Sunday, April 14, 2019

Tornado Season In Missouri

Tornado Season in Golden City, Missouri

          On Memorial weekend last year, I treated the girls to a mommies’ day out. We ordered lunch at Cookies, a local Mom and Pop diner, then corralled the great-grandkids by seating each one between an adult. A joke around town was:
          “What do you do for fun in Golden City?”
          “Eat pie at Cookies.”
          Lunch was a success of controlled chaos. Granddaughters, Summer, Katy, and Megan, caught me up on the latest family scandals. My girls had a wicked sense of humor, inherited from ‘GMA’ my alias on the internet.        
          “G Ma, you’re older than dirt,” Megan teased me.
          We lingered over pie. “Yep, when I read ‘2000’ as a sci-fi nut, I thought the millennium was an eternity away.”
          “I’m a millennium baby,” said Megan who was born in 2000.
          “My grandma Helen, a 1900  millennium child, and flapper danced up a storm. Charleston, Black Bottom, Twenty-three skiddo, and the cat’s meow. She had bobbed hair, and wore knee-length dresses,” I recalled.
          Baby Millie had fallen asleep, and the other toddlers nodded off with full tummies. Connor, the daredevil, Memphis, the car guy, and dinosaur expert Aiden had pooped out from their busy day at the park.
          While the moms strapped the kids in the SUV, I paid the bill. How did they control two kids each and the laborious task of buckling up car seats? I had six kids B.C., before car seats. Remembering my children, a new baby, a one-year-old, the three-year-old twins, a five-year-old, and an eleven-year-old made me tired. How did anyone with a big family manage a trip?
          When we got home, the girls unbuckled the children and carried tired bodies into the house. I grabbed the purses, diaper bags, Sippy cups, blankets, and shoes. Taking four young children out for an occasion was like preparing for a camping adventure.
          As I shooed the family into the house, four cell phones blared at once. I grabbed my phone. Tornado watch meant to prepare for tornadoes and an emergency coming from the southwest. Lamar was twenty minutes away from Golden City. I inspected the radar map sprinkled with blotches of green and angry orange/red swirls. The hooks told me of an impending tornado on the ground. NOAA* sends a warning which gives people 24 minutes to seek shelter. We had a 50/50 chance of the tornado being an F3, the average for Missouri.
          “Where are the tornado shelters?” I asked.
          “Across the street. At the school,” Summer pointed.
          “Let’s go. Grab the kids. Hurry, the weather looks intense.”
          We ran out the front door. Black clouds roiled in the Southwest, lightning flashed. We made it to the schools’ double doors.
          A sign read ‘push intercom.’ I pushed and then rattled the locked doors and heard no answer from inside the building. Tornado season sirens blasted my ears.
          “Where is the person in charge?” I peered into the windows. A red farm truck drove up to the school.
          “Why is it locked?” I grilled the driver.
          “Head for home. They’re gone this weekend, and the only ones with keys,” he said.
          Cold air from Canada and warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico spawn tornados. They range from summer dust devils to a massive 30-mile long and a mile wide killing machine. No state is safe, but Missouri tops the list for the most violent tornados. I was not ignoring this warning.
          We dashed back across the street. The tornado sirens screamed. The beast was imminent. My phone flashed red: warning a tornado sighted. Only 15 minutes left to get my family to safety. Children wailed. Phones blared. We rushed into the house. The sturdy brick one-story ranch house had no basement only a narrow crawl space.
          “Summer, put the babies in the bathtub. Megan, snatch Aiden’s mattress and bedding. Katy, grab their bicycle helmets from the toy box.” I said.
          Then I ran to my bedroom and stripped my bed of heavy winter quilts. Only 10 minutes left when my little dog Tyler ran under the bed as I lunged for him.
          “Okay, dog you’re on your own,” I thought.
          I pulled my large office chair through the hall to the windowless bathroom. The kids and babies piled into the tub. Megan held Connor; Katy cradled Millie in a carrier; Summer squished Memphis and Aiden beneath her. The dual bathtub/shower stall and sturdy interior walls protected them. No room left for me. Besides, I was older than dirt, had lived a long life, and needed to save my children. Three generations sheltered in my home.
          Our enormous black dog panted and slobbered. Rex’s tail beat on the sink vanity when he squeezed himself behind the toilet. I locked the bathroom door and braced it with the heavy-duty furniture. No time left. I resigned myself to the office chair pulling a quilt over my head.        
          A siren warned. I waited for hours, but my cell phone indicated 15 minutes passed. Trouble found us, a 50/50 chance of an F3. Winds moaned. Screen doors slammed. Glass shattered. Trees outside groaned. Things battered the siding. The siren died. When I examined my cell phone, the hook had gone west of us past Lockwood.
          My family survived the tornado. Katy cradled Millie while Summer, Megan, and I emerged from our bathroom mama bears’ den. Toddlers trailed behind us. Strong winds tore off a strip of siding from the garage and shingles from the barn roof. Toys tossed. Neighbors rolled our trampoline home from its airborne flight over three fields. Lawn chairs scattered like fallen dominoes. Swings tipped on their side. The screen door hung by a single screw No cars dented. The trashcans ended up behind the barn.
          Weather reports stated the tornado missed Golden City, Lamar, and Lockwood. Because it had gone on a crooked path through open fields, it rated an F0, with no significant damage to buildings.
          Tornadoes are similar to a paper towel roll. A storm front revolves in a horizontal direction, the colder upper air forces itself over lower warm moist air. When one end tips vertical to the ground the cloud becomes dangerous. Rotation builds up speed, spinning the monster faster.
          When I was a girl in Wisconsin, my terrified mother watched out the southwest kitchen window for a tornado. The radio kept a constant chatter. Two brothers, sister, and I lodged on the stairs waiting to duck into the basement. Later my father drove us around town, and I gawped at the sight of a large yacht sitting atop a gas station. The memory has never left me.
          Damage from an average tornado in Missouri is F3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. F0: ripped gutters, siding, shingles, open fields. F1:broken tree branches, power poles, flying debris. F2:mobile homes flipped. F3: trains tossed, roofs destroyed. F4:houses leveled, cars air borne. F5: schools, houses, churches, malls, leveled, Hospitals blasted in Joplin on graduation day May 22, 5:41 pm.   
          If you find yourself at Cookies when tornado-warning sirens sound, go straight to the church across from Dollar General, or the one by the fire station. Proven reliable in an emergency backup people will have keys to the shelters.

*National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration see

Saturday, March 16, 2019

FREE ARC Murder@ the Black Mesa Salon Ch 1-7

Murder@ the Black Mesa Salon Book 2
ARC Sample
A Minerva Doyle Mystery (Book 2) 
Pre-order: Summer 2019
© Marty Knox

Chapter 1-August

“Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage.” 
Shakespeare. Twelfth Night

