The rural Sheriff is baffled and his department is stretched thin when unusual deaths seem to multiply. Second in Mono County series. A busy July in the eastern Sierras filled with murder,floods and mayhem.
“Wild by Nature!” is the county’s motto, but even locals are mystified at July's growing body count. Is it coincidence or something more sinister at work? With thousands of visitors arriving for patriotic celebrations, bears sniff out easy plunder creating havoc, but with the county’s death rate accelerating -- bears may be the least of the sheriff’s problems. Young sheriff Beatty has always been a problem solver, but even his skills are tested as he is thrust into one investigation after another. Newly wed, his adjustments at home create emotional chaos with his wife struggling to find her footing in his rural community. His confidence falters as he asks himself, “Is she keeping secrets or am I becoming paranoid?”
Fires, floods and murder make this book a non-stop page turner. Then, just when things couldn’t get any worse, they do.
Thirteen family members crowded around Martha’s table enjoying Chinese take-out along with a large portion of snide remarks, teasing and a great deal of laughter. Rubber bands aided the youngest members using chop sticks while Martha blatantly used a fork.
“JT, why do you do this to your family every year?” the children’s father asked.
“Now, Jeff, you know the birthday honoree gets to choose the menu. Quit fussing at your brother.”
“Yes, Mom, I guess I should be grateful he likes chocolate cake. Give me notice before you bring out his cake. I want to have a fire extinguisher handy!” Jeff grinned, his eyes panning the faces around the table before stopping to smirk at his brother.
Sheriff Jan T. Beatty pushed his plate forward and leaned back, putting his arm around his wife. Maintaining steady eye contact with his brother, he cleared his throat and spoke in a deep official sounding voice, “Let me remind you, in case the facts momentarily eluded you, Jeff. Not only are you my big brother, but you are also my older brother.”
Jeff’s laughter boomed as chatter resumed -- raising the noise level and obscuring individual conversations until the voice of eight year old Robby was heard, “Please, Grama, can I pass them out?”
Conversations ceased, but banter and teasing flowed while all eyes followed Robby’s progress around the table. Jeff’s oldest child proudly carried a bowl of fortune cookies, offering the bowl to each person. The younger children quickly opened their cookie, looking for the small slip of paper inside.
From a booster chair, Rodney held his paper in the air squealing, “Me! Me!” Enjoying being the center of attention, he giggled excitedly, waiting for his cousin to read.
Each child was showered with teasing scenarios of how their fortune cookie prophecy might mean applied to their life. Once read, the children wanted to hear everyone else’s fortune.
Jan opened his cookie and began silently reading the message as he pulled it from the broken cookie. His laugh at the antics going on across the table froze. With a quick glance to see if he had been observed, he slipped the paper into his pocket and sat staring unseeingly at his discarded plate. Drawn from his silent contemplation by his brother’s booming voice, he looked up to see all eyes focused on him.
“OK, birthday boy, we saved the best for last! It’s your turn! What did your cookie reveal about your future?” Jeff’s boisterous voice reverberated.
Jan’s solemn eyes met his brother’s for only a moment before darting away to find his mother’s. “Mom, didn’t Jeff mention chocolate cake?” Indicating his empty plate in front of him, he innocently informed her, “The birthday boy has cleaned his plate and is ready for cake.”
Hesitant laughter circled around the table, with children missing the adult undercurrents, but quickly chiming in to say they had cleaned their plates and wanted cake, too.
Martha held her son’s gaze for a moment, not sure of the undercurrents in the room before she looked to Jeff and pushed back her chair. Standing in place, gathering dirty plates, she told Jeff to get his fire extinguisher ready. The strained moment was fleeting and missed by most.
When Robby’s cheerful voice asked his Uncle about his cookie’s message, Jan seemed to regain his composure.
“Well, Robby, it said someone I love is going to come into great wealth!” Leaning away from the table, he pulled his wife into his arms, focusing completely on her saying, “Do you have a rich relative I haven’t heard about?”
