Given my peculiar and adventurous life, I don’t expect to live long enough to develop an enlarged prostate, but if I do miraculously reach ninety before I croak, I’ll probably be one of those eccentrics who, assumed to be poor, leaves a million dollars’ cash rolled up in old coffee cans with instructions to spend it on the care of homeless poodles.
After finishing the faux Evian, I returned the empty bottle to my backpack, and then watered a patch of desert with Odd’s finest.
I suspected that I had drawn close to my objective, and now I had a deadline. Sundown.
Before completing the final leg of the journey, however, I needed to know about a few things that were happening in the real world.
None of Chief Porter’s numbers were programmed for speed dial on Terri’s phone, but I had long ago memorized all of them.
He answered his mobile phone on the second ring. “Porter.”
“Sir, sorry to interrupt.”
“Interrupt what? You think I’m in a whirl of busy police work?”
“Right now, son, I feel like a cow.”
“A cow, sir?”
“A cow standing in a field, chewing its cud.”
“You don’t sound as relaxed as a cow,” I said.
“It’s not cow-relaxed I’m feeling. It’s cow-dumb.”
“No leads on Simon?”
“Oh, we’ve got Simon. He’s jailed in Santa Barbara.”
“That’s pretty fast work.”
“Faster than you think. He was arrested two days ago for starting a bar fight. He struck the arresting officer. They’re holding him for assault.”
“Two days ago. So the case…”
“The case,” he said, “isn’t what we thought it was. Simon didn’t kill Dr. Jessup. Though he says he’s happy someone did.”
“Was it maybe murder-for-hire?”
Chief Porter laughed sourly. “With Simon’s prison record, the job he was able to get was pumping out septic tanks. He lives in a rented room.”
“Some people would do a hit for a thousand bucks,” I said.
“They sure would, but the most they’d be likely to get from Simon is a free septic clean-out.”
The dead desert did a Lazarus, breathed and seemed about to rise. Bunch-grass shivered. Jimsonweed whispered briefly, but then fell silent as the air went still.
Gazing north, toward the distant thunderheads, I said, “What about the white van?”
“Stolen. We didn’t get any prints off it worth spit.”
“No other leads?”
“Not unless county CSI finds some strange DNA or other trace evidence at the Jessup place. What’s the situation with you, son?”
I surveyed the surrounding wasteland. “I’m out and about.”
“Feeling at all magnetic?”
Lying to him would be harder than lying to myself. “I’m being pulled, sir.”
“I don’t know yet. I’m still on the move.”
“Where are you now?”
“I’d rather not say, sir.”
“You’re not gonna Lone Ranger this,” he worried.
“If that seems best.”
“No Tonto, no Silver—that’s not smart. Use your head, son.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to trust your heart.”
“No point in me arguing with you, is there?”
“No, sir. But something you could do is run a search of Danny’s room, look for evidence that a woman might’ve come into his life lately.”
“You know I’m not cruel, Odd, but as a cop, I have to stay real. If that poor kid went on a date, it would be all over Pico Mundo the next morning.”
“This might be a discreet relationship, sir. And I’m not saying Danny got anything from it that he hoped to. Fact is, maybe he got a world of hurt.”
After a silence, the chief said, “He would be vulnerable, you mean. To a predator.”
“Loneliness can lower your defenses.”
The chief said, “But they didn’t steal anything. They didn’t ransack the house. They didn’t even bother taking the money out of Dr. Jessup’s wallet.”
“So they wanted something other than money from Danny.”
“Which would be—what?”
“That’s still a blind spot for me, sir. I can sort of feel a shape in it, but I can’t yet see the thing.”
Far to the north, between the charred sky and the ashen earth, the rain resembled shimmering curtains of smoke.
“I have to get moving,” I said.
“If we turn up anything about a woman, I’ll call you.”
“No, sir, I’d rather you didn’t. I need to keep the line open and save the battery. I just called because I wanted you to know there’s a woman in it, so if anything happens to me, you’ve got a starting place. A woman and three men.”
“Three? The one who Tasered you—and who else?”
“Thought one must be Simon,” I said, “but now he can’t be. All I know about the others is, one of them has big feet.”
“Say a prayer for me, sir.”
“I do each night.”
I terminated the call.
After hoisting my backpack, I continued the climb that had been interrupted by the woman’s call. The slope rose a long way but at a gentle incline. Rotten shale crunched and slid from under my feet, repeatedly testing my agility and balance.
A few small lizards skittered out of my way. I remained watchful for rattlesnakes.
Rugged leather hiking boots would have been better than the softer sneakers that I was wearing. Eventually, I would probably have to do some sneaking, and these once-white shoes would be ideal for that.