the Black Mesa
A Minerva Doyle Mystery (Book 1)
“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.”
Copyright © 2018 by Martha Knox
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any media without permission of the author.
Contact me I will be happy to work with you.
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PO Box 323
PO Box 323
Golden City MO 64748.
This is a work of my imagination and it is fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are products of the my imagination and are not real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead is entirely due to coincidence. The novel’s Black Mesa is a fictitious town, as are the immediate surrounding features.
The landscape, culture, history, and geology of Northern Arizona are real. Come for a visit. Stay for a lifetime. You will be astounded at its beauty.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 “Everything revolves around bread and death.”
Chapter 2 “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
Chapter 3 “Whoever says A, must also say B.”
Chapter 4 “A man without dinner means two for supper.”
Chapter 5 “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.”
Chapter 6 “Behind every successful rancher is a wife who works in town.”
Chapter 7 “He who has a farm with water and peat has the world
Chapter 8 “Don’t judge people by their relatives.”
Chapter 9 “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.”
Chapter 10 “A meager compromise is better than a fat lawsuit.”
Chapter 11 “There’s nothing so bad that it couldn’t be worse.”
because he has been wronged;
he wants to be healed because he has been hurt.” Gilbert K. Chesterton
Chapter 13 “Dead men tell no tales,
Chapter 14 “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Chapter 15 “Blood is thicker than water.”
Chapter 16 “A thief thinks everyone steals.”
Chapter 17 “If you want something done right, ask a church lady.”
Chapter 18 “Tell me who you go with, and I will tell you who you are.”
Chapter 20 “Turn around don’t drown.”
Chapter 31 “When you dance take heed whom you take by the hand.”
Chapter 32 “Fools make feasts and wise men eat them.”
Chapter 33 “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”
Chapter 34 “Murder will out.”
Chapter 35 Better fifty enemies outside a house than one within.”
Chapter 37 “You cannot steal a cow and expect to sup her milk.”
Chapter 38 “There are 10 types of people in the world:
those who understand binary, and those who don’t.”
Chapter 39 “Ar scath a chiele a mhaireann na daoine.
Under the shelter of each other, people survive.”
Chapter 40 “The greater the love, the greater the hate.”
Preview of coming books in the series. See blog post Books 2,3,4.
Book 2 Murder @ the Black Mesa Salon
Book 3 Murder @ the Black Mesa Dance
Book 4 Murder @ the Black Mesa Mail Box
Want an ARC ecopy to preview ? Send a request to:
“Everything revolves around bread and death.”
“Geez, I had to give everything except a DNA sample and a pint of blood to sign my contract. My brain hurts,” I said. Then I jammed my seat belt tight. Thanks to Arizona’s conflict with the Federal government, my briefcase bulged with Homeland Security documents; transcripts, an FBI fingerprint check, birth certificate, social security card, and my passport.
“Let’s not eat dinner in a town with cement tepees as the major tourist attraction,” I said to my hubby Michael.
“Minnie, why not try the Mom and Pop diner we spied off of I-40, by the turnoff to old Route 66?” Michael suggested.
“Excellent idea. I’m sweaty, thirsty and exhausted.” I leaned against the headrest. “A cool glass of sweet tea is what I need right now.”
The Black Mesa Café, a burnt brick-red building, beckoned. Emblazoned on the bay window a hand-drawn sign announced Home of the Crazy Burro. Signs attached to the cinder block 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. A blast of frigid air welcomed as delicious smells washed over me from a mahogany counter laden with freshly baked pies. Magnificent antique beveled glass mirrors adorned the wall.
Perched on a crimson leather stool, I wriggled and twirled the chrome shoe kicks with my back to the crowd. An auburn-haired waitress in faded jeans, cowboy boots, and an Arizona Cardinals’ polo dropped two menus on the counter.
“Welcome to the Black Mesa Café. What do you want to drink?” She smiled with cheerful hospitality, no fake server grin. Not much makeup other than a swipe of smoky eyeshadow, a dash of brick-colored lipstick, and a spatter of freckles showing on tanned skin.
“Rose, Minnie wants sweet tea, and I need coffee, black.” He observed the server’s name on a shirt pocket.
Then Michael pointed to a empty corner in the rear of the diner. We scooted over to the cluttered red Formica and chrome table. With a flourish, he stacked dishes in a neat pile and wiped the top off with a wet bar towel someone had left behind. He had a mischievous temperament that suited an optimistic nature. It was impossible for Michael to stay serious for long.
As a couple, we’d go to a strange café. Before I realized it, he poured water and refilled cups for customers. The behavior used to embarrass me, but most restaurant owners didn’t fuss, so neither did I anymore.
“Okay, enough of the musical chairs.” Rose teased. She placed chips, homemade salsa, and our drinks on the table.
“Minnie wants the Crazy Burro, red sauce, guacamole and sour cream on the side, and I’ll have the Cowboy Burger with fries,” Michael said.
While we waited for food, we played a favorite guessing game. Both of us undertook to outdo the other with a fantastic imaginary sketch of fellow diners. As a retired Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco, and Explosives agent Michael loved to analyze people.
“Look at that customer at the counter in dirty Carhartts. Smells of sulfur and brimstone. The devil’s apprentice? Come here to capture an unsuspecting soul?” Michael said.
A sooty man slouched over a burger and fries, gobbling up the meal as if he had to rush out the exit. The worker slurped up a drink and banged the empty cup for a refill. He launched a glare at the sizeable noisy group in the rear corner.
“Welder, in a hurry to return to the job site,” I concluded. “Face, neck, and hands tanned. He’s peppered with pinhole scabs, but the forehead from his eyebrows up is white. Tiny burn holes in the dungarees from sparks. Sleeves blackened from the welding rod. He’s wearing thick steel-toed shoes. Needs protection from an iron bar dropped on his foot.”
“Identify Mr. Cowboy over there. The one with the mustachio and $200 Stetson,” I said. My turn to challenge Michael.
Michael inspected the gentleman. “Knife pleated jeans tucked into spit-shined boots, starched ironed long-sleeved shirt, black vest, and a bolo tie. Gun at the waist. Legal to carry a firearm in Arizona. A gold pocket watch and a badge on the vest. Yep, he’s the local law.” The man placed his palm near the weapon and shifted to inspect us as he paid the bill.
“Our score one to one. Even. Your turn to test me next. Loser pays for lunch,” I said.
“Do the senior citizen in the next booth surrounded by a circle of kinfolk,” Michael said.
A sizable clan took up the entire back corner of the coffee shop. I observed the group dynamic. They gazed with rapt attention as the white-haired elder commanded silence. The sun-beaten weathered woman pointed an arthritic bony finger at each individual. She spoke in a dry, raspy tone.
“Every one of you is after my money. I brought an updated will right here in my pocketbook. You’re not entitled to a damn thing unless you support me. I can revise who inherits whenever I choose. Lawyer Smith is helpful since I pay him a packet of cash every month. I’ve tied up the paperwork nice and legal: land, mineral rights, and grazing leases.” The crone’s voice blasted over the diners, as a baby whimpered.
Most people ducked their heads, ignored the loud outburst, and struggled to focus on their meal.
“She’s someone’s parent.” I hypothesized. “Clutches them in a tight fist. They’re afraid to blink in case she leaves them nothing in her will. Mom must protect something important in the purse. She holds onto it for dear life. I detest emotional blackmail, so logically they’re a dysfunctional dynasty in action. I’ll wager Mom pits siblings against each other to make them squirm.”
Rose appeared with the food. Game over, I dove into a Crazy Burro.
“Homemade salsa, handmade tortilla, and fresh guacamole,” I said. I entered foodie heaven with the first morsel.
Michael didn’t communicate with his mouth full, so he saluted in approval. We chewed in comfortable silence as dishes clattered around us in the busy Café. A little later Michael sprawled out in the seat and stretched his shirt over his jeans.
“Terrific burger. Add this diner to the list,” he said.
On our honeymoon last summer, we traveled across the United States in a Winnebago. As we checked out historical sites and quirky towns, we ate at Mom and Pop diners. Then we wrote favorites onto a Route 66 Diner List.
Shouts of alarm from the extended clan in the next booth interrupted us. A baby shrieked. Plates and cups crashed to the floor. The elderly matriarch passed out on the dinner table. When I punched 911 on my phone, the dispatcher knew the exact location.
Michael raced over to the elderly victim while helpless relatives fluttered around her. Only a tall, slender lady beside the vulnerable old woman kept calm.
“Can you settle the family while Michael helps?” I requested. The baby’s wails were ringing in my ears.
“Mother?” The fashionable woman patted the victim’s hand.
The mother’s head rolled back unresponsive to her daughter’s urgent query. So Michael laid the elderly victim onto the bench. He cleared her airway and checked her pulse. I handled the relatives as he performed CPR. A siren screeched nearby.
I stood up and pulled chairs into the banquet room. “Help me move the tables. The EMTs need space to work.”
