It’s a rough morning. I deliver an Emmy-type performance at the police station. The police know I’m lying, and they know I know they know. Just out of principle it makes them mad. It doesn’t matter that my lie puts a neat bow on their case, taking it right where the DA wants it to go. No, some days they just don’t like me, the way I straddle the truth until the scales of justice are in a proper balance.
It’s not that cops are against justice, it’s just that their hands are tied every inch of the way, and watching me stroll unimpeded through their twisted world of arcane laws makes their blood boil. Protect and serve, that’s their job, but the citizens they are hired to serve have constructed rules that seem to protect the criminal. It’s as if they, the good guys, can do no good because they are hamstrung by the system.
Still, that’s the way it should be. Fifty years ago the cops had too much operating room for the bad apples that find a place in any organization. No, the maze of the law isn’t constructed to help good cops do their job, but to stop bad cops from gaming the system, and at the expense of those they protect.
I think of myself as a good cop, unencumbered by the rules. No, that’s not quite far enough. I am a self-contained justice system adjunct. When possible, I work with the authorities, but never at the expense of justice. I don’t make myself judge, jury and executioner, but I create an environment, an agar-culture, where justice will play out to its logical end.
So I’ll wait to see where the morning’s little drama leads. I have a pretty good idea. If I’m wrong, it will unravel and all the parties will go their separate ways. Even if it does go wrong, it won’t end there, and justice will be served.
I hit the play button on my answer phone. “Hidey-ho, bro, this is Green. Got a problem and need your advice.”
My brother, Dave, is twenty years with UPS. We have a running joke. When I first saw him in his truck, I asked what color it was, and he said green. Green truck, green pants, shirt and belt, lots of green stuff. Well, it was all gray to me. Then two years later, can’t remember who I was talking to, I point out the green UPS truck, and, lo and behold, it’s brown. I told Dave what I thought of his little joke, that my brother shouldn’t make fun of my handicap. Since then he calls himself Green, to everyone, not just me, and when they ask him why, he tells his little story.
“What’s the problem?” He tells me to fly in, that he needs my special talent, no more.
I catch one of those mid-sized jets to Spokane, then a puddle-jumper to Kalispell, Montana, just north of Flathead Lake. I take my fishing gear. Dave picks me up at the airport, and we talk about the fishing until we get to his house; he moved in three months ago, and it’s the first time I’ve seen the place. He is on the outskirts of the small town of Browning, overlooking the casino-supported Indian slums of rural America. From a distance they look almost picturesque, even the damned rusting cars on blocks in front of too many dilapidated single-wides. The view in the opposite direction is beautiful, even through my Ansel Adams eyes.
When I ask what’s up, he tells me it will wait until after dinner. So I pass the time with his wife Debbie and ten year-old son, Harry. With the meal properly stashed within, we pack up the rods and drive east to Cut Bank where we park on a bluff overlooking a large box canyon. He focuses his binoculars through the front windshield.
He hands them to me. “Take a look. There’s a man and a woman down there, and a little girl.”
I refocus. A tall aging Hollywood looking type guy with grayish hair that looks bleached, a pretty young wife with white-gray hair, and an equally pretty little girl about two with darker hair. The all-American family. “What am I looking for?”
“That man is Edgerton Fuller, the third. I’d never seen him before, but when I lived inTucson, I delivered a lot of packages to his house, from his employer. I got to know the wife and daughter pretty well.”
“The daughter is the same little girl, but it’s the wrong woman.”
“You sure it’s the same Edgerton Fuller. Kids look alike at that age.”
“Gotta be the same guy. Like I said, same little girl, and the packages I deliver are from the same company, the one he works for, Biorad Research. He’s a salesman. I’m the only person who would have noticed.”
I keep my eyes on the pretty woman. “Notice what?”
A matter-of-fact, “That he killed his wife.”
I lower the binoculars and eyeball his face. He isn’t kidding. “Come on, that seems a little melodramatic. Maybe he got a divorce.”