The noise level in the room rose with banter and responding laughter joining voices bouncing around the room blending with the clink to dishes, chairs scraping the floor and the giggling of children. Unaware of the room’s undercurrent, Jana murmured, “You better stay on my good side if you want to share.” Her arms slipped around her husband’s neck, pulling him closer for a kiss.
After birthday songs were sung, and cake was passed out, Jeff popped off to his mother, “Well, Mom, how does it feel to have your baby turn thirty-five?”
The ensuing laughter died and all eyes turned to Martha when Robby asked, “Why are you crying Grama?”
“Because I’m happy, Robbie. I remember when your uncle was just your size, like it was yesterday and I’m very happy he is happy and healthy, regardless of his age.”
Later, Jeff took an opportunity to corner his brother where no one could hear their conversation. “So, what did your fortune cookie say to get you so uptight?”
“I didn’t get uptight. You know those things aren’t believable at the very least and can be interpreted anyway you want to twist it.”
The two men glared at each other until Jeff deftly reached into his brother’s pocket and pulled out the slip of paper.
“You never could lie to me Janny-boy.” Jeff jeered before letting his eyes fall to read the ditty. ‘Danger and evil have many disguises. Be wary and diligent or someone you love may come to great harm.’
Jeff folded the paper over within his fingers and tucked it back into his brother’s pocket, thoughtfully pulling on his ear lobe. “Well, I admit it has a dark flavor, much different from the others, but, Jan, any of us could have drawn it.”
“But I’m the one who did.”
Every few years when July fourth falls on Saturday, events always seem extra special. The county seat and unincorporated town of Bridgeport was decked out in bunting, flags and anticipation long before the weekend arrived.
Contrary to the national norm, the tiny town bumping into Nevada embraced its local heritage and war heroes. Throughout the year fundraisers were held to finance their beloved “Fourth of July celebrations”.
Visitors from as close as Reno and as far away as Europe were beginning to fill surrounding communities. Word was out that a tour bus of Chinese Nationals was making a detour on their way to visit Yosemite. When hearing about “The Old Fashion-All American Parade” they were curious.
But for locals, the first hint of a wet blanket, threatening to dampen the fun and frolic was felt on July first. A whisper for those listening, warned that this July was going to be different.
The sheriff’s dispatch center answered a call from Mrs. Richard Ames, officially requesting an investigation into the disappearance of her husband. Calling from her home in San Bernardino, she reported the local marina and RV Park’s verification of her husband’s arrival and rental of RV space and purchase of a launch permit for his boat. Frustrated by the manager’s curtly issued declaration that her husband’s rig needed to be removed within twenty-four hours or it would be towed from the premises prompted her call to the sheriff.
“Deputy, something is wrong. I spoke to him Friday the twenty-sixth, a few hours after he arrived. He was happy and had been fishing already. He said he was tempted to stay an extra day, but promised me he would be home by the twenty-ninth for our son’s birthday party. I haven’t heard from him since. At first I wasn’t alarmed because he’d reminded me of the spotty cell service in the area.
“This is so unlike him, officer! He was looking forward to teasing our son about turning forty. Not calling is one thing, but missing our son’s birthday, is a red flag I can’t ignore,” Mrs. Ames explained.
Later that morning, Deputy Hicks dropped by the marina and verified Ames’ truck camper and boat trailer were still at the marina.
“Has anyone checked the lake for the Ames boat?” Hicks asked the manager.
“Now when would I have time to do that? I don’t provide babysitting or search and rescue services,” the man tossed over his shoulder as he hurriedly emptied a box full of fishing gear to an empty shelf.
“Can I borrow a rental boat long enough to check the lake for Ames’ boat?”
“Deputy, the only boat not spoken for is the canoe still on the rack outside.”
Hicks turned from the manager stocking shelves to gaze out the dirty window. Several similar boats were tied off at dock, side by side with their outboards lifted from the water. They had a neglected look to them, noticeably different from other boats anchored or tied off in the cove. He suspected the manager was lying through his teeth, but wasn’t sure he wanted to entrust his life to one of the sad looking boats.