Rose stepped forward. “Richard. Victor. Flynn. Ed. Shove 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 promptly followed his lead. They obeyed her as if she were a Chief Master Sergeant. Guys shoved tables out of the aisle, and the gals stacked chairs.
The siren stopped. A wiry pony-tailed EMT burst through the door. She wore navy scrubs, with a Stethoscope wrapped around her neck, and ugly practical cop shoes.
“The woman passed out. Pulse thready, face clammy. I cleared the airway,” Michael said.
Michael stepped back out of the way, as the EMT clicked open a gunmetal gray suitcase packed with equipment. The EMT took over the patient. Three more EMTs dressed in heavy black and yellow boots rolled a Striker folding bed through the room. After they eased the platform a few inches above the floor, they lifted the victim onto it.
I observed the organized rescue as the EMTs wheeled the elderly matriarch through the door. The family gathered up her belongings and followed the emergency crew.
“Thank you for helping Mother.” The elegant woman announced to the crowd before leaving.
“Everybody. Listen. Let’s say a prayer for Mrs. Steven,” Rose said. People went silent and bowed. “Dear God, please hold her in your hand. Keep her safe on this journey. Thy will be done. Amen.”
Rose looked around at the chaos. “Leave your tickets at the cash register. Dinner’s on me. Thanks for helping.”
I pushed chairs back under the table. Soon other customers helped straighten up the restaurant. Women cleared dishes. Men moved heavy furniture. Someone grabbed a broom and swept up the EMTs’ debris. People worked 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.
“Oh, I need a drink,” Rose said. “I’ve never had this much trouble since I inherited the place from Dad.”
Rose gathered 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. No one had to leave money.”
“I’m glad the daughter had enough common sense to calm the family,” I said.
“Yeah, good thing Gloria was here, she’s the brains of the outfit,” said Rose. “The Steven’s clan argues with each other, but they come together in a crisis.”
“Are you going to be okay?” I asked. Then I patted her shoulder.
“Tomorrow’s another day. I hope Mrs. Steven comes out of the hospital. God willing,” Rose said. “Nothing a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast can’t cure.”
Chapter 2 March
“You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
Michael woke me up the next morning with a scratchy passionate kiss. As he hugged me the odor of his Old Spice aftershave, lingered on my skin. His black Irish hair inherited from a long-dead Celtic ancestor stuck straight out. I curled his thick wet mop with my fingers. Disconcerting cobalt blue eyes observed the world in mild surprise at the wickedness he saw. Cursed with a dimple in his chin, and a cheery lopsided grin his personality radiated mirth. The only thing that kept him from being an Adonis was his squashed potato nose, which broken in a donnybrook, never healed right.
Michael was pleasant to shop for; dark indigo jeans, white cotton socks, and comfortable leather moccasins. His plain pocket undershirts were navy blue or black. I bought them by the six-pack. Michael snapped on his Wiley Coyote cartoon wristwatch, pocketed a Swiss Army knife, and he was ready. Despite his early morning neat habits, he’d unravel until relaxed scruffiness and a five o’clock shadow won out by evening.
“What team are you supporting today?” I said.
“Arizona Diamondbacks.” The randomness of his ball cap choices made a genial conversation starter with strangers.
“I’m starving. I need coffee now. The fancy gourmet mud they serve at this B&B sucks. Too bitter, and burnt. Hop to it. I’ll wait for you downstairs Minnie mine.” He playfully snapped his towel at me.
For years, school readiness was my priority when I shared a bathroom with my kids. My high cheekbones were fever bright red at awkward moments, so I never needed blush. A touch of my favorite mauve lipstick, a swish of eyeshadow, and a swipe of mascara completed a simple makeup routine. I was dressed in my casual wardrobe of the day, boots, jeans and a t-shirt. My unruly hair was stuffed under a straw sun hat.
We met at the bottom of the handcrafted hundred-year-old oak staircase. The pastries and OJ offered at the Bed and Breakfast didn’t fit my standard for breakfast. Although Michael’s sweet tooth mandated him to grab a handful of muffins for a snack afterward. We headed to the Black Mesa Café and chose our table in the back of the restaurant. He knew what I wanted to eat.
“Morning, Rose. No menu. Denver omelet for her, side of fruit, English muffin dry, salsa. Two over easy, bacon, crispy hash browns, sourdough for me. Iced coffee with creamer on the side for Minnie. Black coffee, lots for me,” Michael said.
“Pardon me, may I talk to you for a minute?” said the town Marshal as he tipped his Stetson. “Ma’am, sorry I’m interrupting, but I want to ask your spouse a few quick questions.” Michael grabbed his coffee and sat at the counter with the tall lawman.
Later Rose came with our food. I said, “How are you feeling?”
“Fine. No sleep, but I’ll OD on coffee. It’ll get me through the breakfast rush,” she said.
“How’s Mrs. Steven?” I said.
“She’s at the county hospital in Show Low. Nice of your hubby to step in to help her. Mrs. Steven’s has a big family, but they don’t have common sense. They eat here every Payday Friday. They’re my regulars. I’ve memorized what everyone eats and drinks. Odd they didn’t sit in their usual spots,” Rose replied.
“I hope she’s okay. Her stroke shook us up.” I hoped to pull out local gossip. “My husband’s retired and I start a new job at the college in August. We’re looking for a home to buy.”
“Are you LDS?” asked Rose.
“Most Latter Day Saint’s members buy a house by the Temple in Snowflake. Other folks settle in our town. We don’t fit in with the high and mighty too much,” Rose said, so no one overheard her.
“Is the Steven’s family LDS?” I said.
“Mrs. Steven doesn’t approve of Mormons. She thinks it’s the devil’s cult. She feuds with her son Victor. He married an LDS woman. It doesn’t bother me what people believe as long as they work hard, stay honest, and abide by their word,” Rose said.
“Couldn’t help overhearing,” a robust gray-haired man leaned over my booth. “Here’s my card. If you want something quiet, with land, call me.”
I filed the realtor’s card in my planner as Michael returned from his discussion with the town Marshal. Michael dug into his food.
“So what did the Marshal need?” I asked.
“Charles Dubois thanked me for my help,” Michael said. “The Marshal commended me because I kept a cool head. Two of her daughters are court-appointed caretakers. The EMTs lived at her house. Gloria’s her power of attorney. Dubois thinks they’re a pack of vultures waiting for the elderly lady to die.”
“No wonder Mrs. Steven threatens to disinherit them. I don’t blame her for not trusting her family with her welfare. Rose told me the family argued amongst themselves. Mrs. Steven didn’t endorse their church choices,” I said.
“Religion or lack of it can start an argument in any family. Dubois wants us to stop by his office when we’re done eating,” he said.
“What for? Why us?”
Chapter 3 March
Michael and I strolled to the Marshal’s office, a remodeled grocery store. As we entered a foyer and turned right to an intake window, the aroma of oranges lingered in the room. Full-length white drapes covered the plate-glass windows. Gold lettering spelled out titles of town officials.
“Good morning Peg. We’re looking for Marshal Dubois, he asked us to stop by after we finished our breakfast,” Michael said. He had sharp eyes. The nameplate on her desk gave her name away.
“Oh,” Peg said. “The Marshal didn’t tell me. Let me see if he’s in, please wait here.” She bustled 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. I remembered personal details but had a tough time with names. So I guess it evened out Michael and me.
“Charles, do Mr. and Mrs. Doyle have an appointment? Did you forget to tell me? I have to keep track of your schedule on the computer now,” she scolded.
“Bring Mr. and Mrs. Doyle into the office. I’ll get with you later on my calendar,” he said. The Marshal wasn’t concerned with obeying Peg’s wishes.
“Hi, take a seat. Ma’am right here. Michael over there.” The Marshal gestured towards two large rocking chairs.
Charles Dubois used a claw-footed round oak dining table as a desk which sported a traditional black Bakelite landline telephone. An antique brass barometer displayed the local weather. The Underwood manual typewriter rested on a buffet with a new stiff white piece of paper rolled into it, ready to go. A worn Stetson hung on an elk antler hat rack. Pricey Cowboy Artist pictures covered the walls.
When the Marshal took his hat off, his hair stood straight up in a 1950’s buzz cut. Shaggy eyebrows bristled over his wrinkled tawny brown eyes. Charles Dubois’ leathery skin told of life outdoors instead of stuck in a patrol car. He had the look of a hunter. If he was an animal, he could have passed for a wild mountain lion that still roamed the Mogollon Rim. Charles’ hands were gnarled with large bony knuckles. An heirloom train engineer’s gold pocket watch peeked out of a leather vest. Crisp ironed blue jeans, boot cut, were stuffed into the black mirror finish squared toed western boots. A magnificent braided horsehair bolo tie with a cabochon of copper-bearing Azurite completed his sober demeanor.
“I’m Charles Dubois, Marshal of Black Mesa.” He pronounced his name with a soft C. He spoke with a faint Canadian accent. Charles shook Michael’s hand and nodded in my direction. “The hospital called me. Mrs. Mary Steven didn’t make it. She died last night. I hope you’re able to help me with behaviors you observed when this incident happened.”
