the girls on the other; oldest closest to the parents and youngest at the end of the table. Flynn told me their Dad always had them sit at the supper table by rank.”
“What else did you notice?” I said.
“I hated sitting next to Gloria. Gloria had no tolerance for a baby; half the time I hid out in the bathroom. That Friday I didn't have to sit next to Gloria. Gloria and Richard sat right next to Mrs. Steven, as far away from us as possible. Now we sit by couples all the time on Friday nights, much better,” she said.
“Were you surprised when Mrs. Steven fell ill?” I asked.
“No, my mother-in-law had declined for an extended time. I figured out she had a stroke or a heart attack brought on by her rant. I was thankful your husband came to her aid. What a nightmare,” she said.
“Look, let me get this for Lizbeth, she's been a little angel while we were comparing notes.” I spotted a matching hat and dress for the baby. Fair trade, I mused, because Jennifer gave me a treasure trove of information about the Steven clan.
Michael and Flynn returned from their exploration of the booths. Michael said. “Minnie, Flynn and I found a rifle. Flynn believes it's Victor's. I got the guy's phone number, and I’ll meet the man at the Café after the Fourth of July weekend. I said I had to talk to my wife first before I bought the weapon. I stalled the seller long enough for Charles to get us a warrant.”
“Jennifer told me about the will. I'm sorry, you deserve better,” I informed Flynn.
“Doesn't matter to me. I take care of my own family. I have a stable job, a trusting, reliable wife, and my precious bumpkin. Life is satisfying.” Flynn said as he kissed Jennifer and the baby. “I don't need the stress. I’m skipping this Friday family dinner. I’m tired of arguing and fighting over the will. I’m working at the rodeo over the holiday, and I'm hanging out with ordinary people for a change. How about dropping you and Lizbeth off at your Mom and Dad's in Prescott for a long Fourth of July visit while you're on summer break?” Flynn asked Jennifer.
“They haven't seen the baby in a couple months. She's grown so fast. My parents would love to see us,” Jennifer said.
“We can keep an eye on your place, till you get back,” offered Michael. “You've been a big contribution to Charles’ and my investigation by spotting Victor's rifle like you did. Let's get together for a BBQ before school starts.”
“Jennifer, thanks for letting me know about local produce. I'll watch out next time I buy homemade food,” I said.
I wanted to observe the family dynamics. One person in the clan knows what happened the night Mary Stevens died. I vowed to get to the bottom of the mystery if I had to give each of the Steven’s family members the third degree.
“The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft aglay.” Robert Burns
I gave Michael the information I gathered on the serial robberies. I researched historical data about the unique Springfield rifle. Michael knew serial numbers, make, model, pricing, and past ownership before he confronted the seller. Also, I gave him a list of local vendors who sold guns on Craigslist and at the OLPP church swap meet. With this forearmed knowledge, he and Charles could manipulate the interviewee once they got a good look at the weapon.
Rose greeted me as I entered the Café. “Michael and the guys are in the back room, aren't you going to sit with them?”
“No, they're engaged in an investigation. I don't want to interrupt,” I said as I moved to a quiet booth by the front door. “Give me a patty melt, salad, French with an F, and sweet tea,”
I proved my worth when I succeeded in analyzing the robbery data. Charles authorized me to investigate social media channels as a consultant for the Marshal’s office. Someone in the Steven family must have left a trace of the murder plot. Motives boiled down to love, money, greed or plain old evil. I wanted to discover as much as I could using public knowledge about the Steven's family without a warrant. Then Charles could get a search warrant for their computers from a judge for further evidence.
My plan of action was to friend Pearl and Jennifer on Facebook, they would have family information from the past years. Pearl belonged to a quilting group, plus other women in town knew what went on in the Steven family. Gossip travels like lightning in a small town.
Loretta and Deborah, the twins, were Mrs. Steven's caretakers. They regulated her meds, cooked for her and drove her to doctor appointments. But, Jennifer said Mary Steven had spoiled out-of-date food in the cupboards and refrigerator. If I offered to help the twins clean out the hoarder house, I would gain more information about Mrs. Steven.
I could probe Gloria's background through a professional social group like LinkedIn. I doubt if Gloria did Facebook, but she might do Pinterest; since she made a whopping show of decorating like Martha Stewart.
I knew Victor and Flynn both were in the Gold Prospectors. I could investigate the GPAA website. Michael and I also could take up their offer to join the club. I broke out of my reverie when Michael leaned over and kissed me.
“Hey, Minnie, wake up.”
“All done?” I asked, as he set his coffee cup on the table, and joined me.
“Turns out the weapon did belong to Victor,” Michael said, “but the antique collector bought it legitimately on Craigslist. Charles confiscated Victor’s Springfield rifle from the dealer. No charges brought against the antique dealer. We got the original seller's phone number from the collector. We have to meet the vendor who sold the weapon at the OLPP church swap meet and buy another stolen item.”
“Please be careful where you meet the sellers. I've researched where terrible incidents happen to Craigslist buyers.”
“Not any worse than the thugs I've dealt with all my life. The OLPP church swap meet is a safe bet, broad daylight, and lots of people around. Charles will back me up. I'll keep my bulletproof vest on under my long ‘camo’ fishing jacket. Nobody will notice,” he kissed me goodbye. “Like old times. I'll be careful. We're prepared, see you in a bit. I'll ride with Charles. Pick me up at the swap meet when we're done.”
Rose served me my food while I sketched Mary Steven's last supper in my notebook. I put a face to a name now I knew the family. Did Mrs. Steven get sick during the Friday family dinners, or was she impaired before the meal? The data I gathered helped me figure out if a pattern existed to her illnesses.
I finished lunch, paid my bill, and left the Black Mesa Café at 1:30 p.m. giving the guys had plenty of time to complete their operation at the OLPP church swap meet.
I heard an ambulance siren, as I pulled my SUV over to the curb and waited for the vehicle to pass me. The ambulance headed south towards the church. A horrible scenario ran through my head. Michael and Charles remained at the church swap meet.
I followed the ambulance, drove 60 miles per hour in a 45, and didn't give a shit who caught me speeding. Wheeling into the church parking lot, blue and red flashing lights assailed my eyes. Sirens screeched. I jumped out of the SUV, slammed the door, and didn't even lock it.
The law officers had two men on the ground, one laid unresisting on the ground, the second squirmed in agony. Four officers held the disturbed man in their grip while the EMTs tried to deal with his injury.
I elbowed my way through the crowd of gawkers. I saw Michael, as he held his side. Charles protected Michael and blocked the view of the curious onlookers.
“What the hell is going on?” I demanded. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, stupid bonehead ruined my best fishing gear,” Michael joked. “I'll have a hell of a bruise in the morning.” Michael's white bulletproof vest gleamed under his shredded camouflage fishing jacket.
“You told me this operation meant a safe bet at the church.”
“Calm down,” Michael said. “I bought our laptop, Flynn's game boy, and a couple games. I went over near the picnic table and compared the serial numbers. They matched the stolen item list. Charles and I called for county backup before we even went to the vendor's table. We waited till the county guys got here with a backup first. At that point, Charles and I went over to the suspect’s table. Charles read them their rights. County deputies helped us arrest them.”
“Two guys. Charles cuffs one. Once in custody, the first man was cooperating. No problem,” Michael continued. “While the other dumb-ass flipped out when county deputies and I tried to search and cuff him. The big dope waved a knife around. I happened to be in the way. I got one knife out of his hand, but he came at me sideways with another knife he had hidden in his boot. He got stabbed in the leg during the struggle. Took five of us to get him hogtied. Big mother.”
“After we had secured the suspect, we found a probation card in his wallet,” Charles said. “He’s charged with selling stolen goods, burglary, and assault on an officer added to the list. He'll be in jail for a while.”
I watched Michael while an EMT checked out his side, unwrapped the bulletproof vest and peeled off Michael's T-shirt. The EMT felt Michael’s ribs. An enormous purple bruise colored Michael's bare chest exactly where the knife had punched through his fishing jacket and glanced sideways into the armored vest.
“I'm okay, no damage to me, I didn't even notice till it was over,” he wrapped his hands tightly around my waist while he clenched his teeth. I felt his heart pounding ninety miles an hour. His forearms trembled.
“I'm sorry Michael got hurt,” Charles said as he laid his hand on my shoulder. “We got the bad guys corralled. Good days work. I appreciate the information you gave us. It was right on the money. Accurate.”
“Thanks, I want to get Michael home safe.” I'd be damned if I let any man, even Charles, see me blubber like a baby. I kept a clear head in a crisis.
The EMTs released Michael when they determined he was not in shock. He could joke all he wanted in front of the guys, but I could tell his nerves were shot, coming off an adrenaline high. We trudged over to my vehicle, and he leaned heavily on me. As I helped him into my SUV, he winced in pain when he leaned back on the headrest. He laid back with his eyes closed.
I insisted nobody question, Michael, further. He needed a shower and rest. Paperwork would wait until the morning. The bad guys weren't going anywhere. Good luck scaring up a Judge to set bail at night in a small town on the weekend. If the Navajo County Sheriff had anything to do with both criminals’ arrest, they'd be transferred to Holbrook immediately, and they’d have plenty of time to contemplate the error of their ways. My opinion: let the county deal with them.
Once I got Michael home, and in bed, he conked out right away from the painkillers the EMTs gave him. I took a long walk by myself, because I deserved an appropriate wail, but not in front of him. I chucked rocks in the back forty to release my anger. How dare they hurt my Michael?
“A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterward. More than that no man is entitled to and less than that no man shall have.” Teddy Roosevelt, July 4, 1903
Michael moved gingerly. His bruise turned yellow and green. Thank the Lord, Michael had worn his bulletproof vest. I kept my opinion to myself about his ‘daring do’ adventure. He needed to feel productive and useful again. The criminals were captured and arrested through the law enforcement's team effort: my detailed background information, Michael's behavior profiling, Charles' cooperation with the county Sheriff and backup from the county Sheriff’s deputies.
When Michael assisted Mrs. Steven at the Café, helping her gave him a taste of his former occupation. Michael worked to rescue Billy and set ‘the Kid’ on a better path. Michael missed his previous life. He didn't take to retirement and leisure. All his life Michael moved in the middle of the action, not the sidelines. He loved working with Charles. Charles gave him the male, buddies in arms, respect and camaraderie he craved.
Michael and I had planned to stay home Fourth of July to give him a chance to heal. We wanted to have a nice quiet romantic dinner for two to celebrate our first anniversary. We figured we'd watch the fireworks from the second story of our house.
“What the hell. Sounded like a bomb blast.” Soon thunderous booms echoed through the Black Mesa Valley. “Aren’t fireworks illegal around here? Some damn fool’s going to get their hands blown off,” Michael said.
Michael got on the phone with Charles. “What? What the blazes do they do blasts for?” he asked. “Okay, well you could have told me ahead of time. Stop laughing. It's not that funny.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“They fire an anvil at daybreak and go around town blowing up the anvil until everybody wakes up. I guess it's a turn of the century town tradition on Fourth of July, from the 1900’s,” Michael said. “I need coffee now. My nerves are shot.”
I heard a knock at the door. I didn't recognize Pearl. Her usual dowdy house-dress was gone along with her yellow rubber boots. In her place, stood a tall, elegant, self-possessed creature out of Harper's Bazaar magazine from a hundred years ago.
“Oh my God. You look beautiful,” I said.
“I know,” she agreed. “I was born to live in another era. Do you like my dress?”
She twirled around, her hair arranged in a Gay 90’s Gibson Girl up-sweep. An ankle length dress suited her broad shoulders, full bosom, narrow waist and wide hips. The pale blue dress flattered her long neck with a simple high collared neckline, embellished with hand crocheted lace. She wore high heeled buttoned shoes and kid gloves and carried a round black ribboned straw boater hat.
“I need help pinning my hat on over my hair. Here, I have my great-grandmother's hat pins,” Pearl said. She handed me six-inch needle-like ebony tipped decorative pins. I had to stand on a kitchen chair to help her get the hat pinned on perfect.
“Wow. Where are you guys going?” Michael whistled at Pearl. She blushed with pride.
“Victor and I do Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders reenactments on the Fourth of July to remember the charge at San Juan Hill in Cuba. We're participating in the program at the rodeo. Victor's great-grandfather was one of the surviving Rough Riders from Arizona. Victor developed an interest in anything to do with Teddy Roosevelt. I'm dressed as T.R's daughter Alice. I read her autobiography. She seemed like an exceptional woman for her time.”
“Holy shit, Victor you look like the real deal,” Michael said.
Victor had stood behind Pearl as she came in the house. Victor dressed in full Rough Rider regalia: from the brim of his western hat, a blue flannel shirt, brown twill pants, and down to his engraved leather cowboy boots.
“Yeah, I'm still mad at the fools that took my Springfield, it's my great-grandpas' piece. They have no idea of its historical or military value,” Victor said.
“Good news. Flynn found your Springfield at the OLPP church swap meet,” Michael said. “Flynn's sure it's yours. Marshal Dubois confiscated the weapon. He’s double checking the earmarks on it to match the information you gave us. We'll run it through the system. I promise you'll get it back,” Michael said.
Victor's face got red and flushed. “Okay, I give my word I won't butt in, you do your deal with the law. I'll keep quiet, but I'd bust the thieves in the chops if I caught 'em. A bunch of punks,” he said.
“Where's the parade? You two in it?” Michael asked while he tried to calm Victor.
“Each town takes turns. No parade in Taylor. Show Low gets the Fourth of July parade. Taylor has a Fourth of July Rodeo,” Victor said. “Black Mesa celebrates the end of the Spanish American War August 12th, and Snowflake has Pioneer Days.”
“Why don't you two join us, you'll have fun, we go to the rodeo, the fireworks and dance afterward,” said Pearl.
“It's the rodeo that's a huge deal in Taylor, only $10,” Victor added.
Michael looked at me, I nodded. “Okay, we planned to stay home and do nothing anyway,” he said.
When I got Pearl alone, I figured I had a chance to see what she remembered about the infamous Friday night at the Café. I’d let Michael pick Victor's brain.
Pearl’s hobble skirt fit tight at the ankles, without gussets to allow her to lift her legs more than a few inches. She wiggled into my SUV, at least mine had a running board for her. Victor and Michael followed in the truck and horse trailer.
“Let's stop for breakfast,” said Pearl. “Victor can relax after he stables the horses by the rodeo. The event doesn't start until 1 p.m., and they close Main Street for a couple of hours for a 10K run. We can wait it out at the Café.”
“Okay, call the boys and let them know,” I said. She pulled her cell phone out of her reticule, a jarring sight that didn't equate with the old fashioned 1890's, Gibson girl look.
The Black Mesa Café was bustling as usual. We sat in the back dining room since everyone else was in a hurry to eat before the day's activities started. Rose got our orders. She knew what each one of us wanted ahead of time.
Victor got to talk to the Rough Riders group in the back dining room, and he beckoned Michael to join him. I had my chance to speak with Pearl while the guys dropped off the horses.
“I hate to ask you this but I've been trying to figure out what happened the night your Mother-in-law passed away. Michael did all he could to save her. Was there anything else he could have accomplished?” I said as I asked for her opinion.
“Your husband mustn’t feel guilty about helping her. Victor’s Ma has been in failing health for the last two years with stomach trouble, diarrhea, aching arms, and legs. She lost at least fifty pounds last year. She used to be a sturdy horsewoman. I thought she might have cancer,” she said. “I don't like speaking ill of the dead, but Victor's Ma and I didn’t see eye to eye. She didn't care for Jennifer either. Neither of us was good enough for her sons.”
“My family has lived in this valley for a hundred and thirty years. We descend from the original (LDS) Latter Day Saint pioneers, the Flake family. I know, everyone in Black Mesa kids us about being Flakes from Snowflake, so Victor's Ma disliked me after he joined my church,” she continued. “She was Catholic to the core.”
“I stayed out of her way. I was polite, but she and I were never close. Victor ran the family ranch and businesses. He would inherit it all because he'd been working it since he was a kid. After his Pa had died, Victor was as big as a grown man at twelve years old, so she made him become the man of the family. He didn't get any formal education. Victor’s a smart man, but his Ma made him quit school after 6th grade to work the ranch. He’s self-educated. He reads history, biographies, and westerns. You should see our library.”
“Victor and I met at the rodeo. When I graduated from (BYU) Brigham Young University, I visited home for the summer. We sat next to each other at the rodeo, and that was it. We got married later that summer,” she recalled.
“What did you notice about the night Mrs. Steven got sick?” I prompted.
“Everyone sat in the wrong place. I was glad I was next to Victor for a change instead of Gloria. Gloria made me feel frumpy with nasty comments about my clothes and hair. She’s supposed to be kidding, but I know Gloria meant every word she spoke. Jennifer got nervous around Gloria too. I helped with the baby, Lizbeth. It’s a struggle for a child to eat at a grown-up's meal, especially one that goes on and on. My kids refused to go. I didn't blame them. They now go to the Friday night football games or the Friday rodeos.”
“Victor's Ma saved a whole week's complaints about the siblings, and Victor got an earful because he had to sit right next to her,” Pearl said.
I didn’t get any more information from Pearl because the guys came back. Victor regaled us with more stories about the Rough Riders while we ate breakfast. Once Victor acted in his Rough Rider persona he looked so much like Teddy Roosevelt it was uncanny. His short bushy hair was tamed into an old-fashioned side part. He wore wired rimmed spectacles. His mustache was trimmed to perfection. It seemed somehow his voice changed and became crisper. His odd grammar and phrasings improved too. He must have watched silent movies of T.R, and read many speeches to get the impersonation down perfect.
“There are so many people out there who will tell you that you can't. What you've got to do is turn around and say watch me.” Woman Barrel Racer
When I moved to Arizona, my best friend in Lehi owned a farm and my kids rode burros and tame farm horses. Any animal weighing a half ton made me wary. Since I was only 5ʹ1", falling another five feet to the ground off a horse wasn't my idea of entertainment. However, watching a rodeo sounded like fun. Charles sat next to Michael and I as we settled in our seats, and gave us a quick rundown of the coming rodeo events.
“Flynn is bronc riding today,” said Charles.
“How come you aren't out there Charles?” Michael teased.
“I'm too old. Got the rodeo bug out of my system in Calgary when I didn't have to worry about breaking a hip when I fell. I bounced a lot better when I was younger.”
“How'd it go at the courthouse?” Michael asked.
“I called the judge last night. He wrapped it up. Stopped by his house this morning and got a copy of the final intake paperwork in my pocket. Prosecutor says they’ll be in prison for a long time,” Charles said.
