Chapter 9

THE LOCAL GUYS, THEY HAVE THEIR MOMENTS

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Thursday morning it became official: Dale Pearson, evil developer, was a missing person. Theo Crowe was going over the big red truck parked by the pounding Pacific at Lime Kiln Rock in the Big Sur wilderness area above Pine Cove. This was the area where half the world's car commercials were filmed  -  everything from Detroit minivans to German lux-o-cruisers was filmed snaking around the cliffs of Big Sur, as if all you needed to do was sign the lease papers and your life would be an open road of frothy waves beating on majestic seawalls, with nothing but leisure and prosperity ahead. Dale Pearson's big red truck did look carefree and prosperous, parked there by the sea, despite the crust of salt forming on the paint and the appearance that the owner had been washed away in the surf.

Theo wanted that to be the case. The highway patrol, who had found the truck, had reported it as an accident. There was a surf-casting rod there on the rocks, conveniently monogrammed with Dale's initials. And the Santa hat he'd been wearing was found washed up nearby, and therein lay the problem. Betsy Butler, Dale's squeeze, had said that Dale had gone out two nights ago to play Santa at the Caribou Lodge and had never come home. Who went fishing in the middle of the night while wearing a Santa hat? Granted, according to the other Caribou, Dale had done "some drinking," and he was a little wound up from his confrontation with his ex-wife the day before, but he hadn't lost his mind completely. Negotiating the cliffs by Lime Kiln Rock to get down to the water during the day was risky business; there's no way that Dale would have tried it in the middle of the night. (Theo had lost his footing and slid twenty feet before he caught himself, wrenching his back in the process. Sure he was a little stoned, but then, Dale would have been a little drunk.)

The highway patrolman, who had a crew cut and looked to be about twelve  -  an escapee from one of the hygiene films Theo had seen in sixth-grade health class, Why Mary Won't Go in the Water  -  had Theo sign off on his report, then climbed in his cruiser and headed up the coast into Monterey County. Theo went back and looked through the truck again.

All the things that should have been there  -  some tools, a black Mag flashlight, a couple of fast-food wrappers, another fishing rod, a tube of blueprints  -  were there. And all the things that shouldn't  -  bloody knives, shell casings, severed limbs, evidence of bleach from cleanup  -  were not. It was like the guy had just driven up here, climbed down the cliff, and washed away. But that just couldn't be the case. Dale could be mean-spirited, crude, and even violent, but he wasn't stupid. Unless he knew the exact topography of these cliffs, and had a good flashlight, he'd never have made it down in the dark. And his flashlight was still in the truck.

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Theo wished that he had better training in crime-scene investigation. He'd learned most of what he knew from television, not at the academy where he'd spent a miserable eight weeks fifteen years ago when the corrupt sheriff who had found his personal pot patch had railroaded him into becoming Pine Cove's constable. Since the academy, almost every crime scene he'd encountered had been turned over to the county sheriff or highway patrol almost immediately.

He went over the truck cab again looking for something that might be a clue. The only thing remotely out of order was some dog hairs on the headrest. Theo couldn't remember if Dale had a dog.

He put the dog hairs in a sandwich bag and dialed Betsy Butler on his cell phone.

She didn't sound that broken up about Dale's disappearance. "No, Dale didn't like dogs. He didn't like cats either. He was kind of a cow man."

"He liked cows? Did you guys have a pet cow?" Could it be cow hair?

"No, he liked to eat them, Theo. Are you okay?"

"No, sorry, Betsy." He had been so sure that he didn't sound stoned.

"So, do I get the truck? I mean, are you going to bring it here?"

"I have no idea," said Theo. "They'll tow it to the impound yard. I don't know if they'll release it to you. I'd better go, Betsy." He snapped the phone shut. Maybe he was just tired. Molly had made him sleep on the couch last night  -  saying something about him having mutant tendencies. He hadn't even known that she liked the salad shooter. He was sure that she could tell that he'd been smoking pot.