Meanwhile Peg fussed with a tape recorder. “Do you mind if I record you?” Dubois said. “Saves me writing. I have arthritis in my hands. Peg does most of my paperwork for me. She’ll transcribe what you say when we’re done. Read it. Make any changes you see fit and then sign the statement.”
“I’m glad to help. but we arrived yesterday and don’t know anybody in town,” Michael said. Peg scurried out, her arms piled with folders.
“Give me your names and where you’re from, the basics,” Charles said. After he spouted legal requirements into the recorder he continued the interview.
“Michael Sean Doyle. Grew up in Miami, Florida. Graduated from college, joined the Marines. Entered the ATF after I left the Marines. Got divorced. Stayed with the ATF ‘till I retired. Married Minnie. I wanted to move back to Northern Arizona. The Valley lifestyle annoys me, too citified for my taste. I miss the open skies. We took my boys camping up here, and we had a terrific time. As soon as her contract finishes at the end of May, we’ll live up here in the mountains,” Michael stated.
“Minerva Helen Doyle, friends and family call me Minnie. I’m from Joplin, Missouri. I graduated from Missouri Southern State College, with a B.S. in Computer Science. Divorced, left Joplin with my kids after the tornado wiped out my home and my teaching job at the high school. I moved to Arizona. Earned a Master’s degree in Computer Science (Information Assurance). I taught at Central Arizona College and met Michael there. I signed a contract to teach at the local college this fall. We prefer a rural lifestyle in Northern Arizona,” I said.
“Mid-west folks have common sense. I want witnesses who perceive obscure details. The oddest fact could contribute to the investigation,” Charles said.
Michael related his observations. “During dinner, Mrs. Steven gave the family a real dressing down. When she collapsed, the relatives were helpless. They stood frozen and shocked 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. The EMTs got there ASAP, and then I let them do their job.”
“Not surprising the emergency medical technicians arrived there fast because most of them eat lunch at the Café since the county keeps a tab going. The crew’s called out often on Mrs. Steven,” Charles commented. Then he asked me, “Mrs. Doyle, did you notice any unusual speech or behavior from the family?”
“The relatives weren’t happy to sit at the same table with Mrs. Steven. She pulled a fat document out of her purse and kept saying she was seeing a lawyer. Rose told me Mrs. Steven didn’t approve of their lifestyles. The family’s mother controlled and dominated them,” I said.
“The coroner will give me an official mortality report. Mary Steven was rushed to the hospital with bronchitis and pneumonia last month. A couple times, she fainted at the grocery store and church. I appreciate your help yesterday at the Café,” Charles said.
“I did my duty. Phone me if you need more information. Minnie and I are at the Bed and Breakfast, room four,” Michael said. He shook Charles’ hand.
“Why don’t you two stop over to my house for supper around five, so we can talk more? Here are the directions,” Charles offered.
The Marshal drew Michael a rough map and explained directions Arizona style. “Easy to find. Turn left on Aspen Lane. Keep driving when you hit Third Street, go 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.”
Chapter 4 March
“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 he loved it. The voice grated on my nerves. Half the time it sent me on an unconventional route. Give me two cross streets and a map, and I can locate any place. When it comes to verbal directions, I’m left/right dyslexic, but I can sense North, South, East, and West in my bones.
After Michael turned off the main road, I pointed to a dirt track. Farmland on the roadside smelled loamy and fertile. I noticed green corn shoots 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. When I stepped out of the vehicle, I gazed across the desert valley to the looming Black Mesa volcanic outcrop and the sky blue lake beside it.
As I walked up the stone path, two lazy Australian Shepherds by the front of the house didn’t even get up to bark to warn of strangers approaching.
“Don’t mind them, those hound’s job is to 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 ready,” he said.
Charles pulled out a massive wooden stool at the inlaid Mexican tile counter for me. The breakfast bar wrapped around the room ending at the kitchen stove. Cilantro, beans, and intoxicating spicy meat cooking in pots made my mouth water. Charles handed Michael and I each a glass of fresh iced lemonade, decorated with a sprig of mint and a lime wedge.
“Hope you enjoy Mexican. You don’t mind spices, do you?” Charles asked.
“Minnie loves spices and hot sauces, me not so much. I’ll try a bite once though,” Michael said.
“Hon, welcome Michael and Minerva Doyle. They’re moving to Black Mesa. Michael helped with the incident at the Café. Let’s eat supper before it cools. We can discuss Mrs. Steven later,” Charles said.
“Hi, I’m Sunny, Charles’ wife. Glad he invited you. I made plenty of food to go around for visitors. Enough left for my widow ladies too,” she said. Her grayish blonde hair was tied up in a messy ponytail off her oven heat reddened face. Sunny wiped her hands off on an over-sized cobbler’s apron. Many hearty meals stained the front. Underneath she wore a western shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. Her one splash of feminine apparel was an intricate silver waterfall necklace and handmade Zuni turquoise earrings.
Charles piled our plates with spicy fajitas: strips of steak, fresh tortillas, refried beans, Hatch green chilies, and grilled onions. “Here, try my homemade salsa. Folks around here call it Gunslinger.”
Michael’s eyes teared. “Wow. What a bite.”
“You have a baby’s palate, son,” Charles teased.
Michael couldn’t understand how I ate tongue blistering food. I loved it: horseradish, wasabi, chilies, and the hotter, the better. I doused salsa on my plate and munched away.
“These beans have a savory tang. 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? Is he reliable?”
“Paragon Realty. Ed Sanders has lived here for a couple years, from New York City. Quiet for a city fellow. No dealings with the law, or complaints from the locals, but read the fine print when you sign a contract with him,” Charles said.
After we had eaten, we passed into the living room for coffee and dessert. 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 furniture. Sunny knocked them off with her arm and gave him a look.
Charles said, “I’m sorry that Mrs. Steven died. She worked hard as a man and did the heavy ranch chores. Folks around town say she wore the pants in the family.”
“Mrs. Steven had to stay strong. Her husband was killed in a mine accident when the kids were tiny,” Sunny said. “Mary raised five young children herself. There’s the oldest boy, Victor. Twins, Loretta and Deborah. The youngest boy, Flynn, and youngest girl, Gloria. It makes for an extensive family. They’ve done well for themselves.”
“When men give their word around here an honest man’s handshake says he’s honor bound,” Charles explained. “The Steven’s bunch made trouble because lots of spoken agreements turned out lousy.”
Sunny said, “Townsfolk here get the scandal out quick if someone doesn’t hold to their word, or tries to trick folks. Most people don’t trust the Steven’s clan except for Flynn; he’s a ‘good hand’ same as his papa. Flynn’s the family outcast because the relatives take after their Momma.”
“Nobody makes pacts with the Steven’s bunch unless there’s a lawyer involved. Count your fingers after you shake hands with them,” Charles said.
Chapter 5 March
“You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” German Proverb
“Minerva, let me give you a tour of our home,” Sunny said.
Sunny showed me a large formal living room with dead animal heads galore on the walls. Not something I’d consider a decorating style, but it matched the rest of her Southwest theme.
“Charles and the boys go shooting elk in the fall. Does Michael?”
“Michael likes to fish,” I said. Michael had enough excitement in the past hunting men.
“In summer we’ve got animals to take care of, alfalfa and corn to grow. It’s a job keeping the crows off our plants. But in the autumn I can vegetables and fruit for the winter,” she said.
“Sometimes I-40 closes due to terrible weather. A whole log goes in the fireplace when the snow hits. We’re glad to have it,” she said. Sunny pointed to a mammoth floor to ceiling fireplace at one end of the living room.
In the next room, I discovered a lovely organized haven. Rows of flat drawers filled up with cloth. A large folding table on the other side held Sunny’s sewing machine and cutting mats. The long-arm quilter took up the other wall. She had an entire walk-in closet full of supplies.
“Winter is my quilting time, and I hibernate in my sewing room,” she said.
“I’m envious. I love your workroom, you’ve given me ideas for mine,” I said in admiration.
“But I’m frustrated,” Sunny said. “After I wrote a recipe book for the ladies in the Altar Society, my computer went blank. Every time Charles touches electronics, they die, so he’s no help. Neither are the kids.”
“I’m teaching Computer Science at the college in the Fall. Let me take a quick look at it,” I said. “First rule: always check to see if it’s plugged in because cords can loosen up by tripping over them or pulling on them.”
When I pushed the plugs in, the screen opened. I detected one messy list on the hard drive. No separate folders.
“The recipe book is still in here. Do you back up files?” I asked.
“Buy a flash drive for the recipe book. You’ll need another for pictures. Putting files in folders will clean up the hard drive so it won’t run slow. Plus, order external storage to protect the computer. Backup work every week.” I suggested.
“What’s a flash drive?” Sunny asked.
Bless her heart; too much technical jargon. From my experience, the only dumb questions are the ones you don’t ask.
“My hostess gift for an excellent meal will be two thumb drives. They’re small and portable. Plug them into the computer, and I’ll teach you how to make a secure copy of the book. A free lesson,” I said.
