Peril in the Pines Ch. 02byHansTrimble©
BACK TO EDEN
No matter what detours our conversation took, the Sheriff's mind zinged right back to the strange business in the woods. "Tell me, Jack, what'd you make of the things those hoodlums were doing out there in the woods?"
"I watched the fat guy picking up some kind of bricks and tossing them into a cart. They had to be valuable for him to be handling them himself, but I couldn't see any obvious signs of what made them special. They looked like adobe. They had to be durable because he was tossing them, not laying them down gently. The way he was picked them up made them seem pretty light, maybe lighter than regular bricks. I didn't handle any of them, and afterward I was wishing I had. If they really are light, I'd think that would rule out gold or platinum or uranium. I couldn't see where they came from. Seems strange, bricks out in the middle of a forest. Did your deputies bring them in?"
"No. I think I'll go out myself in the morning and look around. Want to go?"
"Sure. I've been curious about that whole business. That reminds me, can I have my pistol back, please?"
"Not until the coroner delivers his conclusions on the two deaths. But I can let you take one of ours."
"Glock. Like 'em?"
"Not particularly. How about Smith & Wesson, or Beretta?"
"Sure. Got a nice Smith right here." He opened his desk drawer and took out a pistol, cleared it, then handed me the pistol, magazine, and the extra cartridge. I checked it, ran it through its paces unloaded, and loaded it up. "Thanks. Nice gun. Good trigger."
"That's one of my personal weapons, not the department's. I have others. You can keep it till yours is released."
The pistol was chambered in 40 caliber, not 9 mm, and I asked the Sheriff why he wouldn't have had a 9, which was a lot more common. "I personally prefer the 40. It has more recoil, but it hits harder, penetrates heavy clothing better. That ammo is what the FBI settled on after analyzing some gunfights that didn't turn out well for their side. We went to 9 when we switched from revolvers to semiautos, because that's what all the other departments were doing and the guns were readily available at good prices. Now that 40 is more common, I'd like to make a gradual shift to it.
"My favorite would be 45, but in a gun with a dozen or so in the magazine, the double stack of 45's makes the grip a little fat for average size hands, and that means less accuracy. No solution is perfect. I wouldn't like to go back to the old eight round single stack magazines in a rural county with only one man in a car. Too dangerous for my deputies."
"You really give these decisions a lot of thought, don't you. You mentioned the safety of your deputies when I was here before. They must be on your mind all the time."
"You led a squad in combat. You know what it's like. Look, I've saved my money and I could retire any time I want to. I don't have to keep running for re-election. I do it because I'd hate to see somebody in this job who wouldn't take the safety of the public and our deputies as seriously as I do. But I don't go around wearing my heart on my sleeve, so just keep all that to yourself."
"Of course. What time do you want to go out to the woods?"
"Early. Can you meet me here at seven?"
"Sure. I'll see you then."
THE BRICKYARD OF EDEN
I was in the parking lot at quarter to seven. It was a strange time because there were lots of people heading to work on the main roads at that hour, but off the beaten track it was very quiet. I had sandwiches and a small thermos of coffee in a backpack, which I put in the Sheriff's SUV along with a light jacket. I carried my traveling cup of coffee into the building and waited while he was handing out assignments to several deputies and being briefed on special situations by the deputies who were ending their shifts and going home. He ended his conversations by introducing me to the deputies and saying that we were going out to the woods to look over the puzzling things that I'd seen out there. Then we were off, enjoying a remarkably smooth ride in the big vehicle. "I had the suspension customized when we got this car. It's built on a truck chassis and right out of the showroom it rode like a buckboard. I carry a pretty heavy load of equipment in it, and that helps to smooth out the ride, too. If I go out to look at a problem, I've got about everything here that the deputies might need in addition to what's in their cars. Some people think it's an awful lot to haul around all the time, but it might save a life some day.