“Where's Sunny?” I said.
“She'll be up soon,” Charles said.
“What?” I asked.
“She's a barrel racer,” Charles said. “Listen, the rodeo’s starting.”
The opening event was the blowing up of the anvil. We heard clamorous booms. Accompanied in time by the Star Spangled Banner, a crowd sang and joined the anvil noise.
The first group, the trick riders, and horses galloped into the arena in full glory. The women rode in formation, one hand on the reins and the other on flapping American flags. Chaps, western shirts, glitter, rhinestones, decked out in a red, white and blue theme; their long hair flowing from under white hats. They wheeled in unison. The horses galloped less than inches apart and danced back and forth. I expected them to crash in a pile of legs any minute. As ‘America the Beautiful’ played, the women on horses raced around the arena to thunderous applause.
Next, Victor’s Rough Riders burst onto the scene. Firing blanks and riding top speed on rust brown horses, they circled the middle of the arena. Pearl's graceful mare pulled a red buggy with bright yellow wheels. Several antique carriages and wagons followed her while the Rough Riders continued galloping counterclockwise.
“Victor is well known around these parts for his good rodeo horses,” Charles commented. “They breed American Quarter Horses.”
Barrel racing was next on the event schedule. The women were dressed in long sleeve pastel western shirts, jeans, boots and cowboy hats, no spangles and no glitter for these gals. I gasped at how fast the women raced around the barrels.
“Here she comes. She's got an Appaloosa. They're timed to go around the barrels in a cloverleaf pattern. If they miss a barrel, touch or knock over a barrel, they're disqualified. Fastest time wins. Go. Sunny girl, go.” Charles jumped up and waved his Stetson.
After the barrel race came the bronc riders. “They use only one hand, if they touch with the other free hand, they're out. It's a timed contest too, eight seconds, they have to stay on. Seemed like the longest eight seconds of my life when I rode in Alberta,” Charles explained.
“There's Flynn," Charles pointed to a man in a pale yellow western shirt, jeans, chaps, and boots. Flynn jammed his hat on and held on for dear life as the horse burst out from the gate. The horse twisted and landed with a solid jolt. Flynn and the horse spun sideways. The horse jumped like a grasshopper. He held on through eight seconds. Two men in red shirts quieted the horse down so Flynn could dismount. He walked stiff-legged to the metal sidebars and ducked under.
“Woo, he's going to feel that tomorrow,” Charles said.
“Bull riding’s next. These guys have to stay on for eight seconds like the bronco riders, no touching with the free hand,” Charles commented. The bulls were massive beasts. Afraid someone would get gored or stomped on, I shut my eyes.
“Okay, you can look now,” Charles teased me after the event finished. “Both men and women can compete in this next event. Team roping is all about two people and a horse. You've got to know your partner and your horse. These intelligent animals can almost read the ropers minds.”
I watched in fascination. The teams worked like a well-oiled machine. I didn’t discern any commands while the ropers and horse worked as one unit. The horse seemed to magically be in place exactly when needed. Team ropers caught their target animal in seconds, roped it, secured it, and let it go all in one smooth orchestrated movement.
“You'll like this last one. All the little kids get to chase after sheep. The one that catches the ribbon gets a prize,” he said.
I laughed so hard my eyes teared up. Chasing after the beribboned sheep, fifty-some kids screeched and hollered at the top of their lungs. Both boys and girls ran as fast as they could after the prize sheep. When the kids fell, they dusted themselves off and kept going. I knew some kids would sleep good tonight. We watched the fireworks when it got dark, and caught up with Flynn, Sunny, Victor and Pearl.
“Where's Jennifer,” I asked Flynn.
“She's at her parent's in Prescott. She doesn't like to watch me ride. She's afraid I'll break my neck. No broken bones today, I’m a little sore,” he said as he rubbed his back. “They gave me a real Texas Twister this time, but I managed to stay on. I'm going home to soak.”
“How did you do Sunny?” I asked.
“I got second place,” she held a red ribbon. “Next year I'm going for first. Right now I've got to see to my Becky,” she said. She and Charles walked hand-in-hand towards the horse trailers.
Pearl had changed out of her beautiful clothes, and back into her culottes, yellow boots, and a flowered western shirt.
“Thanks for the ride to town. Hope you both had fun,” Pearl said. “Victor and I have to get the horses home.”
I enjoyed my first rodeo. As we left, our friends worked behind the scenes. Horses needed feeding and watering. The cowboys and cowgirls had a long night's work in front of them loading up all the animals. Most participants wouldn't reach home until one or two in the morning.
Michael and I decided to skip the dance. He was still sore from yesterday’s close call. Michael put his arm around my shoulders as we walked to my SUV.
“I'm sorry I gave you a scare at the take-down,” he said. “I'm a little rusty. I knew better than to let a big lunkhead get close to me. I'm glad I had help from the county Sheriff. I'm getting too old for hand-to-hand combat shit. Next time I'll let the younger guys handle the mud and blood, I promise.”
When Michael gave his word, it was engraved in stone. He hugged me and gave me a heart throbbing kiss in the dark. “Happy anniversary. Did you have a good time?” Michael asked.
“I enjoyed the rodeo and fireworks,” I said. “I wish all our kids could see small-town Fourth of July events.”
“Let's plan on a big get together next year. We can get our kids all in one place if they know ahead of time,” he said, as he held my hand in the dark. His children and mine, our family, now scattered all over the country.
Our last get together as a new blended family was when Michael and I were married. It was nothing formal: a simple country western themed wedding, homemade picnic food, hot dogs, ice cream, and soda. Later, dressed in jammies, we sat on blankets and pillows by the Apache Junction high school and watched the fireworks over the football field.
“She has a fine tongue that would clip a hedge.” Irish Proverb
I had decided before school commenced, I needed a haircut. I usually wore my hair in a short choppy asymmetric bob. I had silky straight dark brown hair. When my hair got to a certain length, it stuck out like a feather duster.
The sign glowed in Neon Green, 'Francine's Beauty Salon.' I discovered Rose owned the building, but not the business. As I opened the door the scent of perm solution, hair dye, and nail polish hit my nose.
Francine was enamored of the screen goddesses from the 30's and 40's. She decorated her walls with black and white photos of Hollywood glamor girls and retro WW2 pin-ups. Mint green chairs sat upon black and white octagonal penny bathroom tiles. I expected a claw foot bathtub around the back.
Black shampoo bowls and ebony framed art deco mirrors graced the wall. Each beautician’s station had a 1950's mint green bedroom dresser, with cut glass diamond shaped knobs, and silver handles. I suppose the drawers held plenty of supplies. White lace doilies and a pale green glass slab covered the table tops.
As I went up to the owner, Francine, I saw her name embroidered on the mint green smock. She looked like a brunette version of Dolly Parton, definitely a country western vibe.
“Hi, Francine. I'm new in town, my name is Minerva Doyle. Rose recommended your salon to me. I called yesterday to make an appointment, but the girl at the desk said your computer was down so she would try to get me in this morning if possible. I don't mind waiting,” I said.
“It's a nightmare,” Francine said. “My computer crashed. I lost all my names and addresses. I can’t even call my regulars to let them know. I hope my clients keep to their usual schedules. We switched over to a new computer this year. I used to keep everything in an appointment book, but my daughter convinced me to get with the program and go digital. She graduated from beauty school this summer and has lots of new ideas. Would you like to try her? ”
“Sure, I'm game,” I said.
Francine motioned her daughter over. The daughter had shocking purple and burgundy red hair, spiked, buzzed close on the left side and a shingled bob on the right. She wore bright blue ballet slippers, black toreador pants, a crisp white man’s shirt and a pale mint green smock. Except for her avant-garde haircut she had an Audrey Hepburn classic style about her.
“Hi, Melody. I'm Minerva. Glad you could fit me in today. Did I talk to you on the phone yesterday?” I said. I used one of Michael's tricks. I read her embroidered name on the smock.
“Yes, but everybody calls me Mel. Mom insists on real names for our smocks. How can I help you?” Mel said.
“I have thin, fine hair, like fluffy baby chicken down. I usually get it cut in a short bob,” I answered.
She ran her fingers through my hair. “A razor cut to the ends will help give your hair fullness and try a different shampoo. The one you’re using is frizzing out your hair. Don't use heavy conditioners. Try some lightweight mousse instead. Do you use a hair dryer?” Mel asked.
“Nope dries my hair out. I'm a klutz when it comes to hair,” I said.
Hairdressers are like confessors. People say things to them they wouldn't tell their best friends. The gossip buzzed around me as Mel shampooed my hair. I sat in the chair and listened. I heard random conversational snippets as the anonymous voices of women in the salon floated over me.
“Hurting all the time. Cancer.”
“I'm allergic to peanuts. My cousin put them in the food anyway.”
“Where does she work again?”
“I'm 68, and he turned 80 last year.”
“I hate telemarketers. I'm shutting my home phone off.”
“My younger brother and I were close but when he got married his wife came first.”
“Good friends from High School.”
“Mommy was still driving last year.”
“Everybody gave up one day a week to stay with her.”
“Sold the house and moved to town.”
“At a certain age, they lose touch with reality.”
“He's very abusive. Why does his wife stay?”
“Well! We didn't grow up like that. My grandmother would have boxed my ears.”
“Nine months more or less. You know.”
“I worked nights and stayed with Mommy days.”
I saw Deborah and Loretta Steven getting identical hairdos, Loretta had a burgundy streaked short spiked pixie cut and Deborah a pink highlighted short bob. Both needed a dye job because their gray roots showed. I sat between them while Mel cut my hair. They nattered blatantly as if neither of us was there.
Loretta said, “We've got to have a big garage sale. I can't stand all that junk anymore. I can't breathe. It's our house now that Mommy's gone. We can do what we want. We could rent out.”
“What will we do with Mommy's things?” said Deborah.
“Give the clothes away to the Woman's Safe House Shelter, plenty of women could use them,” Loretta said. “We'll sell the antiques and make money. Rose mentioned she’d take them on consignment. I've always hated that old dark, heavy furniture. We could go buy new furniture for our house. That decorating place in Show Low has beautiful things.”
“I hate to say it, but a weight has been lifted off my shoulders now that Mommy is gone,” said Deborah. “She was sick for such a long time. It's been so hard working full time and taking care of her. I don't know why she didn't hire a caretaker from the visiting nurses.”
“She refused. It cost her too much money when she could get us to do it for free,” Loretta said.
“Free. Hah. Whenever something went wrong in that darn house we had to pay to fix it,” Deborah said. “We bought groceries, and we fixed up the house.”
“Yes, remember how we both had to pay for the new heat pump that went out last summer. Mommy said she didn't need AC, fans were good enough. That was over $6000 out of our savings,” Loretta said.
“Who gets her old ranch truck, nothing was in the will about it? I suppose it's ours. It's been sitting in the garage since she quit driving. We could sell it to a collector. Does it even run?” said Deborah.
“Will Gloria help us clean out the house?” Loretta said.
“I don't want her helping us. She'll throw everything away. We still have to sort out the good things ourselves,” Deborah said. “Then she can help us.” They moved in unison to the hair dryers.
Mel turned me around. “Take a look,” she said as she handed me a mirror. Confident and proficient, she exceeded what I wanted.
“Wonderful. You're superb,” I shook my head. Every hair fell back in place in an effortless, carefree style. “If your Mom needs help with her computer, give me a call,” I said as I gave Mel my business card. “You did a great job. I'll be back.”
I gave Mel a $15 tip for a $25 haircut. I didn't mind, she was worth every penny. Before I left Francine's Beauty Salon, I glanced back over to the twins as they both sat under hair dryers. I had gathered information from them to add to my investigative work on the Steven’s case. Those two women weren't as ditzy as some people believed.
“A new broom sweeps clean.” Irish Proverb
I continued the Steven family interviews with Flynn. Both he and I had the same teaching assignment in Keams Canyon. We taught three classes in a row on Mondays. The college liked teachers to share vehicles, considering the long drive to the Hopi/Navajo Rez. The trip gave me a perfect opportunity to get to know Flynn, and his not so great family in depth.
I planned to pack enough lunch and supper for two people in case of an emergency. I brought water in a cooler and packed it with ice. I gave Flynn a quick ring.
“Hi, Flynn, Minerva here, I see you're up late too. I wasn't sure what to take up to the Rez. Any hints? I've got my laptop and textbooks, but what else do I need?” I asked.
“The trip’s about an hour and a half to an hour and forty-five minutes depending on road conditions. I've only had to cancel classes due to weather a couple times, so it's not too bad a drive. I take snacks, and cold drinks,” he said.
“I eat breakfast at the Hopi Travel Plaza Truck-stop on I40 before the turn off onto the Navajo Rez,” he continued. “There's an excellent combination trading post and restaurant on the Hopi Rez where I eat lunch. They close down by the time my night class is over, so I also bring coffee and a couple of sandwiches for supper. I like getting all my classes done in one day. Because of the long travel distances, all NCC classes meet in three-hour blocks one day a week. Monday is Keams Canyon all day and night, Wednesdays in Winslow and Fridays in Holbrook for meetings and open office hours. Not bad working three days a week. I play with my Lizbeth the rest of the week.”
Flynn was a full-time tenured instructor. He taught six or more sections. I began as a probationary adjunct faculty, and I pushed the limit with three classes, especially when I had a one-credit lab thrown into the mix. I would have to suck it up, pay my dues in the nether regions of the college and build a good reliable reputation. Tenure-track had a waiting list as long as my arm. I lucked out having Flynn as a mentor.
“I'll pick you up at your house around 5 a.m., and we can get the school car at district headquarters. I've already got the car keys,” he said. “The NCC students are dedicated to their studies. Most of them work for the hospital. You'll be okay. See you tomorrow.”
The next morning I awoke at 4 a.m. I was ready by the time Flynn honked the horn. Even though hot during the day at the end of August, the desert cooled off at night. I inhaled crisp dry air: cedar, sage, and dust. I grabbed my stuff. Michael helped me load the car.
“Behave like a good girl on your first day of school. No demerits, dear.” Michael teased me. He reached into the car, snapped my seatbelt and ruffled my hair. “Take good care of her Flynn. That's desolate country up there,” Michael said.
“No worries, I'm usually all by myself. It’ll be fun to have a partner in crime,” Flynn joked.
“I love Tony Hillerman. Do you mind if I listen to an audiobook? ” asked Flynn.
“No, I'm a fan of his series of books from way back when I first moved to Arizona,” I said.
Sunrise colored the eastern horizon bright orange and pink contrasting with wisps of purple and dark blue in the west where the full moon and stars still shone. We drove in peace, each with our own thoughts while the story of two Native American policemen kept us company on the way north to their homeland. People back east lump Native Americans into one cultural pot, but the Navajo and Hopi were distinctive tribes, two different religions, philosophies, and languages.
We taught near the Navajo/Hopi partition. Hopi had lived in the same dwellings for over two thousand years. Navajo had migrated from the north into the southwest around the 14th century. Hopi liked their version of condos, for defense, high on plateaus, First Mesa, Second Mesa and Third Mesa. Hopi could see their enemies from far away. Navajo liked isolated octagonal dwellings, facing the sunrise. The Diné came together only in communal chapter meeting houses.
Hopi had a clay pot tradition and Navajo wool weaving. Hopi had multi-syllable many long names; Navajo had short public names with secret private family names.
We traded cars in Holbrook, had a good breakfast at the truck stop, filled the NCC car with gas and continued onward towards Keams Canyon. After a half hour of driving on the Navajo Reservation, Flynn slammed on the brakes. I saw no human. A large German Shepard stood in the road like a traffic cop, while another shaggy dog ushered a herd of sheep across the highway. The Shepard looked eye to eye with us, while he stood imperturbable, blocking the road until every animal had crossed. He trotted after them as if to say, okay now you humans have my permission to cross the highway.
“Where are the people?” I asked.
“Rez traffic, trained dogs mind the sheep by themselves,” he said.
We continued on our journey. Miles of uninhabited flat plains dotted here and there with single octagonal dwellings. We got to the turnoff at Jeddito. A nail-biting curve wound down to the town of Keams Canyon.
After we had parked and locked the car, Flynn told me he'd meet me at lunchtime. We arrived an hour early, which gave me time to check the lab equipment. I thought nothing was more frustrating to a student than to have a broken computer when they tried to learn a new program. I wanted the students to respect me for being knowledgeable, efficient and organized.
I taught the entire Office Suite, Windows, Publisher, and Web design all in one room. I had students at all levels of expertise, ranging from people who had never touched a computer to those needing a refresher. Since I didn’t teach a lecture type class, I looked forward to the exciting challenge of a one-room schoolhouse type setting. I was a facilitator and mentor more than the sage on the stage.
My day classes filled with second and third shift nurses and staff from the hospital and first shift came in for evening classes. The hospital had begun to switch over to the latest Windows and Office Suites, so all the staff needed a refresher course on the new software. Other government agencies also started the switch. The younger students took dual enrollment classes so they could earn college credits while in high school. They were a no-nonsense crowd. One thing about college teaching that I liked, no discipline worries.
I didn't feel I out-smarted people because I epitomized the outliers, the 5% in-the-know on the bell curve. I was ahead of my students because I kept up in the field of computers and cyber-forensics.
An average class size held fifteen students. I needed at least ten for the class to 'make,' or the class would be canceled from the schedule. Ten students to pro-rate, fifteen students to earn my full paycheck. Students had one week to drop a class. It was up to me to keep them interested enough to stay so I could keep my job.
Luckily I only had two computers with glitches. I was a one-woman operation. Since a tech person would take a month to reach my classroom, I had permission to fix what I could, as long as it wasn't a network problem. The glitches were easy simple fixes, a couple of loose plugs. The first rule of computers: Is it plugged in?
The 8 a.m. class went well. I believed my students should get their money's worth. I kept my introduction brief, my area of expertise, a humorous biography, and course expectations.
I concentrated on getting to know the students and their background. They introduced themselves, told of their computer experience and each gave a short autobiography. I wanted the class to work as a team. I sorted students by the software class they were taking because grouping them made my life easier when they had questions. We all had a productive morning.
At lunchtime, Flynn and I drove to the Hopi Trading Post and Restaurant. The full parking lot meant a tasty place to eat, or else the only place in town to eat. The entrance contained Native American products, Kachinas, rugs, pots, and jewelry. A large restaurant with a buffet was at the other end of the room.