“Great. Charles doesn’t go near computers. He tells me to ask the kids for help, but they show me so fast I don’t understand,” Sunny 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.
“I’m worried about Charles. Peg helps Charles with tech stuff at the office but he needs to learn how to use technology, or else he’s out of a job. The County wants Charles to save his records at his office and then e-mail the file to the county,” Sunny said. “The county court insists on storing law paperwork on a computer. The County Sheriff’s department upgraded two years ago and even has computers in the patrol trucks.”
“If Charles has permission, I can do consulting work for him part-time,” I said.
We continued the tour of Sunny’s home. The master bedroom, an oasis of calm, had a stunning blue and cream handmade wedding ring quilt on the bed. In the boy’s hideout, sturdy rodeo patterned coverlets decorated the lodgepole pine bunk beds. Last, in the daughter’s room, a 1930’s cowgirl themed bedspread decorated an antique four-poster bed.
“The kids rode horses since they could walk,” she said. “My daughter likes gymkhana, and the boys do rodeo every Friday.” Sunny brought me back to the family room where the guys were engrossed in the fishing channel.
“Charles, Minerva says she’s glad to help you organize your computer files at the office. You need an expert that knows what they’re doing,” she said.
“I did cyber-forensic 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 into computers. Peg does that for me. Navajo County has more square miles than the eastern states or even foreign countries. The outskirts of town offer many places for misbehaving folks to hide. Let’s talk at the office. Give me the details. I’ll see how much is left over in the department budget. Right now there’s enough to hire a part-time deputy and a consultant. Lord knows I need help.”
While Sunny and I did the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen, I made friends with her. I liked her right away. She struck me as funny, honest, and unafraid to learn new ideas. Her personality matched her name, an enthusiastic woman no matter what life threw at her. Sunny made it her mission to feed the hungry, clothe less fortunate children, and comfort the grieving widow.
The kitchen featured a Southwestern vibe from dried red chilis hanging on the wall to original Pioneer Cowboy Art. A series of black and white photos of pioneer women honored a struggle to build a home on the frontier. A woman washed clothes on a washboard while another boiled clothing over the fire. One group gathered at a quilting bee, a horsewoman in a divided skirt drove a buckboard, and last a school marm sheltered unruly awkward charges behind long skirts.
Michael and Charles conversed and looked somber. Michael shook his head. Charles slammed his hand on the table. Michael gestured with the universal hand slicing a throat. What happened to those two? Sunny looked concerned. I thought they liked each other
“What’s wrong?” I asked Michael.
“Not much,” Michael said. “He and I were both innocent kids in Beirut in October 1983, forced to grow up quick. We compared notes about the time we were stationed there.”
“No worries,” Charles nodded in agreement.
Michael didn’t talk much about his time in the Marines or the ATF. A friendship was cemented, the two men absorbed the fishing show as if nothing happened.
Chapter 6 March
“Behind every successful rancher is a wife who works in town.” Cowboy Proverb
Michael and I researched the unique village before a session with the Realtor. When I stayed in Black Mesa, I had déjà vu. On the west side of town, the pioneers dammed the Rio de la Plata to form a lake. A KOA park offered campsites for RVs. On the south side, an imposing black volcanic outcrop towered over the town. Michael and I held hands, strolled along the country lane, and listened to the wind whip through real pines, not saguaro cactus. Wildflowers popped up alongside the trail: California poppies, ox-eye daisies, and wild irises.
Horses roamed the fields and cattle munched grass. We spotted animals who’d found a home along the creek bank. I held my nose because I smelled lots of skunks and manure.
Michael and I researched Zillow to narrow the list to four homes. As we approached the Paragon Realtor’s office, we hoped the realtor held up to a paragon of virtue.
“Ed, I’m Michael Doyle. My wife, Minerva. We’re looking for a VA approved three bedrooms, two baths, a fixer-upper.” Michael informed him. Ed pumped Michael’s hand. Michael had memorized Ed’s name from his card. I remembered Ed came from New York, a plus for me.
“Surprising home prices,” I said.
“It’s a quiet town. Before the recession, people couldn’t find a home for sale until somebody passed on, and the kids didn’t want it.” Ed escorted us to a pea green Land Rover, and we drove off on a house-hunting venture.
“When the Paper Mill by Snowflake/Taylor closed good paying jobs were lost. Farmers and ranchers have lived here for generations, so most people needed a side income after the harvest season,” Ed said.
“People work for the county or state nowadays. Government officials saved bygone buildings after the freeway boom instead of razing them. Black Mesa is known for the original 1950’s architecture and artistic neon signage. Visitors traveling Route 66 add to the town’s tax revenue. We’ve even had tourists as far away as Japan taking photographs.”
Ed showed the first property, a two-story cottage with original lead glass windows tucked behind ancient cottonwood trees. A journeyman mason had laid the mauve streaked limestone and quartz turquoise bearing rock.
Ed gave a sales pitch as he unlocked the door. “This is a historic home, built in 1870, one of the oldest houses in Black Mesa. Irish Catholics settled here after the Civil War. Men had come over in steerage. They joined the Irish Brigade on the Union side. Soldiers who survived brought wives and families out west away from the devastation and tragedy. The men were excellent horsemen but worked as miners, lumberjacks, and stonemasons. Skills learned in the old country.”
“The house reflects a classic Victorian layout. Amazing craftsmanship but outdated wiring, kitchen, and bathroom,” Michael said.
As I stepped into the cottage, I got a weird ambiance. My arms shivered, and the hair on my neck stood up with a sense of foreboding.
“Michael. Wait. Nope. I’ll wait outside until you’re done,” I said.
As the atmosphere closed in on me, I ducked through the door, relieved to stand in the sunshine. Michael teased, but my sixth sense had saved my life when I lived in Joplin.
“Sorry Ed, not this dwelling.” I strode toward the Land Rover. “You know it’s haunted.”
“130 years ago a gunman killed the town Marshal. The tragedy left a widow with eight small kids,” Ed said.
“There’s more.” As I stared him down, Ed had to divulge what was wrong with the property.
“The house was a hospital during the Spanish Flu epidemic in the 1917’s, right after statehood,” Ed said.
“Let’s tour another,” Michael said.
“One without so much history,” I said.
Chapter 7 March
“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 minutes from the Navajo/Apache County line. He drove off Old Route 66 and then turned on a dirt road lined with rural mailboxes and traveled up the gravel driveway.
The saltbox style house had two stories on the front, slanting to one story in the rear. A twenty-acre lot covered in old growth cedar trees rounded out the rest of the land. Michael and I investigated more outbuildings, a pair of railroad cars converted into a barn, and a small workshop next to the barn door.
Ed unlocked the front door. Wood floors flowed throughout the living room. A wall of windows faced north that let in sunlight not heat. On the south wall opposite the windows, floor to ceiling bookshelves rose on each side of a rugged stone fireplace. Heaven, because Michael and I were bookworms for life.
Ed said, “The children’s bedrooms run across both sides of the upstairs with Jack and Jill bathrooms. The first floor has the master bedroom/bathroom, kitchen, dining room, and an added guest bathroom. There’s a combination sewing/laundry room.
“The enclosed veranda goes the whole length of the house. It’s screened for summer, and with a wood stove cozy in the winter. I’ll let you folks wander around the property. Check out the basement and other buildings. Call out if you have questions, I’ll be waiting outside.” Ed finished the laid-back sales pitch.
“I love it so far. What do you think?” I said.
Michael said, “I want to examine the electric, heating, and plumbing.”
While Michael investigated the core mechanicals, I looked at the downstairs. A kitchen window over the sink opened out to a flower garden. New black appliances were a plus. But the solid knotty pine cabinets were too dark for my taste because I liked a fresh lighter stain. The guest bathroom took a beating from kids. Our first re-do.
As I entered a door off the kitchen, I walked into a pantry big as the sewing room. Who needs storage for an apocalypse? Although I admired the tons of shelving, a person had to store a small grocery store full of food in there.
“Minnie, there’s a finished basement downstairs. The guy left a HD TV in a game room,” Michael said. “The mechanicals are up to code with a heat pump, on demand hot water heater, and new wiring panel. Let’s explore upstairs.”
A wrought iron stairway led up to the second-floor loft. Two sets of bunk beds took up the middle of each mirror image bedroom.
Ed said, “Are you curious why a gigantic storage pantry and enough beds for a dorm? The man, LDS, built it in 2000. They had four boys and three girls. That’s why the children slept bunkhouse style. Father got a job in Salt Lake City after the Paper Mill closed. The wife and kids moved last year. Owner’s a motivated seller. He bought the place in Utah for cash. This house has no mortgage, a quick close, and no bank to slow the buy.”
The home had a happy vibe. I imagined I heard children’s laughter echo in the hall. “Between Michael’s kids, my kids, nieces, nephews, and the grandkids, we have a big family,” I said.
“No problems with this home. Let’s put in an offer, with approval after inspection, and title search,” Michael said.
Then I decided. “Okay. I’ve got to drive back to the valley Monday. My plate’s full. Finals are coming up soon, and grades. I can’t juggle this and semester end. Can you finish the details yourself? Do you mind staying up here?”
