What will you do when the hunter comes?
"I'll keep it in mind," was all she had said.
February had moved on and we were well into March. Christine was still hanging around giving the place a bit more class. She had rented #12 for a month, and her time would be up in just over a week, at which time she would have to decide what she was going to do with the rest of her life. She had taken on the chore of watering the potted plants I kept in the dining room windows, and occasionally helped me wash up after the evening Greyhound run had moved on. She'd even washed the dusty windows last week. She was becoming quite popular, sometimes hosting a penny-ante card game in the back booth, which the regular crowd had begin to regard as hers, and made a point of leaving vacant for her. I had told her that if she wanted to stay another month I'd knock something off the rent in compensation.
It was Sunday morning, almost 11:00, and the temperature outside was hovering just over 80°. She had been in for breakfast, chatted with the locals a bit, then moved to "her" back booth and took out a thick, careworn novel as the denizens went out to begin their daily routines. Feeling the urge to socialize, I put the dishes in to soak, then came out to join her.
"What 'cha reading?" I asked, sliding in across from her.
"Mistborn," she said. "Just a silly fantasy. A little escapism looks real attractive to me these days."
"Oh yeah? What's it about?"
"A young girl. An orphan. Lives in a tyrannical society. There are people who can eat bits of powdered metal and somehow burn it in their system, and it gives them one superpower or another until it's burned away." She gave a dismissive, one-syllable laugh. "Like I said, silly."
"Are you enjoying it?"
"Yeah, pretty much."
"Then it's not silly."
"Have you decided what you're going to do yet?"
"What's the rush? I still have a week and a half left on my rental."
"That's true. But you have to be careful in a place like this."
"Oh, yes?" She sat up and laid her book down. "How's that, coach?"
"There's charm in a place like this. Magic. It's untouched, wild. You'll be sitting here reading a book and not thinking about tomorrow, and one day you'll wake up to find you're one of the regulars."
"Oh, I don't think you need to worry about that," she said with a genuine smile. "This is a nice break, for sure, but you forget, I'm a Vegas girl. Bright lights and lots of people, that's my natural habitat."
"All right," I said, getting up to start the dishes that probably weren't going to wash themselves, "don't say I didn't warn you. Oh, look, somebody's coming."
Far down the road we could see the blowing dust plume typically kicked up by a car headed this way.
"I don't like it," she said, getting up. "I'm going to wait in my bungalow until we know who this is."
"Probably just a lost tourist. There's a road here for a reason, you know."
"Still worried about Pepé Le Pew, huh?"
"He did say he wasn't finished with me."
"Okay, go ahead. I've got your back. I'll call you when the coast is clear."
He was a tall man, six-two or so, leaning hard on being old. He wore brown corduroy slacks with cheap cowboy boots, and a yellow shirt that enhanced the yellowish tinge of his skin. He was by no means Asian, though, as attested by his blue eyes and thin, sandy hair.
Christine had plenty of time to grab a cold Pepsi from the cooler and make her way to her bungalow before the late-model Chevy pulled into the lot. It was obviously a fleet vehicle, sporting no chrome trim whatsoever, and dull hubcaps barely large enough to cover the lug nuts. The driver got out and stretched, bending backward then side-to-side, and came up the two steps onto the porch. He stopped to look around for a moment, then opened the door and came in.
"Good morning," I offered my standard greeting. "Come in and take load off, and let me get you a menu."
"Why, that's right neighborly of you," he said, walking to where I stood behind the counter and taking the stool across. "What do they pay you to live in this climate?"
"Nothing right now," I replied, handing him the single-fold menu card. "This is the cool season."
"Jesus, that's depressing," he said, looking over the menu. "How about this here fried fish sandwich? Says it comes with fries?"
"Or potato salad, your choice."
"I'll have the fries. And a large Coca-Cola."
"Coming right up. Would you like the drink while you're waiting?"
"Yeah, please," he said, taking out a handkerchief to wipe his forehead. "God, if this heat doesn't kill me, nothing ever will."