When the waitress came to our table, Flynn suggested a Navajo Taco containing roasted mutton, Hatch green chilies, grilled onions, and jalapeno peppers wrapped in fry bread with beans and rice on the side. It reminded me of a Greek gyro on pita bread, but much spicier. I ordered a sweet tea with mine, and Flynn had a Coke.
“How'd your classes go? Did they all make?” Flynn asked.
"Yes, I have at least fifteen in each class. I put everyone in groups, but I'm still going to be hopping around the classroom,” I said.
“It’s difficult for new teachers to wrap their heads around the way we teach here. The only way for us to offer a variety of classes is to teach courses in a one-room schoolhouse setting. I've got three different geology classes all going on field trips at the same time. Keeps me on my toes. I divide them into groups, seems to work out well. You'll get the hang of it. After a while it will seem boring to give a lecture class,” he said.
“I haven't had a chance to talk to you about the night your Mom got sick. Michael feels guilty about what happened. I'd like to ease his mind. He felt he tried everything in his power to help her,” I said.
“No sense in being a Monday morning quarterback about the incident. Michael did the best he could. He shouldn't feel guilty. Mom went downhill way before Spring Break. I should have been visiting her more, but you know how it is with mid-term grades. The students do all their work at the last minute, and then they expect their grades to be out immediately. I don't get enough sleep as it is with a full-time class load and the baby,” he said.
“Did you always meet as a family?” I asked.
“Yes, our typical Steven’s forced Friday night family dinner,” he said. “Jennifer dreaded them because it was hard to keep Lizbeth quiet. We go out with the munchkin, but it's to McDonald's or Pizza Hut. Kid-oriented places. We don't have to worry about spilled food, and crying. Gives us a date night after teaching all day.”
“Did you notice anything unusual?” I asked.
Flynn thought. “We all switched seats. Jennifer and I didn't have to sit next to Gloria. We sat by Pearl and Victor for a change. Besides, Pearl is Lizbeth's godmother. Lizbeth was at Pearl's all day, so we picked up the baby and took her with us when we went out to the family dinner night at the Café.”
“Why did your mother change the seating arrangement?” I asked.
“Lizbeth irritated my mom and Gloria. Gloria’s too fastidious to be around kids. Sticky hands, poopy diapers and all the messes kids naturally make irritated them both, two of a kind. Gloria never lets a kid in her house. Mom didn't have patience with kids. I think having five kids in four years burnt Mom out on children. Neither Gloria nor Mom liked small children around. Pearl told me her boys stopped going Friday nights because Mom was yelling at them.”
“You and Victor seem close. How is he taking all the added responsibility of the businesses?”
“Mom slowed down considerably after she got bucked off a horse about two years ago. She broke her collarbone, and hip. Then she caught pneumonia in the hospital. When she was laid up she seemed to go downhill the more Victor took over the businesses. It’s just Mom was always used to being the boss lady. No one crossed her. Not even Victor. I paid dearly for going to college. Mom didn’t talk to me the whole time I was at University. I refused to be cowed. I’m much happier teaching.”
“Victor has been running the ranch, the gravel company and the leases behind the scenes for about ten years. I’m not saying he’s not doing a good job. He’s put his whole life into the businesses. He was only twelve when he started working like a grown man. Yeah, he was big as an adult but he was still a kid. He never really had a childhood after Dad died.”
“Mom never re-married. She was really pissed when Victor married a Mormon girl. Pearl’s a great gal, plus being Lizbeth’s Godmother. However once Mom made up her mind about someone there was no changing it. She made Pearl and Jennifer’s lives a living hell with her mean sarcastic remarks. Mom could cut you to the bone with her tongue.”
“Anything else different about the night your Mom got sick?” I said.
“I remember Loretta and Deborah were on call at the hospital,” he continued. “Both their phones went off that night, so they left early. There was a big car wreck on the Salt River Canyon highway.”
“Weren't the twins also Mary's caretakers?” I asked.
“I don't know how they kept up. Loretta and Deborah never had a hot meal,” Flynn said. “They worked double shifts at the hospital in Show Low, plus they alternated turns taking care of Mom. I guess they felt guilty about living so far away. I don't blame them for moving to Show Low. Mom was on their butts all the time about getting married, settling down, and having a bunch of kids. She would have burst a blood vessel if she knew they were gay.”
“Would that have been a family scandal?” I asked.
He added, “I've known about the twins since we were kids, and thought it was normal. They were called tomboys back then. Why would two girls pick names like Jeff and John when they played house? The twins were always the pirates, firemen, policemen, or cowboys. We had great adventures and wonderfully acted out stories. They never wanted to play house, they wanted to play heroics, and rescue us. Couldn't sit still for a minute. I love my twin sisters. Doesn't bother me what their persuasion is, because it’s nobody’s concern. They’re respected nurses. They’re independent and they both mind their own business. They’re happy living together. They both went to NAU (Northern Arizona University). They finally got out from under Mom’s thumb.”
“The twins were eleven when they raised Gloria and me after Dad died. They cooked and looked after the vegetable garden, Gloria kept house and I did all the small animal chores plus yard work. We all had to pitch in. Mom and Victor did all the heavy-duty hard ranch work from dawn until late night, 24-7. Mom didn’t have time or energy for us,” he concluded.
“We better get back,” I said.
“Don't forget the Gold Prospector's meeting is coming up,” Flynn said. “I invited you and Michael as my guests. It's the second Saturday of the month, at the Café, back room, 6:30 p.m. I'm the guest speaker next month. I've got the hottest new topic: 'Graphene Deposits in Western in Arizona.' I attended a conference in Phoenix, and that's all everyone was talking about, so I thought I would clue everyone in on the latest discovery.”
“Gold goes in any gate but Heaven.” Irish Proverb
Michael and I arrived at the Gold Prospectors meeting early, about 5 p.m. Michael moved on Marine time. According to him if you're not an hour early you’re late. Not sure about meeting protocol, we decided to grab a bite before Flynn’s lecture.
Plus, we wanted to compare interview notes about our suspects. Who murdered Mrs. Steven? Someone killed Mary Steven in front of Michael and I as we ate dinner at the Black Mesa Café. Someone we socialized with and invited into our home had dispatched a helpless elderly woman. Someone we helped in good times and troubled times was evil.
“Big gold meeting tonight, Rose. We'll have our usual. Crazy Burro, red sauce, guacamole, sour crème, salad French for Minnie. Cowboy Burger, fries for me. Coffee for both of us, mine black and Minnie’s iced,” Michael said.
“Gold Fever infects people for miles around the mountain because we lost good paying jobs when the Paper Mill closed. The meetings are chock full of wannabe prospectors until they realize grubbing around in rocks and dirt is strenuous work,” said Rose.
As she left, I pulled out my notebook. I valued the convenience of the marvelous apps on my cell phone, plus labor-saving software programs on my laptop. But despite my cyber-nerd expertise, I doodled my thoughts on paper. Old fashioned, but that's how my brain worked. After I had brooded over my scribblings, I visualized my observations.
As a retired ATF agent he knew how to profile a suspect and break down crime. “Let's go over what we’ve found,” Michael said, “and generate a timeline, suspects, means, and motives.”
“Friday evening, we got here at 1700, right now it's the exact same time. Compare the time frame,” he said. “First we took a counter seat and shifted to a booth by the Steven's family. We had finished our meal before the incident happened. Once the crisis triggered, I aided Mrs. Steven. The EMTs arrived in less than five minutes. I took her pulse and initiated CPR when the EMTs arrived. I'd estimate they worked on her for about fifteen or twenty minutes to stabilize her. The critical emergency took less than a half hour. They took her out in the ambulance. Next situation we know, Mrs. Steven dies the next day of caffeine poisoning according to the autopsy report.”
“I'm trying to place where the relatives sat at the table Friday night. When I talked to Flynn he told me the twins left early,” I said. I sketched the back booth in my notebook. “Look, here’s the seating chart. Gloria, her husband Richard; the twins, Loretta and Deborah; Flynn, his wife Jennifer, and baby; last Pearl and Victor. Mrs. Steven sat at the head of the table between Gloria and Victor.”
“Yes, but the twins, Loretta and Deborah, sat through the whole meal as I remember, a booth packed with people,” he said. “The family stayed glued to Mrs. Steven's every word during the tirade. The twins must have left right after the big speech and before the victim collapsed. Loretta, an ER nurse, would have jumped in immediately to help her mother. The twins didn't stick around to see the results of their handiwork.”
“True, nurses have access to lethal drugs. Statistics prove they are the highest percentage of female serial killers,” I agreed.
“We can’t eliminate Flynn. I know you teach together,” Michael said. “Although Flynn helped me with the robbery investigation, I suspect everyone in my book until proved innocent, even people we like. He has to resent Mrs. Steven cutting him out of her will. In the old days, they used mercury and cyanide to purify gold. Did he have access an old mine on the Rez?”
“Jennifer resented Mrs. Steven's will,” I added. “She disliked her mother-in-law and defended Flynn to us. She believed he got a raw deal. The baby Lizbeth also got cut out of the will. Was Jennifer insulted enough to kill Mrs. Steven? The controlling mother-in-law paid back for slights to Jennifer’s husband and child?”
“When Victor talked about Mrs. Steven’s death, he was more concerned about keeping the family business going, and all the financial paperwork involved in her untimely death. He received the lion’s share of Mrs. Steven’s assets,” Michael said. ”Victor ended up with the ranch, the grazing leases, and the businesses. I know you and Pearl are friends, but Victor is ruthless enough to solve the problem with Mrs. Steven if she threatened his kids and wife. A man takes care of his family first. He's worked the ranch since his dad died. He took over all the business decisions with his mother’s death. He’s got a temper. Was it a fit of anger that drove him to kill her?”
“I talked to Pearl. Pearl avoided Mrs. Steven’s ire by shielding both boys from the old woman. Pearl and Victor worked all their lives on the ranch. Did they want their hard work to go down the drain because of a mother-in-law's spite?” I said.
“Did Mrs. Steven make Gloria the executor to piss off the family?” he asked. “Gloria got a life insurance policy, and the company won't compensate until the investigation into Mrs. Steven’s death finishes. The money is enough to bury Mrs. Steven and pay off a few final debts, with a substantial amount left over.”
“What about the girls?” I asked. “Gloria is Mrs. Steven’s executor. She holds the purse strings until the estate is settled. Gloria’s taken over her mother's place at the table on Friday nights and tries to lord over her sisters and brothers. Who’s next on the hit list?”
“The Twins and Gloria have to begrudge Victor getting the ranch and businesses. Mrs. Steven’s decision wasn't fair to leave the sisters with little or nothing of monetary wealth. Flynn got zip. Like you said, Victor did earn his share of the ranch because he worked the farm his whole life. I agree Mrs. Steven used the inheritance to spark a sibling rivalry,” I said.
“Didn't the twins get saddled with the hoarder house?” Michael said.
I related my information to Michael. “We know the twins got called out Friday night to a car wreck in the Salt River Canyon. I overheard the Twins conversation about the hoarder house when I got my hair cut. They're already planning on what to do with the money they make at an estate sale. Taking care of Mrs. Steven exasperated the twins. The drive back and forth from Show Low to Black Mesa, working full time at the hospital and on 24-7 emergency call had to take a toll on them. Maybe it was a relief when she died. It gave them freedom from constant care giving.”
“I’ll search the call logs from Marshall Dubois’ office to find out the exact time of the wreck on the Salt River Canyon. Did the twins need a valid excuse to bail before trouble cranked up? We need to work on the in-laws also,” Michael added. “They're not above suspicion.”
“I don't get a handle on Gloria's husband, he’s a mystery,” Michael said.
Michael checked our suspect list for information he had gleaned. “Richard Fitzroy owns his tax business. In fact, he did our taxes. We've got to sound him out tonight,” he said. “Timeline and seating chart finished. Next, how did the caffeine poison get into Mrs. Steven?”
“Rose memorizes her customers. She knows everyone's order the minute they walk into the Café,” I added. “People underestimate her. She's a savvy business owner, owns the entire strip mall, plus the antique store, beauty salon, restaurant, and Realty office. Who knows what else around town she hasn't mentioned to me?”
As Michael and I made our way to the Prospector’s meeting, I noticed a sign, 'Black Mesa Chamber of Commerce, third Thursday, 7 p.m.'. I solved my problem. Rose attended the Chamber of Commerce meeting. I could get information from her about Richard and Victor’s businesses.
“Hi, Minerva glad you came, Michael good to see you. I'm giving the program tonight,” Flynn said. “The Black Mesa Gold Prospectors is a group affiliated with the Gold Prospectors Association of America (GPAA). We pay national and local dues, pretty nominal for the benefits one gets. We have gold claims around Rye, Arizona. Members can pan for gold and keep what they find. We clean the claims too. The GPAA has gold claims all over the United States we members can use. If you join, you get current maps to all the gold claims.”
“What else does the club do?” Michael asked.
“We also give educational programs and gold panning demonstrations to schools and the scouts. It's for men and women, a great family club. We all go camping on outings,” Flynn said. “Victor's the President, Charles the Vice-President, Richard, the treasurer, and I'm the Claims Manager. We need a Secretary. Our last one got a new job and had to relocate. We also need an Equipment Manager, because we share prospecting machinery. You can start out simple and work your way up. The members are helpful. You could win a gold prize tonight.”
A gavel rap interrupted our conversation. The meeting followed Robert's Rules of Order: pledge, minutes read, old business, new business. I liked Flynn's program. He explained how Arizona had significant Graphene deposits. It was a new substance used for computer memory, the next significant commodity to hit technology and more valuable than gold.
Flynn resumed the second half of his presentation. He described a massive gold strike north of Prescott nicknamed the 'Potato Field,' rumored to have a nugget as big as a potato found on the site. The ‘Potato Field’ owners took a bulldozer, scraped off the top layer of the soil on the mesa, and hosted outings for the gold prospectors. The club members worked the tailings and shared the bounty in a planned drawing by numerical order. Each member had an equal chance to win the gold panned at the outing.
We joined the (BMGPA) Black Mesa Gold Prospectors Association. The Black Mesa Gold prospectors group outing sounded like a fun activity for us, and we signed up for the next one in Stanton. The gavel rapped again signaling time for the gold prize drawing.
“And the winner is the little lady in red, my new neighbor Minerva, and next to her is her husband Michael, our new members,” Victor announced. “Introduce yourselves.”
I stood. “I'm Minerva Doyle, hometown is Joplin, Missouri. I moved here last Spring from the valley. I teach with Flynn at NCC, Computer Science.” I gazed with fascination at the vial of bright gold I had won.
Michael said, “Michael Doyle, Minnie's husband. Moved up the hill from the valley after I retired. Bought a fixer-upper. I'm originally from Miami, Arizona, not Miami, Florida.” Everyone laughed. An open pit copper mine on the upper Salt River Canyon dwarfed the twin cities of Miami/Globe, Arizona. After the business meeting, the members had a social hour. Michael mingled with the club members, while I cornered Richard.
“That's an unusual watch,” I said.
Richard Fitzroy, Gloria's husband, showed me his gold nugget encrusted band. “I had the gold I've found over the years made into a watch band. No matter what happens; layoffs, bankruptcy, or bad financial markets I always have my gold. The price of gold is around $1300 an ounce. It's my retirement insurance against bad times.”
“Does Gloria go on the outings with you?” I asked.
“Oh no,” Richard said. “Not a chance, she hates camping, bugs, and dirt. I love our GPAA outings. Gloria hates all my muddy grubbing around. I have to keep my prospecting clothes and business supplies in the garage,” he added with a wink. “The gold I find is all mine. It's my ‘Get-out-of-Dodge’ plan.”
I spotted Loretta and Deborah, and I sat between them.
“Hi, Mrs. Doyle, are you planning on joining the club?” Deborah Steven, one of the twins asked me.
“Call me Minnie. Yes, Michael and I joined. We both love camping. How long have you been in the club?”
Deborah said, “About ten years. Loretta and I volunteered one time at a GPAA charity outing. She and I run the first aid station at the outings. The usual little stuff, burns, scrapes, bug bites, splinters and such.”
“Although one time we did have one idiot try to climb a steep grade in an ATV,” said Loretta. “He ended up with a broken arm, and we had to restrain him because we thought he broke his back or neck. It took the EMTs almost an hour to get to us because we were so far up in the hills.”
“I heard you’re planning an estate sale. How is work on your Mom's house going?” I asked.
“We've got so much stress. I don't even know where to make the first move. Mommy crammed the house with floor to ceiling junk,” Loretta said.
“We're trying to have an estate sale this upcoming month,” said Deborah. “Getting rid of everything.”
“I’ll help you sort and price things,” I offered. “I'm quite efficient at researching prices on the internet.”
“Sounds great, Loretta and I will figure out our schedules and let you know.”
I yearned to explore the hoarder house. A clue to Mrs. Steven's death had to surface hidden under the junk.
“No answer is also an answer.” Yiddish proverb
I possessed the hoarder gene, and the thought of turning into a pack-rat gave me the willies. My aunt, cousin, and grandmother all had houses you could scarcely walk a path through because of the floor to ceiling odds and ends. My aunt, for example, had a charming little Victorian house. Everyone went to her house for coffee and gossip in spite of the clutter. She only allowed us into the cheerful yellow kitchen, although she welcomed all visitors and had a big coffee pot brewing for visitors. The dining room, living room, two bedrooms, garage and the basement was crammed floor to ceiling with sixty years of not getting rid of anything.
She saved her possessions for ‘good.' When she died, we found tablecloths, shoes, and other household goods in the original packages. People who had grown up during the Great Depression vowed never to be without things because to them even string and paper bags were valuable.
I had a rule if I hadn't used an object in a year; the item goes to a charity. When I bought a new article, I had to get rid of two old ones. I did have difficulty with books, but I solved the problem by keeping books I knew I read and enjoyed the rest went to my local library. My Kindle was my greatest blessing. So many books so little time.
Sentimental objects were a quandary because I had to force myself to realize an object is not a person I loved. I had lost all my belongings in a split second during a tornado when I lived in Joplin, Missouri. I learned a valuable lesson. Family and people not possessions were the most precious things in my life.
Seven months after Mrs. Steven died I entered the misbegotten hoarder house. Plus, I was helping out a possible murder suspect get rid of evidence. I followed Loretta into the house. A damp and musty smell assailed my nose, mold. I needed a dust mask, and rubber gloves to do this job. I was my own fault because I had volunteered for the dirty task out of curiosity.
The dusty mauve velvet drapes let no sliver of daylight into the living room. Deborah pulled them back with a snap, breaking the rusty curtain rods in half.