“I’ll drive down on the weekends and help you pack up the condo. I’ve got it under control. Marines: Semper Fi.” Michael kissed me and twirled me around the dining room. He looked so happy.
Chapter 8 April, May, and Memorial Day
“Don’t judge people by their relatives.” Cowboy Proverb
Michael signed the papers on his end. Then I faxed, emailed, and over-nighted my side of the paperwork. The home sale closed fast. No sense in dragging things we didn’t use anymore up a mountain. Also, I sold or gave away the belongings we hadn’t used in a year, but not our books.
Because the condo lease ended, I stayed in a motel near the college campus. On the weekends, I celebrated a second honeymoon with Michael when we snuggled in my room.
Michael’s body resembled that of an Olympic swimmer, broad shoulders, narrow waist, firm butt, long legs, and five feet seven inches in western boots. After a romantic interlude, he carted possessions up the Rim to the new residence.
I missed his comforting presence on the left side of the bed. Every small sound unnerved me. Unable to fall asleep, I hugged my pillow and watched old romantic black and white movies. During the long lonely mid-week I settled into a monastic routine.
Finally, my school paperwork was finished in record time. Student’s final exams were over. Grades submitted, I left my phone number with the Dean’s secretary and took a deep breath of freedom from academia.
Ninety-three degrees at 5 a.m. in the Valley. The Weather Channel predicted Memorial Day to achieve one hundred and five degrees for the holiday By noon the highway up to the White Mountains turned into a parking lot, so I hustled to leave town early Friday morning.
The freeway was wide open to traffic. When I neared Payson, I turned off the AC since the steep climb was tough on a car’s engine. The road from the Valley starts at 1200 feet above sea level and rises to over 7000 feet in Heber/Overgaard. Then ascends over the Mogollon Plateau past Show/Low and reaches Holbrook on I-40. By taking a shortcut to Old Route 66 and Black Mesa, I made it up the hill in four hours, a 235-mile trip.
By the time I pulled into the parking lot of the Black Mesa Café, the temperature had dropped twenty-five degrees. Cedar trees sharp scent mingled with fresh, dry air.
My damp sleeveless top and hiking shorts stuck to the car seat when coming from the blazing hot valley. However, sensing a temperate drop of twenty to thirty degrees in the early morning high desert plateau I wish I had worn jeans and a t-shirt. My arms were covered in goose pimples, and my stomach grumbled in hunger.
As I walked into the Black Mesa Café, I saw Michael seated at our favorite booth.
“You’ve found a home. Your name on it yet?” I teased and gave him a hug. Even though I wanted to devour him on sight, I presented the façade of a proper teacher in the Café.
“The locals hang out here. I sit here, drink coffee, listen to gossip, and keep 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.
“Traffic was okay coming up the mountain. I left early. Everyone slowed to a crawl going through Star Valley,” I said.
“Star Valley, a speed trap for sure. Camera catch you going ninety miles an hour through town?” He tousled my sweaty hair.
When the tops of ancient 400-year-old Ponderosa Pine trees stand level with the pavement, I didn’t dare gaze sideways out the window. I clenched the steering wheel as I drove up through mountains. Until I drove past Heber/Overgaard, I kept my eyes focused on the road ahead
“How did the movers do?” I asked.
“Great. The furniture is where you wanted it. Left the kitchen, pantry, sewing room, and closets because I figured you’d want to organize them. However, I got my coffee pot going, grill set up, tool shed organized, and barn cleaned out. If I’m lucky, I won’t need to do much remodeling or improvements on the house,” he said.
“Nope. Made the bed up.” Michael whispered in my ear, and with a naughty grin, he pecked me on my cheek.
“Have you eaten yet?” I asked. I presumed he’d eaten meals out while I stayed in the Valley.
“Sunny and Charles looked after me, they had me over for supper every night. Drank coffee with Charles’ group of guys, and fended for myself at brunch,” Michael said.
“Charles is a fascinating man. I trusted him right off. He’s French Canadian, from Montreal, met Sunny when he was on leave from the UN peacekeepers. They married and moved closer to her family. She’s descended from the original Irish Catholic pioneers.”
Michael depended on no individual and took time to form acquaintances. His few close comrades in the Marines and ATF felt the same. If my survival depended on men who take care of my back, I’d trust only them.
Michael waved Rose over to our table. “I want chicken fried steak, mashed taters, white gravy, and salad with blue cheese,” he said. “What’s the vegetable?”
“Green beans,” Rose explained.
“Glad to see you back home, hon. what can I fix you for lunch?” 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. The two sound alike. I mix people’s dressing up if they have a thick southern accent. You want iced coffee with cream on the side. Correct?” She said.
“Yes, how did you remember?” I said. Dumbfounded that Rose could recall what I drank more than a month ago.
“Oh, I remember everything my usual customers eat,” Rose said. She disappeared to place our order in the kitchen.
“Thanks for getting the taxes done. Were they too complicated?” I said. Michael and I had gotten married the previous summer, so this year was our first tax return together.
“Found a local person, Richard Fitzroy. Lives across the street from us. He was a corporate accountant at the Paper Mill. Now Richard is retired and owns a tax business, very meticulous,” Michael said.
“Have you received news on the unfortunate little old lady?” I said.
“Not yet. Charles says it takes six to eight weeks to get a postmortem report. The Marshal’s office relies on Pima County. I used them before in the past on investigations by the border, slow but they produce excellent work,” he said.
Before Michael retired, he worked undercover for the ATF. With outdoor-bronzed skin and untamed curly black hair, he could pass for any Mediterranean or Latin ethnic group. He kept his slight gapped toothed smile because expensive dental work can give an operative away. Michael explained minimal details of old cases. Too gruesome from what I’ve learned. My ability, I gathered hard to find cyber forensic information, behavior patterns, and statistical data then matched the results to criminals and a crime scene.
“How’s the family taking their Mother’s death?” I asked.
Michael said, “They meet every Friday night for dinner. I listen to their mealtime arguments and write notes.”
“You’d think they’d get the creeps eating at the same table where she died,” I said.
“They leave Mrs. Steven’s space open and place setting empty in memory. The clan sits in the same places at the back booth. I’ll figure the guilty party out, there’s something fishy going on,” he said. He took out his pocket-sized notebook. Michael absorbed their names.
Michael made a circle with his forefinger. “Seated counter-clockwise around the booth: 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 into the restaurant. Rose has their order ready when they walk in the door.
“Guess what else. The whole Steven’s clan lives on our street,” Michael said.
“What, how did that happen?”
“The fellow whose house we purchased didn’t lose his job. Victor forced him to move. The man quarreled with Victor Steven, the oldest brother, over horses grazing on Victor’s territory. That’s a no-go around here. Charles said both men sued each other ‘till one got fed up and left town,” Michael said.
“Great, I hope they leave us alone,” I said.
Chapter 9 June
“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 doorbell. Michael hadn’t returned from the store. Although he made coffee, we were out of sugar. Had he forgotten his keys? I yanked the door open.
A tall, slender, elegant woman smiled. “Hello, I’m your neighbor Mrs. Gloria Steven-Fitzroy. The Black Mesa Chamber of Commerce has a packet of information with places to shop, and coupons for local stores for new people in the neighborhood. In addition, included are treats from artisan businesses who are members of the Chamber.”
Gloria glanced around at my mess while I tried to get things straightened up.
“Am I interrupting? Is this a good time?” Gloria said.
“No. Yes.” Great, my home’s a wreck. “Do you prefer sweet tea or Coke?”
“Thank you, but no sugary drinks. Bottled water is perfect for me,” Gloria said.
Gloria was one of those slender women who pulled off higher priced Nordstrom’s clothes as if they were designer originals. Skin made flawless by artifice, a demanding makeup job, and not a sliver of hair escaped a cultivated blonde French twist. Gloria’s demeanor was discordant with the outdoorsy pioneer women who I had met in Black Mesa.
“Got a case of bottled water around here somewhere. Give me a sec. Please, make yourself comfortable.” I shoved a pile of books off the sofa.
Gloria brushed the couch off and sat, with her legs crossed at the ankles. She wore pale hose and tan spectator pumps.
Short and curvy, a tomboy at heart, that’s me. Phoenix Suns’ fan girl dressed in a baseball cap, nut brown hair sticking out, faded jeans, an old T-shirt, orange socks, and purple sneakers.
“These treats appear yummy.” I dashed to the pantry to get Gloria a water bottle.
At least order appeared near the bookcase. Books might look disorganized, but the contents of each pile remained stacked and sorted by genre. But, when I came back, Gloria had obviously snooped through them.
“So, where do you live?”
“The Steven family possesses most of the land around here,” Gloria explained. “Richard and I live across the street in the large white colonial. Mother lived in the old ranch house.
“Victor owns the grazing pasture, an alfalfa field, and cornfield along with the log cabin next to your property. In addition, Victor has two horse barns on the other side of the house. You have a common lot line with him.”