     “They pester me to death. Everybody wants grades now but waits until the end to turn in their assignments. I could just kill them,” I said. 
     “Let it pass. We’re headed to Carriage Lake. Want to join us?” My husband, Michael asked. 
     “Summer semester ends Friday. They deserve a big fat F for lateness,” I grumbled.
     “Minnie, you’re too soft on deadlines. No means no. Warn your folks you don’t tolerate late work. Period,” Michael said. 
Easy for a Marine to enforce. But, not so simple for a college teacher who required people to succeed despite lax self-discipline.
     “The students have so much going on between working full time, raising a family, and taking classes there’s no margin for Murphy’s Law,” I said.
     “The boys and I are getting one more fishing day under our belts. Truck’s loaded, and we’re leaving soon. Have to grab Tommy and Max’s snacks. Coming or not?” He said.
     Once he decided, there was no stopping him. He kissed me on my cheek and strode into the kitchen to pack a picnic lunch. Should I give up another weekend with Michael and the boys to grade late papers? This outing was the last chance for Michael to take them fishing before school started back east. 
     The heck with grading. I needed a rest and a break. Sunshine, fresh air, and no one nagging me about their grades sounded fantastic. I blasted a group e-mail, punched send, and closed my laptop. Michael was right; I was too lenient with the few students who tried my patience.
     My favorite D-backs t-shirt from the drawer, comfy jeans, and red Justin Ropers completed my vacation attire, and I dressed in two minutes. Max collided into me as he dashed downstairs in a noisy burst of energy. 
     “Minnie Mommie, we’re ready to leave,” Max said. He was eight, with Michael’s black hair, intense blue eyes, and long eyelashes. Max reminded me of the boy in my favorite childhood book ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’
     Michael’s oldest son, Thomas, proceeded into the living room at a dignified pace. Thomas was an awkward sober bookish eighteen-year-old. His pants never fit his skinny 6’ 4” frame. Dreadlocks framed his face, and intelligent, warm brown eyes peered owlishly out at me. What to call me, Minerva, Minnie, or Mrs. Doyle?
     The debate escalated because I was Michael’s second wife and the boy’s new stepmother. Minerva hit his passion for ancient Latin and Greek legends, so he picked the dignified sobriquet Minerva Mater. Okay by me. I didn’t plan to replace their mother. Nevertheless, I loved them as much as my children. 
     “Let’s go, fish don’t stick around for us to catch ‘em,” Michael said.
     The boys piled onto the jump seats in Michael’s beat-up old Chevy truck. Then I hung on and snapped my seat belt tight while we bumped over the rutted dirt lane to Carriage Lake. 
When we arrived at the lake, Michael set up the poles, cooler, grill, folding chairs, and tent. My idea of fishing was to lie on a bank and read a book. Thomas raided one of my favorite books from the library, ‘The War of the Worlds.’
     Michael fished in his old hip waders. He was trying out the new camouflage jacket I bought for our second wedding anniversary. The old one shredded last summer when he worked part-time as a Deputy helping the Marshal, Charles Dubois, with an arrest 
Carriage Lake formed when the WPA dammed the Rio de Plata, a tributary of the Little Colorado River. Farmers and ranchers around the town depended on the irrigation canals. Moisture was late this year, and the shoreline was low. 
     The Weather Channel predicted a hurricane off the coast of Baja California barreling up the Sea of Cortez, which meant more precipitation than the looming Black Mesa volcanic outcrop, could handle. Meteorologists estimated four to six inches of rain in one day when we were lucky to get twenty-four inches a year. The authorities had to let water out of the dam soon to prepare for monsoon season.
     A brisk wind smelled of fresh grass and wildflowers with an undertone of moldy decay. I spread an old quilt under a towering cottonwood tree. Thomas and I settled in with our books while the more adventurous Max waded in the lake with Michael. 
Laying my book aside, I left behind my favorite lady detective, Precious, to her land of Botswana. Butterflies soared in the breeze, and I relaxed in the shade. Then I closed my eyes savoring the peace. 
     “Minerva Mater, do you mind if I go rock hunting? There’s volcanic glass and petrified wood around here.”
     “Sure, my friend Flynn told me that Sunset Crater near Flagstaff was once a caldera that blew up a thousand years ago. The blast scattered ash and debris for hundreds of miles.”
     “Do you think we’ll get to see Meteor Crater? Father promised to take us there,” he asked.
     “On my bucket list for you boys. You’ll love it. The astronauts practiced their moonwalks in it,” I said.
     Thomas had surprised Michael and me when he informed us of his acceptance to the University of Arizona instead of a college back east. Planetary Geology was his passion. 
Michael had been receiving daily rants from his ex-wife. She hadn’t been able to dissuade Michael or Thomas of the choice they made. Michael was overjoyed his son had picked a university in Arizona. 
     I stretched my legs and followed Thomas on his quest for hidden science treasures. 
     “Look, I’ve got fossils.” Thomas’ keen eyes found Apache Tears, an ammonite, and two shark’s teeth. He was ecstatic.
     “Wash them in the water. You can observe details better when they’re wet,” I suggested. 
     While Thomas washed his geologic finds, I maintained an eye out for rattlesnakes. The reptiles liked the cool damp sand and could swim. As I gazed out over Carriage Lake, I detected a rusted piece of red metal. Someone had abandoned a vehicle. Waves lapped the car roof. I stepped closer for a better view. Then I noticed the hood sticking cockeyed in the water. What idiot dumped an auto in a recreational lake?
     People trashed old cars in washes because they didn’t want to hassle with the Arizona Department of Transportation. The government failed to understand a POS rust bucket was not a brand new Mercedes. An impossible task, Michael dealt with a ton of paperwork for a lawful title to a ditched automobile left in the wash behind our home so he could junk it.
     “Michael, watch out there’s a wreck in the lake don’t get your line hooked on it. Look out for snakes.” I called out.
     “Okay, I’ll check out the vehicle,” he hollered. He waded over to the submerged metal.
     “What is it?” I wondered how long it was marooned in there.
     “Take the boys back to the Chevy, now,” Michael yelled.
I hustled both of them into the truck while he splashed on shore. He clumped up to the tailgate. Were drugs deposited in the wreck?
     “Minnie, come here a minute. I need to talk to you. You guys stay in your seats.”
     “What’s wrong?” 
     “I found two bodies in the car. Alert Charles. Tell him to get out here ASAP. I’ll secure the perimeter.”
“Michael, no signal. We’re in a dead zone. I have to reach the highway, past the Black Mesa, to find one.”
     “I’ll stay. Call Dubois,” Michael said. 
     “Where are we going? What is Father doing?” Thomas asked as I hopped in the driver’s seat.
     “I have to text the Marshal. Don’t worry your Dad is fine. He’ll keep an eye out on our stuff,” I said.
      In the boondocks, no bars flashed because of the volcanic Black Mesa. I revved the Chevy and barreled along the dirt road heading away from Carriage Lake. When I approached old Route 66, I had a cell phone signal. As my truck lurched to a stop on the embankment, I jumped out and slammed the door behind me.
    “Be right back, boys. Don’t get out.” I explained to the youngsters. “Making a quick call to the Marshal. Your Dad found a car in the water.” While reassuring them, I dashed far enough away from them until they didn’t hear me.
      “Charles, Minerva here. I detected a wrecked vehicle in Carriage Lake. Michael spotted two bodies in it. Bring the county team and meet me back at the lake. Yes, Michael secured the scene.”

Chapter 2-August

“The only truly dead are those who have been forgotten.” 
Irish proverb.