“I hated these ugly drapes. In the trash they go now,” Deborah said.
“Before we get too big of a pile we need to designate SELL, KEEP, GIVE and TRASH boxes. We can sort as we go and we're not doing double duty. If you require a price check let me know, I can research the object on the internet,” I suggested.
“Okay. I'm overwhelmed. I can't think. I want to bulldoze all the junk into a dumpster,” said Loretta. “Mommy had to raise us kids on little or nothing after Daddy died. She didn't believe in throwing anything away because she thought she could use it someday.”
“Ridiculous,” said Deborah. “I couldn't persuade her to get rid of anything. The situation was terrible towards the end. She slept on the couch because there was no room in the bedroom. You couldn't even see the bed. I hated coming here to make sure she was taking her pills like she was supposed to. I had to sneak out the expired meds in my purse because I knew if she saw them in the trash she would filch them out and reuse them. Prescriptions can be poisonous if they get old. I kept arguing with her, but she hated to waste money she had spent.”
“Let's work our way through the living room, bedrooms, and bathroom and save the kitchen for last, it’s in the worst shape. I see dusty valuable antiques. You can decide on what to do with them first. Collectors of Native American artifacts fancy pre-WW2 objects,” I said as I noticed several ancient Native American pots, a few Navajo rugs, and old cowboy gear.
“Mommy worked as an extra in Hollywood before she got married. She kept signed photos and memorabilia from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s movies. The hat hanging on the antlers belonged to Tom Mix. She knew about him in the old days before he died a car wreck driving up from Tucson,” said Loretta.
“She also traded sheep and cattle to the Native Americans for craft items. I couldn’t stand tacky tourist junk,” said Deborah. “She scratched around in the back forty by the wash and brought home all kinds of dirty odds and ends.”
“When I was a child the Kachinas terrified me, especially the animal skin ones. Father Thomas told us they were idols. I can't stand to touch them, full of lice,” Loretta said. “The sooner we get rid of them the better.”
They got to work sorting out the artifacts into one corner, along with the movie memorabilia. I researched the Native American object’s provenance. They were over a hundred years old. The twins were sitting on thousands of dollars’ worth of items.
We filled the dumpster with moldy curtains, dog-haired carpet, tattered clothing, smelly horse blankets and shredded polyester quilts. As I went through an old cedar chest, I hit the jackpot and found several antique handmade quilts wrapped in cotton pillowcases. By the fabric patterns, they looked like they dated from before WW2, depression era, even around the Civil War, a rare find. We found a 1900's treadle sewing machine in perfect shape under a horse blanket. All the attachments boxed up in a hidden drawer.
“If you want to sell these quilts and the sewing machine to me I’ll give you a fair price for them,” I said.
“Keep them. I glad you’re helping us. I don’t want to touch those dirty old things,” Loretta said.
Under the piles of junk in the living room, Mrs. Steven's had 1920’s Mission-style furniture. Sheets had protected the wood; even the upholstered leather was supple. She must have saddle soaped the seats to keep them from drying out. Mrs. Steven was a paradox. She had valuable antiques, beautiful old quilts, rare movie memorabilia and many lovely knick-knacks in their original boxes yet she lived in floor to ceiling squalor.
As nurses, Loretta and Deborah threw out everything in the bathroom. Mrs. Steven’s out-of-date medicine went in the trash. “No one should ever use someone else's prescriptions,” Loretta said as she filled the black heavy duty trash bag.
After I had taken out the industrial black trash bag, I texted Michael. “mary steven meds by dumpster. black plastic bag. hurry. search items at home. bye. luv u minnie.” By law, Michael didn’t need a search warrant for trash set out for pickup.
When Loretta, Deborah and I got to the back bedroom, we found the mold smell source: a closet covered in green slime from a leaking swamp cooler.
“Wait we can't go through this room. We have to wear gloves and masks,” Deborah said. “Didn't you notice this before when you were here?”
“You darn well know after we moved away, Mommy never allowed anyone into the back bedrooms. She kept the doors locked,” Loretta said.
“Mommy bribed us by trickling out our stuff we had left behind when we went to college, her hold on us. I couldn't have cared less. I escaped. I didn't want anything to remind me of this mess. She's got her revenge by burdening us with the cleanup,” Deborah added.
“We've got to a stopping point. You two handled enough for one day. Let's wait on doing the back bedroom until we get back. We can tackle the kitchen tomorrow, it's not as bad as we thought,” I said.
“See you in the morning. Thanks so much for helping us. We never would have gotten done,” said Loretta.
I crossed the street, glad to be home. I felt grubby. My nose and eyes were red from the dust. I hoped I hadn't got too close to the mold. I took a shower and dumped my smelly clothes into the washer.
“How’d it go with the House of Usher?” Michael teased. “I gave the trash bag to Charles. He'll have the state lab boys examine the meds.”
“Piled higher and deeper doesn't even describe the mess. Loretta and Deborah don't have any emotional or sentimental barriers to sorting, so we got the living room and two bedrooms done. They do appear to resent getting stuck with this chore,” I said. “Also, I need your help when we go through the garage and barn. Flynn might help too. He seems close to the twins.”
“One man's trash is another man's treasure.” Irish proverb
The next day the twins and I tackled the moldy back bedroom, while Michael and Flynn did the garage and barn. Thank goodness Deborah insisted we wear gloves and masks. Last night before going to her house she had bought contractor grade trash bags and protective gear at Lowe's. I blessed the nurse coming out in her.
Mary Steven hid her money as a refuge from the Great Depression banking system collapse. The first time Loretta saw two hundred dollar bills float to the floor, she shook open every book, magazine, and newspaper. We found hundreds of dollars stashed under the mattress, between books and periodicals, behind pictures, slipped beneath dresser scarves and tucked inside mason jars. We salvaged the quality furniture but threw out all the mattresses, curtains and bedding.
The kitchen loomed before us. This whole project took longer than I planned. Mary Steven was the ultimate paranoid hoarder. Since she had hidden money in prominent places throughout the bedrooms, she had to have buried hundreds in kitchen places like food containers, canisters, and the freezer.
After we had finished sorting the bedrooms, I suggested we take a break. We piled into my SUV and headed for the Black Mesa Café. The guys followed in Michael's primer gray Chevy truck.
“Hey, ladies. You look like something the cat dragged in,” Rose greeted us. “How 'bout a big sweet tea?”
“Sounds great, I need to drink three glasses by myself,” I answered.
I was filthy, my clothes grimy, hair all sweaty and sticking straight out from my ball cap. My fingernails remained broken and black in spite of me having washed up before I left Mrs. Steven's house.
“Dr. Pepper and a Pepsi, right?” Rose asked Loretta and Deborah.
“Boy, you know us by heart before our butts hit the chair,” Loretta said. “I need to mainline caffeine and sugar. We've been cleaning out Mommy's house the last couple of days. What a disaster. We ought to light a match to the whole place, and then bulldoze the mess into a big hole.”
“Right, I wish a Haboob would come through and sweep it off to Kansas,” said Deborah. “What's the lunch specials? Oh sorry, I should know, today's Chimichanga day. I'll have the chicken Chimichanga with green sauce, and Loretta will have the same with red sauce.”
“Ditto for me. Chicken Chimi with red sauce on the side. We're starving. We worked up an appetite sorting Mrs. Steven's house,” I added.
“Rose, do you want Mommy's movie memorabilia? Mommy had lots of stuff from her acting days as an extra in Hollywood before she got married,” Loretta asked.
“Definitely,” Rose said. “I'll come out to the house after lunch rush if that's okay. I know it's hard going through a loved one's things after they pass on. If you’d like to put your items in the antique store on consignment, I'd be happy to help. You can get a better price for them than at a garage sale or auction,” Rose said. “There’s a twenty percent handling charge only when you sell the item.”
Rose continued reminiscing. “I remember Mrs. Steven always drank strong black decaf coffee with a ton of sugar. I had to make a fresh pot for her. I miss her. Seems weird seeing you guys on Fridays without her. I keep expecting her to pop up from the back room. Mrs. Steven has been coming here for a long time ever since my dad owned the place. I would love to make a Western movie display from that era in the dining room so people could remember her. She was quite an interesting person.”
“Let's do it. Sounds better than a garage sale. Too much work for too little money. We both have to work weird shifts. We're on emergency standby at the hospital. We don't have time for an estate sale,” Loretta said. Deborah nodded in agreement.
“Should we order something for the guys? They stopped for gas,” I asked.
“Michael, coffee black. Flynn Coke. Michael likes the Cowboy burger and fries. Flynn always has catfish and baked. Is that okay?” Rose suggested. “I'll put their fixings on the side.”
“Sure, one of these days we should all order something different to confuse you,” I laughed.
“We appreciate your help. We couldn't have done this chore without your moral support,” Loretta said, giving me a hug while Deborah patted my hand.
“I know how you feel,” I said. “When I lived in Joplin, a tornado devastated the town. People in town stuck together and helped each other, that's what is astonishing about small towns. Bad news everyone one knows your business but good news everyone’s willing to help in hard times.”
“Did Loretta and I meet you before this?” Deborah asked. “We volunteered when the Salvation Army and the Red Cross asked for nurses. We hopped on a plane the next day to Tulsa and then drove to Joplin. I couldn't believe my eyes when I got there. I thought a giant hand had wiped Joplin off the face of the earth. The hospital was gone, leveled. Trees mowed down like grass. I had nightmares for weeks afterward.”
“Hey, Deb, you didn't wait for us,” Flynn said, wiping off his sweaty cowboy hat with his bandanna as he flung himself on the seat. “Thanks for the cold drink. That garage was dusty.” He downed the Coke in one gulp, then flagged Rose for a refill.
“What's the verdict on the garage and barn?” I asked.
“We tackled the garage, but not the barn. Victor and Pearl need to help us. They're the horse and tack experts. Do you mind?” Michael said as he took a deep gulp of water.
“We already told Victor to come get what he wanted from the barn. He and Pearl are horse breeders. Neither of us has any use for horse tack. They already cleaned out the barn for us,” Deborah said. “Victor said the hay wasn't fit for any animal. Pearl threw away all the contaminated and moldy chicken feed. The feed was recalled a long time ago because it had arsenic in it. Anything left is trash,” Loretta said.
“There's antique tools and Route 66 gas signs in the garage and a 1954 Chevy truck. Not much else but junk and old tires,” Michael added. “I'll buy the truck from you gals if you want to sell. I've been looking for one to restore. The tools might bring in some money. Also, lots of guys collect gas signs for their man caves.”
“We could sell you the ranch truck. Sorry, you know it doesn't run well anymore,” Deborah said.
“Mommy had petrified rocks and mineral specimens, Flynn. We saved them for you,” Loretta said. “Gloria already told me she didn't want anything thing from that filthy hole. Her exact words. No help coming on her end.”
“I don't have a man cave. I only have a man corner with all Lizbeth’s toys scattered around our home. But the specimens are perfect for my geology class. Thanks,” Flynn said.
“We left the worst room for last, the kitchen. Do you guys feel like helping us?” Deborah said.
“Avast me hearty,” Flynn joked. “Buried treasure on the poop deck. Sure I'll help my baby sisters. Let's eat before the food gets cold. Same time, same place tomorrow.”
The next morning Michael and I met Deborah, Loretta, and Flynn at the house. Deborah and Loretta suited up with protective gear to clean up the moldy bedroom while Michael, Flynn and I attacked the kitchen.
“God, Mom, didn't throw anything away,” Flynn said. “This food in the fridge is out-of-date. Talk about a science experiment. It's all trash.”
“I told the twins I'd be careful when throwing out stuff in the cabinets. Who knows what your Mom hid in there,” I said.
“I'll do the freezer. No guts no glory,” Michael volunteered.
Mary Steven saved a mountain of paper and plastic bags. I went through the kitchen cabinets checking each container. “Well, I found out who's stealing Rose's salt, pepper and sugar containers. I'm going to put them in this box and return them to Rose. Do Loretta or Deborah want these Black Mesa Café souvenir coffee cups?”
“Throw them in the box. Too much junk. There's already a whole shelf full of coffee cups Mom took from other restaurants,” Flynn said. “Plus she stole sugar packets, ketchup, and mustard. Look at all this crap,” he said. Flynn threw handfuls out of the refrigerator while filling up the trash can. “Mom got obsessive before she died, couldn't escape feeling impoverished. Even though she had plenty of money, Mom took anything she could get for free. A lot of this food she received from the food bank. The food she didn't even need or eat so she could have it on hand in case of emergency.”
“Look at this, five different formal china place settings for fancy dinners, and she used paper plates, cups, and plastic utensils for every day. I guess the antique store gets all this china and silverware,” I said. “It's sad always saving stuff for good and not enjoying lovely articles for every day.”
“We're done,” said Loretta. “How are you doing?”
“Michael emptied the freezer. Flynn got the refrigerator done. I'm sorting the cabinets. Okay if I give this box to Rose?” I asked.
“Sure, we don't need any dishes or household stuff. We've got our own home in Show Low. I don't want a bunch of tourist junk,” Deborah said.
“We can sell the formal place settings and glassware at the antique store. The rest of the commonplace dinnerware we can give to the Loaves and Fishes Food Bank. At least someone can use the dishes,” added Loretta.
“I'll put the Hollywood memorabilia and Black Mesa Café stuff you want for Rose in my SUV. Are you okay with Michael and Flynn dropping off the rest at the food bank?” I wanted to make sure Deborah and Loretta had no second thoughts about getting rid of their mom's possessions.
“Yes, we have to deep clean the house using a lot of elbow grease,” Deborah said. “We'll do a little painting and minor repairs. New flooring. The house structure is in good shape. Daddy built it to last. We paid for all the repairs and upkeep Mommy needed. The one minor mold spot in the bedroom is due to moisture from the swamp cooler, no roof leaks.”
“We have no desire to live in this house. Ed is listing it for us, and it should sell soon,” Loretta said. “Thanks for helping us. We couldn't have done it without you.”
“Anything you need let us know,” I said.
“When you dance take heed whom you take by the hand.” Irish Proverb
Part of my mandatory duties as a new instructor included being a chaperone at the NCC Halloween dance. I pressed Michael into duty also. Dracula's castle was re-invented in the White Mountain Apache Hon-Dah Casino Ballroom. The creepy dance-hall reflected people dressed as zombies or vampires with a few superheroes and a couple Disney characters. All fake harm. From my past experience with the Sheriff's department, I had seen the real disharmony in people. Palpable evil sometimes dressed in casual clothes.
Michael and I loved Star Trek, he dressed as Captain Kirk, yummy, in his black boots and tight gold uniform. I was Commander T’Pol, a Vulcan. He was a purist for the original series while I loved all the Star Trek iterations. Once I actually met Sulu, George Takei, while I was shopping at a western store in Show Low. He was gracious to me in spite of my awestruck geeky gasp of recognition.
As the dance got into full swing, I took my break when Flynn and Jennifer, dressed as Indiana Jones and his 1930's girlfriend, relieved me. I had a yen to try my luck on the casino floor. As I wandered around for a while, I spotted Gloria over in a corner playing nickel slots. She was dressed up as a fairy godmother with a magic wand, fluffy blue ball gown, and tiara. I wished her all the luck her costume could bring. As I glanced over at her winnings, she had 30000 in credits. She pounded the device like an automaton. She seldom waited for tumbling rows to stop to see what she won. All at once I heard bells clanging, and lights flashing. According to my calculation, she won $500. Yet, she kept playing as if nothing had happened. I left Gloria in her own zoned out world.
Casinos no longer dumped money out into the tray. The winnings were kept on a printed out ticket to be redeemed at the cashier window far away from the action. Also, a winning ticket could be put into another slot, rather than a winner having to walk all the way back to the cashier's desk. Nothing like the old days Las Vegas thrill of hundreds of silver dollars clunking into a tray. My approach to winning in a casino was to leave as soon as the machine hit. The house always wins over the long term.
I drifted over to the bar where Michael was playing poker. One hundred dollars was his limit, but he felt at least he had a fighting chance with the cards rather than the slots. I noticed Gloria's husband Richard dressed as the Wizard of OZ, matching his wife Gloria who came as Glenda, the good witch.
“How are you doing?” I asked Michael as I ordered a sweet tea from the bartender.
“I'm steady, win a few lose a few,” Michael said. “Virgin Mary, in case you're wondering. I’m on duty.”
“Richard's doing good, I should've changed seats with him when he went back to the ballroom,” Michael joked.
Casinos bored me to tears. They smelled like dens of inequity in spite of recent no-smoking laws, because casinos were exempt. I limited myself to twenty dollars on the quarter machines. After fifteen minutes of the noise and chaos of the slot machines I left. Michael continued his poker game, and I went back to the ballroom to relieve Flynn and Jennifer.
“Second shift relief person,” I said to Flynn.
“Thanks, Jennifer’s ready to go home,” Flynn said.
“Lizbeth wears me out, between working and caring for her I'm pooped even when Flynn helps me,” Jennifer said. “I’m way past my mommy bedtime.”
“Don't worry. I can stay till the dance slows down. Go home and snuggle with Lizbeth,” I said as I urged them out the door.
“I saw Gloria and Richard playing slots and poker. Are they supposed to relieve me?” I asked.
“Gloria has a copy of the duty roster on the podium, by the back door. Can you cross my name off and put yours on for me, so the other instructors know I'm covered?” Flynn asked.
“Not a difficult request. As long as Michael and I cover your time no one should object. The list isn't engraved in stone. I'll double check the roster to make sure I'm not stepping on anyone's toes,” I said.
First I checked on the students. Next, I strolled over to the clipboard on the podium, and drew a line through Flynn's name and put Michael's name, then wrote my name over Jennifer's name. On the schedule, I saw Flynn and Jennifer alternated with Michael and I. The time-frame added an extra 15-minute shift for Michael and me. When Michael showed up for duty, I explained the switch.
“No problem. I'm having fun. Been a while since I've danced with you, and I'll ask the band to play a slow one for us,” Michael said.
“How did you do?” I asked as I gave him a peck on the cheek, and held his hand.
“Broke even. I escaped with my opening allowance of a hundred dollars,” Michael said.
“Richard took a big hit after you left. He lost everything he had. Plus he was down another $400 when I left. I've never been that dumb.”
I stood in the corner while Michael went towards the dance band to request a slow dance. I watched for drunken behaviors. No alcohol allowed into the ballroom from outside. The dance was non-alcoholic since some of the college students were underage. As the band played our song, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ Michael and I danced. Michael observed the students.