“Loretta and Deborah live in Show Low near the hospital.
“Flynn lives at the end of the road in the double-wide manufactured home. Thank goodness, no one can see it from the highway. The trailer doesn’t bring up neighborhood property values, but the County zoned the property for mobile homes, farms, and proper houses, so what can one do?” Gloria said.
Gloria interrogated me, “Where does your husband work? Does he own his own business? We welcome new members to the Chamber of Commerce.”
“I’m teaching Computer Science in the fall and looking forward to helping people learn how to use computers. Michael retired last year,” I said.
“I’m the English department chair at Navapache Community College. Flynn is a tenured Geology professor at the college. Adjunct faculty should receive an e-mail invitation to the college reception in the fall. Contact the chairperson. The quality of the secretarial pool is lacking. Nice bookcase,” Gloria said.
“Michael and I are both bookworms. He likes thrillers, non-fiction, true-crime, action/adventure, history, biographies, and sci-fi. Me: classics, science, technology, math, and mysteries. Grew up on my grandfather’s favorites such as Treasure Island and the Three Musketeers. Give me a great book, a comfy chair, and a cozy fireplace to make life perfect,” I said.
“We have something in common. I noticed your extensive collection of eighteenth and nineteenth-century women writers. That’s my realm of academic forte,” she said. Gloria passed her fingernail over my books.
“Any women’s groups? Book clubs?” I said.
“The Chamber of Commerce is a professional group,” she said. “We’ve been talking about upgrading our records to a computer and putting the town of Black Mesa on the Internet. We could use someone’s technical ability to bring the Chamber into the twenty-first century.”
“Are there quilting groups? I love to quilt.”
“Not familiar with ladies’ sewing circles. Thank you for the bottle of water. It was refreshing. I had better go. I’ve more visits to make today. Glad to meet you. See you at the next Chamber of Commerce meeting, third Thursday night of the month, at the Black Mesa Café, 7 p.m.”
Chapter 10 June
“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 86028
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Michael Doyle,
This letter is to inform you that we, the family of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Steven, have initiated a wrongful death lawsuit and plan to hire Jacob Snow P. A. in the matter of our Mother’s recent demise.
The family gathered at the Black Mesa Café on the night of March 23. We were having a quiet family dinner when Mother choked. 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.
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 $50,000 in medical expenses due to her stay in the hospital, and the cost of ambulance services. Funeral expenses are expected to be $10,000. Loretta Steven and Deborah Steven, my twin sisters, are no longer professional caregivers for my mother. 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 total $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 ask one million dollars for mental anguish and suffering.
3) We further ask 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 a 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 86028
Cc: Jacob Snow P.A.
Snow, Smith, and Reidhead PLLC
Chapter 11 June
“There’s nothing so bad that it couldn’t be worse.” Irish proverb
Enraged, Michael grasped the official-looking registered mail document and paced 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,” he said.
“My God. School doesn’t start until August. The closing costs on the house used up our savings,” I said. “We need a lawyer. No matter how much they cost, they’re worth every dime you pay them.”
“Dubois warned me. The clan from hell is on our doorstep. Can you believe I attempted to save her? Backstabbers. Can’t rely on anyone,” he said. “Get dressed. Charles is the one sane person I’d trust in this damn town.”
Michael reverted to combat wary Marine. No sense reasoning with him. Jumping into the truck, I fastened my seatbelt before Michael gunned his old Chevy, and hung on for dear life. Ten minutes later we screeched into the parking lot at the Marshal’s office.
“Peg, Charles in?” Michael barged past her.
“Sorry, Peg. Emergency,” I said.
Charles sat with his feet up on the oak table, listening on the landline phone. He motioned Michael and me to wait and held up one finger. Not saying a word, the Marshal kept writing.
Then Charles spoke. “Got it. Homicide. Thank you for working on it. Appreciate your attention to detail. I’ll get right on it. Released it when? You have the grand jury evidence you need?”
“Take multiple samples because we need more for a murder case,” Charles continued. “The relatives planned to cremate her. I want hair, nails, blood, and ‘tox’ screen. We’re dealing with a very twisted family here. Okay. Fax the report ASAP, send an extra official copy registered mail. No slip-ups.”
Dubois hung up the phone. “How can I help you, Michael? You’ve got a burr on your tail.” Charles swung his boots to the floor.
“That damn Steven’s clan is suing us for millions of dollars. A wrongful death lawsuit. I tried to save her. God Almighty, help me; you’re the one person in this town I trust,” Michael said.
“Easy does it. Good news. Pima County Office Medical Examiner phoned me with the autopsy results. No worries on the Steven’s complaint against you and other people in town. It’s dropped. The lab boys ruled Mrs. Steven’s death due to an overdose of caffeine poison. We’re looking at a homicide,” Charles said.
Michael said, “What happened?”
“Not only that, but long-term arsenic poisoning was found in her hair and nails. Her stomach contents showed someone used caffeine poison to kill her at the last Steven’s family Friday night meal. Somebody wanted to make sure she died. Now we need to investigate who poisoned her,” Charles said.
“Lord knows I drink enough coffee every day to float a battleship but how does caffeine kill you?” Michael pondered.
“A tablespoon of pure caffeine could kill a horse. Recent emergency hospital visits involved high school and college kids. They drank pumped-up sports juice, and ended up at the doctor’s office. One student is on life support at the hospital. Whoever is adding caffeine to drinks goofed, someone died,” Charles said.
“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 clan,” Charles said. “The relatives want to cremate the body. Somebody hopes to get rid of the evidence. Wish I knew this beforehand; I’d have secured the scene at the Café when the incident happened. Everything’s washed up long ago.”
“Let me join you in the hunt. My reputation is at stake,” Michael said. “Let’s find out who did this crime.”
“There’s the fax,” Charles said. The machine spit out three sheets of paper. “Here I’ll read to you. Mary Elizabeth Steven was alive and well, eating dinner at the Black Mesa Café with her relatives. It was a Friday occurrence for them to gather and discuss the family’s business holdings. She was last seen awake but in apparent respiratory distress at 17:55 on March 23 when the EMTs transferred her to Summit Hospital in Show Low.
“Death scene: Mary Elizabeth Steven and 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. Mrs. Steven’s stomach was decontaminated with activated charcoal. A complete blood count, urinalysis, arterial blood gas, chest radiograph, CT of the head, ECG, electrocardiography, and telemetry monitoring, were given to the patient at the hospital. Symptoms showed by the patient included anxiety, tremors, seizures, and dilated pupils. Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Steven died from complications of extreme cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity.
“The lab performed an autopsy of the organs after her death. White particles mixed with undigested hemorrhagic liquid were in the stomach contents. The toxicological test proved an acute overdosage of 255 mg of caffeine. Tests on the kidneys, liver, lungs, heart, brain, skeletal muscle, urine, and skin confirmed extreme levels of caffeine toxicity. 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 cause of death wasn’t my negligence. Score one for my side,” Michael said with grim relief. “Sorry she died.”
Charles explained, “Mrs. Steven’s wake and funeral are coming up soon. I need an insider who can watch the action. The Steven’s family will be on their best conduct around me. Big. False. Front. You’re a friendly neighbor who’s making peace. The family will apologize to you for starting the lawsuit. Let them drop their guard. Keep your ears open. Watch them. You know how to profile behavior.” Charles’ relentless eyes of a born hunter bored into us. He was on the prowl searching for justice for the elderly murder victim.
“You’re retired from the ATF, an expert profiler who can get inside people’s heads, and figure out motives. When I received an excellent recommendation for you, I decided I need a ‘good hand’ on as a part-time deputy. That’s what my budget will handle, we’re stretched too thin,” Charles said. “You are my advantage, and I could do with your help to investigate Mrs. Steven’s death. Let’s do it the old-fashioned way before DNA, use our brains. None of the Steven’s clan can be trusted.”
“The Maricopa County Sheriff’s department confirmed Minerva’s done impressive cyber forensic work for them,” Charles stated.
“Minerva can charge me consulting fees. An expert computer nerd needs to dig into the family history and finances,” Charles continued.
Michael said, “Computers drive me crazy. Take my bubble nose Chevy. Ugly but simple to fix. Manufacturers cram every new vehicle with electronic crap.”
Charles said, “My old El Camino works for me. I ruined my new truck I bought last year. Stuck out in the boondocks and blew the engine up when I touched it. Cost me $1500 for a brain.”
“I stopped fixing Minnie’s car a long time ago. You need computer diagnostic tools. The warning light went off on the SUV, turned out it was due for a regular oil change, nothing serious,” Michael said.
“When Sunny and I married we moved to Black Mesa because it’s off the beaten path. I can’t touch electronics, the innards fry. She looks stuff up on the computer for me, and programs the HDTV,” Charles said. “I’m not the only one who’s affected by electronics. I fit right in with individuals who chose no electricity on purpose. Figured most folks around here were old-fashioned Amish people.”
“I trust you,” Michael stated. “I’ll help with interviews and arrests. Put too many evil men in prison, so no one here knows of my real history. My cover: a redneck blue-collar guy and a retired ex-Marine,” Michael said.