He shakes his head. “No, that’s not it. She’s dead.”
I give with my best skeptical voice, “So, what makes you so sure?”
He points down the cliff. “The woman, her name is Tamarella, at least that’s how she answers the phone, and her daughter is Elouise–” He spells it; “– neither particularly common.” He reads the confusion on my face. “It’s the same name as the wife inTucson. And the daughter’s the same girl. It’s not possible.”
I shrug my agreement. “Okay, I agree it sounds fishy, but the world is full of strange coincidences. I’ll check it out.”
We fish the Cut Bank River until nightfall, then make our way back to Browning in the dark.
~ ~ ~
The next day I block Dave’s phone ID and call Biorad Research.
A perky voice answers, “Biorad Research, how can I help you?”
“Hi, my name’s Carter Jackson, and I’m with the IRS. I need some info on one of your employees, a Edgerton Fuller.”
“Yeah, that’s the guy.”
She transfers me to personnel. “Hi, this is Jackie Thomas. Kathy says your with the IRS and you need some information on Edgerton. Is there a problem?”
I give her my guarded confidential voice, “Well, there might be, but we’re not sure yet. His wife, Tamarella, received a large insurance award, but it wasn’t reported on the return. We need to ask him a few questions.” I hear her scratching on paper. “I tried calling him in Tucson, but the line was disconnected. Does he still work for you?”
I feel her thinking over the line, wondering how much to tell me. “Yes, but Edgerton’s been transferred.” I wait. “He heads up the Rocky Mountain region. He’s in Montana.”
“And his address?”
“I’d need that request in writing, Mr.?”
“Jackson.” I pause; “Look, can you give Mr. Fuller the third a call and ask him to ring me up. My number is 415-555-1515.” She says she will.
Fuller will get the offices of my company, started, built and sold in a previous life. He’ll try information to see if the IRS number is close, but it won’t be. He starts to worry. I want him worried.
I get on the Dave’s computer and adjust the color palate so the screen is readable. I use a search engine, but Fuller’s new address is not listed. I do a national search on the first name, Tamarella. I get three hits, two in Kettle, Kentucky, and one in Tucson.
The first Kentucky number is a Tamarella Kelly. A man with booming voice answers. I ask for Tamarella. He says he doesn’t know where she is, and for all he cares, she could be dead. The second number for Tamarella Tubutz is disconnected.
The town is tiny, so I call City Hall. A woman with the old voice of a life-long public servant answers, “Kettle City Hall.” It sounds like a single word.
“Hello, my name’s Carter Jackson and I’m trying to locate one of your past citizens, a Miss Tamarella Tubutz. Can you help me?”
Her voice takes a reflexive institutional guarded tone, “Well, what is it your looking for her for?”
“Seems a Bob Tubutz in Tennessee died and left her a bundle of cash.”
She whistles; “Jesus H., some people get all the luck.”
“What do you mean?”
The reservation in her voice is gone, we are friends, “Well, young Miss Tamarella was in town about four months ago. Her daddy died a year ago and the estate, mostly stocks and bonds stolen from when he ran the bank here, was finally settled. She was the last surviving issue of that lying thieving old coot. Had to sign some paperwork so she could transfer her fortune to some foreign bank.”
“Off-shore?” I ask.
“No, Arizona.” She chuckles.
“Did it take long to process the estate?”
“Sure nuf did. Her ex-husband, Jack Kelly, made a claim, said she’d never properly divorced him.” A short silence; “Didn’t stop Jack from getting married again. Sorta think that weighed against him with the court.”
“And you’re sure she was the same Tamarella Tubutz?”
“Sure was, saw her with my own eyes. Tamarella was never so pretty, but she had the cutest little girl with her.” I could feel her shaking her head. “And now she ups and lands another fortune. Out of the Kettle and into the chips. Some people got all the luck.” I don’t tell her the original unmixed metaphor is more correct.
“Does she still have friends in Kettle?”
She laughs out loud. “Friends? In Kettle? When people move out of Kettle, they never look back.” She is still laughing as I hang up the phone.