I was glad he was my partner. Michael's background as an AFT agent gave me confidence in case I missed tell-tale behaviors. My first time as a chaperone at a school dance, and I didn't want any screw-ups. Before Michael and I went to the Halloween dance, he went over a list of behaviors to watch out for as I walked the dance floor like unattended drinks, large purses with clinking bottles or anyone hovering over someone's drink.
The school had set up free refreshments for the college kids. The restrooms, inside a hall near the entrance, were also guarded in case of alcohol or drugs. Students had no excuse to exit the ballroom. If a student left the dance, they were not allowed back in for any reason. Michael noticed unattended drink cups. He threw them in the trash.
“Foolish kids. It's easy for someone to slip a drug into an unguarded drink. They don't realize the danger,” Michael said as he came back.
“Who changed the duty roster?” Gloria's voice boomed over the gap between songs.
“I did. I'm subbing for Jennifer and Michael's doing Flynn’s duty,” I said.
“Flynn should not have agreed to chaperone if he couldn't fulfill his obligation to the college,” she said.
“I'm the one who told him it was okay with Michael and me to switch. You know they have a toddler, plus Jennifer worked all day, and Flynn had office hours,” I said.
“I'm in charge of the roster. You should have asked my permission first,” Gloria said.
“You were busy gambling. Flynn and I worked the schedule out between us, it didn't affect anyone else,” I said.
“I'm still informing the dean of the college that Flynn didn't show up for his duty, and that you changed the roster without getting my permission,” she said. “Even when he was a child, my brother messed up the chores Mother gave him. Why should I expect him to be any different this time?” she said.
“I'm sorry, if I had known, I would have asked you first,” I said. I thought of my motto: It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Most of the time it worked for me, except when a pencil pushing tyrant was in charge.
On probation as a new instructor, I didn't need any negative write-ups. As I walked away, I kept myself from making a smart ass retort. Gloria continued to mutter and fret over the duty roster. I had the room covered until midnight, the witching hour. After twelve, the saccharine fairy godmother could take over my job.
“What’s got her riled up?” Michael asked.
“Gloria's miffed because I took upon myself to change Flynn's duty without her permission,” I said.
“BFD, I'm concerned about the two jerks I escorted out of the dance. I caught them putting something in an unattended cup. Both guys denied doing anything wrong. I didn't take any chances. I dumped the cups in the garbage. Then I warned the girls at the table to watch their drinks at all times,” he said.
“Oh, God I hope they didn't doctor up other beverages,” I said.
“I've gone around to all the tables. If no one was watching a cup I threw it away,” Michael said.
“Next dance I’ll suggest they have one serving drinks in closed containers,” I said.
“I'm going up to the casino security room after our duty is over. I want to make sure I didn't miss anything. I’m not taking any chances on my watch,” he said.
“Gloria and Richard have the next duty. I hope they are aware of what to watch out for with the kids,” I said.
“I'm not saying another word to her. After how she talked to you, I figure she's the boss, it's her ass on the line. It's her problem now. I warned the other relief instructors to look out for drink cups left out with no one around. I'm ready to blow this joint,” Michael said as he escorted me out of the ballroom.
“Fools make feasts and wise men eat them.” Yiddish Proverb
Every year Rose had a tradition. She fed anyone who came through the front door of the Black Mesa Café a free Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings. Many stores and restaurants closed for the holidays. Travelers, emergency crews, law officers, hospital workers and vital shift workers searched for a home cooked meal on Thanksgiving day.
She had a Turkey cookie jar by the cash register where donations were welcome. She did the Thanksgiving meal as a fundraiser for the Loaves and Fishes Food Bank. Lonely people came for camaraderie and others to get a good old fashioned meal.
This year Michael and I decided to help Rose out. It sounded a lot easier to me than cooking a big meal for the two of us. We wanted to give back to the community which had welcomed us and treated two strangers like family. Helping Rose kept me from worrying about my children and relatives.
Northern Arizona seldom got snow in November, not due to cold but dryness. Ski resorts like Snowbowl in Flagstaff and Sunrise near Hon-Dah sometimes had to make snow for the ski season. Resort owners hoped the jet-stream managed to bring moisture down from Alaska to build up the slopes. The late winter storms hit at the end of December through March. Arizona might not count on a White Christmas, but odds were good for a White Snowy Easter.
Rose wanted Michael and me to arrive at the Black Mesa Café around 4 a.m. to help get the meal done by noon. I looked out our front window at the porch thermometer. Cold, a few degrees above freezing. I waved to Pearl as she fed her horses next door. I wore my thick wool socks, red Justin Ropers boots, two sweaters, a long-sleeved hoodie sweatshirt, gloves, scarf, knit hat, and a goose down coat. Michael had on his knit Marine Corps hat, gloves, long underwear, flannel shirt, jeans, Carhart's jumper, hunting socks and heavy construction boots.
I had checked the Weather Channel before we left home to see where the jet-stream was flowing. It raged over Wyoming and the Dakotas. The Mogollon rim and plateau were clear of clouds, cold and dry. While Michael warmed up the SUV, I looked at the sky: Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Orion, and the Seven Sisters. The night sky blazed with stars, no city lights to dim their glory. I was such a science geek, I could have stared up at the night sky till dawn, but I had committed to feeding hundreds of people.
We passed ranches where cattle huddled under the cedar trees for warmth. Michael and I made our way to town with little traffic on the road. The Black Mesa Café lights beckoned to us as Michael parked by the back door. Rose already had the turkeys going. The smell drifted out to our vehicle.
After we had settled in, Rose gave Michael the potato peeling detail. I had to make dinner rolls, plus homemade baking powder biscuits. Loretta and Deborah surprised me in the kitchen.
“Don’t you both have to work at the hospital?” I said.
“The doctors don't schedule labor and deliveries until after the holidays. I won't have to go in unless I get called in early, sometimes babies decide on their own when to come. I'm on third shift tonight,” said Deborah.
“I'm working third also in the ER. Should be quiet unless we get an ice storm on the mountain. I'd rather be here, or at the hospital than trying to get the family together now Mommy's gone,” said Loretta.
“We used to have the whole family over to Gloria's house because we didn't feel like making a fuss or arguing with Mommy. Mommy made holidays a battle of control between her and any in-laws. She demanded the in-laws go to our family functions. She made us choose between her and our partners. I told Gloria a couple of weeks ago I had to work. Gloria wasn't happy, but now I don't have to deal with her,” said Deborah.
“Everyone’s free to go see their own family. This is the first time Pearl will get to eat with her brother's family in Snowflake. Flynn and Jennifer are taking Lizbeth to Jennifer's family in Prescott for once,” said Loretta. “We are thankful you helped sort Mommy's things. We couldn’t have done the cleanup on our own. Mommy’s house sold to a retired couple from the Valley who wanted a summer home in the mountains.”
“Loretta, Deborah pitch in where you can. I got the turkeys going. Michael's on the potatoes. Minnie's got the rolls rising. We need the green bean casserole, sausage dressing, cranberries, and sage onion dressing. We need a relish tray. A cheese and cracker tray. Drinks. Coffee, tea, lemonade. Mashed potatoes, brown gravy, Mac and cheese (for the kids), deviled eggs, tossed salad, and pickled beets. Apple, pecan, and pumpkin pies. Sweet potatoes, oh a cheese ball. My God, so much to do,” Rose said.
“Don't worry. We've got you covered,” Michael said.
Rose bustled around the kitchen's stainless steel prep table. She gave each person an assignment. Soon more volunteers showed up. Rose had them set the tables buffet style in the dining room. She let everyone help themselves to snacks and coffee while they were working. Charles and Sunny showed up with dozens of pies made by Sunny's Altar Society ladies.
“We've got the desserts done. Some of the ladies couldn't come in person, so they made the pies for you,” Sunny said.
“Michael, I've got a new gadget. It's a turkey fryer. Propane, no electronics. Takes an hour. Let's try it out, I want to make a jalapeño turkey I've been marinating,” Charles said as he led Michael to the parking lot.
“Don't burn the restaurant down,” Rose called after them. “Boys and their new toys."”
Hours later the kitchen looked like a mess. But in the restaurant, we lined up the dishes on the buffet tables. Rose sliced the roasted turkey. People were starting to get in line outside the door. Charles brought in the jalapeño turkey and carved it.
Rose opened the doors for the orderly crowd. She had them lined up on both sides of the buffet table. Michael and I, plus the rest of the volunteer crew kept refilling the buffet. No one went hungry. I had snagged a piece of jalapeño turkey before it was gone, so moist, spicy and flaming. I loved it.
The line of diners slowed about 2:30 p.m. Michael and I commenced washing pots and pans. Then Michael washed dishes while I dried. Rose peeked around the kitchen corner and ordered us to take a break. I had been on my feet since 4 a.m., almost ten hours ago.
Excellent food and coffee hit the spot. I sat at the kitchen table. I warmed my hands with my coffee cup. I rummaged around for cream in the refrigerator. All the serving pots were being used in the restaurant, so I dumped milk in my mug right from the bottle. I looked under the kitchen counter and found a sugar jar stuck in a box, and poured some sugar in my coffee.
“Found a spot to sit? Here's your plate. I got you more jalapeño turkey, sweet potatoes, salad, French with an F, green beans, and beets. Let me know what else you'd like,” Michael said as he bit into his turkey sandwich. “I piled roasted turkey, cranberries and Miracle Whip. Yum.” He washed it down with black coffee.
I dug into my plate while Rose joined us. “I tried something new this year. The jalapeño turkey, you boys, made was delicious. I can't believe it took only an hour to cook. Thanks for not burning down the town,” she said.
“I agree,” I said. I felt warm and sweaty. I must have gotten overheated in the kitchen. I turned cold and clammy inside. I had trouble catching my breath, my heart pounded. I clutched my thumping chest.
“What's wrong?” Michael asked.
“I can't breathe. My heart’s beating too fast,” I said.
Loretta rushed over to feel my pulse. “She's off the chart. Charles call an ambulance. Sunny get my bag from the car.”
Charles looked at me in alarm as he called the ambulance.
Michael held my hand and put a cold washcloth on my head.
“My heart's coming out of my chest, I can't breathe,” I said.
“Oh my God 210/95. Her BP is spiking. Pulse climbing, we've got to rush her to the hospital in Show Low, now. We can’t wait.” Loretta said.
I was getting dizzy. A blinding pain ripped through my head. They loaded me into the SUV. Laid me on my back. The trip to the hospital in Show Low was a blur. Over my head, I saw reflected blue and red lights. I heard Charles ahead with the siren shrieking full blast. As Michael drove, Deborah hovered over me on one side while Loretta kept taking my BP and pulse. I heard Deborah call the hospital on her cell phone. She told them to prep for me when I arrived.
Doubled up from nausea, I lost my dinner all over the back seat.
“Sorry,” I mumbled an apology to Loretta.
“Don’t worry kiddo, you’re going to be okay,” she said. “You’re safe with me.”
I could feel my heart throbbing in my chest. My head was splitting in pain. The next thing I remembered was looking up at the white clock in the ER through narrow tunnel vision, 3:35 p.m., I was out.
“One man's meat is another man's poison.” Irish Proverb
I awoke in a sterile hospital bed, with IVs attached to my arm. My stomach recoiled like it was fist punched. My mouth tasted tainted and metallic, and I hurt when I breathed, my throat rasped and raw. I observed Michael had dozed off, his head cocked backward at an awkward angle on the chair beside my bed. His face dark with beard stubble signified his bedside vigil over me.
I reached over for a glass, but my hands shook with the effort, and I spilled water all over the tray. The clatter startled Michael out of his dream state. He shivered. His exhausted face and weary eyes denoted he had a minimal sleep in days.
“Minnie, thank God you're awake,” he said. “You've been unconscious for three days.” He gripped my left hand and pressed it to his cheek in uncontrolled relief.
I stroked his rumpled black hair with my fingers. “I'm dying of thirst. Why is my throat sore?” I asked. “What caused me to collapse?”
“Poisoned, a caffeine overdose, Loretta recognized the symptoms,” he said. “She insisted on pumping your stomach when we got to the ER. Her quick action saved your life. She had an ER patient, a teenage sports jock, with the same symptoms. Caffeine sports drink overload, collapsed after a football game. The jock’s in a coma. Doctors don't know if he'll survive.”
“How did I fall victim to caffeine poisoning? I had a sip of coffee, a sip. I was too busy to stop for even one cup until we took a break,” I said.
“Charles interviewed the people who dined at the Café on Thanksgiving Day. You alone, out of all the hundreds of individuals we fed, fell ill. He closed the Café. He confiscated all the food and drinks. The lab’s testing them to find the caffeine poison source,” he said.
“But you had coffee from the same pot I did and sat right next to me. You ate what I did,” I said.
“I know. I drink black coffee. You drink your cream and sugar with a little bit of coffee,” Michael said.
“I remember drinking water because I didn't take the time to relax until after people ate,” I said.
“Try to remember what you did immediately before you became sick,” he said.
“My feet hurt. I didn't feel like walking all the way into the dining room once I sat down, so I used the milk in the kitchen fridge. I grabbed one of the sugar jars. It was in a box under the prep table, so I used it,” I recalled.
Michael got his cell phone out. “Charles, Michael here, Minnie remembered getting the sugar for her coffee from under the prep table. Can you make sure to test all the sugar jars and condiments? Thanks. I owe you. Results are in?”
“Charles got back the lab results from the restaurant food and drinks. No caffeine. He's confiscating everything under the prep table now,” Michael said.
“When will he know?” I said.
“The holiday caused the lab back up this weekend. I'm surprised they retrieved test results from the Café this fast. The next round of tests won't be back until Wednesday at the earliest. The hospital lab here in Show Low did a rush job on your stomach contents. They found a caffeine overdose. You were lucky you threw up. Caffeine acts fast,” he said.
Rose popped her head in the door. In her right arm, she clasped a purple teddy bear with a Band-Aid across its tummy.
“I thought you could use this to hang on to when you have to cough,” she said.
“Thanks, cute, my favorite color. You know the rule, if it's purple it's mine,” I smiled.
“Boy, I can't imagine how you got sick from eating at the Café. Everyone else we fed was all right,” she said.
“Michael and I ate and drank the same thing, even coffee from the same pot, except I use cream and sugar,” I said.
“Minnie used the sugar jar under the prep table, the one in in the box,” Michael said.
“Oh, Lord,” Rose said. “I meant to empty out the old salt and pepper shakers and sugar jars in the trash. They're the ones you gave me from Mrs. Steven's house. I thought they might have mold or mouse poop on them. I kept them boxed up under the prep table so no one would put them out front in the dining room. I gave strict instructions to the dishwasher to empty them out and sterilize them before we used them. He didn't show up Thanksgiving day, that's why I needed extra help washing dishes.”
“Charles confiscated them. He’ll verify what the jars contain in a couple days,” Michael said. “In the meantime, I'm concentrating on getting Minnie well.”
“What if it's true? Did someone put caffeine poison in the sugar jars, in my restaurant? Oh, my God. The board of Health could shut me down because someone poisoned you. You could have died. What if that's what happened to Mrs. Steven?” Rose said.
“Don't panic. My stomach hurts like someone jumped on it, and my throat feels like I swallowed a box of nails. I'm okay because of a quick-thinking ER nurse,” I said.
“Rose, do not say anything about this incident to anyone else. Your restaurant came out clean no poisons. Charles asked us to keep Minnie’s information confidential. Tell people when they ask she’s allergic to shellfish or something she ate,” Michael said. “I don't want to give whoever did this a heads up.”
“We'll ferret out the caffeine source,” I said as I patted her arm. “You’ll open soon. The Café is the heart and soul of Black Mesa, and I'm not letting anyone close you down.”
“Murder will out.” Irish Proverb
“What do you mean persons of interest? Is he nuts?” I said after Michael brought me home from the hospital.
“Minerva, do you realize you almost died. I’m not going to stand by and let someone hurt you. Charles collected the test results from the lab. The sugar jar’s full of caffeine. Loretta, Deborah, Rose and you have fingerprints on the Cafe’s sugar jar. You and Rose don't have a motive,” Michael said. “All I did was to urge the twins to cooperate with Charles during a video interview. Charles required the twin’s side of the story.”
“Loretta saved my life in the ER,” I said. “If she hadn't recognized caffeine poisoning, I'd remain in a coma, or dead like Mrs. Steven. Do you realize I'm thankful I had two skilled nurses rescuing me? Why didn’t you defend them? Some friend you are.”
“Charles is my friend also, but it's not my place to interfere with his investigation. The evidence shows it's you or them. I know damn well not you, and Rose has no motive. I suspect one of them,” Michael said.
“Why would Loretta or Deborah murder their mother over a grubby hoarder house? Took us days to clean out the house, plus they're nurses, on duty twenty-four seven. They spent every free hour taking care of an ungrateful parent,” I said.
“Right,” he said. “I once worked a case back east where a nurse killed retirement home patients with an extra nightcap dash of rubbing alcohol. Don't tell me nurses don't kill, or they're exempt from legitimate questioning. Plenty of criminals murdered family members for money.”
“The twins killed their mother? No. What motive Mr. ATF?” I said.
“Money, a house, or land. The twins reached the bitter end. Working full time, driving back and forth, resulted in extra expenses for them,” he said.
“What about the meds in the hoarder house?” I said.
“Negative, out-of-date is all, nothing but regular prescription meds,” he said. “Lab tested everything from the house, barn, and Café. The barn chicken feed tested positive for arsenic, but the numbers on the bags were on recall from the manufacturer. The feed was withdrawn from the market years ago. The only thing with massive amounts of caffeine is the stolen sugar jar. The county lab techs analyzed the fingerprints and matched your names to the prints on the sugar jar,” he said. “So far you all won the jackpot.”
“Let's give it a rest until you feel better,” he said. “My hands are tied. I'm not telling Charles how to do his job. I'm part-time and semi-retired.”
“I'm going to bed. I'm exhausted with all this, I can't think. I'll see you in the morning. Don't wake me up. I'm sleeping late,” I said.
As I shuffled into my bedroom, I belied Charles’ assumption of the twin’s guilt. I regarded Charles as a fair-minded man. His interview with the twins as persons of interest contradicted my sense of fair play. His actions proved to me he decided the nurses’ guilt. I had to finagle documentation to prove him wrong which put me on Charles' shit-list. Men didn't like proved wrong by a woman. I didn't care even if my consulting job went down the drain I’d find verification of the twin’s innocence. I allowed my canny unconscious brain to solve the problem while I slept.