"When we get out here to the woods, I've got a Kevlar vest that I'll help you to adjust. Then there's an AR in 308 caliber that I'd like you to haul along. It's got selective fire and we've got some thirty round magazines for it. I'll carry a standard full belt, so we'll have all the hardware that we might need if they've sent in replacements to work at that site. I'm hoping we can look it over before they do that, and figure out what's going on there, but I don't want to blunder into a bunch of guys and be outgunned. I'll die some day, but I plan to do it at home."
We entered the forest along the trail the deputies had marked out with their yellow crime scene tape. I showed the Sheriff the clearing where we'd set up our picnic, and the place where Newt was standing when he was killed. There was a trail that led straight to the work site, but when we got close I led him off to the right, to the place where I'd stopped and observed before I shot the fat guy. We knelt there for five minutes, just watching to see if anybody would show up. Then we went to the edge of the clearing and stopped again to look and listen. Finally we walked right in and took a hike around the perimeter to look at everything there from different angles. We found where a truck with dual rear wheels had parked repeatedly. It wasn't clear where their driveway opened onto a real road, and the Sheriff mentioned that he'd have the place looked at from the air by the state police and photographed so we could map it out.
Then we walked in, following the many footprints from the truck to where I shot the fat man. Then came the shocker. We went to the place where he'd loaded the cart so I could show the Sheriff the bricks, and they were gone!
The cart tracks were plain enough, running from there to the truck, but nowhere else, so we concluded that someone had come there and trucked out the cartload of bricks and the cart with it. But what did it all mean? How could there be so much value in an adobe brick, or a reasonable facsimile of it, that would demand all this secrecy, security, and labor? "I'd sure like to get my hands on one of those bricks," said the Sheriff.
I hadn't said much since we discovered that the cart was gone. I kept looking at the dirt that was piled haphazardly here and there. It didn't look right. I squatted down and picked up a handful and let it trickle through my fingers. "Look at this stuff. It didn't come from here. Do we have an evidence bag with us?"
"Yeah, a few of them right here in my pocket. How many do you want?"
"Three, if you've got that many. Thanks." I took out my little pocket notebook and made a crude sketch of the immediate area. Then I scooped up a handful from a pile of tan colored dirt. It was much lighter than the black forest soil, and there were no plant fibers in it. I dumped it into a bag, which I sealed and labeled with my initials, the date, and a capital A. I marked the location on my sketch with an A. Then I did the same thing in another place, where the tan dirt hadn't been dug up, and repeated the process, marking this one B. Finally I picked up a stick off the ground and dug out some of the forest soil away from the tan stuff and bagged it, labeling it C.
I straightened up and showed the Sheriff what I had in mind. "The ground in this clearing is fairly level. You can see that this patch here has patches of this light-colored soil scattered on it, and there are a lot of footprints so somebody's been busy here. I think it was covered with the light colored soil and it looked like that patch over there until somebody shoveled the light stuff off." I kept thinking about what it might mean.
"Sheriff, bear with me for a minute. Imagine that you have thousands of the mysterious bricks to hide, and you truck them in here and lay them out in one layer. If they were like regular bricks, you could lay 400 in a hundred square feet. Look at this area where there's just little bits of the light stuff here and there. Then that area over there where it's a little higher and there's no dark soil peeking through. All together it looks to me like around twenty feet this way and forty that way. That's 800 square feet. Enough space to lay out 3,000 bricks. So you've got them just lying on top of the ground. But what you brought them in here for was to hide them, so you decide to cover them up with dirt. You can't get a truck in here, with trees and big rocks in the way, but there's enough room to bring a cart in. So you haul in a few truckloads of dirt and use the same cart you brought the bricks in with to get it over here. Then guys with shovels spread it over the bricks, filling the spaces between them and covering over the top about an inch deep. You don't want to use dirt that clumps together like the forest floor so you use this stuff that's almost like fine sand. And I know now where I've seen stuff like that. Mine tailings! At the mines they crush rock into a powder as fine as table salt, and some of it looks just like this. It's a useless waste product to the mining company, and they've dumped it into piles that go for miles.
The Sheriff was deep in thought. "We ought to be able to match your samples to the tailings from some mine. I'll bet they made the bricks in the same area. But how can we be sure that this theory of yours is the way it really was?"