He flipped the phone back open and called Gabe Fenton.

"Hey, Theo. I don't know what that stuff is you brought me, but it's not hair. It won't burn or melt, and it's damn hard to cut or break. Good thing it was torn out by the roots."

Theo cringed. He had almost forgotten about the crazed blond guy he'd run over. He shuddered now, thinking about it. "Gabe, I have some more hair I'd like you to look at."

"Oh my God, Theo, did you run over someone else?"

"No, I didn't run over anybody. Jeez, Gabe."

"Okay. I'll be here all day. Actually, I'll be here all night, too. It's not like I have anywhere to go. Or anyone who cares whether I live or die. It's not like  - »

"Okay. I'm coming over."

There were two men and three women, including Lena, in the offices of Properties in the Pines when Tucker Case came through the door. The women were immediately intrigued by him and the men immediately disliked him. It had always been that way with Tuck. Later, if they got to know him, the women would dismiss him and the men would still dislike him. Basically, he was a geek in a cool guy's body  -  one feature or the other worked against him.

It was an open stable of desks and Tuck went directly to Lena's desk at the back. As he went he smiled and nodded to the realtors, who smiled back weakly, trying not to sneer. They were beat from showing properties to Christmas vacation be-backs who wouldn't move here even if they could find employment in this toy town. They'd just failed to plan any vacation activities and so decided to take the kids out for a rousing round of jerk off the realtor. Or so went the party line at the MLS meetings.

Lena met Tuck's gaze and instinctively smiled, then frowned.

"What are you doing here?"

"Lunch? You. Me. Eating. Talking. I need to ask you something."

"I thought you were supposed to be flying."

Tuck hadn't seen Lena in her business clothes  -  a sensible skirt and blouse, just a little mascara and lipstick, her hair pinned up with lacquered chopsticks, a few strands escaping here and there to frame her face. He liked the look.

"I flew all morning. There's weather. The edge of a storm coming." He really wanted to pull the chopsticks out of her hair and throw her down there on the desk and tell her how he really felt, which was somewhat aroused. "We could get Chinese," he added.

Lena looked out the window. The sky was going dark gray over the shops across the street. "There's no Chinese place in Pine Cove. Besides, I'm really swamped here. I handle vacation rentals and it's Christmas Eve eve."

"We could go to your place for a quick lunch. You have no idea how quick I can be if I put my mind to it."

Lena looked past him to her coworkers, who, of course, were now staring. "Is that what you need to ask me?"

"Oh, no, no, of course not. I wouldn't  -  that would be, well, yes  -  but there's something else." Now Tuck was feeling the realtors watching him, listening to him. He leaned over Lena's desk so only she could hear. "You said this morning that that constable guy your friend is married to lives in a cabin at the edge of a ranch. It wouldn't be the big ranch north of town, would it?"

Lena was still looking past him. "Yes, the Beer-Bar Ranch, belongs to Jim Beer."

"And there's an old single-wide trailer next to the cabin?"

"Yes, that used to be Molly's, but now they live in the cabin. Why?"

Tuck stood back and grinned. "Then white roses it is," he said, a little too loudly for the benefit of the audience. "I just didn't know if they'd be appropriate for the holidays."

"Huh?" Lena said.

"See you tonight," Tuck said. He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, then sauntered out of the office, smiling apologetically at the exhausted realtors as he went.

"Merry Christmas, you guys," he said, waving from the door.

The first thing that Theo noticed when he entered Gabe Fenton's cabin was the aquariums with the dead rats. The female was scampering around the center cage, sniffing and crapping and looking rat-happy, but the others, the males, lay on their backs, feet shot to the sky, like plastic soldiers in a death diorama.

"How did that happen?"

"They wouldn't learn. Once they associated the shock with sex, they started liking it."

Theo thought about his relationship with Molly over the last few days. He pictured himself in the dead-rat display. "So you just kept shocking them until they died?"