My gut instincts told me two competent nurses who had saved my life were blameless in their mother’s homicide. I realized from experience Loretta rushed to an accident to save lives instead of running away from the scene. Deborah embraced wee premature lives, weighing ounces, in her hands every day as a NICU nurse. They sacrificed their leisure time attending to a dominating spiteful matriarch. One who bullied loved ones and implanted discord between the offspring.
Michael left early before I awoke. He didn't even wake me up to say goodbye or love you or even kiss me. But, I was snippy with him last night, and he retreated into his shell to avoid another argument with me.
Before my hospital debacle, Charles had dropped off a few case files for me to research at home: a drug arrest, a DUI, and a Chamber of Commerce query. The town had budgeted money for a part-time deputy and an allowance for technical help on a case by case basis.
I kept current my subscriptions to several consumer and legal databases, plus news feeds, which I used to fulfill Charles’ requests. He wanted background information before the suspects came in front of a judge, even if the facts were not admissible in court. I searched through matching wants and warrants and previous court cases from other states.
I hustled my way to town and parked by the Café around 2 p.m. Charles had released the crime scene at the Café. As I strode in, I gazed over coffee and pie customers, local men taking a short break. Charles held court at his favorite booth in the back. He motioned me to participate in the discussion.
I confirmed my results. “Here's my search intelligence for the druggie and the DUI. The DUI is on probation in Pinal County. He's supposed to have a Breathalyzer hooked to the automobile before he can drive a vehicle. Did he bypass the machine? Pay a kid to breathe in the device for him? Was he arrested operating a different vehicle?” I asked.
“No, you're right, he bypassed the machine. Blew off the meter when I tested him again and arrested him. Next,” Charles said.
“The druggie looks like first time offender,” I said as I summarized my report. “High school quarterback. Steroids. Father's a bishop, good luck on prosecuting him.”
“The father might be harder on the kid than the judge,” Charles said. “I appreciate your in-depth research. You saved me precious time. I don't have patience with computers. Seems like whenever I touch a computer, it blows up on me. I do better interviewing people one-on-one. Touch and feel, not some damn fool screen looking at me. My worst nightmare, calling the county and having a robot answer. I want to slam the phone against the wall.”
The next research file Charles gave me concerned the Chamber of Commerce complaints forwarded to Charles from local businesses and clubs. They all had concerns about shortages in their year-end reports. The Chamber requested an independent forensic accountant to go over financial records.
“Thanks for your confidence in me,” I said. “On the Chamber file, I have to dig deeper. Interview some people. I'll take a look at their puzzling financial statements.”
“Have you calmed down?” Michael scooted in next to me. He gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “You were hot-blooded last night, and not in the right way,” he said.
“Sorry I flew off the handle about the twins,” I said.
“I asked Michael to help me record Loretta's interview. I'm all thumbs with computer stuff and video recordings. The film logs fuzz out when I do it,” Charles said. ”So far I’ve I interrogated the entire Steven’s family. I can catch someone in a lie when I compare people's stories.”
Michael said, “I can't see this as a stranger murder. My experience tells me a family member, someone in their circle of friends, or a neighbor fed up with being harassed by the Steven clan loaded caffeine poison in the sugar jar.”
“Can you talk to Rose?” Charles asked me. “She's not a suspect, but she's my key witness to what happened to Mrs. Steven. Also, see what you can find about powdered caffeine. Where can you buy it? What does it look like? What are the effects? How much does to take to kill a person? Is it a controlled substance? Executive summary, please, then I can go to the judge for a search warrant,” Charles said. “In the meantime, Michael and I are going to interview high school kids. I want to find the source of caffeine in our town.”
I agreed to research into caffeine sales and the wonky Chamber of Commerce financial records. Charles required probable cause for a judge to grant a search warrant.
“Better fifty enemies outside a house than one within.” Irish Proverb
My goal for today: to see if Rose agrees to let me examine her April receipts. I had no other option. I had to locate the guest ticket from the night Mrs. Steven died.
I stalled until Rose had a break.
“You told me you remember exactly what customers eat and drink. Can you identify the guest check from the Steven family meal, the night Mrs. Steven died?”
“I’m fed up with this caffeine crap in my restaurant. Let's go to my office,” Rose said. “Deidre, watch the place for me, please.” She escorted me to her office.
“I store my files in here. I keep every scrap and receipt for seven years,” she said. “What date did you need?”
“I remember Michael and I drove up the hill to sign my teaching contract on Friday morning before spring break. We stayed at the B&B. We ate here at the Black Mesa Café for the first time Friday evening, a week before Good Friday,” I said.
“I file each day’s time-stamped guest checks in a folder. I know my busy times and days during the month. I also have the cash register tapes. I do a subtotal after breakfast at 10 a.m., after lunch at 3 p.m. and after dinner 9 p.m. I do a day’s end total when I close,” Rose explained. Rose grabbed a sizeable manila folder from the boring beige file cabinet.
“Wow, you’re organized,” I said.
“I have to be ever since I found out someone was stealing from me. I commented to the Shamrock food guy about food waste versus profits. I knew I made money on soft drinks. I make a reasonable markup on soda syrup, almost 250% since ice is cheap. I still broke even. He said a similar size restaurant in Show Low was doing great.
“He suggested a triplicate guest check system. The waitress gives the cook the bottom copy, and she uses the middle copy for her reference, while the customer gets the original. At the end of the night all the kitchen checks, drink/waitress controls, and guest/register checks have to match.
“He also recommended I install a camera over the kitchen, the walk-in, the first register, the front and back of the Café and the meeting/dining room. While everyone was gone, I had the cameras installed.
“Sure enough, the food was walking out the back door. Friends got free food. Since people don't usually ask for a coffee receipt, the sneaky waitress kept the coffee money. This waitress also stole tips from the other wait staff too. She'd race up to the register and pocket the money. If a customer left five dollars, she'd keep two dollars and give the other gal only three dollars. The crooked waitress was making a killing.
“The other gals had complained about lousy tips, but once I had the thief on the camera, I got her good. I found out between the cook and the dishonest waitress they were stealing 300 to 400 dollars a day. I fired both of them on the spot. The cameras paid for themselves in no time.
“People don't notice the sign out front on the door: CAMERA USE IN PROGRESS. The machine will save 31 days of camera info. Now I review the tapes on Sundays, and save them to a digital backup,” Rose said.
“My dad came back after WW2 and started the place. My sister and I owned it after he retired. I give people the benefit of the doubt, but this whole fiasco taught me to be less trusting.”
Rose looked through her file cabinet. “Let's see you said spring break, Friday before Good Friday, Easter weekend. We were busy that weekend, lots of travelers,” she said as she pulled out a packet of rubber banded guest checks from the folder.
She gave me the logic behind her guest checks' codes. “I don’t want customers eating cold food. I have all the booths and tables labeled in case a waitress is swamped when her food comes up. Anyone free can deliver the hot plates. Counter seats C1-C12, M1-M6 middle tables, L1-L6 left tables, R1-R6 right tables, B1-B4 back booths and D1-D20 dining room tables,” she said. “I time stamp all guest checks. Helps me to schedule workers during our busy times.”
“Let's eliminate the breakfast and lunch guest checks, and concentrate on dinner checks,” I said.
“Here's the booth dinner guest checks,” Rose said.
Chaos reigned during Mrs. Steven’s collapse. “How did you figure out who paid?” I asked.
“Everybody dumped cash into a pile. I guess I didn't care at that point. I worried about Mrs. Steven more than the money. I divvied up the extra money among the waitresses. People in this town are good souls. The money all worked out somehow.
“I had to time-stamp the register checks after the restaurant closed. The kitchen checks had the time-stamp when they got their food ordered. Might be more accurate of when everyone ate Friday night,” Rose said.
“I remember the funny name in the Café window, I had to try the crazy burro. Here's ours, B4: a crazy burro, cowboy burger, sweet tea, and black coffee. It's time-stamped kitchen at 15:15,” I said.
“I found B-1-2-3. The Steven’s clan, it’s time-stamped 14:40. We had to move the tables together around the back booth to seat them,” she said. “I took orders counter-clockwise, starting with Mrs. Steven since she was the head honcho.”
Mrs. Steven had fried chicken, black coffee.
Gloria and Richard had baked fish, unsweet tea, no lemon.
Debora and Loretta had chimis, one red, one green; Dr. Pepper and Pepsi.
Jennifer and Flynn, catfish, Cokes, baby Liz, ate mashed potatoes, applesauce, milk.
Pearl and Victor, had catfish dinner, with lemonade.
“Mrs. Steven was the only person to need sugar in her drink, black decaf coffee,” I noticed. “What else is in there?”
“There’s a DVD backup of my camera data. I remember I don't usually bother to copy my camera info right away, but I did that night after people left. Mrs. Steven and her family have a habit of suing people,” Rose said. “I forgot all about it when the family dropped the lawsuit against me.”
“The family sued you too?” I asked.
“I was too embarrassed to tell you,” Rose said. “I was afraid the restaurant would lose business or get shut down. Here's the assigned seating chart from Mrs. Steven. Holy cow, their mother was so controlling.”
“Can I take these to Charles?” I said.
“Sure, I made a DVD of the camera info the night you got sent to the hospital. Would you like that too? I have to cover my butt. I had to prove you didn't get sick from eating my food. I was so afraid the county would shut me down.”
“I'm sorry I caused you anxiety.” I gave her a big hug. “No one blames you. All this information will help Charles get a search warrant for the family's property and computers. I’ll find out who is behind the poisonings.”
“Two people see a thing together that one cannot alone.” Irish Proverb
I stopped by Charles' office with the evidence. “Charles, Rose had a surveillance camera recording the night Mrs. Steven died. I put in the originals, an extra DVD copy, the time-stamped kitchen guest checks, and the seating chart,” I said as I handed him the sealed bags.
“I'm not touching the DVD,” he said. He handled the bag of evidence like a bomb ready to go off in his hand. “Here Peg, lock this up in the file cabinet.”
“I'll let you watch the DVDs,” Charles said. “Every time I touch a DVD player the machine seems to fizzle out on me, even expensive DVD players. I can't get them to work. I'm the kiss of death for electronics. I wish I were born a hundred years ago when movies, records, and films were mechanical, not electronic. Hell, I kill digital watches.”
I noticed him using an old-fashioned engraved gold pocket watch, but I figured sentiment rather than necessity made him wear the antique.
“Charles, you're not joking. You can't touch electronics without screwing up?” Michael asked dumbfounded.
Charles looked exasperated. “Never mind about my electrical zapping problem. I've got the autopsy report, the guest checks, and the seating chart. We have the poisoned sugar jar. So many people handled it I doubt if we can use it in court, but it might scare somebody into thinking we can. See what you can find on the DVD. The camera surveillance will provide us with enough ammunition to get a search warrant.”
“I can do a forensic analysis on the DVDs also,” I said. “I narrowed the time frame from 4:30 p.m. when the Steven's family met for dinner and 9 p.m. when the restaurant closed. Five hours of DVD from each of the cameras, and I made backup copies on two DVDs using a DVR video-to-DVD conversion program I have on my computer.”
As a computer forensic analyst, I had helped the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office on a series of convenience store robberies. The DVDs were admissible evidence in court. We caught the gunman who robbed the stores. Men accept another man's work without proof, a woman has to prove to double her worth. It is what it is. I noticed Charles now trusted me to do an efficient job.
Michael and I settled in for the night after we got home. “Help me watch a copy of the DVD Rose gave me. Might show where the caffeine-laced sugar jar came from,” I said.
“I've got plenty of experience examining camera footage,” Michael said. “Everyone believes working for the ATF involves high-speed chases, gun battles, and raids. Solid investigative work leads to the bust first. Al Capone went to jail for income tax evasion, not for murder. Next the arrest part, not vice versa. Let's see what we have. I’m curious, the incident went by fast. We didn't know anyone. Now we can put names, faces, and relationships together.”
We had five hours of video to watch. It’s an intense but essential part of investigative work. I fast-forwarded the DVD slowly because if I went too fast, the frames jumped. “We want to focus on the booths first. Get the exact time Mrs. Steven collapsed. We can look at the kitchen and walk-in last once we narrow down the time frame,” I said.
Like watching an old black and white silent movie, people jerked like puppets. No sound; even worse no captions.
16:00 Booths B1, B2, and B3 reserved by Rose’s place cards. Three tables set with silverware and water glasses
16:25 Steven family went to their reserved tables.
16:30 Richard scooted around to the middle of the booth. Gloria tucked her skirt in and glided next to him. Mrs. Steven had difficulty arranging her purse and cane. Victor helped her to the outside edge of the booth. Victor sat to the left of Mrs. Steven in case she needed to use the restroom.
16:33 Pearl aided Jennifer to get baby Lizbeth seated in her high chair. Pearl and Jennifer sat on each side of the baby. While the two women, Pearl and Jennifer, were settling the baby, Flynn sat at the end of the table and made faces at the child. Loretta plopped in the booth next to Richard. Deborah followed her lead.
16:35 Rose took the family's food and drink orders.
16:40 Rose clipped the kitchen check to the wheel.
16:45 Drinks served to the family.
16:50 Salads served to the family.
17:00 Michael and I entered Black Mesa Café.
17:03 Family served food. Michael and I sat at B4.
17:08 Michael and I ordered food.
17:09 through 17:29 Family ate and talked.
17:13 Mrs. Steven lectured family, with waving hands and pointing fingers.
17:17 Michael and I served our food.
17:30 Rose cleared family's plates, refilled family's and our drinks.
17:32 Loretta answered her cell phone. Both Loretta and Deborah left.
17:33 Disturbance. Someone spilled drinks, purses on the table. People moving around trying to clean up the table.
17:34 Rose brought towels, fresh beverages more refills.
17:37 Mrs. Steven's black purse on the table. Gestured to open the black bag. More lecturing. She waved a piece of paper as family listens.
17:39 Jennifer and Pearl took baby Lizbeth to the bathroom.
17:48 Mrs. Steven collapsed.
17:49 Chaos, many bodies of the family in the way, Michael gave CPR. People in the Café moved furniture.
17:54 EMTs arrived.
17:55 through 18:08 EMTs worked on Mrs. Steven. Loaded her in a gurney. Left Café with Mrs. Steven.
18:10 Gloria grabbed two purses: one black, one tan. The family gathered up belongings. Family left.
18:11 People cleaned up Café, threw money on the counter.
19:00 Rose closed Café.
Michael read the time-stamps on the video while I wrote in my notebook. We rewound the tape focusing on the back booth camera angle. I watched the DVD looking when Michael and I first sat in the back booth. Michael lounging back, and me, fiddling with my hair. Did I do that often? Michael sneaked a quick kiss on my cheek. I didn't remember that. We played the guessing game, then laughed at our guesses. We snooped on Mrs. Steven's rant. Watched ourselves eating. Thank goodness we used manners.
Loretta and Deborah got the emergency phone call, then left.
I focused on Mrs. Steven's ebony black purse. Mrs. Steven slammed the bulky bag on the table, spilling Gloria's tea glass. Gloria attempted to nab the tea glass and missed. Gloria grabbed a wad of napkins from the napkin holder to sop up the mess. During the commotion, Gloria moved Mrs. Steven's coffee cup aside.
Rose brought bar towels to the table to clean the mess. Gloria took a clean white bar towel and wiped off their purses. Rose reset the table; the napkin holder, salt and pepper and sugar jars back in place. Imperious Mrs. Steven waved Rose away. Gloria took over and rearranged the coffee carafe, new cup of coffee for Mrs. Steven. Rose brought a fresh glass of iced tea. Gloria put her iconic Louis Vuitton handbag on the seat.
Mrs. Steven lectured the family. Mrs. Steven brought a thick white bundle of paper from her ancient oversized black purse. She held the document high. Each family member watched.
Lizbeth fussed. Jennifer and Pearl took the baby to the bathroom. Mrs. Steven glared at them as they left the table. Before they came back, Mrs. Steven collapsed. Only five people left at the table: Mrs. Steven, Gloria, Richard, Victor, and Flynn.
Where did the damn caffeine-laced sugar jar come from? I watched the DVD again and again. I slowed the DVD. I looked at the table setting in detail. Rose put the water glasses, the coffee carafe, and a pitcher of iced tea on the table. She laid the silverware on the table. She arranged the name cards. Three napkin holders, three sets salt and pepper shakers and three sugar jars.
Gloria, the first to arrive, placed her designer handbag in the back booth. She took out her matching checkbook, gave Rose a check. While Rose went to the register, Gloria neatened table settings. No, the DVD showed three sugar jars.
Rewind to iced tea spill. Slower. Slower. Zoom in on purses. Mopping. Sopping. Straightening. Refilling glasses and cups. Handbags sat on the table. Three napkin holders, three sets salt and pepper shakers, four sugar jars. Four, not three.
Rewind. I said. “Michael, watch. There's where she put out the extra sugar jar and covered up what she was doing with the tea spill. She overdramatized the incident. While everyone focused on cleaning up the mess, she managed to put a fourth jar of sugar on the table.”
“Who are you talking about?” Michael asked.
“Gloria,” I said. I backtracked the DVD. “Look, before the family comes in the Café. Rose has the back booth table arranged. See, three napkin holders, three sets of salt and pepper shakers, and three sugar jars. One table setting for each table, B1, B2, and B3.”
“Did you ever play a puzzle where you have to find out what is different between two similar pictures?” I asked. “Here's the tea spill. Now watch. Four sugar jars appear.”
“We've got her,” Michael said. “We have to figure out exactly how she accomplished the switch. We’ve found the proof needed for Charles’ search warrant. Slow it way down. Watch the hands. Look at the purses.”
Rewind to 17:36. We watched the DVD. While Rose mopped up the spill, Mrs. Steven grabbed her hideous black purse off the table.
Gloria sat her own ultra-expensive handbag on the table, reached in, and pulled out the fourth sugar jar. Gloria used a napkin to hide her movements when she set the fourth caffeine-laced sugar jar down and maneuvered it next to the coffee carafe. When she finished her switch, Gloria put the bi-color brown and gold embossed bag back in the booth. She rearranged the table settings and moved the plain sugar jars aside
“But I found the caffeine-laced sugar jar in Mrs. Steven's pantry when we cleaned out the hoarder house. Who put the jar into her house? How was it mixed in with the restaurant stuff? Let’s look at the tape again,” I said.
At 17:42 Mrs. Steven loaded her coffee with sugar and drank her coffee. She pilfered the poisoned jar and concealed the souvenir in her voluminous black purse.