“Charles, I’ll help you with any forensic computer investigations as a consultant,” I said.
Chapter 12 June
Once home, I settled into a comfortable armchair and buried my nose in the newspaper. The Black Mesa Gazette had a full-page article written on Mrs. Mary Steven. She acted in many traditional Western movies during the 50’s and 60’s. A black-and-white photo showed Mary astride a galloping horse. Her youthful, brash, grin told of reckless daring-do.
Mary Steven started out as a stunt rider, later earning spoken parts. Her career as a B movie actor ended when she wed. Mary was influential in Northern Arizona on the rodeo circuit. The Steven’s Sliding S Bar Ranch continued to raise rodeo horses.
The Steven’s family had the matriarch cremated. Mr. Victor Steven scheduled a memorial ride after the Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Peace Church. The funeral cortege started at Our Lady of Perpetual Peace and traveled on the old highway to the Ranch where Mary was to be interred with her late husband.
Donations were requested for the Neonatal Infant Care Unit instead of flowers. Mrs. Mary Steven’s funeral service was open to close friends and family members. Mrs. Gloria Steven-Fitzroy invited friends of the family to her residence after the memorial ride. I suspected one of these loving liars had poisoned their mother.
Michael’s old Chevy rumbled up the driveway. The back screen door banged. He clattered around in the kitchen. Michael bore in two steaming cups: his black, mine half sugar and cream.
“You didn’t have to wait up, Charles stayed with Jeremiah at the office,” Michael said. He kissed me on my forehead. “The Steven’s family pissed off Jeremiah. Once we got him settled, I listened to his side of the story. Which, in this case, I don’t blame him for being angry.
“Mary Steven hounded him for years, another situation, in and out of courts with the Steven’s clan,” Michael said. “They better not start with me, because that shit won’t fly. I’ll nip it right now. They’re messing with a Marine.”
“What happened with the desperado welder? I wanted to make sure you got home safe from your first arrest,” I asked.
“A $25 fine and he’ll be out in the morning after he sleeps. The jail is a joke. It’s an old storage room with no windows and a Schlage lock on a standard metal house door. Thrift store furnished cell; kid’s iron double bunk bed, dented lawn chair, and a folding table. It’s enough for people to cool their heads overnight. Charles has to take the serious arrests to Holbrook, at the Navajo County facility,” he said. “Watcha reading, any news?”
“Mary Steven’s obit covered the entire back page. She’s notorious,” I said. Then I handed him the Black Mesa Gazette.
He read the obit. “I understand she was the boss lady of the family. Mary ran the POA meetings and the town with an iron glove. Victor, her son, controls things in her place. Kept it in the family,” Michael said.
“I guess they can bury relatives on their own property,” he commented. “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 of ill will happening to my hubby. We needed to stay on the right side of the Steven’s clan.
Chapter 13 June
“Dead men tell no tales, but there’s many a thing to be learned at the wake house.” Irish Proverb
Michael and I skipped Mrs. Steven’s funeral services and the memorial ride. Instead, we checked out the reception at Gloria’s house. Michael broke out his only navy blue suit left from ATF courtroom days. I helped him with his Marine Corps necktie. Michael hugged me for encouragement. My handsome Irish husband smelled of Old Spice and starched cotton.
Forced to put on lipstick, makeup, a black dress, stockings, and heels, I dreaded this farce. A 1940’s black toque trimmed with a small veil perched on baby fine messy hair finished my beauty routine.
“Ready?” Michael said. “Let’s get this done.”
Michael and I walked across the street to Gloria’s home. Gloria didn’t kid around when she declared she had a grand white colonial dwelling. It looked as if someone sucked up Tara from Georgia and plunked it in Arizona.
The expansive front yard greeted us with the sweet smell of freshly mown hay. Real green grass and an actual lawn begged to be walked on with bare feet. The water bill must have been astronomical. Thirty-foot oleanders graced either side of the terrace offering respite from the blazing Arizona sun. We stepped up to the cool, shaded porch. Two-story columns framed the entrance. A long veranda led up to the double-cut glass front doors.
A pair of full-figured women greeted Michael and me at the door. The first wore navy blue scrubs. She passed her hand through a cropped burgundy streaked spiked haircut and grabbed something pale blue from the stand behind her back. The other was clad in vivid green cartoon hospital scrubs and sported a shaggy pink highlighted bob. Except for striking tresses, both sisters were identical.
“Hello, I’m Loretta Steven, and my sister is Deborah Steven. Gloria instructed me to make everyone put these on over shoes before entering the living room. It’s not our idea,” Loretta said. She passed us hospital booties.
When I stepped into the Fitzroy foyer, I had the compulsion to take off my high-heels. Michael grinned at me over the absurdity of our circumstances.
“Go with the flow,” he whispered. “We’re visitors in a strange country.”
“Deb and I got off duty an hour ago, so I apologize for wearing uniform scrubs. But I’m in the ER, and Deborah’s in the NICU at Summit in Show Low. The hospital is fifty minutes away. Gloria insisted we arrive early, no chance to switch clothes,” Loretta said.
“Sorry to learn your Mother died. Michael gave his best effort to help her,” I said.
“Yes, Mommy’s been sick for a while, but she and Daddy are together now. Loretta and I were her caregivers. We’ve nursed her for more than a year at home,” Deborah said.
“We gave her the soundest medical care. She went downhill so sudden. I regretted not being by her side when she collapsed, because I wasn’t expecting her to die,” Loretta said. Her eyes teared.
“The lawsuit was a waste of time, but Gloria told me the family couldn’t afford Mommy’s medical bills,” Deborah said.
“She was in the hospital often this year. Even though we work there, the Medicare insurance doesn’t pay for everything. The copays were killing us,” Loretta said.
“Yes, Gloria made us sign the paperwork. We hated to sue you because your husband tried to help Mommy in her time of need,” Deborah said.
“Maybe the results were different if I stayed with Mommy instead of rushing back to the ER for a traffic accident. I’m thankful he treated her. I don’t blame him,” Loretta said.
“Help yourself to the buffet in the dining room,” Deborah said.
Michael and I made way through the two-story foyer, illuminated by a glass chandelier. We negotiated a path into the central part of the house. Pale walls, frosty aqua curtains, white carpets, and icy furniture adorned Gloria’s home. Immaculate birch logs heaped high in the ecru stone fireplace, bet no one lit a match in that recess. A picture on the wall depicted a bleak forest covered in snow, which echoed the wintry vibe. Gloria’s house had the warmth of a glacier. Was Gloria allergic to colors? No cuddles, no snuggles, no softness.
Gloria arrayed a tray of minuscule tea sandwiches and assorted pastries on the buffet table. Cocktail crackers with hors-d'oeuvres resembled tiny jewels, untouchable. Plates of vegetables and fruit occupied a bright spot in the dining room. No wine or liquor in sight, only soda water, 7-Up, orange juice, and pale red punch allowed. This soirée was not any Irish wake I’ve attended.
The best place to find out secrets was the restroom. As I peeped into the bathroom, I saw beige walls, ultra clean, and sterile which gave me the shivers even in June. Right then I vowed to repaint mine in livelier colors.
Gloria perfected even the simple act of washing. A cut glass bottle holding whipped cream like hand sanitizer with rich scented strawberry lather plopped in my hands. Thick rolled spa towels draped on a rack and dared me to wipe my clean paws on them. A pale wicker basket held folded paper wipes for guests. Etched tree branches decorated the sliding glass doors of the shower stall.
When I opened the medicine cabinet, I viewed everyday stuff: perfume, wrinkle serum, Band-Aids, deodorant, razors, hand lotion, and shaving cream. High dollar pricey brand names displayed, no generic products sullied these shelves.
Hidden in the wastebasket, I found empty bottles of cheap toiletries. Gloria bought inexpensive lotions and filled up the expensive, classy glass decanters. Who’s she trying to hoodwink?
I left the sterile bathroom, and made my way to the buffet table. Starved and nervous, the wake gave me consent to eat, and I joined the guests at the buffet. Gloria came toward me as I loaded up my plate. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, gulping a mouthful of food.
“Yes, Mother was chronically ill. The family was not shocked when she passed away,” Gloria said. “Cremation is so civilized, no dirt or coffins. Victor will receive the ashes since he is the oldest. I do not want them in my home. I remember Mother as she was in life.”
“Yes, I understand. People live so far apart. When my Dad died, my youngest brother couldn’t get leave from the Navy. My sister booked a plane from back east, so we had two memorial services, one military, and the other for the family and friends,” I said.
“Did you enjoy the buffet?” Gloria asked me, not paying attention to my answer, while she glanced around at the other visitors.
“Gloria, it’s perfect. Did you cater? Did a professional chef prepare it?” I said.
“Every morsel was created personally by me. In this rural town, it is a tradition to contribute a covered dish for a grieving family. People donated foodstuffs, but I don’t trust strange kitchens. You never know how immaculate someone is around groceries. Therefore, I only consume what I prepare,” Gloria said. “So I gave the other fare to Loretta and Deborah. They’re not finicky.”