"I had to keep the parameters of the experiment constant."

Theo nodded gravely, as if he understood completely, which he didn't. Skinner came over and headbutted him in the thigh. Theo scratched his ears to comfort him.

Skinner was worried about the Food Guy, and he was hoping that maybe the Emergency Backup Food Guy might give him one of the tasty-smelling white squirrels in the cages on the table, now that it appeared that the Food Guy was finished cooking them. This teasing was as bad as when that kid at the beach used to pretend to throw the ball, then not throw the ball. Then pretend to throw the ball, but not throw the ball. Skinner had to knock the kid down and sit on his face. Boy, had he been bad-dogged for that. Nothing hurt like being bad-dogged, but if the Food Guy kept teasing him with the white squirrels, Skinner knew he was going to have to knock him down and sit on his face, maybe even poop in his shoe. Oh, I am a bad, bad dog. No, wait, the Emergency Backup Food Guy was scratching his ears. Oh, that felt good. He was fine. Doggie Xanax. Never mind.

Theo handed Gabe the sandwich bag with the hairs in it.

"What's the oily substance in the bag?" Gabe said, examining the specimen.

"Potato-chip flotsam. The bag is from my lunch yesterday."

Gabe nodded, then looked at Theo the way the coroner always looks at the cop on TV  -  like: You numbskull, don't you know that you're contaminating evidence just by continuing to draw breath and I'd be a lot more comfortable with you if you'd stop?

He took the bag over to the microscope on the counter, removed a couple of the hairs, and put them on a slide with a cover, then fitted it into the microscope.

"Please don't tell me it's polar bear," Theo said.

"No, but at least it's an animal. It seems to have a distinct sour-cream-and-onion signature." Gabe pulled back from the microscope and grinned at Theo. "Just fucking with you." He gave Theo a gentle punch to the arm and looked back into the microscope. "Wow, the medulla is absent and there's low birefringence."

"Wow," echoed Theo, trying but not really feeling the low-birefringence stoke that Gabe was.

"I have to check the hair database online, but I think it's from a bat."

"There's a database for that? What, Bat Hair Dot-Com?"

"That was supposed to be the whole purpose of the Internet, you know. To share scientific information."

"Not a Viagra- and porn-delivery system?" Theo said. Maybe Gabe was going to be okay after all.

Gabe moved to the computer at his desk and scrolled through screen after screen of microscope photos of mammal hair until he found one he liked, then went back to the microscope and checked it again.

"Wow, Theo, you've got yourself an endangered species here."

"No way."

"Where the hell did you get this? Micronesian giant fruit bat."

"Out of a Dodge pickup truck."

"Hmm, that's not listed as their habitat. It wasn't parked in Guam, was it?"

Theo fished his car keys out of his pocket. "Look, Gabe, I have to go. Meet at the Slug for a beer tonight, okay?"

"We can have beer now, if you want. I have some in the fridge."

"You need to get out. I need to get out. Okay?" Theo was backing out the door.

"Okay. I'll meet you at six. I have to go pick up some Super Glue solvent at the Thrifty-Mart."

"Bye." Theo jumped off the porch and loped to the Volvo.

Skinner barked at him in four-four time. Hello? Tasty white squirrels? Still in the little box? Hello? You forgot?

When Theo pulled up to Lena Marquez's house, there was a generic white economy rental car (A Ford Mucus, he thought) parked out front. He looked for the bat he'd seen hanging from the porch ceiling, but it wasn't there. He hadn't even filed the experience of running over the apparently indestructible blond guy, and now he was facing the possibility that he might actually be about to confront a murderer. Just in case, he'd stopped at home and gotten his gun off the shelf in the closet and his handcuffs off the bedpost where Molly had last imprisoned him when they had still been speaking. (She'd been in the yard out behind the cabin, working out with a bamboo shinai kendo sword she'd been using since breaking her broadsword  -  he'd snuck in and out without confrontation.) He unsnapped the Glock's nylon holster that was clipped to the back of his jeans and rang the doorbell.