“I can’t believe Mrs. Steven stole the poisoned jar,” he said. “Gloria didn't have to worry about getting caught with the caffeine-laced sugar jar. Gloria knew Mrs. Steven filched stuff from the Café every time the family went to dinner at the Café.”
I said, “while Gloria talked to Richard. Victor turned to Pearl. Mrs. Steven set her black bag in the booth. Gloria took both purses home that night after the commotion. She had all the time in the world to take the caffeine-laced sugar jar over to Mrs. Steven's house.”
“Mrs. Steven brought the stolen sugar jars and salt and pepper shakers to her house. We found the jars in her kitchen. We can use this against Gloria during the interview. The DVD will shake her up. One good thing this DVD eliminates the rest of the family. I’ll bet Richard is in on the poisoning too. He had to know what Gloria did,” Michael said. “At least this gives us enough evidence to get Charles a search warrant.”
“You cannot steal a cow and expect to sup her milk.” Irish Proverb
I knew we had to get more evidence on Gloria and Richard to find the caffeine source. I wanted to compare notes with Charles and Michael. They interviewed high school and college jocks about the rash of caffeine overdoses. They linked them to Mrs. Steven's and my caffeine poisonings.
Thank goodness it was semester end. I turned in my grades Monday. Liberated from my college obligations, I went to work on Charles' list. I had my work for Charles spread out over the kitchen table. Did Gloria or Richard have an active insurance policy on Mrs. Steven? How much?
I commenced my next investigation of the Chamber of Commerce inquiry. I had to do a forensic analysis of the questionable financial books. Over the week as I canvased the local clubs, one name kept popping up, Richard Fitzroy. Boy Scouts, Prospector's Club, Women's Club, Lady's Altar Society, Chamber of Commerce, Loaves and Fishes Food Bank, Reminisce Antique Store, and Francine's Beauty Salon were his clients. Many small organizations and businesses used his accounting services. Each company acknowledged Richard Fitzroy charged them a reasonable rate for his accounting services, from $375 to $500 a year. Through his wife's influence, he also worked as a consultant for the NCC college sports director.
As I dug deeper into the college financial statements, I saw standard invoices from Office Max, Wal-Mart and Office Depot for office supplies. The office supply invoices were odd amounts like $72.33 or $98.72. I noticed that the businesses and clubs never had an exact one hundred dollar invoice for office supplies. I perceived a vendor name repeated on invoices for services, who or what was RF Products Inc.? What was the one hundred dollar a month charge? Everyone I asked assumed RF Products Inc. was an office supply vendor.
I Googled RF Products Inc., and Richard Fitzroy was listed as sole proprietor. As long as the sales less the cost of goods sold balanced out ahead in the quarterly profit and loss statements, people weren’t any wiser. Had he defrauded all these groups?
Richard had built in a little scam. No one seemed to know what kind of business was RF Products Inc. No one appeared to understand the repercussions of the repeating charge because the account was an auto-pay set up by Richard.
I found a strange invoice in each business’s accounts payable. The mysterious RF Products Inc. appeared on the bank statements. I saw small amounts of one hundred dollars a month auto-pays deducted from each company's bank account.
The larcenous swindle had been going on for years. If I multiplied the number of Richard's clients by $1200 a year, I came out with close to seventy thousand dollars a year. The RF Products Inc. invoice for the college was even more per month, $150 on auto pay. Now the total was up to a hundred thousand.
“Michael, look at this. Richard has been robbing this town blind. His RF Products Inc. scam is into almost every business in the city for somewhere around one hundred thousand dollars minimum this year alone,” I said as I bounced ideas off him.
Michael said, “Nothing stood out when I profiled him. He didn't show any visible signs of embezzling money. Richard drove a well-kept old sedan. He wears ordinary business suits, looked like they came from Men's Warehouse, or Sears good enough quality but not extravagant. Even his house, although fancy looking from the outside with its Greek Revival columns, is a two story, four bedrooms, two bath home, with a two car garage, no McMansion.”
I said, “Gloria dresses well. More Nordstrom's than Beverly Hills designer. I imagine she got her clothes in Scottsdale on her trips to the valley. She’s a tenured professor, and a department chair, so she makes enough money for a small town like Black Mesa. She drives an older BMW, also well maintained.”
“Richard started his own accounting business after getting laid off at the Paper Mill. He did our taxes last April,” Michael said.
“Remember, we saw both of them gambling at Hon-Dah Halloween night. Doesn't take long to lose a pot of money in a casino,” I said.
“RF Products Inc. Rings a bell,” he said. “The jocks Charles and I interviewed stated that they bought RF Products Inc. sports drinks on-line: Red Buzz, Blue Buzz, Green Buzz, Orange Buzz, Yellow Buzz and Brown Buzz.
“For example, the Brown Buzz, a mix of chocolate, coffee, and caffeine like a mocha latte but it contains 25 times the caffeine of a similar size cup of coffee. The drinks include a combination of healthy fruits and veggies with an added kick of caffeine,” Michael said.
“Students say the sports drinks give them a buzz, but they stay awake for days on end if they drink more than one. I talked to Loretta about ER cases involving caffeine ODs in high school and college kids. She told me she'd never seen so many cases. One college student is in a coma on life support. Loretta doesn't know if he's going to make it. The school officials we interviewed were trying to get to the bottom of the illnesses also,” he added.
“The product name sounds familiar. Where did I see it before?” I racked my brain. “Did you manage to get a bottle from the students you interviewed?”
“No, the coach got on to them about drinking the illegal stuff. He confiscated the bottles and dumped them in the trash,” he said.
“Give me a sec,” I said.
I Googled Blue Buzz. A bright midnight blue glass bottle with a jazzy logo popped up. The word BUZZ in ragged capital letters. I looked at the ingredients: caffeine, cane sugar, blueberries, raspberries, and carrots. All natural the label read.
“I guess you could call the primary ingredients all natural. As natural as ketchup considered a vegetable in school lunches,” Michael commented as he looked over my shoulder at the screen.
“I bought Brown Buzz and Orange Buzz from Richard at the swap meet last summer. There's the link between caffeine and Richard Fitzroy,” I said. Next, I saw ‘Made in the USA by RF Products Inc.’
Michael and I met Charles at his office with our evidence.
“I knew some people in town faced bankruptcy during the layoff at the Paper Mill, but I had no suspicion he was destitute or a crook,” Charles said.
“Minnie and I both saw Richard and Gloria gambling away money at Hon-Dah. They could’ve squandered their savings quick if they did it on a regular basis,” Michael said.
“I'll work on the search warrants. I have to spell out in detail exactly what we scrutinize in the house and the property due to Mincey v Arizona,” Charles said. “Plus I want to confiscate any caffeine drinks and bulk caffeine.”
“I want to examine the computers for evidence of fraud and embezzlement,” I said.
“We also have to determine if both of them are culprits. What if the wife hasn't a clue what enterprises are going on in his shop. Locating a judge over the coming holidays is tough. I'll have to track one down even if I have to go to the magistrate's house,” Charles said.
“You'll have your work cut out for you once I get the computers. They’ll have passwords and all kinds of electronic safeguards,” Charles said.
“That's what I do. I'm good at my job,” I said.
“There are 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.” Computer Proverb
When we received the search warrant, it specified both the Fitzroy's home computers, RF Products Inc., business equipment and RF Products Inc. financial records. I made sure I listed the exact ingredients involved in making the BUZZ line of drinks plus the raw caffeine.
The day we went to serve the warrant was complicated by the weather. An arctic front forced the jet stream to follow the California/Arizona border, then it dipped down below Tucson and circled around through the middle of New Mexico. Along with the arctic blast, a rogue bulge of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico merged to pour a dangerous mix of icy sleet and freezing snow onto Northern Arizona roads. The temperature in Black Mesa dipped from 45 degrees to 8 degrees above zero Fahrenheit overnight. The Grand Canyon was expected to have a record-setting 34 degrees below zero.
Charles, Michael and I met at the Marshal's office. Charles handed me the warrants. Michael and Charles dressed in tan Stetsons, knifed pleated dark denim jeans, black spit shined boots, blue dress shirts, and bolo ties. They wore bulky tan windbreakers hiding their bulletproof vests. The 'Town of Black Mesa Marshal' stenciled was on the back of their winter coats, and their gold badges were pinned to the front. They had their side arms in holsters.
I wore long johns under my pants and shirt. I had a gold star tacked to my jacket lapel. I wore my uniform from my old Sheriff Joe days. My navy blue pants, black cop shoes, a navy blue polo shirt, a red tie with the state of Arizona seal and a tan 'Town of Black Mesa Marshal' jacket. I also wore a navy blue fur-trimmed cap with the earflaps pressed firmly down over my ears. I carried a can of pepper spray and a Taser on my utility belt, but no gun because I didn't want any slip-ups on my part. Between the bulletproof vest, gear and heavy double layered clothes I waddled after Charles and Michael. I clambered into the Marshal’s Range Rover. It seemed to take an eternity as we drove 10 to 15 miles an hour on the slippery highway.
Charles readied us for the operation. “With this ice storm, the suspects should be hunkered down in their home. Nobody in their right mind will be traveling on icy roads. I40 is shut down from Albuquerque to Bakersfield. Neither Richard nor Gloria knows we suspect them of a crime. If we stay professional, they’ll remain calm. As far as they know this is to gather evidence for Richard’s alleged white-collar crimes. He knows he’s been embezzling money so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Give them a chance to read the warrants, watch out for any sudden moves,” Charles said.
“Minnie you serve the building search warrant to Richard. Michael and I will cover you. We’ll do his garage and barn first. We’ll confiscate his sports drinks and any raw caffeine we find in conjunction with the RF Products Inc. and all financial paperwork. You and I will then take Gloria and the computers next. We’re allowed to obtain possession of the home computers, nothing else in the home,” Charles said.
The snow muffled our arrival. I jumped out of the truck and started to slide. I gained my balance. The driveway was a layer of ice covered in deceptively soft snow topped with freezing sleet. I used my teeth to take my gloves off. My hands froze when the icy drops hit me as I knocked on the front door. I reached into the warmth of my jacket lining, pulled out the search warrant. I handed it to Richard. Richard read over the document, grabbed his keys from the hallway and strolled into the outbuildings.
Richard followed Charles and Michael to his business operations in the barn. Charles and Michael searched for raw caffeine ingredients and caffeine-laced sports drinks. Richard placid eyes gave no hint of turmoil. His disquieting behavior creeped me out, I expected him to explode from aggravation, but this was a white collar crime, so he kept calm,
I knocked again on Gloria’s front door and stated my purpose in a steady, steely voice. “Black Mesa Marshal’s Office. I have a search warrant.”
“ID, badge and paperwork please,” Gloria said politely, as she answered the front door. I showed her my 'Town of Black Mesa Marshal' ID printed with my job title, computer forensic analyst, my picture, my name and badge number.
I handed her the search warrant. She took a few minutes to read the search warrant in detail before permitting me to stand in the open door. Michael loomed behind me. “The search warrant states you are only allowed to take the laptops,” she said as she thrust a banker’s box with the two laptops in my arms. Michael confiscated the two boxes without a word spoken.
“Please sign this receipt,” I asked, presenting her my clipboard and pen as I kept my eyes on her hands while she finished signing off the paperwork. She slammed the front door behind us.
I quick-stepped to the truck with the computers. I exhaled with relief at Richard’s and Gloria’s stoic behavior during the search. Charles, Michael and I loaded the rest of the RF Products Inc. into the truck.
“That went smooth. Good job. You both kept calm and watchful. That’s the way I like an operation to go down,” Charles said as we drove back to the office.
Michael and Charles had become best friends, brothers in arms, with a tight bond. Michael and I respected Charles. I liked his calm demeanor. It made the process go smooth, in spite of my uneasiness. As I came down from my adrenaline rush, my hands shook. I took deep breaths to calm myself down. I was a Geek, not a SWAT guy. I felt nervous serving the warrants, but I had Michael’s and Charles' back no matter what happened. Charles planned the search down to the last detail with alternative ‘what if’ scenarios. He was prepared for any untoward incident. Thanks to Charles' thorough preparation, he took a dangerous situation and kept it under his control.
The Town of Black Mesa law enforcement relied on outside contracts with county and state labs for forensics. Charles informed me he sent RF Products Inc. samples to the Pima County lab for analysis and would have to wait until he got back results.
As I hacked Gloria and Richard’s computers, Michael and Charles questioned more high school and college students, for a lead. Charles also kept a vigilant eye on Gloria and Richard. Small town gossip lighted a fire, every person in Black Mesa kept up with the news that we served a warrant on the Fitzroy’s. People had plenty to talk about in the Black Mesa Café.
I scrutinized the banker’s boxes balanced on the edge of my kitchen table. Richard and Gloria underestimated me, like many people in my past. He seemed to believe the investigation was a mistake. She had a superior attitude when I first met her. Did she think I'm dumb because I had a Missouri accent? I once joked, never underestimate a redneck with a Master’s degree. Criminals deluded themselves when they contemplated matching wits with a computer forensic analyst.
In a click-able Windows universe, the written code was buried deep, users never accessed the real heart of their computers. Windows designers didn’t want anyone to dig any deeper than their cute icons. God forbid if someone used a command in English spelled out in words and letters.
I wanted to trace Gloria and Richard's computer history and cookies buried deep in directory layers. I followed hidden files and their extensions like a bloodhound trails a scent. Everywhere the Internet left a mark, 1K crumbs.
NCC teachers used school-issued laptops for college job performance. The school encouraged teachers to reset preliminary usernames and passwords. Gloria’s personal home computer, an older Toshiba, was about four generations behind college issued laptops had no password. No password to open the laptop. I hit ESCAPE. I checked if Gloria had used her college password for her internet browsing. I cracked Gloria’s computer guessing she utilized her school assigned username: GFitzroy. Her password: Louis Vuitton. Her Facebook page revealed her favorite 18th and 19th-century women authors and innocuous professional books. What I gained from her showed me a house-proud woman who joined professional organizations. She had no pets or kids. I tried LinkedIn. Up popped her college CV (Curricula Vitae) and business résumé.
I searched her history file where she had cruised Internet sites such as home furnishings, decorating and high fashion. She bought clothes on Craigslist. I didn’t find any purchases of caffeine. Her email list was a mess. When I checked her email, she had hundreds of notices from insurance companies, bank statements, casinos, credit cards, loan companies, book clubs, Netflix, and PBS. She didn’t delete or organize anything.
I honed in on banks and insurance companies. Every month on the first was a payment to First Federal Insurance. I remembered when I taught at NCC I had the option of choosing a $50,000 term life insurance policy. I declined because Michael already had a government policy which included his spouse at a nominal fee. I checked out an email receipt from First Federal Insurance. I Googled their term life insurance policies.
I reckoned she was a person who used the same password on every account. I tried her NCC username and password. Gloria’s payment matched to the penny a $500,000 term life insurance policy. She had opted for a family term life insurance policy which included Richard, Gloria and Mrs. Steven. Gloria had checked a box as sole support for her mother. She also had used her mother’s power attorney to sign for life insurance.
The Medical Examiner ruled Mrs. Steven’s death from the autopsy report a caffeine overdose, with high arsenic levels. Using my Black Mesa Marshall’s credentials, I called the insurance company to find out if they had paid out the policy. They were investigating the suspicious circumstances surrounding Mrs. Steven’s death. No money paid out so far.
My search for Richard’s password on his computer proved a challenge. I tried common passwords: password, 123456, qwerty, IloveYou. No hits. Over forty million people used these same passwords on their computers. A rule of thumb for passwords- a secure password is ten to twelve letters, involves special characters, numbers, lowercase and uppercase letters. Every symbol added results in billions of mathematical combinations.
I tried combinations of Richard’s name and business keywords. Success. Username: RFitzroy and password: RFProductsInc. He also used the same username and password for all his sites. I surveyed Richard’s web browsing history. I expected porn sites. Men seem drawn to these virus-laden websites like moths to a flame, but no sign of nasty, weird or freaky downloads.
Richard had bought bulk caffeine on the Internet. I found the caffeine poisoning link. I forwarded Charles vendor receipts, product lists and the supply orders Richard used to make his BUZZ drinks. BUZZ product: 75% water, 20% raw turbinado cane sugar, the rest a tiny bit sea salt and natural food color and organic fruit flavors. Add a teaspoon of pure caffeine for a kick in the 16-ounce bottles. Slap a fancy label on designer glass bottle with stainless steel caps. Add in gullible high school or college sports jocks it equaled a recipe for profit. Ingredients cost Richard five cents per bottle, but fancy glass Eco bottles cost one dollar wholesale. He sold the BUZZ drinks for $4.99 through sports outlets and his website as a healthy alternative to soda or sports drinks. The Fitzroy’s lived paycheck to paycheck in spite his profitable BUZZ business and her college job. House in foreclosure, their bank statements signaled substantial debt.
I also found numerous gambling websites, a way to lose tremendous amounts money fast. It seemed as though Richard favored every casino in northern Arizona. He got reminders and email deals from Hon-Dah, Mazatzal, Cliff Castle, Twin Arrows and Apache Gold.
Arizona, a community property state, made Gloria liable for reparations to local businesses. She was not involved in Richard’s embezzled funds from local companies. Yet I bet the IRS audited them both in the future. Charles had enough evidence to arrest Richard for stealing funds from his clients. Bank statements showed one hundred dollar deposits from Chamber members on a regular monthly basis
I tried to find evidence to tie Gloria to her mother’s death. I suspected the insurance emails were a key to a motive for murder. I talked to the insurance company investigator. He confirmed Mrs. Steven had a $500,000 term life insurance policy. I also relayed to him that Mrs. Steven’s suspicious death was under investigation by Black Mesa Marshall’s office. I further related Gloria and Richard Fitzroy were both served with search warrants. Also, we deemed both husband and wife suspects in Mrs. Steven’s homicide.
With Charles’ permission, I emailed my evidence to the insurance investigator, along with a copy of the DVD. Because insurance fraud involved a civil matter, they withheld a payout check until we resolved Mrs. Steven’s death. The case remained open, no statute of limitations on murder. Gloria had failed to profit from her mother’s demise so far.
“Ar scath a chiele a mhaireann na daoine.
Under the shelter of each other, people survive.” Gaelic proverb.
A few weeks later I wanted to meet Loretta at the Black Mesa Café to thank her for saving my life when I was rushed to the hospital Thanksgiving Day. If not for her quick thinking I would be in a coma or worse. I sat in my favorite booth in the back of the Black Mesa Café.