     Michael stayed behind at Carriage Lake to secure the scene of the crime. He contacted the Navajo County Sheriff and Medical Examiner. News of a car found with two bodies circulated at the diner, grocery market, feed store, and churches. Self-appointed posse members from the Town of Black Mesa considered it a sacred duty to keep the peace. No snooping was off limits. They kept tuned to their police scanners.
     While driving over the dusty back road from Carriage Lake to our house, I was not in my usual cheery, optimistic mood. Not wanting to answer questions, I turned Reba on full blast. The boys sensed there was more to the incident at the lake than they heard. For now, mom goal: get them home safe. 
     Silence. Nothing from the kids. Subdued, they gazed out the windows. No teasing or bantering. Too quiet. 
Thomas, the elder, a wise man of eighteen, suspected more tidings from me regarding the day’s events. Younger eight-year-old Max disappointed our day at the lake fishing was cut short, pouted with crossed arms.
     I didn’t know how to explain the event to them. Tell the truth without the gory details? As their step-mother, I loved them as much as my grown-up children. My job as a mother, protecting them from ugly movies and violent shows while knowing the real world was more horrifying than any fictional tale.
     After bringing the boys home, I tried to normalize the event.
    “How does pizza sound for supper? I’ve got to pick up Dad at the lake,” I said. “Thomas, can you babysit Max?”
    “I use the microwave at Mom’s house. I’m a good cook,” Max announced.
    “There’s popcorn on the shelf, Max. You make a snack while Thomas bakes the pizza in the oven,” I suggested. I squished him tight and ruffled his hair. “You’re getting to be a big boy.”
    “I can handle it, Minerva Mater. I’ll take care of Max, don’t worry. Make sure Dad is okay,” Thomas said.
     “Turn on the ‘Cars’ movie for Max, it’s based on old Route 66, and the cement tepees in Holbrook. There’s a dinosaur park there too,” I said. I wanted to focus the boy’s attention away from the news. “Lock the doors. Don’t answer to anyone until Dad and I get home.”
    When I arrived at Carriage Lake, I parked far away from the perimeter, so as not to further contaminate the spectacle. Michael carried a crime scene toolbox in the back of his truck. I saved my boy’s shoes and mine in a bag, so the county excluded our tracks around the lake. 
    Michael thumbed through his ever-present black-and-white striped notebook. “Thought I’d save us work,” he said. “Vehicle submerged an indefinite period. The two bodies are skeletons. I didn’t touch the wreck. Wrote the time of day, the weather, and the water depth. Victims and car sunk in a fresh lake. Kept track of the ambient air and water temperature too.” 
      Michael dressed in his waders and fishing gear, passed the time by taking as many notes as possible without disturbing the area while he waited for me. His keen senses absorbed the deadly offense. 
     “A storm’s rolling in, monsoon season soon. I hope the county forensics team gets here before it hits,” I said.
Shivering in the August warmth, I wasn’t freezing. The thought of the bodies in the car, submerged in death, gave me the creeps. Who were they? How did we not smell the rotting corpses while picnicking? How long did it take the Carriage Lake water level to lower enough to discover them?
     “Took pictures of the auto and victims for our case,” Michael added. Meanwhile, he shaded his eyes with his hand and examined the storm clouds banked over the looming volcanic outcrop.
Charles arrived without fanfare. He parked his classic 1959 El Camino by Michael’s primer gray Chevy. Marshal Dubois followed me to the edge of Carriage Lake. Charles kept his fishing and hunting gear ready in the vehicle, along with crime scene paraphernalia. He pulled on his hip waders and met Michael at the junked car. 
     “Minerva spied a roof when she was on the shore. She hollered at me to look inside,” Michael said. “Waded over to it, took a quick glance in the car, and discovered two bodies,” Michael said. “She called you when she got a clear signal. I stayed here, so no one touched it.”
     “Let’s get the perimeter secured until the county people set up the mobile forensics lab. Called them before I left. It’ll take a half hour from Holbrook. That elephant of a vehicle will be lucky to make it on this dirt road.” Charles exuded his usual calm hawk-like demeanor. He observed and listened more than gabbed. 
     Stuffing my shaking hands in my pockets kept an illusion of outward control. My grim clenched teeth betrayed my horror at finding the couple in the lake. Nothing good came from the tragedy. My soul went out to the victim’s families who never knew what happened to their loved ones year after year. 
     Was it better to know your missing relatives were dead or continue to hope? When does the grieving family realize their babies will never return home? The stunning announcement of a devastating discovery at the lake on the nightly news brought the awful truth crushing their dreams.
     Charles used me as a consultant for the myriad of technology crimes that came up in the Town of Black Mesa. He deputized me on an as-needed basis. My former career as a Cyber Forensics expert for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office meant I was a computer nerd. Give me data, search engines, electronics, computers, scammers, cameras, identity thieves, and trolls. No blood, guts, guns, or muck for me.
     Michael retired from the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco, and Explosives (ATF) before we got married last year. Charles snagged Michael for Black Mesa’s local law enforcement team. They had worked together on a case concerning college students who overdosed on toxic sports drinks, and they solved the fatal poisoning of an elderly woman. Now Michael worked full time for Marshal Charles Dubois as a Deputy Marshal.
     Navajo County contained more square miles than European countries and a few eastern states. The terrain ranged from volcanic deposits, lakes, dry washes, deep canyons, and meteor strikes to a petrified forest. It featured a jagged 5000-foot plateau that froze in the winter and boiled in the summer. The population included a variety of Native Americans, ranchers, cowboys, preppers, sheepherders, miners, small-town folks, forest service, park rangers, business owners, college kids, tourists, and the usual assortment of miscreants. 
     Navajo County Sheriff’s Department won a grant. Their share of the confiscated drug money from the feds outfitted a Winnebago as a mobile crime lab. 
     The county mobile crime lab behemoth pulled up to the scene. Then a Medical Examiner’s assistant from Holbrook followed close behind, his SUV bumping on the rocky primitive road. They brought a team of search and rescue divers from Holbrook for the recovery of the bodies.
     While the divers suited up in their gear, we waited. We kept the boundary secured for them, so the county officers examined and inspected the scene of the crime unhindered.
     We abided onshore and allowed the mobile forensics lab people to do their expensive expert work. The Town of Black Mesa had no money for this high degree of crime scene scrutiny. Black Mesa’s law enforcement budget covered costs for the Marshal, a dispatcher, a Deputy Marshal, a consultant, and interns from the Navapache Community College Police Academy but not much else. I wrote several government grants for the town Marshal, but receiving the money for a computer and forensic upgrades was a waiting game. 
     The Navajo County Medical Examiner’s Office in Holbrook accepted corpses for evaluation. Then the M.E. determined if the bodies go to the Pima County Medical Examiner for an autopsy and toxicology analysis. We’d get the final report sent to us. There was nothing else to do but wait and support the Navajo County Sheriff’s Department. We huddled together making plans.
     “I need to thumb through my local missing persons’ reports while we’re waiting for the M.E.’s report,” Charles said.
     “Plus I can search the national missing person databases for people who disappeared around here,” I volunteered, “then print out names and dates for you.” 
       Michael agreed. “Made a quick note of the car make and model from my visual check. I’ll match it to the stolen vehicle list. At least we’ll get a preliminary probe done on our end.” 
      Divers searched the crime scene starting outside the sunken car and meticulously worked their way around the vehicle. They made a map grid as they closed in on the wreck. Before towing the automobile out of the lake, the two bodies were removed first. Using colored buoys, the recovery team marked the body bags while they lifted the victims out of the submerged metal.
     The cool breeze of the gathering storm brought the biting scent of cedar trees. Mixed with it, a miasma of dead fish overwhelmed us as the divers struggled with lifting the body bags into the SUV. One of the forensic team gagged. 
     “Oh my God, what a stench.” I sprinted upwind from the divers toward Michael and Charles.
     Michael commented, “That’s not how I wanted my last fishing trip of the season to end.”
     “Nope, won’t be fishing in that lake,” Charles said. “You two get the data searches completed. I’ll finish up with the Holbrook folks. Want to make sure I’m kept in the loop.”
      “We own a stake in this inquiry,” Michael stated.
     “Trust me. I’ve never given up on my missing person's cases,” Charles said.