Hicks felt his pockets for change when his cell phone registered no service. The pennies and nickels his pockets offered wouldn’t allow him to use the pay phone on the wall and there was no way he was going to ask the manager for change. With a last glance around the combination office and store, he returned to his squad car to radio dispatch, requesting one of the county owned patrol boats.
While he waited for dispatch to make the necessary calls and get back to him, he approached the dock for a closer inspection of the boats he suspected to be rentals. He was relieved that he had not pressured the manager to use one and made a note to ask the sheriff about marine safety inspections.
Hearing the squawk of his car radio, he hurried back to answer. Jerry’s no nonsense voice barked out the information to expect Deputy Jarrett from the central substation. “Give him a couple hours to get there. He’s on his way, but the patrol boat is in Lake Topaz.”
Surprised at the information, Hicks asked, “But the boat in Lake Crowley is closer to him, why is he going through here to Topaz?”
“There’s no boat trailer at Crowley, Hicks, besides, the boat in Lake Topaz is the one we move around. Be patient; he’ll get there as quick as he can, so just do your grunt-work until he arrives.”
Signed off with his dispatcher, he walked the property talking to campers parked around the truck and boat trailer, along with folks launching boats.
The reservoir spanned out like a hand wearing a rough, tattered mitten with many inlets. The water level, still high from snow melt was very clear and cold. The marina manager caught up with Hicks as he finished his interview with a man and his grandson launching a small fishing boat.
“Deputy, can you do something about moving that man’s truck? He only paid for the site until the morning of the twenty-eighth and I’ve booked the site for tomorrow. I told him that when he came in here and I told his wife when she called. I need his truck out of here,” he agitatedly explained.
Steaming at the man’s lack of regard for the missing Ames, Hicks used hand gestures to get him to stop talking and calm down. In exasperation, Hicks told him, “Okay, I’ll call Beal’s Garage and see if Tommy can tow it to the county compound.”
“Thanks, deputy, how about his boat trailer?”
The manager had been appeased for only a moment before winding up again, worried about Ames’ boat trailer taking up precious space.
“Well, we’ll be looking for his boat this morning. If we find it, we’ll need the trailer, so I don’t want to move it yet,” explained Hicks, clinching his jaw to keep from saying more.
“Okay, okay, but get it out as soon as you can. I need the room for people coming in. You know, deputy, I only have so much space.”
It was well after lunchtime before Deputies Hicks and Jarrett launched the patrol boat and started a systematic search of the reservoir. Forty-five minutes of following the water’s edge located the missing boat anchored about seventy feet from shore.
Jarrett secured the boats together while Hicks climbed into the abandoned boat to look for clues. The live-well had several nice-sized fish on a stringer, but they had been there too long and were dead. The ice chest contained spoiled sandwiches and several cans of warm beer. A few crushed beer cans were in the floor of the boat but there was no indication as to when their contents had been consumed. An expensive fishing rod rocked precariously, dangling near the water.
Securing the fishing rod and moving down to check on the boat’s motor, Hicks found the fuel reservoir full with a small can of emergency fuel nearby. Pulling the starter rope, the outboard cranked to life with the first pull. Looking to Jarrett, he shrugged as Jarrett moved closer and seemed to be listening.
“Hicks, let it run a few minutes to see if it sputters or dies. Sometimes water in the fuel can cause problems.”
While the motor continued to hum smoothly, Hicks reeled in the anchor with no problems. Returning to kill the outboard motor and lift the propeller out of the water, he leaned over the side of the boat to check the propellers for damage or entanglements. Calling back to Jarrett, he declared the propeller and shaft pristine before he locked the outboard securely in place and rejoined Jarrett in the patrol boat.
Recording the GPS coordinates, he jotted down a few notes for his report while Jarrett adjusted the rigging, preparing the boat for towing to the marina.
Before leaving the area, they edged into shore looking for footprints or any sign of someone exiting the lake. Finding nothing in the high grass which filled much of the space between the open water and beach, they saw only a few bird footprints and prints appearing to belong to a large dog or possibly a coyote. Near the shore, Jarrett pulled on waders and slipped over the side for a closer look. Other than disturbing some birds, he found nothing indicating human passage.