Rose greeted me with her enthusiastic optimism, “Hey, Minerva, cold today, how ‘bout some hot cocoa. It’s my winter special. One dollar. I include a peppermint candy cane as a stirrer and a big plop of homemade whipped cream.”
“Sure, I’m freezing, can’t get warm today. Sugar and chocolate are my drugs of choice. I’m waiting for Loretta to join me. Send her back here when she comes in, would you?” I said.
“Boy,” Rose said. “I see in the paper where Richard’s been arrested for embezzlement and manslaughter. What the hell was he thinking? I read in the Black Mesa Gazette where the county prosecutor let Gloria go. She’s a sly one. Everyone in town is saying she’s involved someway. Gloria’s been keeping a low profile since she lost her house in a bank foreclosure. She’s moved to Holbrook so she can see Richard until his trial comes up.”
Rose knew all the latest news in town. I listened while she filled me in on the adventures of the infamous Steven clan. “The Steven family stopped coming in on Fridays. They come in separately now. Flynn and Victor hang-out together with the coffee guys. Pearl still comes in with her quilting ladies. Jennifer and Flynn have date nights.”
“There’s Loretta.” Rose waved to Loretta and motioned her to the back where I was waiting. “Hi, Loretta. I miss you. Welcome home. I haven’t seen you since you sold your Mom’s house.”
“I’ll have some coffee. Dang, that temperature dropped. It was 60 yesterday, and today it’s 10 above. We’ve been hit with pneumonia, flu in older patients and RSV kids. I’ve been working double shifts at the hospital. Deborah couldn’t get off today,” Loretta said.
I said. “I want to thank you for saving my life when I went to the hospital.”
“You’re welcome. I’m glad I could help. I recognized the caffeine poisoning symptoms right away. At least arresting Richard has put a stop to the caffeine overdoses. We could have seen more deaths,” she said.
“What have you heard from Gloria about Richard’s arrest?” I asked.
“I called her, but she’s not answering. Gloria and I haven’t spoken. Gloria refuses to defend or discuss Richard’s role in the case. I haven’t seen her since Richard got arrested. I wondered how the caffeine got into Mommy’s coffee. He must have mixed it in the sugar jar when he was making up his sports drinks. I don’t think he did it on purpose. He doesn’t seem the type. It must have been an accident,” she said.
“I hate to say this about your sister, but I believe Gloria was the one who put the caffeine in the sugar jar. I watched her put the poison-laced sugar jar on the table when your family was eating dinner. I have proof on a DVD,” I said. “Although your mother stole the jar back.”
“No, she’s not that mean. Why would she do that to Mommy?” Loretta asked me, shaking her head in denial. “I’m asking her straight. I’m having it out with her right now.”
Loretta looked up. Gloria was sauntering into the restaurant as if she was on a typical lunch break.
“Gloria, over here. Join us. Sit down. I need to ask you something,” Loretta stood up and motioned Gloria over to the table. Gloria had no choice. The conversations in the Café died down. The diners watched the duel between the sisters play out in front of them. There was a year’s worth of gossip to be had with a front row seat. I was caught in the middle.
“Sit here by me. Rose, hot tea NO SUGAR for Gloria. Right, Gloria? Isn’t that what you always want NO SUGAR, no lemon,” Loretta said.
“Yes, that’s right.” Gloria stammered. She was not used to Loretta’s aggressive behavior.
Rose brought the hot tea over and hovered in the background while looking busy wiping nearby tables.
“I’ll be blunt. Look at me. Did you put caffeine in Mommy’s coffee?” Loretta said.
“I’m a good Catholic like Mother. I wouldn’t hurt Mother. I did not put caffeine in Mother’s coffee. The sugar jar had caffeine in it, and Mother put the jar’s contents in her own coffee, not I. Richard must have mistakenly mixed up the jars when he was making his disgusting BUZZ products,” Gloria answered as she looked into Loretta's eyes, and brushed off imaginary crumbs from the table.
“Really. Mommy put the caffeine in her coffee? Is that what you’re telling me?” Loretta said.
“Mother was responsible, not I.” Gloria reiterated as she fingered her gold necklace.
“You bitch. You are lying. I raised you. Don’t you think I know when you’re telling a bald-faced lie to me?” Loretta bellowed.
“No, I didn’t put it in her coffee. She did,” Gloria insisted. She coughed delicately into her elbow.
“You hurt Mommy. I’ll never forgive you. Go to church. Swear on a stack of bibles. Go to confession. It won’t do you any good. I know what you did. How could you?” Loretta broke down, sobbing with her face hidden in her hands. “Get away from me. Get out of my sight. I’m going to watch you like a hawk. Nobody else in the family better get sick. I’m on to your lying tricks.”
Dignified, Gloria gathered her designer bag in front of her chest for protection from her sister’s wrath. She held her chin up and defiantly strode out of the café.
The café was silent. The only sound was Loretta’s broken-hearted sobs. Loretta wiped her nose with a napkin and balled it up.
“I raised her from a baby girl. How could she? Why she do this?” She implored us.
“She did it. She and Richard were deeply in debt. They’ve lost everything,” I said as I patted Loretta’s arm, trying to comfort her. “She did it for the money. Richard is in jail. The prosecuting attorney believes Richard put the caffeine in the sugar jar by accident. The truth will come out.” I said. Rose and I sat with Loretta until she had calmed down.
“I guess I have to tell Deborah. She’ll have a hard time believing what I know to be true. But she has to face facts like I did, Gloria lied to me,” Loretta said. She sighed as she rose from the table. She somberly made her way out of the café and closed the door leaving shocked silence behind her.
The buzz of conversation rose. Everyone in the café had an opinion. Soon the news and gossip would spread throughout the town. Gloria would be a social pariah. I left the restaurant and pondered over what had come out. I was meeting Michael later at Charles’ and Sunny’s home. I had some last minute items to bring to their party.
In a mid-January lag after the holidays, Sunny had invited Michael and me over to watch the National Hockey League All-Star game. The Coyotes were Charles favorite hockey team since he moved to Arizona. Sunny and Charles had an annual fiesta party. Everyone wore Coyote team jerseys. I could understand hockey a lot easier than football. Hockey was a fast, exciting game. Get the puck in the net, try not to get clobbered.
Sunny laid out a typical Arizona Mexican fiesta buffet spread: beef and chicken mini Chimichangas, red sauce, green sauce, shredded beef tacos, and fish tacos. Disguised vegetables lurked on the sidelines, guacamole, refried beans cooked with tequila, fresh tortilla chips, homemade salsa, blue corn tamales, black beans and rice, and seven layer bean dip. A nod to healthy eating was a fresh spinach and radicchio salad garnished with olive oil from the Olive Farm in the valley and apple cider vinegar from southern Arizona.”
During the commercial breaks, Michael helped Charles restock the bar with Luna Malveda and Mexican Moonshine tequila, sweet tea, and homemade lime/lemonade. Sunny had the blender set for margaritas. Charles also offered choice Arizona wines: Caitlin's 2009, Claire's 2009 and Back Lot 2012, and a local brew from Flagstaff, Piehole Porter. Off the grid friends of Charles had given him homemade mead.
I helped Sunny get the buffet ready. I warmed the flour tortillas for the burritos while Sunny fixed the corn tortillas for tacos. She liked them baked instead of the standard fried tacos. She also made her own fresh Southwestern corn salsa with lots of chopping of vegetables involved.
“Charles told me the Sheriff arrested Richard for embezzlement of the Chamber of Commerce businesses and manslaughter for causing the accidental death of Mrs. Steven,” Sunny said. “Gloria was also a person of interest, but they let her go.”
“I gave Navajo county all the evidence in the case. The prosecuting attorney refused to bring manslaughter charges against Gloria. He also was afraid the DVD evidence which showed Gloria putting the caffeine-laced sugar jar on the table in the Black Mesa Café would not be enough to get a 1st-degree murder charge,” Charles stated as he filled our drinks.
“When I interrogated her, Gloria insisted that she was returning the stolen property to Rose. Gloria signed a statement at her interview that she was embarrassed by her mother’s petty thefts and didn’t want people in town to know her Mother was a kleptomaniac,” Michael said.
“The DVD showed how Gloria's mother stole the poisoned jar from the table, and that Gloria’s mother, not Gloria stole the poisoned jar,” I continued. “I handled the jar at Mary’s hoarder house and the Café. Rose handled the jar. The prosecutor believed the judge could rule the poisoned sugar jar was not admissible evidence if the trial went to the jury. A defense attorney could argue that anyone else could have put caffeine in the sugar jar when it was on the table at the Café.”
“What about Richard?” Sunny asked.
“The county attorney did a plea bargain with Richard,” I said. “Gloria and Richard both had a motive for murdering Mrs. Steven. They gambled heavily at the casinos and easily blew more than five hundred thousand dollars. They've lost the house to foreclosure. They couldn’t raise bond money. Their bank accounts are frozen. Gloria blames Richard.”
“He's in the Navajo county jail awaiting sentencing, and he’ll end up at the prison in Winslow,” Charles said. “The Sheriff’s office confiscated all the dangerous RF BUZZ products we found. He's charged with embezzlement, and he's done an Alford plea to the embezzling charges. In return, the county attorney dropped the manslaughter charge. Richard denied putting caffeine in the sugar jar but admitted to concocting the caffeine-laden sports drinks to make extra money off the student-athletes. Logically he was the one who put the caffeine poison in the sugar jar.”
Michael added, “Gloria blames everything on Richard. Gloria said if he hadn't lost his job they wouldn't have been in foreclosure. She admitted when I interviewed her she needed the life insurance money to save her home. She lucked out not having to go in front of a jury.”
“The timed guest checks from the Black Mesa Café could have backed up the manslaughter case against Gloria if the prosecutor would have diligently pursued the charges. He wanted a quick, easy solution to the case not justice for Mrs. Steven,” I said in rebuttal. “The Autopsy document on Mrs. Steven reported she died due to caffeine poison. The bag of caffeine and serial number found on shelf canister in Richard's man cave matched the same chemical ID as Mrs. Steven’s stomach contents and the sugar jar laced with caffeine.”
Charles said, “Once a case goes to the county prosecutor it’s out of our hands. We did our best.”
“The DVD plainly showed the prosecutor that Gloria placed the jar on the table in front of Mrs. Steven. Gloria knew full well Mrs. Steven poured the caffeine-laced sugar in the black decaf coffee,” I added, “I also found out Gloria and Richard had an additional $500,000 executive insurance policy on Mrs. Steven as head of Steven’s cattle company, and Steven’s Sand and Gravel. There’s no payoff so far for a suspicious death. The insurance company will deal with Gloria in Civil Court. They will probably use our evidence we gathered to deny the claim. I’ll see to it that she’ll never get the insurance money.”
“One of my widow ladies called me. The gossip around town says Gloria acts harder hit by losing her home in foreclosure than when her mother died,” Sunny said. “I heard tell Gloria and Loretta had a shouting match in the Café. Loretta accused Gloria of lying to everyone. Loretta raised Gloria from the time Gloria was nine years old and knew by her behavior Gloria lied. Loretta is going to be watching every move that Gloria makes from now on.”
I said, “How could a person put possessions above family?”
Charles said. “I learned stuff doesn't matter. Family matters. During the Rodeo/Chediski fire, I worked on the fire crew. Sunny was alone with the boys. I flew off the handle because I couldn’t get to my family on the other side of the ridge in Heber/Overgaard. The guys had to take my away my truck keys. I was determined to walk over the mountain to get her and the children. Just as I was fixin’ to take off, she drove up to camp. My family was a beautiful sight for my sore eyes.”
“I had a one-hour warning to leave our home,” Sunny said. “My kids went to the car first. I grabbed family documents and my mother's quilts. Anything I could buy at Wal-Mart I left behind. I tied a white rag on the door; left the door unlocked and didn't look back. Everything we had worked for since we got married was burnt to the ground. I stayed in a hotel near Snowflake/ Taylor for a month. We were blessed when Charles got the job in Black Mesa as town Marshal. I was happy Charles, and the children were safe. That's all that mattered.”
We sat around the table musing how close each of us had come to losing our lives in nature’s uncontrollable wrath. We survived. We learned the lesson: family and friends matter. No amount of possessions could ever replace a human being.
“The greater the love, the greater the hate.” Irish Proverb
Events of the Previous Spring Break
On the Friday Night of Mrs. Steven’s Murder
Gloria Steven Fitzroy went through her usual morning routine on a glorious Friday in April. It was spring break at the college. She loved her prestigious job as the English Department Chair at Navapache Community College. She spent the best part of her day talking to educated people.
Meticulous about checking off her to-do list, she couldn't forget the sugar jar for the coffee. Last night before going to bed, she had put the item in her favorite Louis Vuitton handbag. She had to act like this was another ordinary Friday.
Her clothes demonstrated a tall, elegant woman who glided into her car. She had once worked as a manager for an exclusive spa in Scottsdale before her husband's job move forced her to live back in this horrible town in the middle of nowhere to teach English. Gloria had good taste; designer bags, expensive shoes, and tailored clothes, but no one knew about her shameful visits down the mountain to Scottsdale thrift and consignment stores.
Nothing seemed to work out, in spite of her best efforts. As an excellent gourmet cook, she was proud no one could resist her homemade treats. Gloria put oleanders in her famous strawberry spinach salad, arsenic in the tasty almond divinity she gave her mother for Christmas, and even sweet strawberry hand sanitizer glaze in the strawberry pie. Her mother had gobbled all the fancy delicacies. Mother was hale and hearty. What was Gloria doing wrong?
She handled the bills. Richard, her husband, gave her his paycheck and she did the finances, as it should be if two people want to get ahead. Although lately, he was getting on her nerves; sitting around her exquisite home after being laid off from his job as an accountant at the Paper Mill. Richard was too young for social security and too old to hire. Unemployment ran out long ago. He puttered around by doing people's taxes and selling his disgusting BUZZ drinks to unsuspecting students.
Thank goodness it was tax season. Gloria had tapped out their 401K to make house payments. She felt alone and responsible for saving her dream home. The first bank foreclosure notice had sent her into a panic. Since she was her mother's executor and had a power of attorney, she would have a $500,000 check coming to her from the insurance company when her mother died. Her home or her mother were her two inevitable choices.
She shouldn't have started to gamble at the casino. At first, she hit it big for over $20,000. That helped her get caught up in the house payments to the bank, but the gambling fever hit her. She'd lost more and more as she tried to recoup her losses.
The chemistry professor at the college had given her a perfect idea. He told her, in casual conversation, a tablespoon of pure caffeine would kill a full grown horse. Richard was puttering around in the garage with his sports drinks. He would never miss a spoonful of caffeine.
She felt a shiver of excitement. The family payday Friday obligatory dinner with her mother was tonight. No one else in the family drank black decaf coffee except her mother. Mother used a lot of sugar in her coffee. Pure caffeine and sugar, both white powders, dissolved fast.
At the family meal, Gloria planned to add in the caffeine-laced sugar into her Mother's coffee. Then Gloria intended to hide the sugar jar in her Louis Vuitton handbag during the commotion. Nobody would notice.
She could picture the scenario: The EMTs rush Mother to Summit Hospital, and she dies there at last. After all, Mother is in her late 80's, with high blood pressure. She reasoned no one will suspect a beautiful, elegant, ladylike Gloria.
That Friday morning Gloria approached the Black Mesa Café. A hand-painted sign emblazoned the window: HOME OF THE CRAZY BURRO! The little burnt red brick house had a dozen old signs nailed to the front entrance: Coca-Cola, Texaco, Eat-at-Mom's, Camel Cigarettes, Beeman's Chewing Gum, even Route 66.
She sighed. She couldn't escape tacky. The family picked this little diner every Friday. Why couldn't they go somewhere nice for a change like the Steak House in Show Low, she wondered? At least the Steak House had a real dining room, with beautiful art, white tablecloths, and napkins.
She hated Mexican food. The smell of beans cooking hit her in the face. The diner was antiquated. Behind the dented mahogany counter, was a smeary beveled glass mirror, spotted ice cream parlor spigots, and lumpy swivel stools with tarnished chrome shoe kicks.
Gloria made sure she was an hour early before the lunch rush. She found a seat in the back. The waitress plunked down a menu.
“Hi, Gloria, your usual?” the waitress asked.
“Hello, Rose. I know what I want. I'll have a glass of unsweetened tea, no lemon, a chef salad, vinegar and oil on the side, and no croutons. I need to discuss the reservation arrangements for tonight's family gathering. Are you able to sit for a moment?” Gloria asked.
“Sure, give me a sec to get your order in. Be right back. Let me grab a cup of coffee, and I'll set a minute,” Rose said.
Gloria didn't understand how Rose liked a job as a lowly waitress when Rose owned the restaurant. If Gloria owned the restaurant, she imagined herself as a hostess, greeting people, dressed professionally not grubbing around in food all day. She would not wear jeans, cowboy boots, and a western shirt, nor would her hair be tied up in a ponytail like Rose. Ugh, cowgirl chic.
Rose set a cup of coffee down and plopped into the chair. “Boy, my feet are killing me. We were swamped at breakfast. Feels terrific to sit a spell. What's up?” Rose said.
“I need to reserve the entire back booth for tonight, we'll arrive at 4:30 p.m. before the dinner rush. You know Mother likes to eat early. The whole family will be here. Mother has important news for us,” Gloria said.
“Nine adults and one child, right?” Rose said as she took notes.
“Yes, I don't know why Flynn insists on bringing that baby to an adult function, but there you are. Can you make sure we are in the back? Also, the child needs a high chair, as far away from me as possible. Here's Mother’s seating chart, can you make seating cards for the table?” Gloria asked.
“Sure, It'll take a minute to run them off on my printer. Give me the seating chart layout,” Rose said.
“Mother will sit at the head of the table. I will sit on her right, then Richard will sit next to me, Loretta and Deborah can sit next to him. The twins don't mind getting baby food slopped on them, they're always dressed in scrubs anyway. Flynn, his wife, Jennifer, and the child will sit at the opposite end of the table from us. Make sure the baby is on the outside as far away from me as possible. Victor will sit on Mother's left side and his wife, Pearl, will sit next to him,” Gloria said, as she handed Rose the battle plan. “Do you have any questions?”
“No, I suppose everyone will eat their favorite food,” Rose said.
“Yes, everything will be exactly as it usually is every Friday night.” Gloria smiled. “Make sure you make a fresh pot of decaf coffee for Mother. You know how Mother likes her sugar with a dash of coffee.”
“Yeah, I have to refill the sugar jar after she leaves. It's a wonder she's not diabetic.” Rose said.