"Give me ten minutes." I walked over and got a long handled shovel that had been left leaning against a tree, went to the boundary where the dug out area met the undisturbed area, and started to remove small amounts of dirt. The shovel struck something hard, and I began to worry at it with tip of the shovel until it separated from the light tan soil. I reached down and picked up a brick, just the same light tan color, shook the loose dirt off, and laid it in the Sheriff's hands. I carefully replaced the shovel. Then I took off my shirt to wrap the brick in. I folded the shirt and laid the brick on it, brought the collar and tails up over the ends, then wrapped the rest of the shirt around until only the sleeves were left. I tied the sleeves to secure the bundle, which left just enough sticking out to carry it by.
The Sheriff put the evidence bags into the wide pocket of his jacket and took the brick. As we walked along he said, "This was a good morning's work." We walked a little farther in silence, until he chuckled. "If anybody asks me about your character, I'll tell them you'd give a guy the shirt off your back."
LEARNING TO PLAY HOUSE
Jan was visiting me at my house, with her attention divided between me and the house itself. The house was winning. "Oh, I didn't realize you have three bedrooms. So if we have a boy and a girl they'll both have their own rooms."
We walked through the whole house, with me making small talk all the way and Jan not hearing a word I said. By the time we got to the kitchen, which has a pretty big pantry in the back corner, I said, "And that's a pantry but I keep the corpses stacked in there," just to see if I got any reaction.
She was admiring the countertop and mentally putting dishes in this cupboard, pots and pans in that one, figuring out how much frozen food could be put in the freezer of the refrigerator, whether it would be a good idea to replace the old single sink with a double one, whether we'd have room to install a dishwasher, could I add a couple of lights under the upper cupboards to light up the counter, and on and on until she stopped cold and said, "What was that about corpses? What corpses?"
"I was just wondering if you know that I'm here. Did you hear anything I said to you?"
"Well, I heard that. It just didn't register right away." I gently turned her around to face me and pulled her to me for a big hug. "Oh, Jack, I'm just so excited about marrying you and being the best wife in the world for you, and I'm trying to get my mind steered away from being a single schoolteacher to being a working homemaker. It's a big jump, but I'm ready. I've been helping Mom around the house forever, trying to make her life a little easier. So I know how to keep house, although my cooking experience is limited. I'm torn on the subject of children. I love kids and there's nothing I'd like better than to stay home and take care of them, at least until they're in school. But I don't know anything at all about babies. All the children I ever see are in a classroom. I want to be a good mother, do it all the right way. I guess I'll subscribe to Parents Magazine and read some books. Maybe they have a parenting class at the college. Oh, Honey, I'm so anxious to be the good wife that you deserve."
"Don't worry about it. You heard your mother talking about when she and my mom were girls. It didn't sound as if they had a serious thought in their heads until suddenly they were married. And they managed to raise you and me. To tell the truth, you're probably a whole lot smarter than they were. We'll just take it a day at a time, put one foot in front of the other, and we'll learn as we go. I think that's how most young couples do it these days, and probably how they've always done it. It'll work out just fine.
"But speaking about how things will work out, I've been thinking about your mother. What's she going to do when you're out of the house? Can she get by without your contribution to the household budget? Tell me how all that works."
"Okay, here's what I know. She has an annuity that my father purchased for her, and it pays her somewhere around ten thousand a year. She does part time office work for Harold Gossum, the realtor, and takes home about two hundred a week from that, so that's another ten thousand a year. Her big expenses are food and medical insurance. The house is paid for and the taxes are only around five hundred a year. So for now I think she'll get by all right. The uncertainties are how her job will hold up, and what her medical insurance will cost as the premiums go up. We'll just have to keep tabs on her. You know she wants us to have every chance for a happy life together and she'll hate the thought of being a burden on us. She wouldn't want to ask for help until she's a bag lady living in an alley."