Chapter 3 August

“I do repent the tedious minutes I with her have spent.” 
Shakespeare. Midsummer Night’s Dream

     Michael avoided conflict and preferred to bury his head in his computer than face up to the difficult task ahead. I got the drinks packed for a day trip to Meteor Crater while Michael made the boy’s favorite sandwiches. 
     Michael said, “I’ll tell the boys regarding the lake incident.” 
     “Do it soon. Tommy and Max are bound to find out in the Black Mesa Gazette, or on a wacko internet news feed. This is a small town. It’s not a back east city. Why hasn’t your phone been ringing?”
     “Mine is on airplane mode.”
     “How is that going to help? Turn it back on.”
     “Gave me a chance to think. Didn’t plan on this happening,” Michael said. “The ex-wife will become a raging tiger when she finds out the boys were near a crime scene. Half our arguments were concerning me bringing my work home, or endangering the family from a criminal I testified against.” He snagged chips and apples from the kitchen counter.
     “We’re both on the job together, and on the same team, remember. This is our hometown now.”
     “I love you. Not afraid, a survivor. You face up to what life throws at you.” Michael ran his hands through my hair, smoothed my cowlick, and kissed me.
     “Thomas is old enough to understand the truth. However, how will Max take it?” I said. 
     Max loved quirky stories. He chuckled when hearing a twist on a kid’s story about the good little wolf and the three naughty pigs. He enjoyed the role reversal.
As Max transitioned from a city kid to a farm boy, he helped feed our neighbor Pearl’s chickens. Once he grasped that eggs came from a chicken’s behind and not a white Styrofoam box, he loved to gather them from the hen house. When an owl grabbed one of Pearl’s layers in front of him, it broke his heart. I had a tough time explaining how the bird was an owl’s dinner. Plus, sometimes Max didn’t understand that his favorite nugget meal used to be a live chicken.
     In the meantime, Michael pulled Thomas aside and explained what happened at the lake without mentioning gory details. But Michael told the fundamental truth as if he was giving a local news report. 
     Michael, Thomas, Max and I piled into my SUV. It held plenty of room for us, plus our picnic lunch. On the ride to Meteor Crater past Winslow, Michael took time to talk to Max while I drove. 
    “Okay Max here’s what happened at the lake,” Michael explained.
     “That’s okay Dad. You talked to Thomas in the hall about a sunken car. Sorry, didn’t mean to listen,” Max said.
     “As a Deputy Marshal, my job is to protect my family and the town. People do mean stuff or want to hurt other folks. We have to find out why this terrible thing happened. Does that make sense?” Michael explained.
     “Dad. Me and grandpa watch ‘Cops.’ He says the police catch bad guys, and grandpa puts them in jail,” Max stated. Max had a grasp of the law since his grandfather was a Federal Judge in Virginia. 
     Meteor Crater was 5700 feet above sea level on the Mogollon Rim between Flagstaff and Winslow off old Route 66. The Apollo astronauts practiced for moonwalks in the 550-foot deep hole. They had donated equipment left from space voyages in the visitor’s center. 
     Thomas and I perused the fact wall, and astronaut displays while Max and Michael ventured on the windswept platform that launched out over the crater. Then, Thomas, Michael, and Max took the hiking tour while I watched from the bleachers. The overhang lurching over the boulder-strewn floor gave me the willies. 
     On the way home from Meteor Crater we had to stop at the rock shop in Holbrook so the boys could buy souvenirs and see the tacky dinosaurs. 
     Michael answered his speaker cell phone. “Sure, we’re on our way back from Winslow. Meteor Crater. Yeah, they had a good time. Okay. We’ll stop before we eat at the café.”
     “Dubois wants to talk to the boys. Do you mind? Save us a seat?” Michael asked.
     “No problem.”
     Michael parked by the Marshal’s Office while I entered the 1950s diner. A small brick building, covered in tin signs gave the Antique Archeology Pickers show a run for their money. Coca-Cola, Beeman’s Chewing Gum, and Sun Beam Bread ads jumbled up next to each other. Dominating the other side of the entrance was a tin cutout of a never-ending coffee cup. Close behind my heels the screen door snapped. An 1890s mahogany bar with a chrome railing ran the length of the room. Red vinyl stools were shoved up underneath the counter. Freshly baked pies enticed customers to linger for dessert.
     “Hey, Minnie. Haven’t seen you in a while, Sweet Tea?” Rose, the owner, said. Even though she plopped menus on the table, she had me memorized.
     “Michael’s kids visited during summer vacation. In addition, I’m teaching college computer classes in Show Low both semesters. Two six week semesters have kept me swamped,” I said.
     “Want your usual?”
     “Yes, Michael and the boys will be here soon to eat.”
     “News around town is you found a car in the lake. Two people in it. Have you identified them yet?” Her eyes had a desperate, haunted look.
     “No. The Pima County M.E. is deciding the ID procedure.”
    “Please let me know if you discover the truth. My sister disappeared twenty years ago after graduation. I’ve never given up finding her,” Rose pleaded.
     “Sorry, nothing so far.” 
     “No hurry. I’ve waited this long. Is Violet alive or dead? Don’t know. Hope and hope and hope. Every year the chances grow less. I can’t remember her voice anymore,” Rose said. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, dropped off the sweet tea at my booth, and hid in the kitchen. 
     Rose sent a waitress around to refill my glass. I sat for a half hour in silence reading while waiting. Then Michael returned with the boys.
     “Don’t mention the lake incident to Rose. She thinks the body might be her sister,” I warned Michael.
     Michael’s cell rang. I hated leaving the electronic nuisance on when we ate. My meal rule: no phones at the table. In the old days, no one felt compelled to answer a telephone during a meal. Although, my children worried if I didn’t answer the phone every morning. 
     “Oh it’s you,” Michael said. “They’re fine.”
     “Rumble. Rumble. Rumble,” from the other end. I couldn’t hear the conversation but whoever it was sounded furious.
     “He wanted their side of the story.”
     “Brkkkkk. Brkkkk.”
     “The boys saw nothing. No, they’re not involved. Minerva drove them home while I stayed at the lake.”
     “Crackle. Crackle.”
     “No, he’s not going back now.”
     “Then you buy the ticket. Max isn’t leaving until after Labor Day. That was our agreement. Ask your Dad. Max is glued to ‘Cops,’” Michael said. Then mumbled under his breath with his hand over the phone. “Self righteous old SOB.”
    “No, Thomas starts at U of A in a few weeks. He has a scholarship. The fees are paid for the year. It’s not your money. His decision.”
     “We’re eating supper. Call me later. Bye,” Michael said. “My ex. She found out Charles interviewed the boys.”
     “Max was excited to see the office. He called her on Thomas’ phone while Dubois was talking to his brother.” Michael rubbed the back of his neck.
     Then Michael burst out. “She’s the world’s worst helicopter Mom. She demanded Max come home to Virginia. She’s furious that Thomas is staying.”
     “Now what? Send Max back early?” 
     “Let’s eat. I’ll call the ex later tonight after she’s calm. Her father can talk her out of buying last minute plane tickets. He won’t pay thousands for a foolish trip when Max is going home after Labor Day,” Michael said.
     “Is Mommy mad? Mr. Dubois invited us over to see his horses, camp out, and be cowboys,” Max said.
     “Sure, don’t worry. We’ll still go camping,” Michael said. He hugged Max.
     “Mother won’t accept the decision because I’m 18 now and can choose a science career,” Thomas added.
     “You are going to U of A my intrepid space cadet. See you on Mars.” Michael shook Thomas’ hand and patted his shoulder.