The door opened. Theo screamed and drew his gun as he jumped back.

On the other side of the threshold, Tucker Case screamed and dove backward also, shielding his face with his hands. His hat made a little yelping sound.

"Hold it right there," Theo said. He could feel his pulse beating in his neck.

"I'm holding, I'm holding. Jesus, what the fuck is this about?"

"You have a bat on your head!"

"Yeah, and for that you're going to shoot me?"

The bat, his huge black wings wrapped around the pilot's head, gave the impression of a large leather cap with a Mohawk crest of fur that culminated in a big-eared little dog face that was now barking at Theo.

"Well, uh, no." Theo lowered the gun, feeling a little embarrassed now. He was still in his shooter's crouch, though, which now, with the gun lowered, made him look like he was posing as the world's skinniest sumo wrestler.

"Can I get up?" Tuck asked.

"Sure, I just wanted to talk to Lena."

Tucker Case was exasperated and his bat had fallen over one eye. "Well, she's at her office. Look, if you're going to get high, maybe you ought to leave the gun at home, huh?"

"What?" Theo had been careful to use some Visine, and it had been hours since he'd hit his Sneaky Pete pot pipe. He said, "I'm not high. I haven't gotten high in years."

"Yeah, right. Constable, maybe you'd better come in."

Theo stood and tried to shake off the appearance that he'd just had about five years of life scared out of him by a guy with a bat on his head. He followed Tucker Case into Lena's kitchen, where the pilot offered him a seat at the table.

"So, Constable, what can I do for you?"

Theo wasn't sure. He'd planned on talking to Lena, or at least the two of them together. "Well, as you probably know, we found Lena's ex-husband's truck up in Big Sur."

"Of course, I saw it."

"You saw it?"

"From the helicopter. Tucker Case, contract pilot for the DEA, remember? You can check me out if you want to. Anyway, we've been patrolling that area."

"You have?" The bat was looking at Theo and Theo was having trouble following his own thoughts. The bat was wearing tiny sunglasses. Ray-Bans, Theo could see by the trademark in the corner of one lens. "I'm sorry, Mr., uh  -  Case, could you take the bat off your head. It's very distracting."

"Him."

"Pardon?"

"It's a him. Roberto. He no like the light."

"Pardon?"

"Friend of mine used to say that. Sorry." Tucker Case unwrapped the bat and put it on the floor, where it spidered away, walking on its wing tips into the living room.

"God, that's creepy," Theo said.

"Yeah, you know, kids. What are you gonna do?" Tuck dazzled a perfect grin. "So, you found this guy's truck? Not him, though?"

"No. It was made to look like he was washed into the ocean while fishing off the rocks."

"Made to look? So, you suspect foul play?" Tuck bounced his eyebrows.

Theo thought the pilot should be taking this more seriously. It was time to drop the bomb. "Yes. First, he never came home after the Caribou Christmas party Tuesday night, where he played the joke Santa. No one goes surf-fishing in the middle of the night, wearing a Santa suit. We found the Santa hat still in the truck, and I found hairs from a Micronesian fruit bat on the headrest."

"Well, that's a coincidence. Jeez, that's got to make you suspicious, doesn't it?" Tucker Case got up and went over to the counter. "Coffee? I just made it."

Theo stood up, too, just because he didn't want the suspect to get away, or maybe to show that he was taller, because it seemed like the only advantage he had over the pilot.

"Yes, it is suspicious. And I talked to a kid Tuesday night who said he saw a woman killing Santa Claus with a shovel. I didn't think anything of it then, but now I think the kid might have actually seen something."

Tucker Case was busying himself with getting cups out of the cupboard, milk out of the fridge. "So, you did tell the kid that there's no Santa, right?"

"No, I didn't."

Now Tucker Case turned, coffeepot in hand, and regarded Theo. "You know that there is no Santa, don't you, Constable?"