I stepped back into the kitchen and lit off the grill and deep fryer. He raised his voice to talk through the pickup window.
"You're here by yourself? You don't have a cook?"
"Off and on. I only demand her presence when the Greyhound stops in."
"Oh yeah? How often's that?"
"Twice a week. Well, four times, two days, once each way."
"Damn. You're really isolated out here, aren't you?"
My Spidey-sense was beginning to tingle at the thrust of his questions, and I cast a glance to the shelf below the window to where Old Lady Mossberg, my 12-guage pump, lay behind some cans.
"Not as much as it might seem," I replied as I put the fish patty on the grill. "There's about fifty of us who live around here, and we all look out for each other. Then, of course, Deputy Fernandez stops by every couple of hours, so we're okay, by and large."
Conversation stopped while I put his plate together and brought it out, and then he got around to what was on his mind.
"My name's Royal, Mister, uh..."
"Owens. Douglas Owens."
"Well, Mr. Owens, as it happens, I'm looking for somebody. A woman. Goes by the name of Christine Crepeau. Could be using her maiden name, Haney. You seen her?"
What the hell was this?
"Geez, I don't know, Mr. Royal. Between the Greyhounds, the long-hauls, and the odd traveler, I probably see a hundred people a week in here. Do you know what she looks like?"
"Better than that," he replied, took out his wallet, and opened it to a recent photo of the woman currently bunkered down in #12. "Striking woman," he went on. "A woman like her shows up in a little place like this, people are likely to remember."
"Imagine they are. What makes you think she's here?"
"Her car was seen on this road a few weeks ago."
"There are a lot of cars out here, Mr. Royal."
"Oh, but this one's distinctive. It's an old red Beetle. Has a door panel dented in, and half the left side is gray primer. I've talked to a couple of people who've seen it in the right time frame."
"Interesting. What's she done?"
"Oh, nothing, really. I just need to find her."
"Oh. Are you with the government, then?"
"Oh, no, nothing like that." He took out a card case and opened it, displaying some sort of ID card, and a shiny brass badge with a black eagle crest in the middle, and blue lettering declaring him a "National Private Detective."
"Nice badge," I said, deciding to needle him a little.
"You find that in a Cracker Jacks box?"
"That's funny, Mr. Owens. That's the one my agency issues. I'm an investigator with Fowler, DeVore, Vetter, and Derry. That's a law firm in Dallas. Their client is very interested in finding Mrs. Crepeau, or whatever she's calling herself these days. You sure you haven't seen her?"
I knew damned well I was going to lie to him, but I wanted a moment to prepare myself.
"Could I see that picture again?"
He opened his wallet to the window and passed it over. I made a show of studying it before handing it back.
"No, sorry. I'd think I'd remember someone like her."
"I know I would." He closed the windows and took out a card that he handed to me.
Dewey M. Royal — Private Investigator — Dallas, TX. There was a phone number.
"If you see her, think about giving me a call." While his wallet was open, he took out a twenty and dropped it on the counter. "Keep the change. You've earned it, living out here."
"Thanks. So, what do you do now?"
"Not much I can do. I need to get some gas, then I'll go up to the next town and see if they've seen her there. Nice talking with you, Mr. Owens. That was a fine sandwich."
He gave me a nod, and turned toward the door.
He wasn't down the steps before I was on the phone to Eric's.
"Well, I sent him packing like you asked," he said as he entered the room. "So, what the hell was that all about?"
I watched from the shadows in the dining room while Royal drove across the street to fill his tank. He got out and went through the show of stretching his legs again, chatting with Schmidt as he filled the tank and checked his oil, no doubt performing his "aw, shucks" routine again. When he opened his wallet to pay, he showed Eric the photo. Eric shook his head and shrugged, and Royal gave him a card and presumably instructions to call him if he saw her before pulling back onto the road and heading off toward Coyote Wells. Eric watched him, wiping his hands on his ever-present rag until the car was lost in its self-created dust storm, then headed across the street.