"Okay, here's what I've been thinking about. Next door is a vacant lot. It hasn't changed since God put the dirt there. I'm going to see about buying it and doing nothing with it for now. What we could put on it is one of those park models that the trailer parks have. They're the size of a trailer but they're built like a little house. They've got everything that's needed for an apartment, but the kitchen, obviously, is small with a tiny stove and sink and so on. Maybe I could make it an addition to our house, join them together so she could walk out of her apartment and come into the house through the pantry, or something like that. I'll try to get the lot as cheap as I can, some time soon, and sit on it. Then if some time in the next ten years I see a good price on a used park model, I can grab it and let it sit on the lot, and then do the final work of installing it a little at a time. We'd never have a real big expense all at once, and whenever she decides to sell her house and move into something smaller, here it is, waiting for her, with her grandchildren right at the end of the hallway."
"I never even dreamed that you'd be giving all this thought to my mother's future. It seems that every day I see a little more of how you think and feel, and I keep seeing that a lot goes on under the surface. No wonder I love you more every day." There might have been more, but we'd moved the discussion to the living room sofa by then and suddenly we were both struck speechless because our lips and tongues were otherwise occupied. Funny how that happens.
PLANNING A HIKE
The Sheriff called me and asked it I could come to his office right away. Ten minutes later I was in his visitor's chair waiting to see what was on his mind. He came right to the point. "First off, I want you to take as many of my deputies as I can spare, out to the brickyard in the woods. Barring other catastrophes, say early tomorrow morning. Vince will be one of them. He's big and smart and fast, lethal with his hands, and very accurate with a gun. You and he will carry AR's, just like the one you carried when we went out there. The others will be doing some physical labor but I want them to have their pistols on them all the time. I want to get all the rest of those bricks out of there, and back here. We can stack 'em in the second holding cell and lock the door. One of the vehicles that we confiscated in drug arrests is a big, nearly new pickup with four wheel drive. We'll have Timmy drive that in on the driveway that leads to the brickyard, and I'm getting a two wheel yard cart from county maintenance to carry the bricks out to the truck. Any idea how much weight we'll be hauling?"
"You carried that brick out of the woods, any idea what it weighed?"
"Not much. I put it on the postal scale and had it at four pounds including your shirt. So maybe three pounds, net."
"Okay, say there are, oh, between one and two thousand of them there. So a thousand bricks weigh 3000 pounds. Two thousand would be 6000 pounds. So the total will most likely be about 4500 pounds, two and a quarter tons. What can the truck handle?"
"Let's find out. "Becky, can you get me Ralph at the garage, please?"
"He's on. Pick it up."
"Ralph, that pickup we confiscated. How much weight will it carry?" "Oh, really? Well, that's good news. Thanks."
He turned to me with a smile. "It's got overload springs on it. He says three tons on a paved road at highway speed, but less if it's bumping up and down off the road. Sounds like just what we need."
ARMING THE EXPEDITION
My mind was racing ahead to thoughts of a possible battle in the woods. If the bricks were valuable, the bad guys would be ready to fight to defend them. "We know that the bad guys came back after the shootings, so they may have come back since you and I were out there. They might be there when we get there, and they might show up while we're working. These AR's of yours, Sheriff, how well do they shoot to point of aim?"
"Dead on. I've fired a few myself to check."
"And we'll have two of them. How many men will we have?"
"Figure six deputies, plus you."
"Okay, two rifles and five pistols. That'll work. We'll send in four deputies in the truck, including Vince. Coming home, maybe we can have Vince and one other guy ride in the truck bed. It'll be going slow, so the wind won't buffet them too badly. If anybody comes up behind the truck they can take care of them. I'll let the second guy take my AR. How's that strike you?"
"It'll work. So you'll take two deputies in with you through the woods?"
"That's what I'm thinking. The trail through the woods worries me a little. They know all about it. I think we ought to park our vehicle, get out quietly, and spread out and go in low. We can penetrate the woods at different places, and stop and listen. Then we go in as quietly as we can, taking our time. We can stop and regroup where you and I watched from, then go in slowly from there. We have plenty of time to get in there, so there's no need to rush. I don't want anybody to go running in and get hurt."