“You have an elegant house,” I said. “Perfect, a Martha Stewart magazine decorating style.”
“Yes, I have worked hard to decorate it. Nothing available here suited me, so I had to drive to Scottsdale. Mother thought my home was too modern, but Richard and I love it,” Gloria said. “Thank you for your condolences. I appreciate you and your husband coming to my home. I hope you harbor no harsh feelings regarding the litigation. The family had me start the paperwork. I was reluctant because you and I must work together at the college. Nevertheless, my relatives come first before strangers.”
“We’re okay. Glad it’s ruled out,” I said.
“Yes, Mother had an unexpected death due to heart failure. No one is at fault. Nothing one could do. At least Mother had professional care in the emergency room,” Gloria said.
“Michael had CPR training. He tried to help your Mom,” I protested in Michael’s defense.
“We abandoned the lawsuit as soon as the Marshal spoke to us,” Gloria said. “I must see to my other guests.”
Was she clueless, or was Gloria not willing to admit a scandal in public? Who murdered Mrs. Steven at dinner?
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Irish Proverb.
Michael huddled in the corner with a tall, bulky rancher sporting an old-fashioned mustache, and looking owlishly thru wire-rimmed glasses. The man reminded me of black-and-white images of Theodore Roosevelt. He dressed in Sunday best jeans, a starched, ironed white shirt, tan western cut sports coat, and a bolo tie with a solid gold nugget slide. When I looked at the blue hospital booties over his tooled leather cowboy boots, I suppressed a snicker.
“Victor, meet my wife Minerva,” Michael said.
“Hello, you’re our next-door neighbor. Sorry to hear your Mother died,” I said.
“Yeah, Ma had a harsh life. Pa died when I was twelve. Ma and I worked the ranch together from the time I was a kid. Quit school to support Ma. There wasn’t a horse alive she couldn’t ride. We’d wake up at daybreak to finish the chores. Ma kinda slowed this year. So I took over the businesses. Loretta and Deborah cared full-time for Ma,” he said. Victor thrust his hand through thick chestnut hair.
“So what took place?” Michael asked.
“Ma’s been sick for a while. Caught bronchitis in the winter, and she never got back her strength. Ma’s had stomach spells. Pearl drove her to the hospital in Show Low a bunch of times this year,” he said.
“Couldn’t sit by and not jump in, not in my nature, I tried my best to help her,” Michael said.
“Glad you helped Ma. I’m not good with sick people,” Victor said. “Didn’t start the lawsuit. Flynn refused to touch it with a ten-foot pole, but Loretta and Deborah worried about the medical bills. Still, I advised the twins to wait ‘till Medicare paid then worry what’s left to pay. Bill collectors will get blood money soon enough from Ma’s insurance. But the girls both worked at the hospital and I figured they’re scared for their jobs.
“Gloria gets along great with stuffed shirt city folks. She worked out the legal paperwork because I hate dealing with lawyers. Nothing but a pack of liars, thieves, momma’s boys, and sissies,” Victor said. His cheeks burned redder.
“Victor raises cattle and hogs. Does the butchering himself,” Michael said. He expected to calm Victor by changing the topic.
“Yeah, I hunt every fall. Last year I got drawn and shot an Elk. You’ll need a tag, Michael. Join the guys for a ride,” Victor said.
“I’m more of a trout fisherman,” Michael said.
“Carriage Lake by the Mesa or Big Lake on the Apache Rez. The Forest Service stocks streams with fingerlings. Get a license in Pinetop/Lakeside,” Victor said.
“Sounds terrific. What else do families do in town?” Michael asked.
“I belong to the Black Mesa Gold Prospectors. Found this nugget in the Potato field by Prescott. Go up in late July or early August after the Monsoon rains wash out the gravel. You’re welcome to join the club. Flynn, my brother, is a teacher up at the college, a true gold expert,” Victor said.
“Michael might buy a horse from Pearl. You ride?” Victor asked me.
“Michael’s the horse expert, and I’m a hiker and camper,” I said. “Did your wife come today?”
“Pearl and the Relief Society ladies cooked food for the family. Told her to rest, take a short nap, and show up later while I took the grub here for Gloria. Pearl’s a good woman, from honest folk,” Victor said.
“I’m looking forward to meeting Pearl,” I said.
“Join Pearl’s quilt group. They keep a whole village in blankets. The gals meet at the Stake House every week,” Victor said. “Gloria’s waving at me. Needs something for me to tote or fetch so I’ll cut her slack today. Nice to meet both of you.” Victor patted my back, and he shook Michael’s hand as he took off to see what Gloria demanded.
Chapter 15 June
“Blood is thicker than water.” Irish Proverb
As Victor Steven walked off, Michael took me to the corner fireplace.
“What did you figure out?” Michael asked.
“Gloria requested the lawsuit,” I said.
“Flynn is our next interview. Let’s find out his side of the story,” Michael said.
“The family acts as if she died in her sleep, they won’t accept the murder took place.”
“Charles didn’t offer them the details. When a homicide happens, we investigate families first, and then enemies last.” Michael slipped into cop talk.
Gloria interrupted, “Let me introduce my brother, Flynn Steven. He’s a tenured Geology professor at Navapache Community College, where we both work.” Gloria grabbed a man’s arm and pulled him over to us.
“Flynn, meet Mr. and Mrs. Michael Doyle. Minerva is an adjunct faculty member at the college this fall. You two are colleagues. At least you can have an intelligent conversation. Lord knows no one else in this room has any brains,” she said. “Duty calls.”
Flynn’s red hair curled over the collar, and he sported a trim beard. Dressed in chinos, a pale blue western shirt, corduroy jacket and a bolo tie, which had a trilobite clasp he looked down on me. Slim six feet tall, with a marathoner’s build, and intense sun-creased brown eyes, Flynn shook my hand and then Michael’s.
“Hi, Flynn Steven, glad to meet an associate faculty member. Gloria is pretentious. My hands get dirty grubbing around in rocks. Plus contrary to what my younger sister believes, everybody’s smart in their own way, college or not,” Flynn said.
“Minerva,” I said. “Computer Science classes at Keam’s Canyon with you during the fall semester.”
“Tried everything to revive your mother until the medics got there,” Michael said.
“Mom had been sick this year, first a severe chill last winter, later in and out of the emergency room with stomach complications. Mom was a spunky woman and struggled to grow healthier. Mom is at rest now. Gloria and Victor love to get into legal entanglement crap, not me,” Flynn said.
“Thanks, in a crisis civilians don’t realize professionals act in emergencies,” Michael said.
“Dad died when we were young,” Flynn recalled. “Mom took over the homestead and toiled her entire life struggling to keep the ranch. Mom should have let Victor run the businesses a long time ago. Victor’s a self-starter, a good-hand, up at daybreak, and works until midnight. Not a day passes by, but something needs overhauling, mending, or tending on the spread.
“Mom wanted Victor and me to be partners. No thanks, because my true passion is teaching,” Flynn said. “Couldn’t imagine myself as a rancher so I attended college.”
“Here’s my wife, Jennifer,” he said. “Honey, let me introduce Michael and Minerva, they moved up here from the Valley, and settled next door to Victor. Minerva’s collaborating with me at the college in the fall.”
“Glad to meet you. Sorry to interrupt but Gloria is giving me the high-sign on Lizbeth. Gloria’s not real happy having kids anywhere near her white carpet. Sweetheart, my feet are killing me,” Jennifer said.
“We’ve worn out our welcome and lingered long enough. Give me my little country bumpkin,” he said. He nuzzled the baby. “Come on over to our home before school starts. We’re at the end of the lane in the white trash trailer,” he quipped. “Keep your boots on too.”
Michael and I said our goodbyes to the grieving family. The memorial reception at Gloria’s house drained me.
When I made it home, the little black dress, heels, pantyhose and ridiculous hat got chucked in the closet. Michael laughed and wiggled his eyebrows when I threw my lacy black bra into the corner laundry basket.
“Unpleasant time, huh?” He said.
“What’s wrong with me?” I said.
When I tugged on my jeans and a team jersey, Michael reached over, wrapped his arms around my waist, and kissed my neck. He tousled my hair and held my chin in his hand.
“Love you my sensible country gal and my special nerdy bookworm. I can mess up your fuzzy duckling locks, and you don’t mind.”
“You are trustworthy, scary smart and very sexy,” Michael said. “Remember the big-band dance song from the 1940’s, ‘cool and limpid green eyes,’ that’s you. You’re a fresh-scrubbed lovely woman, with no gunky makeup. You smell of lavender soap, and sun-dried clothes, not expensive smothering perfume.”
“Because you are my finest partner and my bride, we can make love in a tent or the tail-end of my pickup truck. Give us a campfire, or a Bar-B-Q, and we’re happy. We’re not hifaluting people,” he said.
“Thank you, dear, I needed a pep talk. Gloria gave away the food the women worked so hard to prepare. Her fare was tidbits. I’m ravenous, let’s eat supper at the Café,” I suggested.