"Good morning to you, too."
"Yeah, yeah, good morning," Schmidt replied, slipping onto a counter seat. "Who the hell was that guy?"
"Private eye from Dallas," I told him. "Coffee?"
"Yeah, the high-octane stuff."
He watched as I flipped the cup over and poured.
"This stuff's bad for your heart, you know?" I said as I filled the cup.
"Yeah, but it's good for your brain. Win some, lose some. So, what's he want with Christine?"
"You got me. He wouldn't tell me anything, just said she's not in trouble, but he needs to find her."
"Sounds like we need to get Christine involved in this discussion. She around?"
"Yeah. She took a powder when we spotted his car. Hell of an intuition that woman has. I'll go get her."
I went out the back door and fetched her from her bungalow. As we came in the back, Miguel Avalos was coming in the front. Stocky, swarthy, the fortyish anthropologist had spent the mild seasons for the past two years scouring Dutchman's Flat, not for gold, but for evidence of the early Americans who had traversed the area.
"Buenos dias, amigos," he greeted us, taking the seat next to Eric. "What's the news of the day?"
"Funny you should ask," Eric replied. "A private eye just came through here looking for Christine. Real close-lipped about what he wanted."
"A private eye?" Christine repeated. "Where was he from? Who sent him? Did you tell him I was here?"
She had backed away from us, and was looking around like a trapped animal.
"Relax, Christine," I said. "We didn't tell him anything. Did we?" I added, looking at Eric.
"No. Doug called me before he got over there, and I sandbagged him good."
"We still need to work out what we're going to do, though," I said. "Come sit down, and let's see what we can piece together."
She came and sat next to Avalos at the counter while I poured coffee for everyone.
"So, Christine," I asked, "why would a private eye be looking for you?"
"I- I don't know."
"Well, we all saw your puke of a husband come in here and hit you in the face," Eric said. "You think it has anything to do with that?"
"Could be," Avalos offered before she could speak. "The deputy was pretty clear about not wanting to see him come back here. Maybe he's here to serve a court summons."
"I doubt it," I said. "You don't hire a law firm to serve a summons. They've got part time, minimum wage guys to do that."
"Well, what, then?" Eric asked. "Did you rob a bank on your way out of town or something?"
"No!" she snapped, clearly offended by the suggestion.
"Of course not," Avalos said. "If that were the case, it would have been the FBI, not a private investigator."
"Then what did he want?" Eric asked. "Fernandez made it clear that you couldn't steal the car because it was, what did he say, community property. Doug called it. A law firm doesn't send a PI out to serve a summons. If you were a criminal, it would have been a cop of some kind. So, what have you done to attract the attention of a private investigator?"
"I don't know," she said, as confused as the rest of us. "Nothing."
"Law firms aren't cheap," I offered. "The fact that someone has hired one suggests that they might have a different opinion."
"Well, I don't know why," she said, becoming angry now. "I've never cheated anyone out of anything, in cards or anywhere else. I never poisoned my neighbor's cat, I've never had a traffic accident, I've never quibbled over the price of a cantaloupe. I have no idea why anyone would send a private eye after me, except for Maurice, who you've all met."
"Cards," Eric said. "You said you dealt in Vegas, right?"
"Well, there's a big mob presence in Vegas. Maybe they got the idea you were skimming or something."
"You read too many cheap novels, Mr. Schmidt. First of all, the surveillance in Vegas is better than Fort Knox, and second, if the mob thinks you're skimming, they don't hire a private eye. They take you out back and kneecap you."
"Sorry. Just a thought."
"Well, here's a thought," I said. "This Royal said that your car was seen down south, which I take to mean in Six Points. We said we hadn't seen you, so he headed on up the road. His next stop will be Coyote Wells, and when he finds that they haven't seen you either, he's going to head right back this way. So the immediate question is, what do we want to do about that?"