"This is not a joke," Theo said. He hated this  -  hated being the MAN. He was supposed to be the smart-ass in the face of authority figures.

"Cream?"

Theo sighed. "Sure. And sugar, please."

Tuck finished preparing the coffee, brought the cups to the table, and sat down.

"Look, I see where you're going with this, Theo. Can I call you Theo?"

Theo nodded.

"Thanks. Anyway, Lena was with me Tuesday night, all night."

"Really? I saw Lena on Monday. She didn't mention you. Where did you meet?"

"At the Thrifty-Mart. She was a Salvation Army Santa. I thought she was attractive, so I asked her out. We hit it off."

"You make it a habit of hitting on the Salvation Army Santas?"

"Lena said that you're married to a scream queen called Kendra, Warrior Babe of the Outland."

Theo nearly shot coffee out his nose. "That was a character she used to play."

"Yeah, Lena says sometimes that's not so clear to her. My point is: Love is where you find it."

Theo nodded. Yeah, that was true. Before he drifted into a wistful state of mind, Theo reminded himself that this guy was, in an offhand way, attacking the woman he loved. "Hey," Theo said.

"It's okay? Who am I to judge? I married an island girl who had never seen indoor plumbing until I brought her to the States. Didn't work out  - »

"Fruit-bat hair in the truck," Theo interrupted.

"Yeah, I knew you'd come back to that. Well, who knows? Roberto goes out on his own from time to time. Maybe he met this Dale guy. Maybe they hit it off. You know, love is where you find it. I doubt it, though. I hear that this Dale guy was a real creep."

"Are you implying that your bat may have something to do with the disappearance of Dale Pearson?"

"No, you nitwit, I'm saying that my bat may have had something to do with bat hair, which, even you, with your Sherlock Holmes-like powers of observation, may have noticed he is all covered with."

"I can't believe you're a cop," Theo said, getting truly angry now.

"I'm not a cop. I just fly the helicopter for the DEA. They hire me by the season, and this is close to the harvest season in Big Sur and surrounding areas, so here I am, flying around looking in the forest for dark green patches while the agents in the back look at it through infrared and record everything on GPS so they can get specific warrants. And man, do they pay well. 'Vive la war on drugs, I say. But no, I'm not a cop."

"I didn't think so."

"Funny thing is, I have learned to spot the right color of green from the sky, and usually the infrared confirms my suspicions. This morning I spotted about a thousand-square-foot patch of marijuana growing just north of the Beer-Bar Ranch. You know where that is?" Theo felt a lump in his throat the size of one of Gabe's dead rats. "Yes."

"Man, that's a lot of pot, even by commercial growers' standards. Felony quantity. I turned the helicopter  -  steered away without calling it to the agent's attention, but weather permitting, we could go back. There's a storm coming in, you know? Roberto and I drove by there this afternoon just to make sure. I guess I can always show the agents tomorrow." Tucker Case put down his coffee, leaned on his elbows, and turned his head sideways like he was a cute kid in a cereal commercial who was reaching sugar nirvana.

"You're a very unlikable man, Mr. Case."

"Oh my God, you should have seen me before I had my epiphany. I used to really be an asshole. I'm actually very charming now. By the way, I saw your wife working out in the yard at your house  -  very nice. The whole sword thing is a little scary, but otherwise, very nice."

Theo got to his feet, feeling a little dizzy even as he stood, like he'd been hit with a sock full of sand. "I'd better be going."

Tucker Case put his hand on Theo's shoulder as he walked him to the door. "You probably don't believe this, Theo, but at another time, I'm sure we'd be friends. And you have to understand, I really, really want things to work out with Lena. It was like we met just at the precise moment, the exact second, that I got over my divorce and was ready to love again. And it's so nice to have someone to bone under the Christmas tree, don't you think? She's a great woman."

"I like Lena," Theo said. "But you are a psychopath."

"You think?" Tuck said. "I've really been trying to be more helpful."

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