Slowly patrolling the rest of the lake looking for signs of Ames, they talked to anglers. Many were new arrivals having seen nothing out of the ordinary. Hicks methodically handed out business cards at the end of conversations.
At the marina, Jarrett tied off the second boat to a pylon near the end of the dock before moving the patrol boat to the boat ramp area. Both men saw the manager hurrying down to the water’s edge and cringed when he began a nervous, rambling lecture about not leaving the second boat in the cove -- reminding them of his need to have it moved right away.
Hicks finally convinced the man that it would be to the manager’s advantage to use his marina truck to haul the Ames boat out and to deliver the trailered boat to the county compound himself. Hicks explained that it would take the manager less than an hour to get the boat out of his hair, but if the deputies had to move the boat, it would take several hours as Jarrett needed to return the patrol boat to Lake Topaz first.
Jarrett kept his head down, methodically tightening straps, securing the patrol boat to the trailer while Hicks negotiated with the manager.
Watching the manager’s retreating form, Hicks heard Jarrett’s chuckling and quickly navigated around the dripping boat and trailer to investigate.
“Hicks, I owe you one, I thought I’d be spending all day with this mess. If you don’t need me, I’ll head out before he gets back with his truck.”
Hicks grinned, “You just gotta know how to approach him on his level. I’ve got things covered here, you’re good to go.”
In the far northern part of the county, a woman watched Sheriff Beatty from her window as he crossed her lawn. Her children tagged along beside him, jumping and pulling at his hands. She noticed he seemed to have a spring in his step and she’d seen him smile more this afternoon then in the entire time she had known him. His posture was better and he seemed younger, healthier, not as tired or reserved as she had come to expect from him.
Watching her children hop around him, she thought back to the first time she met him. Reluctant to make eye contact as her children clung to her for protection, her hand hovered around her face to hide her bruised and split lip from his view.
Ignoring her at first, he knelt to speak softly to her frightened children. When he produced a small stuffed bear with a pink ribbon around its neck, her daughter stepped forward to reach for the cuddly bear. Billy’s curious eyes opened wide when a small stuffed dog appeared. At the sheriff’s suggestion, her children scurried off, to play.
In her small kitchen, she had been so aware and ashamed of the disarray and broken furniture. The sheriff’s imposing frame frightened her at first, but his soft voice full of concern relaxed her enough to answer his questions. After his deputies physically pulled her husband off of her and hauled him to the county jail, the sheriff had personally come to talk to her. A paramedic dressed her wounds and checked her children for injuries while a deputy took pictures of her and the damaged apartment.
Through the next two years, the sheriff stopped by from time to time with groceries or vouchers for clothing for the children. Regardless of the reason for his visit, he always had something for the children and spent a few minutes with them. The night of the fire, he appeared in front of her as a sooty angel when he stepped from the shadows carrying her bundled, unharmed daughter. A firefighter followed carrying her young son, turning a night of horror into a new beginning.
A few days later, while she was busy sorting out their lives in a small bungalow that had been offered, she heard a local radio broadcast about the shooting that wounded a deputy and left the sheriff in a coma. Shocked and saddened, she wished there was something she could do for him.
Months later, her daughter brought her a newspaper and pointed to a wedding announcement photo. “Momma, that’s the lady from the night of the fire. She wrapped us in blankets and was really nice.”
At first, she didn’t recognize the pictured groom, so young and smiling, but indeed, the article confirmed that it was Sheriff Beatty and she was glad. Having done so much for others -- it was only right that he find happiness for himself.
Movement drew her attention back to her children with the sheriff. Kneeling, he was giving them a joint hug. Waving goodbye, they turned to run back to the house when he entered his cruiser.
Within moments, her children eagerly held up small rubber ducks for her to see. The ducks were bathtub toys with big numbers printed on the bottom. Her daughter handed her a flyer for the Fourth of July Celebrations. The ducks were for the annual duck race held at the river. Stapled to the flyer were three tickets to the pancake breakfast to be held before the big parade.
“Can we go, Mom?”