"First," Eric said, "we should be clear on this point. Are we all agreed that we're going to help Christine with this?"
"I am," I said.
"Me, too," Avalos agreed.
"All right," Eric said, "so what's this guy's schedule? He gets to Coyote Wells and starts asking about her. Nobody's going to know her, because she's never been there. But he wants to be thorough, because he doesn't want to lose the scent, so he's going to take his time, and probably spend the night. Then he's going to head for his last sighting, down at Six Points to try to pick up the trail again. That will put him back here a little before noon tomorrow, and he'll likely stop for gas and lunch again, so, Christine, you'll need to be out of sight tomorrow."
"I can help with that," Avalos said. "I'm heading out to Horse Thief Canyon this afternoon, and I plan to camp for the night. Care to ride along?"
"I don't have any camping equipment," she said, looking down at the floor.
"I've got all that. All you'll need is long pants, a lightweight shirt with long sleeves, and a wide-brimmed hat. And plenty of sunscreen, of course."
"I don't have a hat."
"I've got a couple over at the store," Eric said. "I'll fix you up. I think a pair of Anke's boots will fit you, too."
"It's settled, then," Avalos said. "You'll be out of town until tomorrow evening, and this private eye, whoever he is, can whistle in the wind."
"I can't believe you guys," she said, clearly touched by our scheming on her behalf.
"What can I say, we like you," I told her. "What about the rest of the town, though? All he has to do is bump into someone who doesn't know what's up, and they'll spill the beans."
"Then we make sure everybody does know what's up," Eric said. "I'll send Anke out to spread the word. Doug, you tell anybody who comes in here what's going on, and when he comes back through, he'll get nothing for his trouble."
"It's settled, then. Eric, why don't you go get Anke started on that. Christine, you should show Miguel what clothes you have, and he can help you pick out what you need. I guess we'll see you tomorrow night."
"Welcome back, Mr. Royal," I greeted him. "How goes your search?"
Eric's prediction of Royal's activities was as accurate as any profiler could have developed. It was just before eleven the following morning when his no-frills Chevrolet pulled off the road and made a U-turn into the parking lot. He got out, wearing the same clothes he had on yesterday, a bit more rumpled for wear, stretched his back, and stepped up on the porch. Old Leo, our resident prospector was sitting at the counter when he came in, telling me for the umpteenth time how he was sure that Nayati, the old Apache who lived somewhere out on the Flats, knew where the mine was and was keeping it from him out of spite toward white men.
"Mr. Owens," he said, sliding onto a stool. "It doesn't. I don't think the Jews had this much trouble finding Eichmann. You think I could get a repeat on that fish sandwich?"
"Sure. And the Coke?"
I brought him his cola, and moved to the kitchen to start the fish patty and fries.
"Having problems tracking her down, huh?"
"Problems doesn't begin to cover it," he said, taking a swig of his Coke. "It's like this woman dropped off the face of the earth."
"This country's like that," Leo told him. "You could hide an army out there, and it would never be found. I should know."
"Why?" Royal asked him. "Do you hide armies for a living?"
"No, but when something's lost out there, it stays lost."
Royal looked at me quizzically.
"Leo's looking for the old Dutchman Mine," I told him. "Been at it since Viet Nam. Never found a damned thing. You have to admire his perseverance, though."
"Maybe," Royal said, "but this isn't a mine, or even an army. It's a person, a woman out on her own, and people have needs, you know? Especially women. Are you sure you haven't seen her?"
I put his food on a plate and brought it out to him.
"I don't know. Why don't you let me see that picture again?"
He took out his wallet and opened it to Christine's picture.
"Ohh, she's a looker," Leo said, craning himself over the counter to see her right way up. I was afraid he was going to spill the beans, but settling back in his seat, he just said, "I can see why somebody wouldn't want to lose a woman like that."
"What do you have on her so far, Mr. Royal," I asked as casually as I was able.