~ ~ ~
The next day Dave and I go back to the bluff overlooking Casa Fuller. A more furtive Edgerton Fuller the third leaves early after putting an overnight bag in the car. An hour later I call the house and tell the woman Edgerton has been in a fender-bender and she needs to come into town to give him a ride home. We wait while she packs the kid and starts the car. We watch the trail of dust until it intersects the main road. Dave keeps look out on the bluff and I work my way down the canyon.
The house is new and the landscaping expensive. One of the master bedroom windows is unlocked, so I do a quick casing of the ranch-style house. The home office has a panoramic view of the craggy ridge of the canyon. Everything in there belongs to Edgerton, business and private papers. His bank receipts show a deposit of nine hundred grand in March. I find a retirement calculation sheet he’s filled out. He’s worth a million and a half with four hundred thousand in debt. Not bad for a sales guy.
I return to the master bedroom. Under the bed I find a metal box from a California winery that once held three bottles. No wine now; it held a collection of letters and cards. Misty Cantarra of Smallston, Idaho was a very popular girl, and, if the letters were any indication, quite free with her sexual favors.
I tuck the metal box under my arm.
~ ~ ~
I make the six hour drive to Smallston. There are two bars. I turn at the city limits and park in front of the Back Water Saloon. The wall is covered with license plates from the last hundred years. It is empty except for the barmaid, a busty blonde with pretty features washed plain by hard living, not all of it from a vertical position.
They have Michelob and Budweiser on draft. I order a bottled beer. “Nice little town,” I lie.
She doesn’t look up from washing glasses. “Yeah, if you don’t live here.”
I take that as an opening. “So why are you here?”
She turns to me with a who-the-hell-gives-a-shit look, sees my disarming smile, and grins. “I been out, screwed up big time, came home. Now I’m afraid to go anywhere else.”
I am sympathetic; “That happens, life’s tough.”
“You ain’t seen tough til you’ve seen Smallston tough.” She casts her arm in a circle. “Trees and lumberjacks. Rednecks and idiots. You know what I mean?” I nod. “You gotta be mean to live here, mean to stay. The men are mean, and if the women are to survive, they get mean too.”
I carry my end of the conversation, “It’s hard work. No room for cream-puffs.”
She softens up a bit. “Yeah, it’s like natural selection here. Darwin’d be proud. Only the fittest and the meanest survive, the rest leave in search of humanity.”
“Must have been big trouble to bring you back?”
“It’s the only kind of trouble there is.” She dries the glasses, but keeps her steady gaze on me. “You obviously got some reason to be talking, mister?” She makes it a question.
I get to the point, “Yes, I’m looking for a Misty Cantarra. You know her?”
She frowns. “Now there was a girl mean enough for Smallston. She downright scared the men round these parts. What do you want with her?”
“Trying to find her, that’s all.”
She returns to the glasses. “Well you’re a day late and a dollar short. You police?”
“Not really, private.”
“Gosh, never met a PI before.” I shrug. “Misty’s dead, or at least we think she is. Went off hiking one day, never came back. You should have seen the men searching, you’d’a thought the president was lost. They looked for two weeks. Found her backpack in an old tree house overlooking the gorge. Gotta tell you, been a whole lot less sex these parts since she done disappeared.”
“Any chance she skipped town?”
She shakes her head; “No way, she was having too much fun. She loved lumberjack nooky, no other way to put it.”
I show her a picture of Fuller the third. “Ever see this guy before?”
She holds the picture at arm’s length, then puts on reading glasses and looks more closely. “Yeah, I’ve seen him. Maybe six months ago.” She rummages through her memories. “Yeah, he and Misty got it on. She banged him in the woodshed out back.” She motions over her shoulder with her thumb. “I think he took it more seriously than he should have. Why?”
I shrug my shoulders. “Can’t tell you. My guess, you’ll hear soon enough.”
I finish my beer, leave a tip. “Thanks for the information.” I pat the back of her wet hand.