Chapter 4 September

“Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” Mark Twain

     The battle never ended with Human Resources. Before I gained tenure, someone had to be thrown under a bus. Allowed to teach the maximum of nine credits for a part-time adjunct faculty member, I pushed against the bureaucracy. Because I worked from a Small Business Administration Grant not Navapache Community College, I skirted around the rules on my 3 credit Computer 101 class. In addition, a series of quick, 1 credit, Saturday seminars on Windows Basics at the Senior Citizen’s Center did not count against me either.
     My Wednesday night Computer Science 101 class contained women. Widows, single moms, and divorcees were forced back into the job market. With families to support, they were a no-nonsense bunch. My students dedicated themselves to improve their skills after being at home for many years.
     Each woman had gone thru death, divorce, or abandonment. They needed computer expertise to obtain a decent career, and MS Office Suite was a requirement for most jobs in the workforce. The students introduced themselves and explained why they took my class.
     “Penelope Thurgood, taking the class so I can upgrade my computer skills. My goal is to work in a doctor’s office. Worked for my husband, unpaid for thirty years. I did the books, record keeping, appointments, and billing. He divorced me and refused to give me a recommendation, so I have to start again.” Her lilting voice belied her bluntness. Penelope was a stolid farmwife with high cheekbones, bright blue eyes, and no makeup. 
     “Francine Sobota, owner of Francine’s Style Salon. When I raised Melody by myself after my husband left, I prepared her to take over the shop. Melody wants to computerize my business.” Francine was Dolly Parton’s glamour twin, except with coal black hair, bright red nails, and matching lipstick; a tiny World War Two curvy pinup. 
     “Pearl Steven, upgrade my computer skills. Navajo County Livestock Officer for our district. Want to get the old and current paper records computerized. I’m married with three rambunctious boys.” Pearl, my next-door neighbor, dressed in her get-to work clothes. She raised rodeo horses and was the local farrier. Her wardrobe of the day consisted of bright yellow rubber boots, culottes, a flowered western shirt, and hair tied up in a messy bun.
     “Loretta Steven, ER nurse, and my sister Deborah Steven, NICU nurse, both of us want to keep up to date. The hospital computerized everything.” Full figured twin sisters, Loretta and Deborah, differed only in color, one preferred bright burgundy spiked hair but boring navy scrubs, the other a flaming pink highlighted bob and wild cartoon scrubs.
     “Tina Smith, my last husband and I celebrated our twentieth anniversary before he died this summer of cancer. I want to learn how to use the internet and computers. I work part-time with Francine.” Clemmie was a striking older woman who worked hard to stay alluring. Slender, wearing a fashionable resort outfit, every silver hair in place, expert makeup applied, and a Midwestern nasal twang to her voice. 
     “Rose Wilde, owner of the Black Mesa Café. Maybe get web pages going for my business and update my social media skills. Come to the café. Have a glass of sweet tea and piece of pie on me.” Rose did not stand on ceremony. Boot cut jeans, and her signature Arizona Cardinal’s polo shirt completed her uniform of the day. She had an outdoor tan where her freckles ran into each other, auburn hair tied up in a ponytail for comfort, a dash of smoky eyeshadow, and pale mauve lipstick.
     “Sunny Dubois, want to fix what my husband messes up, number one, a recipe book I’m writing. Charles needs to keep his paws off my stuff.” Sunny, married to Marshal Dubois, was a barrel racer whose look today was jeans, a teal western shirt, and matching antique straw cowgirl hat.
     The ladies laughed in sympathy. The rest of the women told a familiar tale. Over forty, too young to retire, and old ways outdated. Every job, even those in a small town, required computer experience. The purpose of the SBA grant was to help women enter the workforce and improve employees abilities used in small businesses.
     I introduced the course and myself. “Minerva Doyle, raised kids while working and getting a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, and a Master’s in Computer Science (Information Assurance). Worked as a Computer Forensic Officer for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s department. Now I consult on cases for Marshal Dubois. Michael, my husband, is the Deputy Marshal so if you have any troubles give me a ring.” 
     “My program updates you in MS Office, Windows, Social Media, and the Internet. Modern employers demand this basic knowledge from employees. Therefore, I am proud of you for taking the time to add these valuable skills. When you finish the class, you will have a resume, email address, internet research expertise, and a budget.” 
     “No fear. Starting over is the worst that happens,” I added. A latecomer dawdled in the open door. Eyes stared at her. “Take a seat. Introduce yourself, please,” I said.
     “Sarah Thurgood, a mom. Dr. Thurgood, the dentist, is my husband. Need to learn computerized medical records for his office.” The Thurgood ladies didn’t acknowledge each other. She rubbed her back with a skinny arm before she eased into her chair.      While her baby bump pushed out her cotton plaid dress, her fat swollen ankles warned of pregnancy trouble. Her thick dishwater bland hair braid had come loose, and fuzzy straggled ends stuck out as if she was shocked with electricity. Smudged circles under her eyes were not from makeup, but exhaustion. 
     Common sense led me not to comment on the identical last names. Rose and I met after class at the Black Mesa Café. Rose explained the relationships over a glass of sweet tea. Prominent families had even larger feuds. When Rose helped me solve the mysterious death of an elderly matriarch, we cemented our friendship.
     “Missed a catfight in my class today,” I said.
     “No kidding, touchy incident,” Rose said. She plopped in the booth next to me.
     “When I had everyone introduce themselves, wow, a glacier landed in the room. Thought the Thurgood students were sisters-in-law, or similar to the Steven clan in Black Mesa, or the Flakes in Snowflake. No idea they married the same guy,” I said.
Rose enlightened me. “Penelope was Dr. Thurgood’s wife for thirty years. He forced Penelope out of the business. She worked in his office for free. She did everything: appointments, bookkeeping, billing, taxes, inventory. The guy didn’t lift a finger.”
     “Plus, he took half their food, and left her the kids and no house,” Rose added. “Divorced her to marry his dental technician, Sarah.”
     “Why did he take half the food for cripes’ sake?” I asked.
     “LDS, Latter-Day-Saints. They keep at least a year’s worth of goods in case of hard times. There’s a canning warehouse in Snowflake. Did you know they can toilet paper? The stored groceries are worth thousands of dollars.”
     “Geez, I wondered why our house has a pantry as big as my bedroom. I store stuff for emergencies but not one year.”
     “Dr. Thurgood’s a jerk. Took the food right out of his eight kid’s mouths. Penelope never fought him on decisions. She wilted into herself. Pearl told me Penelope’s stopped going to Relief Society too.” 
     “Didn’t she have a lawyer?”
     “She refused. Guess she was shell-shocked. Penelope wandered through the divorce court, a lost soul.”
     “Keep the two of them apart? What do you think?”
     “Penelope won’t cause any trouble or fuss. No gumption. If that were me, I’d have conked him with an iron skillet and took him for every dime he had, the house, business, and the food. Sarah is six months pregnant; she’s got enough on her plate.”
     “Penelope and I did the same thing,” I admitted. “I left with my kids, my brains, and the clothes on my back. Wasn’t worth fighting my husband after a tornado devastated Joplin. I’m glad I had no old baggage. Started over fresh in Arizona. Besides, I met Michael, the best guy in the world.”
     “Yeah, you lucked out with him. But you’ve got guts. You didn’t give up. You got the hell out of Dodge. Smart decision. That takes courage to drive 1300 miles alone,” Rose said. 
     Then she explained her past relationship. “People in town knew my husband, Allen. He joined the army right out of high school and married me. A bomb killed him in action, no body, only a triangle of a flag. He was a kid when he died. My hubby’s uniforms are packed in a trunk. They’re up in the attic. I can’t get rid of them. He’s gone over twenty years, and he enters my thoughts every day.”
     I wondered why one of the many handsome ranchers who came into the café hadn’t fallen in love with Rose. Did she mourn for her dead husband to protect herself from more heartbreak?

Chapter 5 August

“My sister may not always be at my side,
but she is always in my heart.” Author Unknown