"Damned little. That beat up old car of hers was seen a few weeks ago down in that little town, Six Points, is it?"
"And a witness saw her head up this road. So I come up here to the only town along the route, and you haven't seen her. Okay, maybe she didn't stop, though I don't know why she wouldn't. Gas and a meal are almost necessities when you're out in a place like this. Well, so, I go on up the road to Coyote Wells to ask around, and nobody's seen her up there, either. I checked every place a woman might stop. Gas stations, diners, even bars. Motels, of course, and nobody's seen her. One person might lie to me, but all of them?"
"Cars break down," Leo said, "and if you break down out on the Flats and you don't know what you're doing, they might not find your body for a couple of hundred years."
"Well, that's a cheery thought," I told him.
"Cheery and true," Leo declared.
"I don't think so," Royal said. "If she broke down, I would have seen her car by the side of the road. Even if she died out there, I would have found her body. She would have walked along the road looking for help."
"So you'd assume. So, what do you think happened to her?" I asked.
"Well, if she gassed up in Six Points and didn't stop here, she'd have been close to empty by the time she got to Coyote Wells. There's less than a dozen gas stations in that town, and I checked all of them. I'm stumped. I've been tracking people down for onto twenty years, and I've never seen anybody vanish like this."
"Maybe she had good reason," I suggested. "Of course, we don't know why you're looking for her."
"I'm not supposed to tell anyone, but... Oh, hell, I guess it doesn't matter. Her grandmother passed away a month ago. The law firm I work for handled her will, and she left Christine a substantial sum of money. They sent me to give her a cashier's check, but when I got to her house, her husband told me she'd stolen his car and taken off."
"Did you tell him any of this?"
"No. None of his business, though he felt otherwise. We agreed to disagree. He did show me a picture of the car, though, and had some choice suggestions about what I should do if I found her."
"Sounds like a winner. So, why'd you come this way?"
"Got a tip at a gas station off the nearest freeway entrance to her house. They said they saw her head west, so I took a chance."
"So, why don't you tell people why you want her? Folks might be more willing to help you."
"No, that's to protect her from snakes. If she wants to tell people she's sitting on a pile of money, that's her business. Not my place to do that. Thing is, there's a bit of a finder's fee in it for me if I can deliver the check. Two grand. I've already burned up a quarter of it on gas, meals, hotel rooms and the like. I think I'm just going to go back to Dallas and wait for her to turn up. All this running around is pointless. I'll tell you what, though. Do you still have my card?"
"Yeah, it's right there in the box."
"Well, let me give you a copy of her picture. If she does come through here, she's likely to stop for refreshment. Tell her what I want, and ask her to call me. I'd be obliged to you."
"Sure, I can do that for you. But if she's on the run like you say, why's she going to take the word of a short-order cook?"
"Good point," Royal said. "I'll tell you what. This might convince her. Her grandmother's maiden name was Eileen A. Wilkerson, and when Christine was a toddler, her grandfather used to call her Boo-Bah. If that doesn't convince her, then there's nothing else I can say."
Royal fished a few bills out of his wallet.
"Keep it," I told him. "You paid me yesterday."
"Welcome back, Boo-Bah," I greeted her.
It was two hours after sundown, and about seven after Royal had driven away when Avalos' old Bronco made the sweeping U-turn off the road and pulled into the lot. He and Christine got out and went around to the back of the truck. She handed him a key, and he took her bag out of the back and headed off toward the bungalows. I stopped her in her tracks when she walked in the door.
She stopped in mid-stride and stared at me, slack-jawed, before she recovered herself.
"What do you know about that?" she asked, head tilted like a dog trying to comprehend a new word.
"Just that. Come have a seat. Your buddy Royal was here for lunch just like Eric said he'd be."
"And you got that from him?"
I popped the cap on an ice-cold Pepsi, poured it into a glass, and set it in front of her.
"How the hell did he know that?"
"Well, obviously somebody told him."
"Obviously. Did he tell you anything else? Like what he wants?"