“Name’s Maria, if you’re ever back in these parts.”
~ ~ ~
The next day Dave and I pull Big Green into Fuller the third’s driveway with a half-mile wide band of dust behind us. He skids to a stop at the house.
The little girl is playing with a beach ball in the front lawn. Dave kneels down beside her and pushes the ball away from her. She laughs and chases after it.
As the woman comes out the front door, Dave says, “Hey, Elouise, don’t you remember me? From Tucson?”
Dave turns and looks at the woman. “I have a package for Tamarella.”
Suspicion clouds her face, but she is quick; “I’ll give it to her.”
Dave says, “I haven’t seen her around since I got transferred from down south. Is she okay?”
Another ad-lib, “She was injured a while back. She’s been in the hospital for a while, but she’s getting better.”
She looks at the envelop, scans the address label. It is from the Back Water Saloon. She blanches an ashy white.
Dave gives her his best smile. “Gee, when’s she due back. We were pretty good friends in Tucson. I’d like to say hi.”
“Yeah, sure.” The woman turns without another word and walks into the house.
When he gets back to the truck, Dave has a sudden attach of doubt; “What if she really is in the hospital? What if I’m wrong?”
I use my cell-phone; “Hi, I’m looking for Tamarella Fuller.”
We both listen. “This is she.” I hang up the phone.
Dave drops me at the top of the canyon and heads for Kalispel to get the cops. We figure it’s better face-to-face than explaining it over the phone. And I don’t want to be involved. Sometimes the cops don’t take to my meddling ways.
As I get myself comfortable, I see Edgerton’s big Caddy roar up the driveway. I don’t like the look of it. I make my way down the bluff. The little girl is still on the lawn. I keep her in sight as I slide down the hill. The third doesn’t look at her as he goes by. I wish I had a gun.
I am at the corner of the house when I hear the shot. I grab Elouise and put my hand over her mouth as I stuff her under my arm. I run for the line of trees on the north end of the canyon.
The woman’s voice, pitched high with fear, screeches into the wind. “Elouise, where are you?”
Elouise kicks and squirms, but I hold her tight. Tamarella, a.k.a. Misty, walks around the house with the revolver at her side, the hammer cocked.
Fifteen minutes later the Caddy speeds down the driveway. I take the little girl to the front yard and tell her to play. I’ve got a way with kids. Yeah, right.
Misty has torn the place apart looking for her metal box. Pots, pans, plates and silverware are all over the kitchen floor; the closets are emptied, sheets, blankets, clothes everywhere. Fuller the third is dead in the bedroom, a bullet hole in the back of his head. I go to the garage and pull a garbage bag from beneath the crawl space. I put the precious box under the bed, about four inches from Fuller the third’s outstretched hand.
I scurry up the bluff. As a siren wails I breast the top. I don’t look back.
~ ~ ~
Sometimes things end like they begin, if the newspaper accounts are to be believed. I recall the barmaid’s words; “I been out, screwed up big time, came home. Now I’m afraid to go anywhere else.” So Misty returns home, and at the first sign of the cops, she is back on that hiking trail. The cops get no help from the lumberjacks, but they find her huddled in a tree house above the gorge. She babbles all the way down the mountain, blaming that smooth talking city feller. At first she claims Fuller the third shot himself, but when she realizes the evidence is against her, she says he attacked her, that she defended herself. Of course that was a lie. Eventually Misty leads the cops to where she and Fuller the third buried poor Tamarella.
Two months later Green sends me an article from one of the dailies, an investigative report on the Fuller murders. He highlights the comment from the barmaid, Maria Cantarra, sister of the little killer. “Just a couple days before Misty showed up, this big man comes into the bar, wanting to know about Misty, and this guy, Fuller the third. He said he was a private investigator, a PI. But couldn’t be, you know what I mean; brown socks, black shoes, blue-black pants and a reddish brown shirt. I mean, a PI, he’d dress cool, right? I think it was the devil hisself coming after my bad baby sister.”
I think maybe she got it right.