     Since I didn’t have classes on Tuesday or Thursday’s, I planned to analyze the evidence from the wreck Michael and I discovered in Carriage Lake.
     “Let’s examine the car in the impound lot and research the VIN number,” I said. “I’m on the clock today.”
     “Charles phoned. Wants me to work a double shift. One of the college kids called in sick. Can you drop me off in town?” Michael asked. He planned to use the Ford F150 patrol truck to do his rounds.
     I gazed at Michael as he geared up for battle. First, black jeans, and tan western shirt, Stetson, and the heavy bulletproof vest. Next, he strapped accouterments around the utility belt that added another 25 pounds. I hugged his armored body and tucked my lucky greek coin into his vest pocket. My ritual sendoff gave him my love and protection from evil doers. Sometimes I didn’t fathom how my husband kept from walking like a drunken sailor by the time he finished arming himself.
     When I pinned on my nametag, it signaled I was a law officer. My armament was intellect against the malicious cyber-criminals. Although I carried a legal concealed weapon, and pepper spray my time was spent researching and gathering information. I dressed in my signature Justin Gypsy Ropers hidden under boot cut jeans. Then a tan polo, my badge, and stuffed my baby fine hair under a ball cap emblazoned with Black Mesa Deputy Marshal. When I worked for Charles, I tallied an exact record of my hours and separated my college teaching from my consulting job. No objections allowed from village biddies when they spied on me.
     Michael and Charles were the only full-time officers. Charles’ budget squeaked under the radar. By handling the cyber-crime in town, I saved him valuable patrol hours. His secretary doubled as a dispatcher and record keeper. Police Academy students filled in routine duties at the jail, which freed up Charles and Michael. The arrangement kept the town council from objecting to the money Charles spent on his department. 
     Michael and I pulled up to Charles’ unofficial office at the Black Mesa Café. Charles held court in the back dining room at a round table seating ten or more people. The folks drifted in and out while Charles gleaned the town’s pulse through informal talks. People hesitated going into the Marshal’s real office on Main Street but drinking a cup of coffee at the café was a normal occurrence.
     The café buzzed. Rose, the owner, slapped ranchers on the shoulder with one hand and poured coffee in the other. She kept a running commentary on the day’s news. 
     “Sweet tea, black coffee. The gang’s in back.” She motioned with her chin towards the dining room as I passed her. I nodded to Rose and strolled into the dining room behind Michael.
Charles epitomized an old-time western lawman: crisply starched shirt and ironed jeans with spit-shined cowboy boots. An antique railroad watch hung on a chain from his vest. Nonetheless, the minute he opened his mouth he betrayed his Canadian roots. Charles barked into his flip-phone as I joined the group. 
     “Listen. I’ve got a warrant on you. Meet me in town at the café. Pay the fine to the judge, and you’ll be out in time to feed your horses. Don’t make me come out to arrest you,” Charles said to a miscreant.
     “Sit here Minerva,” he pulled up a chair for me. “Pima County Medical Examiner still hasn’t sent me paperwork on the bodies. We can’t ID the victims until I receive the official reports back.”
     “I want to inspect the car Michael impounded. Give me the VIN and I’ll unearth plenty of facts to launch an investigation.”
     “The vehicle is full of silt and muck. It’s a muddy wreck. Good luck till it dries out,” Michael said.
     “Checked my missing person’s records from the last twenty years and uncovered four people who disappeared. We could narrow the list if we had an exact time when it went into the water.  Can you find more information?” Charles asked me.
     A VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) for a car is similar to a social security number for a person. The code gives the manufacturer, date made, and locality made. If a law officer obtains a VIN, they can trace a vehicle since the number is associated with the license plate registration.
“A VIN doesn’t ID the bodies, but it points to who they might be,” I said.
     “Good, we’re not sitting around waiting for lightning to strike. Do it. Bill me for your hours,” Charles said. “Michael, I’m testifying at a trial in Phoenix. Take charge for a couple days? I’ll swing by the Pima County Medical Examiner on my way home from the valley.” 
     “Sure, Minerva and I are driving over to the impound lot after we’re done here. Have a safe trip,” Michael said.
     I hopped into the patrol truck. Soon Michael and I reached the storage lot. It was half junkyard. The rest of the grounds, surrounded by a 10-foot razor wire fence, contained vehicles stopped for DUI’s, drugs, and other offenses. A skinny, scruffy caretaker let us into the yard.
     Because of the recent monsoon rains, the parking lot squished under my boots. The grubby attendant appraised me. 
     “You sure you want to go in there girly?” he spat out a wad of chew.
     “Stick to your job I’ll do mine,” I said. Michael grinned behind the worker’s back. He appreciated I took no guff.
     I searched for the VIN tag on the door panel, but it had disintegrated in the twenty-year watery tomb. So, I crawled under the car frame with a toothbrush and scrubbed away years of muck. Mud dripped into my eyes and the corner of my mouth. Then I rubbed clean the engraving with my fingertips and read the numbers off to Michael.
     Michael unscrewed the vehicles’ license plate while I wriggled out. Registration stickers had long ago dissolved in the murky sludge. I squirted clean water on the metal from my bottle. Only then did the raised letters stamped on the metal tag help me discover the license number. 
     “Good job, Minnie,” Michael gave me a hug. The lot attendant gawped. “What? Haven’t you ever seen two cops kissing?”
     Hired as a cyber-forensics consultant for the Town of Black Mesa’s Marshal’s office I decoded sodden relics into useful facts.
Back in the truck, I powered up my laptop, logged on the ADOT website, and traced the VIN. I followed leads on the car. Using two tiny bits of data, I deciphered the truth: Violet Wilde owned the 1997 Ford Escort. 
     “It’s Rose’s sister,” I agonized.
     “Great. Wait until we get the body confirmation, or inform Rose now? What do you think?” Michael said. 
     “We don’t officially know the victim is Violet. What if someone stole the car, or sold it to another person?” I debated.
     “We’re forced to wait until they send the damn official report.” Michael slammed the truck door.
     “Rose is tough. She’ll want the truth,” I said. “What else do we have?”
     Michael said, “Pima has clothes the bodies wore, but we’ve impounded the vehicle and a chance for more proof.”
     We gathered our evidence bags and gloves. Michael examined the disgusting front seat while I took the less reeking back. Soon we had a pile of smelly miscellaneous belongings. 
     Michael’s hunt turned up two empty green glass Coca-Cola bottles, and cigarette butts congealed to mush with only the filters surviving. Next, he found a Zippo lighter, wristwatch, hairbrush, black comb, a clump of mushy tissues, and a wet matchbox. The glove box contents were a glob of glued together papers we had to dry out later. 
     My backseat exploration rewarded me with a cooler full of food, nasty, a makeup case, a sodden purse, and a man’s kit bag. We opened the trunk. It held two American Tourister suitcases, a duffle bag, and a pile of newspapers turned into papier mâché.
     After submerged in a lake for twenty years the wreck’s color coat faded to dull pink. Under the doorjamb, protected from the elements, I salvaged a chip of bright red paint. Michael and I stashed our discoveries safely and drove to the Marshal’s office. Michael had a double shift to handle, and I aimed for more details from Rose. 
     “What do you want for dinner? I’ll pick you up something at the café,” I said.
     “Burger loaded, fries, coffee. Pie, if she has Dutch apple,” Michael said as he unloaded our evidence.
     The Cafe lunch rush had slowed to a couple tables. I wanted to prompt Rose’s memory involving the night Violet disappeared.              “Rose, can we talk, alone, if you have time?” I said. I followed her to the empty dining room. Rose shut the sliding door behind us.
     “What is it?”
     “Your sister.”
     “Okay. I sensed it the minute you entered the place.”
     “Two options. The car is registered to Violet Wilde. We don’t have the autopsy report back. What do you want to do?” I said.
     Rose said, “I want the truth. Was it an accident? What caused it?”
     “The wreck is in the impound lot. As soon as Charles returns from Phoenix, he and Michael will check the vehicle for mechanical failure.” 
     “I’m going thru the personal possessions. Scrutinizing any bits gleaned from the items,” I said.
     Rose exhaled, “I figured it was her in the lake. She disappeared on graduation night. Dad bought her a new Ford Escort for college. She planned on a summer break vacation before starting at NAU. She wanted to travel the entire Route 66 from Flagstaff to Chicago.”
     “Do you have any pictures that distinguished her car, friends she was acquainted with, or her attire?”
     “Nowadays we’d just go on Facebook. Funny you don’t realize how things have altered in twenty years. I saved her high school album.”
     “I’ll scan the photos into my computer, and return them, so you won’t worry losing them,” I said.
     Rose recalled, “When Dad had a stroke we took over the place. Violet was inspired by 1950s ads to decorate the café. My sister scoured antique shops for old signs and memorabilia. She went to estate auctions, cherry-picked the mahogany bar, chrome stools, and the red tables, so the café looked retro. In fact, Dad ordered a special paint color for her car, Coca-Cola red, with white seats,” Rose sobbed. 
     Desolate, I enfolded my best friend in my arms and let her weep.