"He did." I reached across the counter and took her hand. "Christine, this is hard news, and I wish I didn't have to give it to you."
"I wish nobody had to give it to me, but let's get it over with."
I looked down at the counter, then back up into her eyes.
"Chris, he told me your grandmother died."
"No! Which one?"
"Your grandma Eileen."
"That's not possible! Nana Eileen is as healthy as a horse. This is some kind of trick!"
"I just know what he said. Christine, did your grandma have money?"
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"He said your grandmother left you a substantial sum of money. He claims he has a cashier's check for you."
"Did he say how much?"
"No. Is it important?"
"Could be. Grandfather left grandma well enough off, but she isn't rich by any means. He didn't happen to show you this check, did he?"
"If he had, I'd know how much it was for, then, wouldn't I?"
"Yeah." She rolled the base of her glass around on the counter, studying the pattern of rings it left. "He say anything else."
"He did." I took his card out of the box and turned it over to read the back. "He said that your grandmother's maiden name was Eileen A. Wilkerson, and that your grandfather called you Boo-Bah when you were little. He said he hoped that might convince you that he was on the level."
"Well, not a lot of people would know that. What does he want me to do?"
I handed her the card.
"He wants you to call that number. I presume he'll want to set up a meeting."
"Could I meet him here? I feel safe around you guys."
"Of course you can."
"I appreciate that. Do you think he'll have reception yet?"
"He left about noon. He could be in Texas by now."
"Could I use your phone?"
"Sure. Use my office. You'll want your privacy."
Picking up her drink, she came around the counter and went back through the kitchen.
"Doug," Leo called from one of the front booths, "are you still cooking?"
"Not tonight," I told him. "I can do you something cold, though."
"Piece of cake."
I went back to the kitchen, broke out two slices of bread, and put a half-dozen slices of turkey on it. Doctoring it up just the way he liked it, I brought it out to his table. When I turned around, Christine was standing behind the counter.
"That was quick," I said, coming over to her. "What'd he say?"
" 'The number you have reached is not in service, and there is no new number.' "
"What the hell? Are you sure you dialed it right?"
She gave me the same look she would have, had I declared the Earth was flat.
"You think I'm a moron? I dialed it three times."
"Why would he give you an out-of-service number?"
"It's how these PIs work," Leo said around a mouthful of sandwich. "They set up a fake number for you to call, then when it rings, they may not know who dialed the phone, but they know where you called from."
"Oh, for God's sake, Leo, this is no time for your conspiracy nonsense."
"You think it's nonsense? I know how these gumshoes work. It's these computers," he said, tapping his temple with a fingertip. "Once you know how to write code, you can make them do anything."
"You know nothing, Leo. You've been out in the sun too long."
I turned away from him to see Christine's face a mask of horror.
"What have I done?" she asked, raising a hand to her face.
"You haven't done anything," I told her.
"I have. I've brought a world of trouble down on all of you."
"Why, because of your husband? What's that little weasel going to do? Anyway, you can't listen to anything Leo says. He thinks that trained lizards follow him around the desert so that if he finds the mine, the claim jumpers can come take it from him."
"Maybe, but that thing with phone is just crazy enough to be true. What am I going to do? I've got no car, not much money, no place to go..."
"You can stay here, Christine. Everyone here has accepted you. Whether you like it or not, you're one of us, and we take care of our own."
"That's very generous, Douglas," she said, reaching up to stroke my cheek, "but it's out of the question. I need to think."
"There's a nice chair out on the porch. I've been known to do some thinking out there myself sometimes."
"That's nice. I think I'll give it try."
"Let me put the food away, and I'll join you."
"Let me take a rain check on that. I need to figure out what I think before you try to convince me to stay here. Maybe we'll talk tomorrow, but I need to sleep on this first." She saw something in my eyes, and responded to it. "Don't worry, coach, I won't disappear on you."
"All right, I can respect that. But, tomorrow, young lady, you've got a date."