Gary Brandner



Chapter One

Sheriff Gavin Ramsay stretched out a foot and nudged the switch on the electric heater to Off with the toe of his boot. The heater coils twanged as the red glow faded. The voters of La Reina County, all 4012 of them, would be proud of their sheriffs economy moves.

Ramsay hoisted his foot back to the top of the desk and resumed his contemplation of the view from his office window. Out in front ran S31, a two-lane blacktop with a flaking yellow centre stripe badly in need of repainting. S31 was also the main street of Pinyon, California, seat of La Reina County, pop. 2109, elev. 3550.

Across the road from the sheriffs office was Art Moore's Exxon station, a Pioneer Chicken franchise, and Hackett's Pharmacy. On his own side of the road, out of Ramsay's line of sight was Yates Hardware & Plumbing, the Safeway, the boarded-up Rialto theatre, and the Pinyon Inn. That was about it for Pinyon, except for the library and La Reina County Hospital, which were built off the road on the high ground between S31 and the mountains.

The storm that had hammered the town for two days had moved on in the early morning hours, leaving everything wet and bedraggled. The landscape would need a couple of days of sunshine to dry out.

Gavin Ramsay was more than ready for some dry weather. The rain depressed him. Elise used to get poetic about the rain. Literally. She would go to her typewriter and turn out pages of tortured free verse whenever a few raindrops fell. Then she would show it to Gavin and ask what he thought of it. In the first year of their marriage he used to lie and say it was good, really good. After that first year he started telling her the truth. By that time it didn't matter any more.

Today was the last day of March, and with luck there would not be another big storm until fall. Summer would bring its own problems — motorcycle gangs, irritable tourists, lost hikers, and campers with poison oak. Nothing he couldn't handle as long as it was not raining.

Probably there would be fewer problems with hikers and campers this year. Thoughtful people were not eager to go into the woods since the Drago business. You couldn't blame them. It was peaceful now, but sometimes on a quiet night you could still hear it. The howling.

In truth, there wasn't a whole lot for a sheriff and two deputies to do in La Reina County. Well, one deputy and a trainee assigned here by the state to be accurate. Right now the prospect of a quiet summer suited Gavin Ramsay just fine. After the double trauma of Drago and his divorce from Elise he could use the time to reassemble his life.

The people of La Reina County were happy to see things calm down again. Drago was enough excitement for several lifetimes. It was kind of fun for a while; now the folks would just as soon not talk about it.

They still got a fair number of sightseers who detoured off Interstate 5 hoping to see something of the infamous village. They might as well have stayed home. There was nothing left to see.

The asphalt road connecting Pinyon to Drago had buckled and cracked with the heat of the fire, and there were wooden barriers put up by Caltrans to block it off. Still, determined curiosity-seekers could get through in a tough truck. Those driving something less rugged turned back to Pinyon where they searched in vain for souvenir shops. Some of the locals used to joke down at the Pinyon Inn about printing up a bunch of Drago T-shirts with bite marks and red splotches, but those jokes got old in a hurry.

Gavin Ramsay had functioned with his usual quiet efficiency during the Drago business. In a way it was a relief for him to get away from home at the time. Now, like the rest of the people in town, he didn't want to talk about it. Not about Drago or Elise. That did not mean he had forgotten. Nobody who lived through Drago would ever forget. Elise, either, for that matter. You just didn't want to talk about it.

He picked up a paperback novel from the other desk in the pine-panelled office, the one shared by his two deputies. Ed McBain: 87th Precinct. It must belong to Milo Fernandez, the trainee. Roy Nevins's taste ran more to Hustler.

Milo was an eager kid, still excited by the idea of police work. Roy Nevins wasn't excited by much of anything these days, except finishing up his twenty years of public service and living the rest of his life comfortably off the taxpayers of California.

They should be returning soon. It was after four and getting dark. Ramsay felt a little guilty about sending them out on what figured to be a wild-goose chase, but he could see Milo getting restless with nothing to do, and Roy had been on the verge of falling asleep, They were not likely to find Abe Craddock and Curly Vane in the woods. Those fearless hunters were more likely holed up in some saloon down in Saugus where everybody had a tattoo and a pick-up truck. Still, Abe's wife did call to say she was worried about him, and it was three days, so Ramsay was more or less obligated to look into it. Anyway, Milo would probably enjoy getting out of the office, and Roy could sure as hell use the exercise.

The gravel crunched outside and Orry Yates's panel truck pulled on to the parking area. Yates Pluming was painted on the side in no-nonsense black letters. Orry claimed the misspelling was done deliberately to attract attention. Ramsay had his doubts.

Orry got out of the driver's side of the truck and two teenagers, a boy and girl wearing backpacks, climbed out of the other. Orry led the way toward the office.

Ramsay swung his feet down to the floor and waited for them to come in. A tightening in his gut warned him that this was going to be trouble.

Orry held the door open for the young backpackers then herded them over to Ramsay's desk. 'Got a little problem, Gavin,' he said.


'These kids think they found a dead man in the woods.'

'They think?

'You know how sometimes the light plays tricks coming through the trees. A tree stump or a mossy log can look like something else.'

The boy shot Orry a dark look. 'If that's a log laying out there, I'm Beaver Cleaver.'

Ramsay studied the young couple. The boy was thin and wouldn't be bad looking if he shaved off the apologetic little moustache. The girl wore a UCLA sweatshirt and elastic jeans that showed off her firm little ass.

The sheriff cleared his throat and got businesslike. 'Tell me about it.'

'We were, you know, hiking,' the boy said. 'On a trail that leads off the old Drago Road, and Debbie goes, 'Hey, you smell that?' and I go, 'Smell what?' and she goes, 'Like spoiled meat,' and I go — '

'Never mind the dialogue,' Ramsay said. 'Tell me about finding the dead man.'

'That's what I'm doing, man.'

'Could you speed it up?'

The boy looked sullen and Debbie took over. 'We found him a little ways off the trail. A big guy, you know. Smelled really bad.'

'How big?'

The girl shrugged. 'It was hard to tell. He was laying down. Dead, you know.' She looked at the boy and giggled.

'What did he look like?'

'Like a dead man,' the boy said.

'His face,' Ramsay prompted.

'Who knows?' the boy said. 'There wasn't much of it left. Like something had chewed on it.'

'Gross,' the girl confirmed.

Ramsay levered himself out of the chair. 'Think you can take me to him?'

They nodded without enthusiasm.

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