Chapter 6 August

“Good men must die, but death cannot kill their names.” Anonymous.

     The next day I stopped into the café and hoped Rose had recovered enough from yesterday’s shocking revelation to peruse Violet’s photo album and yearbook with me. Because I suspected the victims in the lake did not die of natural causes, I wanted to identify the people involved in Violet’s life.
     Once I had a positive ID of both bodies from the M.E., then I netted suspects: first relatives, then friends and acquaintances, last strangers on the edge of the victims’ life. Hampered by non-existing social media from the 1990s I had to explore alternative methods. The hunt forced me back to hard copies, photo albums, paper trails, newspaper accounts, medical records, criminal arrests, and school yearbooks 
     “Hi, are you up to sitting with me so we can go over the photo album and yearbook?” I asked Rose.
     “Sure, I’m better. I had a good cry last night. I’m ready if it will help find out what happened to Violet,” Rose said.
     Rose escorted me to her back office and offered me a chair. “Perfect timing, only coffee drinkers mooching around the counter. I’ll leave the waitresses to catch up on their side work.” 
      “Do you recognize people in the yearbook? The yearbook has students tagged, but I don’t know how close they were to Violet,” I said.
     “We were kids. There’s Donnie Cutler, a next-door neighbor, Pearl’s cousin. The kids ran around together. Violet and I were only 15 months apart. The Steven’s kids hung around with us too. What a clan!” Rose pointed to farm kids riding horses, playing in the lake, holiday picnics, and beloved dogs long gone. 
     Rose stroked a picture. “There’s Mom and Dad. Dad cooked, and Mom waited tables. Mom died of cancer when we were in high school. Dad never remarried. It was just him and us girls. We worked in the café from the time we were little, busing tables, pouring coffee, getting drinks. I think we were the most popular kids in the neighborhood because my dad treated our friends to ice cream and soda. It’s a wonder he didn’t go broke.”
     She turned a page. “Donnie and his friends. The boys loved working on antique cars. He was Violet’s high school sweetheart. Check with his cousin Pearl, she has family photos of him. Mr. Thurgood owned the gas station and garage on old Route 66. Kept Donnie under a tight thumb, made him work at the garage.”
     “Donnie’s father was a mean old man. Dad disliked old Mr. Thurgood. Once I remember Dad threw the old man out of the café. When the family was forbidden to come around, we never saw Donnie much. He and Violet drifted apart.”
     “Donnie’s step-brother is Dr. Thurgood, the dentist. The Mom was Mr. Thurgood’s second wife. Poor woman had a rough life. No one mentioned spouse abuse. People said accidents, clumsy, walking into doors, falling down stairs, and losing teeth. God, old man Thurgood was an asshole.”
     Rose mused. “Guess Donnie left after Violet went missing. Gossip around town was he got a local girl pregnant and ran off to join the army. Donnie wanted to get away from his dad and older brother.”
     “Who did Violet hang around with during her senior year?” I asked.
     “Country kids. We rode the bus and hung out together. The town kids called us ranch kids ‘turd nerds’. We had livestock chores after school. We were into 4H, riding, roping, and rodeos. They were into TV and movies. You can tell by the club pictures in the yearbook.”
     “I’ll scan these pictures and the album, and give them back tomorrow,” I said.
     Hurrying back to the Marshal’s office, I wanted to photograph the evidence and organize the items into three groups. Then I suited up along with a facemask and gloves. The first group contained those objects, which I identified with my Cyber-forensic tools. Next group needed more in-depth research. 
     Third. when I snagged the cars’ VIN number, make, model, owner, and license plate number, I found the 1997 Ford Escort was registered to Violet Joan Wilde. From there I obtained her driver’s license number, which gave me her sex, height, weight, eye color, hair color, and date of birth. I faxed over the information to the Pima County Medical Examiner.
     Next, I merged Marshal Dubois’ missing person’s list and Roses’ album pictures. Four people matched: Violet Wilde, Donald Cutler, Olivia Snow, and Zack Sobota. 
     Arizona humidity stayed in the teens, which now helped me to dry out the contents of the car. I divided them into piles: his, hers, other. I dried out the cigarettes on acid-free paper. Likewise, I tweezed apart the sodden documents from the glove box one layer at a time.
     Cigarette fragments ended up being different brands: a Marlboro tan/gold tip, a Marlboro white/silver tip, and a third unknown. Because they were unreadable with a naked eye, I’d have to examine the shreds under infrared or ultraviolet light to discern the brand. Did the multiple cigarette brands mean two victims and a killer?
     Food was another story. The odor was horrific even though I had stored the bags in the freezer. I needed to find ‘sell by’ or ‘use by’ dates on the packages. I rinsed the snack food bags that had not deteriorated. Soda lasted a year, not suitable for dates. 
     The victims had bought several individual bags of chips each with a “sell by” date. I found one not so blurred as the rest. I looked at the UPC (Universal Product Code) and hoped to spy a package starting with a weight code because those items only lasted a couple weeks. Between the combinations of the two, I could narrow the date when the car sunk into the lake. I interpolated sometime between May 15 and June 5, 1997. It confirmed Rose’s statement: Violet disappeared on graduation night June 1, 1997. 
     As I cleaned the tarnished man’s wristwatch, an inscription read ‘To DJC from ΘKS forever.’ Was it CKS? GKS? OKS? QKS wasn’t likely. Whose initials were they? Not Violets’.
     Next, I examined the makeup bag. The bag had protected a few of the cosmetics: a bottle of light robin’s egg blue nail polish, the lipstick had turned to wax, a rusted nail file, a standard black mascara wand sealed, the eye shadow dissolved, liquid makeup gone, and the tarnished gold compact emptied. I saved the hairbrush and comb for later when I received the official report.
     The man’s kit bag held dog tags, a metal social security card, old spice after-shave, speed stick deodorant, a multi-tool, shaving cream, a wicked antique straight razor, plus a Vietnam era army Zippo lighter. I hit the jackpot with the dog tags and searched the NPRC (National Personnel Records Center) database for Donald James Cutler. Donnie, (DJC), hadn’t abandoned Violet, he died entombed beside her. Next, I snapped a picture of the kit bag debris, and then messaged Pima County with an email of the NPRC data.
      I protected the delicate clothing fibers on sterile white paper. Cotton and linen were degraded but the polyester blends held together. The women’s clothes indicated a size 10 dress, skirts, and size 11 Levi’s jeans, a 36 B bra, and a medium western cut blouse. The man’s dress shirts were size 16 neck, 31” sleeve, medium black pocket t-shirts, and 28/30 Wrangler jeans. When I tackled the duffle bag, I noticed it had lain upside down in the vehicle trunk. Letters stenciled on the bag protected the name: C-U-T-L-E-R, and a pin inside engraved with his name. The man in the car was Donald Cutler, Violets’ high school sweetheart.
     “God it stinks in here,” Michael said as he peeked into my room.      
     “It smells like hurricane Katrina.”
     A windowless office was commandeered by me for my tasks. I saved my protective gear in a clean paint can. Next, I washed my hands and face trying to get the foulness out of my nose. Then I locked the door tight. No one else could touch the evidence.
     “Figured you’d be hungry since you haven’t taken a break today. I brought you supper. BLT, sweet tea, and Coleslaw,” Michael said.
     “Thanks, I’m starving. I didn’t eat lunch.” I kissed him on his cheek.
     “No positive ID yet from Pima County,” he said while dunking his chips in Rose’s special homemade salsa. He had our supper spread out over his desk.
     “Unofficially the victims are Violet Wilde, Roses’ sister, and Donald Cutler, Pearls’ cousin.” I gulped my sweet tea and snitched one of his tortilla chips.
     Michael said, “Small town, you don’t have to go far to find relations.”
    I said. “I’ll talk to Pearl, but I’d appreciate it if Charles interviewed Dr. Thurgood. The dentist might have dental records on Violet and Donald.” I lightly smacked Michael’s hand, stole more chips, and plunged them into the fiery dip clearing my sinuses.
     “For a positive ID we need dental records, but not much chance of fingerprints or DNA because the bodies deteriorated from being sunk for twenty years,” Michael said. He moved the chips and salsa out of my reach with a smirk.
     “Bones and teeth survive. Could you check the local Doctor’s records?” I asked. “Maybe old injuries show on the x-rays. Rose said the Thurgood father was violent.” 
     “Good idea. On my list. Stop by M.D. and Dentist. I’ll check while I’m patrolling,” Michael said. “Think I’ll go over the arrest sheets too.”
     “There’s a name on the missing person’s list, Sobota. It bugs me.” I reached over Michael’s shoulder, kissed him on the neck, and snagged the remaining chips.
     “Last or first?”
     “Last. You’re good with names. Anyone ring a bell?
    “Sobota. Sobota. Hey, isn’t that Francine’s last name? The beauty parlor gal?” Michael recalled.
     “I’ll interview her next. Due for a haircut before school starts again.” I said.

Chapter 7 September

“Once upon a time there was a widow who had two daughters. The elder was so much like her in looks and character that whoever saw the daughter saw the mother.” Charles Perault.

     According to the Marshal’s notes, Olivia Snow was a runaway from a strict upbringing. Disgraced by the girl’s behavior, the parents did not contact the Marshal. Dubois kept the file open, checking leads throughout the following years. Multiple handwritten notations dotted the girl’s folder. Charles believed  Olivia had left town for Las Vegas. Even if Olivia Snow married, I needed a social security number to search database resources. 
     Who was Zach Sobota? Next task on my list was to interview Francine Sobota, owner of Francine’s Style Salon. Francine filed a detailed description of the wayward husband on June 10, 1997. Every year on the anniversary of Zach’s disappearance, Francine checked in with Charles Dubois at the Marshal’s office. 
     Francine and Mel had identical facial features. However, Mel arrayed herself in Goth chic: ebony nail polish, aubergine lipstick, spiked lapis lazuli hair color, and thick Freda Kahlo eyebrows. Her clothing style was classic Audrey Hepburn, so she donned a plain man’s white shirt and black leggings under her uniform.
     Francine refashioned herself to suit the mood of the day. Passionate pink nails, long fake eyelashes, and kissable strawberry lips defined the owner this week. Rhinestones peeped and winked from under a utilitarian cover-up. A line of silver piping on black trouser legs contradicted their practicality. Francine adored movie screen goddesses from the past. Studio portraits embellished the walls of the salon. 
      “Hi, Mel, due for a back-to-school haircut. Business booming?” I said when I observed the new beauticians. 
     “Three new stations. One lady works part-time, the second graduated from cosmetology school, and the last moved to Black Mesa from Utah,” Mel said.
     Mel and her mother expanded the salon. The mother/daughter duo converted antiques into more client stations. Thick green glass tops protected delicate handmade lace dresser scarves. Pale mint walls complemented a mosaic floor made of penny tiles, which gave a spa atmosphere to the salon. Movie magazines from the thirties and forties lie in a hand-carved ebony bookcase. From a restored jukebox 45 rpm records revolved. Mellow crooners and brokenhearted canaries from the 40s sang of loss, longing, heartache, and biding time until love returned.
     As Mel washed my hair, I observed the salon employees. The beauticians transformed customers with potions, herbs, lotions, and brews. Magic performed by wise crones with ancient allure. 
Tina, my internet novice student, in her 60s, wore sensible white Keds. A mint green smock covered skinny crop pants. With her slender body and colossal hair, she resembled a lollipop.
     “Tina does our elderly ladies. The hairdos last for a week with plenty of hairspray.” Mel seated me at her station. “Although, Tina’s not up to speed on razor cuts or modern fashion, she volunteers for free styles and haircuts at the nursing home. When her husband died from prostate cancer, she bought a house from the Steven’s twins.”
     “When I was a baby, Tina sold the business to Mom after my father left. Mom refuses to discuss my father with me. I need help with a do-it-yourself DNA kit. I haven’t shown it to Mom because she’d freak out.”
     “You have a right to know your heritage. I’ll help you set it up on the computer. Come to the office,” I said. Then I examined the back of my hair in the hand mirror.
     Mel brushed off my neck as I glanced sideways towards the second station. The woman was dressed outrageously for this tiny town. Nevertheless, she had a waiting line of younger students from the college and high school.
     “Livy’s into the art scene and a wonderful stylist. Up on the latest trends,” Mel said. 
     A waterfall of shimmering hair disguised Livy’s face as she bent over to shampoo a customer. A classic ancient Japanese wave tattoo covered her left arm. Laced gladiator shoes completed Livy’s avant-garde outfit. When she helped the client to a chair, a Celtic cross covered up her name on the mint green smock. Livy. Livy. Livy. I kept repeating the name. God, where was Michael when I needed him. Where or when did I know her?
     “Great job. Love it.” I complemented Mel and gave my usual $15 tip for a $25 haircut. Mel was an expert and worth every penny. 
     “Mom, can you help Minerva with names of people you went to high school with, I’m booked solid?” Mel swooped off the cape covering my shoulders and greeted her next customer.
     “Do you have a minute?” I asked Francine.
     Francine said, “My next appointment is in a half hour. Is that enough time?”
     “Sure. I’m researching missing person’s names.” I dropped the bomb. “Zach Sobota?” 
“My former husband. We were high school sweethearts, cheerleader and football captain, a gridiron-wedding match. When he discovered I was pregnant, he left me, and I haven’t heard from him in twenty years,” Francine said.
     “Do you know Violet Wilde, Donald Cutler, or Olivia Snow?”
    “Violet is Rose’s sister. Donald worked as an auto mechanic for my Dad during summer vacation. We didn’t run in the same circles. They were farm kids and rode the bus. My Dad owned the Ford dealership, so I had my own car. We lived up on the hill.”
     “Olivia Snow?” I prompted.
     “Olivia was my best friend in high school, a cheerleader too. We had the cutest outfits. ‘The Black Mesa Jaguars.’ Black and gold. Little black skorts just above our knee caps. We wore matching gold angora sweaters. Topped our outfits with necklaces of real 22 karat gold, carved jaguars, and apache tears earrings. One of the girl’s dads owned a jewelry store. He let us keep our necklaces. Mine is in my jewelry box. 
     “I felt sorry for her. Her parents didn’t know she was in the cheer squad. Olivia lied and said she attended church on Fridays. When they discovered her dishonesty, they forced her to quit the team and grounded her until graduation night. From then on, Olivia wore a long skirt below her knees, a buttoned up to her neck plaid blouse, and horrible ugly brown oxfords. She ran away from home after high school. Good for her,” Francine said.
     “Did you receive any letters from Olivia?” I asked.
     “Yes, but I promised to keep her secret. Her parents disowned her.”
     “You knew the Marshal had her listed as a missing person? Where is she now?”
     “She’s the beautician in station two.”
     “Livy is Olivia?”
  “Livy Apfel. Yes, formerly Olivia Snow. She married a photographer. Traveled the world and sent pictures back.”
     “She’s Livy Apfel? The famous New York artist? What’s she doing here as a beautician?”
“Olivia wanted a quiet, inexpensive place to live after her husband died on 9/11. Had a nervous breakdown, depressed, and burnt out. Keep her real name out of it, please. Livy needs to heal,” Francine begged me.
     I agreed to keep the information confidential. The more questions I asked, the more profound the lies, secrets, and cover-ups. What else were the townspeople hiding? Waiting over six weeks, I was impatient for the ME’s report. I faxed and emailed every bit of information found, but not a word back from their end.